Reclaiming the Culture through Hula
Vicky Holt Takamine was born into a hula family. Her mother and grandmother were dancers, and from a young age, Takamine told her mother that she wanted to learn how to dance hula.
At 12 years old, her mother sent her to Ma‘iki Aiu Lake, one of the most prominent hula teachers in Hawai‘i, and at 27 years old, she graduated as a kumu hula, a master teacher of Hawaiian dance, through the ‘ûniki rituals of hula. Two years later, she opened up her own hālau hula, or school of Hawaiian dance, Pua Ali‘i ‘Ilima.
In 1997, after 20 years of teaching hula, Takamine learned of State Senate Bill 8, legislation that would restrict Native Hawaiians from gathering the natural and cultural resources that are vital for making adornments, conducting ceremonies, and the performance of hula. Takamine successfully mobilized other practitioners to protest the bill at the state legislature and marks this as the moment she became an activist.
In the following years, she continued to advocate for Native Hawaiian artists and cultural practitioners, and in 2001, she founded the PA‘I Foundation to raise the profile of these artists through events and other cultural programming. PA‘I Foundation has received multiple grants from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Takamine shares why she has become an advocate for Native Hawaiian artists and cultural practitioners, the significance of Hawai‘i’s natural resources to their culture, and the meaning of PA‘I.
HULA AS RESISTANCE
I came from the Vietnam War era, so we were the flower children and protesting everything. We were the ones that initiated this Hawaiian renaissance in the ‘70s. When I graduated from Auntie Ma‘iki, we were one of the first graduating classes, and we all went out and started our own schools and started to revive interest in Hawaiian cultural practices and Hawaiian language, and started Hawaiian language immersion school.
The hula has been responsible for reclaiming and retaining the Native Hawaiian language that was banned. My grandmother was not allowed to speak the language in school and was reprimanded for speaking Hawaiian. She had ten children, and not one of the ten children speak the language. I’m the oldest grandchild, and I was not taught the language. At my high school, I was not allowed to take Hawaiian language. [And at the university,] I had to take Latin because it was “college material”—they said Hawaiian language was not an acceptable language.
I see hula as resistance. I see hula as a tool for organizing community around issues that are facing Native Hawaiians. We have been able to reclaim our cultural practices through the hula. We have been able to regain our language through the hula. All the songs and dances, the chants, are in the Hawaiian language, and you have to study the language in order to be able to perform the hula, to understand the hula. Hula was my entrée into Hawaiian language, into Hawaiian culture.
Through the practice of hula there are other cultural traditions like ohe kapala (bamboo printmaking) and kapa (bark cloth making). We make all of our own drums, all of our own musical instruments for hula. It was a way to reclaim those traditions that had been lost or were at the brink of being lost.
"I see hula as resistance. I see hula as a tool for organizing community around issues that are facing Native Hawaiians."
A SUDDEN IMPACT
PA‘I is the acronym of my hālau hula, the name of my Hawaiian dance school, Pua Ali‘i ‘Ilima. Pua means flower, ali‘i means royalty, and ‘ilima is a golden-yellow, orange blossom, the kino lau, or earthly manifestation, of the Hawaiian god Kāne. Kāne is the god of light, fresh water, and creation.
When we looked at starting the nonprofit, one of my students said, “What about PA‘I?” I was like, “Wow.” PA‘I by itself means “sudden impact.” PA‘I also means “to slap.” We like to think that we make an impact and make a difference in our community, so we really like that name.
The mission of PA‘I Foundation is to preserve and perpetuate Native Hawaiian cultural traditions for future generations. Although I have my own hālau, it’s not about me serving my school of dance. It’s about serving the Native Hawaiian artists and cultural practitioners, our community, and the residents of Hawai‘i by creating opportunities for our artists to share their culture with the broader community, not just here but [also] abroad.
I started our own little PA‘I Arts and Cultural Center to [create a shared] space with other artists and cultural practitioners and to also offer resources, opportunities, and connections. [Through my work], I’ve been very fortunate to be introduced to people that I look up to, like Maria López De León, who is the president and CEO of the National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures, Lori Lea Pourier (Oglala Lakota), president and CEO of First Peoples Fund, and Carlton Turner, former executive director of Alternate ROOTS—other leaders who are heading arts and community organizations that serve people of color. We’ve had such a great time working with each other and forming a bond. I’ve learned so much from them, and from sharing our artists’ work with a broader community.
This pandemic has required all of us to shift to an online platform, and it’s brought us new audiences. It’s been really interesting to offer our space for workshops with some of our community artists. We’ve had people from Portugal and Japan and Mexico and New York, all across the world, join us on [virtual] workshops, where we would never have been able to host them [before]. The cost of coming to Hawai‘i for some people is really expensive, but people are eager to participate in those [virtual] workshops.
RESPECTING THE LAND AND CULTURE
Our culture is alive. Our culture is there. We still practice our traditional Hawaiian cultural practices. Artists are still creating. This is not an art form that is in the past, archived and put in a museum.
Some people still think we live in grass shacks. Sometimes the way our tourism industry portrays Hawaiians is not accurate, and I think that the tourists today are looking for authentic experiences. I think that’s what we as cultural practitioners can provide for visitors to our islands.
But the other thing is that we want to make sure that [tourists] understand that [the islands are] a shared resource. We’re happy to share our culture, but you have to give something back. I’m not talking about financially; I’m talking about how you take care of our islands. Just picking up the trash when you’re walking on the beach, or not throwing plastic in the ocean. Caring for our natural resources so that it’ll be there for the next generation is critical for us. Our islands are very fragile and we don’t have a lot of resources. The more tourists that come here, the more visitors that come, it gets overrun.
Our natural resources are being very heavily impacted. The amount of suntan oil that’s getting into the ocean is killing our reefs. Being a little bit more responsible in what you put on your body, what you dump in the ocean, what you throw in the trash or don’t throw in the trash, what you throw on the ground. Being responsible, that to me is a way of giving back. We’re happy for you to come and share your resources with our people, but please help us to take care of our natural and cultural resources when you’re visiting.
We depend on those natural resources for inspiration and for our adornment. It’s important that those resources will be there for the next generation, and a lot of our Hawaiian terminology connects us to the land. The term for land in Hawaiian is ‘āina. The root word for ‘āina is āi, meaning “food,” and ‘āina means “that which feeds us.” So, if we want to eat and we want to be fed then we need to take care of the ‘āina. If we don’t take care of the land, then the land cannot take care of us.