The Thousand-year-old Gift

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Story by Shannon Wianecki

hawaiian cultural advisors in Maui
Hawaiian practitioners: Clifford Naeʻole, Makalapua Kanuha, Kainoa Horcajo and Hokulani Holt.

Growing up in the Islands, I’ve learned that whenever I sit down with Hawaiians, I leave a little — or a lot — richer. So when four cultural advisors invited me to listen in on discussion of their work, I made sure not to arrive empty-handed.

Hokulani HoltA local farmer provided with me something to show my appreciation: four bundles of pa‘i‘ai, pounded taro lovingly wrapped in ti leaves. I toted them over to the Maui Arts & Cultural Center, where Hokulani Holt, Clifford Nae‘ole, Makalapua Kanuha, and Kainoa Horcajo sat talking story in the shade. Four warm smiles let me know that pa‘i‘ai had been the right choice.

I had some idea of what cultural advisors do, having seen each of these four community leaders in action. Holt works for the Maui Arts & Cultural Center, the others for resorts. Serving as intermediaries between Hawai‘i’s indigenous culture and its visitor industry, they bridge seemingly disparate worlds: ancient/modern, cultural/commercial, sacred/profane, local/tourist. They’re the ones called upon to preside over blessings, open conferences with Hawaiian chants, christen new projects, and teach residents and visitors alike what it means to be Hawaiian.

Thirty years ago, their jobs didn’t exist. If a resort happened to employ someone knowledgeable in Hawaiian arts, he or she was likely relegated to stringing lei with keiki (children) or teaching malahini (newcomers) a few hula moves in the lobby. “Hawaiian themes were not valued as they are now,” says Holt. “They were seen as window dressing, not as a culture that has depth and breadth of knowledge.”

As they talk, I realize that what they do is not just a job to them; it’s a sacred trust — what Nae‘ole calls kuleana, responsibility.


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