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Arts & Culture

What is Hula? Who is qualified to teach it? A new declaration signed by 200 Kumu Hula spells it out

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Halau Hula ʻo Hokulani

The coronavirus pandemic forced everyone to evaluate how to stay safe in an uncertain environment. For Kumu Hula, or master teachers of Hula, it was no different. Many of them gathered from around the state to discuss ways of keeping their halau safe.

The result was the Lahui Kanaka protocols, which go beyond government health mandates to ensure the health and safety of dancers.

During those discussions, the Kumu Hula found themselves confronting other questions that had been looming over Hula for decades.

"Hula is all based around life, so as Kumu Hula, we are ultimately responsible for the health of our haumāna (students) and their families," said Kumu Hula Cody Pueo Pata, one of the organizers behind Huamakahikina, a coalition of Kumu Hula.

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Cody Pueo Pata

They originally convened to find a cultural response to the pandemic. Then, the conversations deepened.

"And the discussions led to worries about Hula in modern times," Pata said.

"But they're the same topics that have plagued Kumu Hula for years and years and years with no resolve," said esteemed cultural advisor and Kumu Hula Hōkūlani Holt.

She says as Hula has become more popular internationally, teachers and styles proliferated outside of accepted Hula traditions.

Holt says it was painful, and continues to be painful, to see people doing motions and singing songs that do not match Hula traditions.

"So we took everything and we decided, let's see what we can do to bring some resolve," Holt said.

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Hōkūlani Holt
Hōkūlani Holt

About 60 Kumu Hula convened in August to deal with what they saw as ignorance and exploitation of Hula and its traditions.

They drafted a document clarifying definitions, protocols and responsibilities involved with Hula.

"Then we had a strategy support team of one Kumu Hula, one strategist, and six lawyers fine tune it into the draft that we sent to all registrants. Altogether 200 lineally acknowledged Kumu Hula came together to say, we unanimously ratify and support this as our statement about ourselves," Pata said.

The Huamakahikina Declaration on the Integrity, Stewardship, and Protection of Hula defines Kumu Hula as acknowledged descendants of Hula lineages.

Holt says Kumu Hula are the only appropriate people to teach Hula.

"One of the important lines we drew in the sand is that you folks out there need to recognize Kumu Hula as the folks that have these knowledge bases and have these recognized awarenesses of Hula," Holt said.

Pata contends, even in Hula’s homeland, recognition and respect are sometimes forgotten.

"And itʻs the official state dance of Hawaiʻi, but there is little to no public funding or facilities for Hula," Pata said.

Holt concurs.

"Isn't it funny? You have public funding for almost every sport in Hawaiʻi, including pickleball, publicly funded, but no Hula place," Holt said.

Holt and Pata agree government, as well as people in the community, regularly take advantage of Kumu Hula for blessings, cleansings, and commemorations. While many do it gladly, they say a broader understanding of tradition is needed.

"I think it's all these years of colonization of the mind, in which we've been told all these years that Hawaiians give freely. This is aloha. We give freely. But we forget, even in aliʻi times, our aliʻi supported us," Holt said.

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Ron Ardis/Flickr

Holt says during the Hawaiian monarchy, shelter and domestic help were provided to Kumu Hula so training and related practices could continue.

But Holt says today, the government, organizations and others expect venerated professionals to apply their expertise for free.

"For some Kumu Hula, these are hard conversations. They donʻt like to talk about this — and they wonʻt," Holt said.

Holt and Pata say that's what makes the Huamakahikina Declaration so important.

As for what to call all the swaying and gyrating that is not Hula? These Kumu Hula say that’s lower case hula-hula.

Read the full declaration below or click here.

Listen to Noe Tanigawa's full interview with Kumu Hula Cody Pueo Pata and Hōkūlani Holt from the Aloha Friday Conversation on Oct. 15, 2021.

About 200 Kumu Hula, or Hula teachers, have now signed on to a statement declaring what hula is, and how to protect its future. The Huamakahikina Declaration on the Integrity, Stewardship and Protection of Hula was drafted at a congress of hula practitioners this past September. Two of them joined The Aloha Friday Conversation to walk us through some of the major ideas.

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