Ancestors' Wisdom and Poetry in Chants and Dances

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Sharing stories through traditional chants and dances is an important and meaningful interaction and learning process. The participants looked back with gratefulness at this project as they saw the relevance of these cultural forms breathed life to the transfer of knowledge from one generation to the next.  In the island of Oahu in Hawaii, traditional practitioners nurture this, to aspire for “Ola a Laupaʻi,” or that which lives and continues to thrive and flourish. The hālau which is the traditional  Hawaiian  dance  school and the Hālau  I  Ka  Leo  Ola  O  Nā  Mamo or the  hula  school  of  the  living  language  of  the  descendants  are the centers where traditional  cultural  dance  experts build the capacity  of young  students as a means  to  preserve  traditional  ways  of  knowing. 

The renowned hula masters who have been teaching the dance for more than 30 years readily welcomed the students as participants to dance lessons accompanied by chants. The masters were extremely impressed that the students spoke the Hawaiian language and were determined to learn the hula. As the students made progress with their lessons, their school teachers  likewise learned  much  about  themselves and  how  traditional  knowledge  should  be  transmitted  to  the  younger  generation. Kekoa  L.  Harman said, “The  moʻolelo,  or  stories  and  anecdotes,  along  with  the  movements  shared  with  the  students  from  each  hula  master,  created  a  rich context  and  often  “fun”  dialogue for  the  students  to  learn. It was rewarding to watch the  presentation  of  dances  in  front  of  all  of  the hula  masters  who  taught  the  dances.” 

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In  learning  from  elders, the  students  were  respectful,  observant,  and  quick  to  learn  the  dances.  The  hula  masters  do  not commonly interact  with  youth of  this age  level  on  a  regular  basis but they all  enjoyed  working  with  the young  Native  Hawaiians  who  have  an  “aloha,”  or  appreciation  for  the  knowledge  they  have.

Traditionally, men  are both the  hula  teachers  and  the  drum players while the  women dance  and  help in leading the  chants. The participants realized the men’s important role in teaching traditional dances and chants. On the other hand, the women’s invaluable role is recognized in the performance  of  these  chants and  dances.

Meeting the elders was a highlight for the young students and actualization of traditional knowledge transfer. In  the era of social  media  and  information technology,  the  importance  of kūpunaor  elders must  not be  forgotten nor ignored. Listening to the elderly hula masters share their life stories and relation to hula was transformative and inspirational, which the participants appreciated and integrated into their own performance.

Participant Akariva  Vuta said,  “It  was  interesting  to  learn  new  dances  along  with  the  stories  that  went  with  them.” Fellow student Kaʻiulani  Young had this to say, “The  trips  were  full  of  learning,  socializing,  growing,  and  strengthening, along  with  laughter.  The  teachers  were  funny  and  kind and the  breadth  of  their  knowledge and  their  great  love  for  hula was  very  evident.”

The students’ awareness and understanding of the Native Hawaiian knowledge expressed in the chants and dances was enhanced. Alotofpreparation wentinto the public performanceto make surethatthedanceswerelearnedcorrectly, even the sourcing and designing of the appropriate adornment, clothing,thenaturalflowersandgreenerytobeworn,were meticulously considered to remain true to tradition. Additionally, the participants visited sacred sites that enriched their insights into the Native Hawaiian history.

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The entire community identified with their living cultural resources and took pride in the wealth of their traditional knowledge. They intimately connected with the traditional chants and dances that are not regularly performed. The youth interacting with the hula masters/elders provided the former a greater sense of well-being.  They also cultivated a deeper sense of leadership and responsibility through their participation. Each indigenous student who was  chosen  because  of  commitment  to  the  Hawaiian  language  and  hula was able to  understand  their  responsibility  to  learn  these  dances  and  their meaning. 

All the dances  and  chants were documented in the course of the project’s implementation  and these video  and  sound  recordings were used to  review  the dances learned  with  the  hula  master who was  not  used  to this technological  innovation. The  hula  masters, of a different era,  understood  that  the process was important  for  the  students  to fully learn and understand  the  footwork  and  movements. They recognized too that teaching and learning of traditional  dances and chants must  continue and be documented so  that  the natives do  not  forget  them.

All those involved in the project concluded thus: “We must continue  further  on  this  path  as  “enlightened”  indigenous  peoples  who  take  pride  in  our  traditional  practices  and  play  a  leadership  role  in  developing  others  in  our  family  and  community  to  continue  the  language  and  the  transmission  of  these  practices.”

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The project “E  Ola  A  Laupaʻi: Long Live  the  Knowledge  of  the  Ancestors  Through  the  Descendants” was implemented by the organization Hālau  I  Ka  Leo  Ola  O  Nā  Mamo in 2017 through the support of PAWANKA Fund.