Hawaiian traditions take center stage in South Korea
Written by Mary Stamp
November 12, 2013

Kenneth Makuakāne

Kenneth Makuakāne, program associate for church vitality with the UCC's Hawaii Conference, said that when missionaries from the American Board for Foreign Mission arrived in 1820, they started a moral and social ban on hula, calling it "pagan." Now churches are restoring and including this traditional dance form in worship and at church events.

During a Nov. 7 presentation during the World Council of Churches 10th Assembly in Busan, South Korea, Makuakāne sang and played the ukulele, while Yuka "Pili Aloha" Sanada, a student from Japan, danced. She regularly comes to Hawaii to take professional hula lessons.

Through the performance, Makuakāne and Pili Aloha shared songs and hula that spoke of the beauty of the Hawaiian islands as part of God's creation, and shared cultural stories. Pili Aloha opened the performance by blowing a conch shell, a "pu," inviting people to the performance and to join in praising God. Makuakāne said several congregations now blow a pu at the start of their worship services to announce God's presence.

"Hula dances often have analogies of individuals to waterfalls, flowers, sky, and the many creatures of the islands and sea," he said. "They are a way to celebrate God's creation, while comparing a person to the beauty of a particular aspect of this creation. We are all one people under God's roof. We are one loving people of God.  Hula and songs are more sophisticated, communicating feelings of the heart."

Tourists think of hula, which means "dance," as entertainment, but it is much more, he said, because it communicates and brings meaning to the culture and history through a visual aspect — facial expression or body movement. Makaukāne explained that, along with sharing God's word, missionaries came with premises and stigmas. They thought the ancient tradition of hula was part of "pagan" culture, rather than seeing it as part of the indigenous Hawaiian oral history as people with no written language.

"Individuals were chosen at birth to learn the oral history in order to preserve the past and the present," he said. "Because there was no written language, this practice was paramount to the survival of the cultural traditions and history. To communicate the history, they used dance as a physical expression of the ancient chants to carry the message of history from generation to generation, century to century." 

Yuka "Pili Aloha" Sanada

When missionaries banned hula and native language, they stopped the native Hawaiians' ability to communicate history and carry on their culture. "Hula went underground when laws from 1830 to 1870 suppressed them, but white legislators were unable to stop hula, even though they imposed taxes on events and venues that included hula performances," Makuakāne said. "Restoring the hula is part of restoring the language and re-empowering the Hawaiian people." 

He explained that in the 1800s, missionaries came to Hawaii to show indigenous Hawaiians the way of Christ. Now, Hawaiian Christians are trying to find their Hawaiian-ness in their Christianity, after losing their culture to western theology. A composer and singer, Makuakāne said that when he sings rock or pop songs, they become Hawaiian music, because a Hawaiian is singing them and bringing his own texture and cultural expression to the songs.

"Expression of our indigenous culture is also evident in the way we worship God," he said. Now hula is embraced in the culture, and the church is helping people understand who they are as a people. Pastors and church leaders now also give prayers and sermons partially in the Hawaiian language."

"We are able to praise God as native Hawaiians, not just as Calvinist Christians. We are Kalawina Christians," he said.

It's a contrast to when Makaukāne grew up in a rural church with no hula or Hawaiian instruments. Because no one played the organs or pianos churches were given, members sang a cappella, he said. In the 1970s, musical instruments began being used, and in 1980s hula was introduced.

Makaukāne said restoring hula is part of building church vitality, along with translating hymns from English hymnals missionaries brought into Hawaiian. He also writes Hawaiian language Christian songs.

"Now we again document our history without losing our cultural identity so that we can pass it on to the next generation as both an oral history and a written history," said Makuakāne.

Mary Stamp is editor of the Pacific Northwest Conference UCC News and The Fig Tree, a regional ecumenical newspaper online at www.thefigtree.org.

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