Hawai’i was a monarchy until a rebellion (led by foreign residents) overthrew Queen Lili’uokalani in 1898. The kingdom was annexed to the United States 5 short years later.
From that time on (and actually even before then), the Hawaiian language and culture was actively discouraged by the missionaries whose influence was strong. Hawaiian language itself was banned in schools, and cultural expression was suppressed.
Then, in 1963 after a tsunami devastated the Big Island of Hawaii and the economy was in a shambles with sugar plantations closing, the idea of having a festival that celebrated Hawaiian culture germinated as a means of economic stimulation but also of cultural hope. The seeds grew and flourished and became a full-fledged festival celebrating Hawaiian culture in 1971.
It was called ‘The Merrie Monarch‘ after King Kalakaua, who was a patron of the arts (and Lili’uokalani’s brother). King Kalakaua was known as merry, for his fun-loving ways and for being a patron of the arts.
The Merrie Monarch Festival
This is a true celebration of all that Hawai’i is. The songs, the chants (mele) are celebrations and testimonies to beauty in the world as well as of stories.
Hula – true hula, anyway – is the physical expression of a story.
In hula, women and men chant, drum, pound the ground and tell their stories in every way they physically can. It can be expressive, honest and real; wrenching and glorious.
Hula, being the physical expression of stories, is not exclusive to beautiful people. Oh sure, beautiful people dance, but so too do what society might call the unlovely. Every body type is represented – fat, thin, young and old. You name it.
In that diversity and in the power of its expression, it is absolutely stirring and makes me fall in love with the world a little more.
Here’s a snapshot of the highlights from Merrie Monarch 2017 (2018 is still going on) to give you an idea of the diversity and beauty of hula:
Merrie Monarch Festival
On a more personal note, I’ve been gone from Hawai’i for 25 years. When I left, the Merrie Monarch Festival was huge but not ENORMOUS, you know? Hawaiian language programs at my university were just starting. People were starting to try to bring back olelo, the language of Hawaiian.
So 25 years later and I see that one of the things that Miss Hula at the Merrie Monarch is judged on is olelo – her Hawaiian language fluency. And there is livestream completely in olelo (that is, 100% in Hawaiian language).
This is so incredibly validating to me, to see IN MY OWN LIFETIME, the progress that can happen. I can see with my own eyes, what focused commitment can lead to.
The fact that olelo has gone through a resurgence is exciting and validating to me as it carries over to every other piece of suppression/resistance that I see in the world. From ASL to disability rights and empowerment, it’s good for me to see that if we really focus, we can do an incredible amount in 25 years. I need this type of inspiration, especially when everything feels so hopeless sometimes.