The cultural scene in Hawaii's Big Island

It isn’t just the presence of diverse ethnic groups living harmoniously in one island that makes the way of life on Hawaii’s Big Island quite unique. The core of its cultural distinction is rooted on having its people enjoy the present while maintaining its traditions and having great respect for their heritage. Although the Big Island is quite young compared to the rest of the Hawaiian archipelago, it was the first to be discovered by the Polynesian seafarers, who were Hawaii’s first settlers. Since then, the Orchid Isle has become home to mixed races. Today, the residents of the island are proud of their heritage for a number of reasons. Hawaii’s Island of Adventure is believed to be the dwelling place of the mythical goddess of the volcano, Pele. The world’s most active volcano (Kilauea) and tallest mountain (Mauna Kea)—as measured from the ocean floor—are also found on the island. It is home of the paniolos, pau riders, Ironman, and the Merrie Monarch Festival.

Brief history of the Merrie Monarch Festival

The Merrie Monarch Festival is a celebration of the Big Island’s colorful cultural tapestry of various cultures. It celebrates the arts, customs, and traditions of the Pacific Islanders as well as the island of Hawaii’s Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, Korean, and Filipino roots. Originally, it began as a tribute to King David Kalakaua. The first Merrie Monarch Festival took place in 1964, and it was organized by George Na’ope, who is recognized as the founder of the festival. Four years later, the private Merrie Monarch Festival community organization was established by Dorothy Thompson. Known to the people as “Auntie Dottie,” she was the one who organized the first hula competition in 1971 as part of the festival.

In memory of King David Kalakaua

He was affectionately nicknamed Merrie Monarch by the people because of his love for the arts and merrymaking. He was one of Hawaii’s ancient rulers, and his reign began in 1874 and continued until his death in 1891. His most significant accomplishment is the revival of many of the Hawaiian people’s dormant cultural practices. Because of the strong influence of Christian missionaries, who remained in the island for more than seven decades, the hula was prohibited for more than 70 years.

The week-long festival is a form of homage to King David Kalakaua’s legacy of resurrecting Hawaii’s vivid past, which blends perfectly with the island’s colorful medley of cultures. This alone turned the island into the destination of a lifetime. Along with the revival of the hula dance is the rebirth of many of the island’s myths and legends.

The hula

Mention the name “Hawaii,” and more often than not, what would come to the mind of any person is an image of a tropical white sand beach, with palm trees swaying like the hula dancers to the strumming of a nearby ukulele. To enjoy an authentic Hawaiian experience, it is important that you understand the story behind the hula. It isn’t merely a dance performed to attract tourists to the island. In the old days, the people of Hawaii didn’t have any form of written language. Although the Hawaiian spoken language is rich, ancient Hawaiians also chronicled their history through chants and songs (mele), as well as a dance called “hula.” In those days, the dance and chants documented the people’s genealogy and mythology, as well as personal prayers. The hula was the only way through which the history and culture of ancient Hawaii was told and passed down from one generation to the next.

Beyond saying that the dance was created by the Polynesian explorers, no one can really say with utmost certainty how the hula came to be. In fact, even the island’s legends tell different stories. In one myth, it was told that the dance originated from the island of Moloka’i, as it was borne there by the goddess of hula, Laka. In another legend, the dance was said to have originated from Ha’ena in the district of Puna. According to the story, the hula was the dance that Hi’iaka created and performed to calm down her sister Pele, the goddess of the volcano. In yet another story, it was Pele herself who danced the hula as a victory dance to celebrate her finding a place in the archipelago where another sister, Namakaokaha’i, the goddess of the seas, couldn’t reach her.

World’s premiere hula event

Each year, around thirty halau (hula schools) perform and compete during the festival, which is regarded by many as “the Olympics of hula.” It takes place in Hilo each year around Easter, although the Merrie Monarch Festival in 2008 was an exception. It is not only the halau from the Hawaiian islands that can participate in the competition. The finest halau based in the US Mainland and in Japan compete with hula dancers from Hawaii in three categories: solo, kahiko (ancient), and ‘auana (modern).

The venue for the competition is the Edith Kanaka’ole Multipurpose Stadium. The solo competition is done on a Thursday, and the winner would earn the title Miss Aloha Hula. The group competition is broken down into two divisions: kane (male) and wahine (female), whose performances are scheduled on Friday and Saturday. Each participating hula school is given a maximum of seven minutes to perform onstage. It begins with the ka’i (entrance), followed by the oli (chant), the dance itself, and then the ho’i (exit). To get the highest score, every halau must execute every element in the best way possible. Although the event is done only once a year, it takes the halau an entire year to practice for their performance in the Merrie Monarch Festival.

Festival activities

The hula competition is actually the finale of the Merrie Monarch Festival. Other highlights of the week-long festivities include a music festival, storytelling, arts and crafts exhibits, and a grand parade showcasing the assortment of cultures co-existing on the island. The Merrie Monarch organizers meticulously ensures the authenticity of the festival, so that the island’s rich heritage will be sustained and enjoyed by both locals and tourists of future generations. The next festival will be held on April 4-10, 2010. All the events are free, except for the annual hula competition. For ticket reservations, you need to send your request and payment to the Merrie Monarch Festival Office ( no sooner than December 26, 2009.

Eccentric Big Island

Despite being the center of the Big Island’s cultural scene, the Merrie Monarch Festival is but one aspect of the island’s unorthodox ways. Even today, you’ll find people showing great respect for ancient religious practices despite Christianity being the mainstream orientation on the island. Visit the Puukohola Heiau National Historic Site and the Puuhonoa o Honaunau National Historic Park, and you’ll feel just how much the people’s animistic roots are still manifested. Locals, especially the native Hawaiians, still believe that spiritual power, which they refer to as “mana,” is strong there. Puuhonoa o Honaunau used to be a refuge for those who have broken taboos (kapu), and those who manage to get inside the puuhonoa escape the death penalty. They may only return to society after an absolution ceremony performed in the puuhonoa’s sacred confines. The Big Island is home to Kamehameha the Great, who was born in North Kohala. Known as the ruler who united the Hawaiian islands into one kingdom, he had the Puukohola Heiau built as an offering to the war god Kukailimoku. He followed the advice of the kahuna (high priests) who told him that the god would then be in his aid in uniting the kingdom. Now, Puukohola Heiau stands as a reminder of the prophecy fulfilled.

The Big Island is an island of unconventional attractions. It is the only place in the entire Hawaiian state where you can find cowboys. The Parker Ranch, which was established in 1847, is one of the oldest ranches in the US, and it remains today as the symbol of friendship between Kamehameha the Great and John Parker, who was awarded the land after helping the ruler rid the island of wild bulls. The first cowboys who came to the island spoke only Spanish, although they were actually from California. For this reason, Hawaiian cowboys are called “paniolo,” which was derived from “Español” and accommodated the Hawaiian language’s lack of “s.” The paniolos are not the only ones that show a love for horses in Hawaii. If you get to see the Kamehameha Day and Aloha Festival parades, you’ll find women on horseback. They are called pau riders. The pau actually refers to the women’s long skirts, and the riders came to be called as such because the women refused to ride the horses side-saddled. Going against the missionaries’ advice, the wahine (women) simply adjusted their skirts and rode the horses the same way that men do. Today, the pau riders are present in every grand parade. You’ll know that the pau riders have arrived once you catch a glimpse of lei-draped horses and the colorful fabric of their riders’ skirts in a vibrant display of beauty, strength, and pride that defines the culture of the Big Island.