Thousands celebrate Hawaiian culture at Taro Festival

Maui News
Monday, April 7, 1997

By Matt Thayer

Staff Photographer

HANA -- As it is with most historic events, putting the weekend's East Maui Taro Festival in proper perspective requires a look back in time.

First stop is a year ago, back when the Hawaiian sailing canoe Hokule`a failed to make it over for the 1996 Taro Festival despite pre-event fanfare and a canoe-full of anticipation by the citizens of Hana. Whatever the cause of the no-show, there was considerable ill will sown by its absence. The canoe's arrival Friday morning and subsequent ceremonies went a long way toward healing those wounds.

Next stop is five years ago, back when organizers hoped to establish an event that not only celebrated the Hawaiian culture, its people, music and dance, but also the traditional staple of life: taro. A walk around the Hana ballpark grounds Saturday proved the organizers' dreams have been realized. An estimated 4,000-plus, the largest crowd in Taro Festival history, turned out for the festival, which seems destined to grow even larger.

The last look back has no particular reference point. How long has it been since 100 proud Hawaiians dressed in traditional garb lined Hana Bay in a protocol ceremony worthy of welcoming a visiting chief? How long has it been since the Hawaiian culture has seemed so vibrant and full of vitality, moving forward rather than hovering in a desperate holding pattern with several handfuls of elders and dedicated folks keeping the language and traditions alive until the rest of their people realized what a great source of pride and self-worth they provide?

Hana kupuna Eric Kanakaole said the weekend showed just how far the Hawaiians have come, moving forward as they recapture their past.

``For me, this is like the first time,'' Kanakaole said while tending barbecue pork ribs cooking over a smoking fire. ``This year it's different. It's like sending everybody back in a time machine. In Hawaii it's called `kahiko,' and that's back to the start. There were over a hundred people around the bay. Hawaiians haven't done that in a century, maybe two.

``We're trying to bring back the culture. I'm glad we're celebrating the food source. To the Hawaiians the taro is like religion. Just like the breadfruit is the breath of life, the taro is our Hawaiian brother. Today I look at the Taro Festival as a spiritual thing, and the best part is, we're celebrating our culture.''

Friday's ceremony began with the sailing of Hokule`a into Hana Bay. Hana's Francis Sinenci arrived on the canoe with seven Maui youngsters and two other chaperones from Hana. Sinenci acted as representative when the crew disembarked onto the black sand beach lined with warriors, kupuna, ordinary Hana citizens and camera-snapping visitors from around the globe. As everyone watched, Sinenci caught a spear hurled at his chest and then handed it to Hokule`a navigator Nainoa Thompson, who spiked it into the sand. From there the crew was ushered to a ceremonial hale for an awa ceremony.

``Everybody feels better about the Hokule`a now,'' Sinenci said Saturday. ``This year there were tears of happiness. We had our ho`oponopono session, we got down on the mat and had an awa ceremony. It made everything pono when I caught the spear, everything was made right.''

Hokule`a crew member Bruce Blankenfeld said sailing the canoe into Hana Bay was a special experience not to be forgotten.

``It was like it was coming to one of its homes,'' Blankenfeld said. ``The canoe belongs to the people of Hana just like it belongs to all the people of the state.''

Saturday the double-hulled canoe rested peacefully in the middle of the bay, occasionally being swarmed over by waves of kids and curious adults when a Hokule`a crew member was on board to welcome them. The canoe looked smaller than expected, until people climbed on board to offer perspective. It grew some then, but not enough to diminish visions of what it would be like to sail across the wide Pacific, enduring storms and doldrums with nothing more to rely upon than the canoe and the wits and strength of its crew.

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