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FestPAC kicks off with wa‘a ceremony

HONOLULU — A few thousand people showed up Wednesday morning at Kualoa Regional Park to attend the wa‘a ceremony, kicking off the start of the 13th Festival of Pacific Arts and Culture, which officially begins today.

State Sen. Jarrett Keohokalole, one of the nine FestPAC commissioners, represented Hawai‘i at the wa‘a ceremony by arriving on the Hokule‘a voyaging canoe.

Keohokalole expressed that Hawai‘i hosting FestPAC is a “tremendous honor.”

“We’ve been eagerly awaiting everyone’s arrival; it’s been eight years in the making,” he said. “There’s been a lot of anticipation and excitement.”

“According to the moolelo (traditional stories), when you pass through Koolaupoko (the southeastern district of the windward coast of O‘ahu, from Kualoa in the north to Waimanalo in the south), you go to Mokapu or Moku kapu — sacred island — and present hookupu (a gift in exchange for spiritual energy) to elders at Puu Hawai‘iloa (a cinder cone on the Mokapu Peninsula).”

The wa‘a were staged Tuesday night at Mokapu before being rowed out to Kualoa for the ceremony.

“There’s a lot of protocol attached because we are welcoming our families from around the Pacific,” Keohokalole said. “We’re happy that it’s going well.”

Due to the shallow waters near the shore, the double-­hulled voyaging canoe Hokule‘a could not pull up directly to the shore. Instead, Keohokalole was transferred to a smaller escort canoe, which rowed him safely to land.

The Hokule‘a was first launched on March 8, 1975, at the same spot where Keohokalole arrived for the wa‘a ceremony Wednesday. It was built with the aim of reviving Hawai‘i’s rich history and legacy of exploration and courage that brought the first Polynesians to the archipelago.

Since the Hokule‘a’s inaugural voyage to Tahiti in 1976, it has sailed over 140,000 nautical miles across the Pacific, symbolizing a noteworthy journey of cultural rediscovery and connection.

Billy Richards, a member of the original crew that sailed to Tahiti, attended FestPAC and witnessed the representation of Hawai‘i by the Hokule‘a.

“Hokule‘a did our first FestPAC in 1992 when it was held in Rarotonga, and we had asked why we weren’t invited to the FestPACs before because it started in 1971,” Richards said. “It was because, they said, ‘You’re not Hawai‘ians, you’re Americans.’”

According to Richards, before the Rarotonga trip, Nainoa Thompson — Pwo Navigator and CEO of Polynesian Voyaging Society — had talked with Cook Islanders about navigation. The Hokule‘a then traveled to the Cook Islands to collaborate on building canoes, and together they sailed to Rarotonga for FestPAC.

“Since that time, canoes had been a big part of this festival,” Richards said.

This year, the only two voyaging canoes that sailed from afar were the Fa’afaite from Tahiti and the Marumaru Atua from the Cook Islands.

“The wa‘a ceremony is the spiritual beginning of FestPAC. There’s so much love and connection in the air,” Gov. Josh Green said. “It’s probably a once-in-­a-generation opportunity — it’s an honor of a lifetime.”

Delegates from 25 different Pacific islands and territories came together, dressed in their uniforms or cultural costumes, to showcase their cultures and traditions. “Ho‘oulu Lahui: Regenerating Oceania,” is the theme of the event, which runs through June 16.

Rapa Nui male delegates arrived wearing feather headdresses, decorated garments around their waists, showcasing tribal tattoos and body painting, and ornament necklaces around their necks. Tahitian male delegates arrived with only black cloth tied around their waists, while the female delegates wore cropped matching red FestPAC shirts and low-waisted black cloth skirts.

Hotu Iti Araki, a first-time FestPAC participant and first-time visitor to Hawai‘i as a Rapa Nui delegate, arrived Tuesday night after a journey from Rapa Nui to Hawai‘i that took about 50 hours.

“We are extremely excited,” Araki said. “We hope to do it with mana, share the mana so we can connect to our roots and our friends and our brothers and sisters across Polynesia and remember our tupuna (ancestors).”

Raumata Teuanui, a 22-year-old Pacific youth leader, was part of a group made up of over 100 people from all five archipelagos of French Polynesia.

“There’s a lot of good energy here this morning, there’s a lot of good mana,” Teuanui said.

Teuanui said that the French Polynesia delegates prepared Ori Tahiti — which is a traditional Tahitian dance — and Himene tarava and Himene ruau — traditional singing — specifically for the wa‘a ceremony, along with arts and crafts exhibitions throughout the festival.

While waiting for delegate representatives to arrive on shore with their respective wa‘a, the Cook Islanders began singing and drumming by the shore.

Led by partners Mark Short and Jane Rubena, the Cook Islands National Arts Theatre group — which led the Cook Islands’ performance — consists of 46 dancers, singers and drummers who came to Hawai‘i to showcase their culture.

“I’m so privileged to lead this group,” said Rubena, a CINAT choreographer. “I have two daughters, 17 and 15, and an 11-year-old son who are performing as a part of this group.”

Rubena said that coming to Hawai‘i with her family is both “very emotional and exciting.”

CINAT was founded in 1972 for the inaugural FestPAC and was specifically established to participate in the festival.

As a CINAT leader, she said the group had practiced for six months, holding two sessions a week, in preparation for this year’s FestPAC. She expressed pride and honor in the opportunity for the group to showcase all their hard work, talent and cultural heritage.

While most delegates came to showcase their culture, Taiwan delegates are attending FestPAC primarily to observe and learn.

Taiwan delegates, comprising professors and students specializing in Austronesian Studies at National Taitung University, attended FestPAC as a field trip to deepen their understanding of the diverse cultures and traditions across the Pacific.

Yayoi Mitsuda, an assistant professor at National Taitung University, emphasized Taiwan’s significance in Austronesian society, which is why her students are attending FestPAC as a school trip to conduct on-site research.

One of Mitsuda’s graduate students, Ihsin Chen, said that although they are not performing like other delegates, they will be learning through immersing themselves in the experience.

“We observe both similarities and differences between Taiwan and the rest of the Pacific, which is fascinating,” Chen explained.

She expressed particular excitement about delving into topics such as star navigation, canoe construction, gender roles within tribes and local attitudes toward cultural preservation.

Lily Wen, a 61-year-old Taiwanese Indigenous doctoral student, expressed excitement about learning more about other Pacific and Indigenous tribes at FestPAC.

“It gives me a strong sense of recognition to elevate my own culture,” Wen said. “It also gives people the chance to culturally understand themselves and their identities better.”

Only 2% of Taiwan’s population identifies as Indigenous.

Wen is a member of the Rukai tribe, which is one of the 16 federally recognized Indigenous tribes in Taiwan, each with its unique traditions and language.

According to Wen, there are approximately 200,000 Indigenous people in Taiwan, and the Rukai tribe specifically has a population of only 1,200.

She hopes that through celebrations like FestPAC, younger generations, including her three grandchildren, will come to appreciate their cultural heritage more and actively work toward revitalizing it rather than abandoning it.

This year, Taiwan has a total of 68 delegates.

In 2008, Taiwan sent a delegation of 80 performers and artists to FestPAC for the first time, the majority being Taiwanese Indigenous people.

Horomana Horo from Aotearoa (New Zealand) attended his first FestPAC in 2008, which was the 10th FestPAC hosted by Pago Pago, American Samoa.

He also participated in the 12th FestPAC held at Hagatna, Guam, in 2016. This year marks his third attendance.

Horo said he’s seen a lot of familiar faces at the wa‘a ceremony.

“It’s nice to catch up with ohana from all the different islands and also create new connections with new people,” Horo said.

Previously, Horo noted that many delegates who were not fluent in English would bring translators with them.

However, when some delegates including Cook Islands, Tahiti, Rapa Nui and Hawai‘i heard the Aotearoa delegates speaking Maori, they felt more comfortable and connected.

“We would take out a few words, dialectical differences, and we were still able to communicate,” Horo said.

Horo’s wife, Regan Balzer, called FestPAC a celebration “to continue connecting the networks and build meaningful relationships across the Pacific.”

Ngira Sinmonds, chief of staff to the Maori King, said that the “royal family is pleased to be here and celebrate everything about our identity.”

While the king and queen of Aotearoa (New Zealand) did not attend the wa‘a ceremony, Princess Te Puhi Ariki Ngawai Hono i te Po represented the royal family by attending and welcoming the representatives who arrived on canoe.

Aotearoa delegates arriving on canoe exchanged haka — traditional Maori performance — upon arrival.

“This is our Olympics, except we don’t come here to compete against our brothers and sisters of the Pacific,” Sinmonds said.

Sinmonds also said that as Indigenous people who suffered colonization, Aotearoa had to put a lot of effort into cultural practices for survival and revitalization of culture.

“In the last 10 to 20 years, we’ve had a lot of effort into language and cultural revitalization,” he said. “Only in the past two to three years have statistics shown that te reo Maori (the Maori language) is increasing again.”

The Aotearoa royal family will partner with local Kanaka Maoli in a dawn ceremony Tuesday, a tradition observed by both Aotearoa and Hawai‘i, to honor stars and navigation.
Source: The Garden Island

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