Recently, Dixie Latu Riley, a Hawaiian native now living in Brooklyn Park, contacted a group about what she felt is an inappropriate representation of Hawaiian culture, a charge dismissed by the organization as unfounded.
The group in question, “Halau Hula O Ka Hoku Akau”, is a nonprofit, 501c3 organization, fiscally sponsored by Springboard for the Arts, located in St. Paul.
Riley described them as a fake hula group that goes beyond appreciation in performance, to teaching and presenting Hawaiian culture as its native heritage.
Todd Bierbrauer founded Halau Hula O Ka Hoku Akau in October 2001. He said the organization has 25 haumana (students) of various cultural backgrounds, including two of Hawaiian descent. He replied to Riley’s concerns that the group is profiting from the sale Hawaiian chant/song CDs and concerts, noting that it is used for the nonprofit organization.
“Our mission is dedicated to preserving the mana`o (knowledge) of hula, the culture and traditions of the Hawaiian people through education and performance,” said Bierbrauer.
Riley is concerned that Minnesota groups are co-opting Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islander cultures in hula dance, storytelling and songs and spirituality. She said that Bierbrauer, a person of German American heritage, describes himself as ‘kumu’, and that his group is profiting by representing mistakenly many aspects of Hawaiian oral cultures, language, hula dance, creation stories and history.
“Many are sacred cultural issues that violate cultural norms and likely do not have permission to use,” she added.
Bierbrauer said there are many definitions of kumu, and referred to three in the Hawaiian Dictionary (www.wehewehe.org). The first is a “base or foundation”; the second, “a teacher, tutor, manual or model”, and, third, “a beginning, source or origin.”
Bierbrauer defined the definition as it applies to his title as “the beginning source or foundation” for his halau and students.
“In that sense I am the kumu of my halau,” he added. “I have never proclaimed myself as Kumu Hula. I have always stated that I am a kumu in training. There is a significant difference.”
There are protocols of halau that Bierbrauer said he follows, including respecting his past teachings. His mentors since 1993 are all of Native Hawaiian descent, and include Mark (Maka) Jacques (deceased); Leona Puanani Bell Schroeder; Kumu Richard Pedrina; and currently Dr. Amy Kuuleialoha Stillman.
“In halau, there are many aspects that are taught before a mele (song) is performed,” said Bierbrauer. “Each student, including the kumu or instructor, should be doing research on that mele so that they understand the meaning or history of it. Education is key in our halau, there is more than just learning a motion or dance.’
Also in accordance to protocol, he said that as a student he would ask for permission and the blessing of his kumu before performing or teaching a mele or chant. He said that his halau has the support of prior instructors, mentors, and other halaus in the Twin Cities and elsewhere. He added that he has the full support of is current kumu, Dr. Amy Ku`uleialoha Stillman, born and raised in Honolulu, and now faculty at the University of Michigan.
“That is all the blessings I need,” said Bierbrauer.
“One does not have to be Hawaiian, but be Hawaiian at heart,” he added. “If Ms. Riley has ever observed the Merrie Monarch Festival and its Hula Competition, there is a diverse group of Kumu Hula from all walks of life.”
Riley stated that she was moved to send a complaint to The Rose Ensemble after a 2008 “Spirit in the House” hula performance by “Halau Hula O Ka Hoku Akau.” She called them a fake group and didn’t see a goal or purpose in the program.
She questions the unnamed Hawaiian woman on the publicity materials, and that a non Hawaiian ensemble was just wearing Hawaiian shirts. She was concerned that the use of sacred chants and images in the program, including the “Savage Boys”, a song she said was racist in origins from the missionary times.
She compared it to a “black-face” song that should no longer be performed.
Aaron Wulff, general manager, The Rose Ensemble, said that the liner notes on the Hawaiian CD and concert program included validated efforts and research and consultation from Na Mele Hawaii and other scholars, teachers, and archival institutions that were approved by Dr. Stillman.
“Moreover, these notes clearly state that the intention of the programming is to honor the Hawaiian people, their music, and our teachers, rather than present the content as our own,” said Wulff. “The Rose Ensemble also appropriately credits each of our sources and permissions in our CD and concert program materials.”
The Rose Ensemble is also a non-profit arts organization with a mission to research and uncover rarely performed music and bring it to new audiences through performance and recording. Wulff said that revenue funds are for non-financial objectives in line with its mission of cultural preservation.
“Not shareholders,” he added.
Wulff was not clear where Riley’s reference to “Savage Boys” was found but said there were songs in the program that addressed sensitivities toward issues of racism. He quoted Kim Sueoka, and Ensemble member, “Yes, the texts of some himeni featured on our disc are chilling, angering, even, but had we chosen not to include these himeni, we would have omitted an important and complicating factor in the Hawaiians’ experience with the first Missionaries: the existence of human judgment and prejudice.”
Kim Sueoka, a Rose Ensemble member since 2003, was born and raised in Kaua’i, Hawaii, and played the primary role in the development of The Rose Ensemble’s Hawaiian concert and educational outreach programs.
Riley said that other Rose Ensemble ethnic-based performances were collaborations with culturally aligned groups, such as the Native Pride Dancers or Ragamala Dance troop. She thought the Bierbrauer halau was not a culturally aligned Hawaiian organization and that future shows should include Native Hawaiian collaboration.
“It is inappropriate to use or co-opt Hawaiian or Polynesian cultures by non-Hawaiians and should not be promoted by the Council of Asian Pacific Minnesotans or other groups to authentically represent Pacific Islander Cultures,” Riley stated.
She said the hula and the Hawaiian language tell the culture, and history of the Native Hawaiian people, the Polynesians. The hula chants, dance, teachings are sacred cultural traditions, and that people not of the culture do not understand its implications, or show the proper earned care of cultural information.
“Many people enjoy Hawaiian culture, Mana, Aloha Spirit,” said Riley, “but they should not appropriate, teach or represent a culture that is not their own.”
Riley noted that events like the Festival of Nations include culturally based organizations that teach and celebrate their respective traditions. Even here, she recalled that in the past, Tahitians and Hawaiians were represented by non-Polynesians wearing long black wigs – which she found offensive and confusing.
“Only in Minnesota are Pacific Islander/Hawaiian dance being done by non-Polynesian peoples,” she added. “This is not acceptable.”
Riley is a third-generation Hawaiian-born person, with a Polynesian spouse, children, and Native Hawaiian relatives. She is a community activist in Pan Pacific and SE Asian Women’s organizations and other Polynesian groups.
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