Aloha: Cultural Resistance in Grass Skirts



Aloha: Cultural Resistance in Grass Skirts

Words by Marian Redmond

Even if it is the tourist hub, to walk along the famous Honolulu beach of Waikiki and experience the balmy air, mellow sunsets and multicultural ambience at evening concerts of Hawai‘ian music and hula dancing, is to recall the dream of a tropical paradise so often evoked in cinematic images.

grass-skirts_19Unsurprisingly, tourism is the major industry in Hawai’i with 8 million tourists from numerous countries travelling there in 2014.

Outstanding examples of Hawai‘i’s natural beauty that attract so many tourists to the largest island, (confusingly also called Hawai’i) are volcanoes, rainforests and waterfalls.

But any appearance of conformity to popular images bestowed by the gentle climate, vegetation and people is at odds with surprising forms of cultural resistance.

grass-skirts_11The volcano Kilauea is still active, with plumes of smoke rising from its crater and steam from vents in the surrounding countryside demonstrating the primal power and energy personified in the goddess Pele.

Her supernatural fury embodies human-like life forces, which might correspond to those animating protest movements about the appropriation of Hawai’ian lands and cultural values and the decline of the Indigenous population.

On my recent trip, I encountered a singular instance of a feeling of resistance from locals to the hordes of tourists, when a surly teenage boy reprimanded my companions and I for speaking loudly at a bus stop, telling us we had no respect.

grass-skirts_02Evidence of poverty exists in clusters of shanties in Honolulu parks and in the isolated figures, sleeping during the day on the lush green verges of Waikiki beach, shaded by palm trees.

The ancient tradition of the hula, which holds deep spiritual significance, has had a surprising role in local protest movements. After suffering a decline due to its banning by missionaries and performance as an exotic tourist spectacle, its very popularity with tourists has lead to a large increase in hula h…lau (dance academies).

In 1997, attempts by the Hawai‘ian government to pass laws prohibiting the gathering of foliage and flowers used to decorate grass-skirts_20the dancers resulted in the formation of a powerful alliance of hula h…lau.

Staging 24 hour mass rallies before the parliament, the alliance, called ‘…lio‘ulaokalani, became agents of cultural and political resistance, strengthening their own power and morale when the legislation was defeated.

In the hula, the West found a captivating dream of closeness to nature, misinterpreting its meaning by employing it as a tourist spectacle. Growing in numbers, the hula h…lau have used the strength of their common traditions to defeat the whitewash of their culture.


Aloha: Cultural Resistance in Grass Skirts

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