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Aloha Festivals

In the fall, Hawaiians await the return of Lono, their ancient god of fertility. Aloha Festivals is a time to celebrate folk rituals, for all to share in a rich, abiding culture.

Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park, Kona, image
Photo caption
Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park was a place of refuge. No harm could come to those who reached its boundaries.

I chose the Big Island because many consider it the most Hawaiian of the islands. The first Polynesians, reading only the stars, wind, and sea, landed on Big Island in outrigger canoes. Ancient Hawaiians left a host of petroglyphs here. The island claims the Place of Refuge, where you can see ancient fish ponds, tiki, heiaus—sacred temples—and the Great Wall dating back to the 1500s. On a hill above the Pacific sits Puukohola Heiau, the last major religious structure of ancient Hawaiian culture built on the islands.

The drive was only 20 minutes inland from the Big Island’s ritzy Kohala Coast, but it went beyond the captive caress of sand and sea, the pleasant artifice of big resorts, and the black aprons of lava to the highlands of pastoral Waimea.

It was fall, the season of makahiki, the ancient Hawaiian time dedicated to Lono, the god of fertility. Let there be music, dance, and feasting, but no war, was the ancient decree. Amid 225,000 acres of Parker ranchland, mist-lapped foothills in the shadow of near-14,000 foot snow-capped Mauna Kea, Lono would have his way.

In Waimea, in front of Cook’s Discoveries Cafe/Museum, the air hummed with steel guitar, ukulele, and fluid singing. Parents pushed strollers, and many locals lined the street for the Paniolo Parade, a signature event in the annual statewide Aloha Festivals.

Curious what to expect from a parade called Paniolo, I snooped behind scenes where floats scalloped with ti leaves were being readied. Garlanded with ginger, plumeria, orchids, and many fragrant flowers, these giant bouquets-on-wheels were loaded with antsy keiki, kids, draped in tawny cotton gowns. Men in native warrior garb stood guard with spears.

A hierarchy of old Hawaiian royalty awaited the pageantry, including elderly aunties dressed in black with orange leis, the Daughters of Kaahumanu—a royal order dating back to the 1800s.

The primal moan of a conch shell sent a hush through the crowd, so I retreated to the sidelines. Barefoot and caped, the conch blower approached, followed by bearers of the kahili—yellow feathered cylinders. Then came the eagerly awaited Royal Court, the native Hawaiian king and queen, elected in spring on the various islands to reign for one year.

Once upon a time, the red and gold cloth draping the king and queen was feathers plucked life-sparingly by hunters from a rare, flightless bird. I looked for the fabled symbols of rank, the mahiole—helmet— and the lei niho palaoa—whale bone necklace.

The drama peaked and the crowd let out its breath only to gasp again as the crown princess from each Hawaiian isle pranced in on horseback. Cheers and applause from us latter-day commoners welcomed each princess. She in turn extended her arm in magnanimous greeting.

With mother-of-pearl smiles the princesses were out of fairy tales, their thick, black tresses braided and woven with fresh flowers. Each was dressed in deep folds of rich green, purple, rose, blue, or orange satin gowns.

As I stood there, watching rural America meet indigenous culture, I had to remind myself this street was on an island in the middle of the Pacific.

Behind the royalty came wave after wave of down-home marchers—Boyscouts, clowns, bands, cyclists, car clubs, low riders, D.A.R.E.—right out of the small towns where many of us grew up, when Hawaii was still a U.S. territory.

After the parade, I moved with the masses over to Waimea Park for native food, crafts, and the Hula Contest. I sampled poi sweets, the Hawaiian counterpart to the mainland’s carnival confections. I sat with crowds on the grass watching the dancers’ waving arms and hips. As mesmerizing as the palm and sea fronds they mimicked, they told tales from all over the Pacific—Samoa, New Zealand (Maori), Tahiti, New Guinea, as well as Hawaii.

Parades and hula are just two of the hallmarks of Aloha Festivals taking place every September and October. Encompassing over 300 events on six islands, the statewide event began small in 1946. It was then a week-long celebration of Hawaiian music, dance, and history, held only on Oahu. Today Pacific, Asian, and Western influences are all celebrated, from the traditional hula to the Japanese bon, a circle dance to ancestors. African-Americans and native American Indians will all have venues in the festival.

For the native Hawaiian, Aloha Festival is a time to celebrate the culture that now seems prematurely squelched for the sake of Western ways. For the tourist stunned by the high price of vacationing on Hawaii, the Aloha Festivals are a keyhole peek into those old folkways, as well as a refreshing bargain—most events are free or nominally priced. Poi-pounding, frond-weaving, and lei-making demos can be found.

If you’re a fan of Hawaii’s raw marinated fish, find a poke (POH-kay) contest. For the price of an Aloha Festival Ribbon, $5, you can sample the finest Pacific Rim ingredients paired with delicious seafood.

I attended the granddaddy of them all, the Sam Choy Poke Contest at Big Island’s Hapuna Prince Hotel (named for the famous restaurateur, Sam Choy). Offering a four-digit cash award, the contest drew over 1,000 entries. Cooks, both amateur and professional, seemed to offer as many ways to prepare poke, deftly infusing the essence of sesame, rice vinegar, fish sauce, ginger, garlic, lemon grass.

Some poke—like the slippery Samoan-style snails—requires a venturesome palate. But most of the seafood on a long buffet was crowd-pleasing fresh ahi tuna, ono and other Hawaiian fish, scallops, and shrimp, abundant and artful enough to satisfy gourmets and gourmands.

Luau, Las Vegas-style

Previously, I’d avoided luaus as typical tourist stuff. But Punahele Andrade, social director at the Royal Waikoloa, helped change my mind. (An exception to Aloha Festivals’ free events, luaus cost in the range of $30 or more.)

Part-Hawaiian, Punahele told of protesting in ’81 against building the resort that became his employer. Before the feast, he led a tour to the Hawaiian fish ponds, pointed to ancestral mullet and milk fish, and discoursed on the Hawaiians’ advanced aquaculture for feeding their people. He discussed nearby petroglyphs that date from 800 to 1868, and told how the 100-year-old koa canoe in the hotel’s lobby was recently used for an old-time burial at sea.

Despite a few lapses, the Royal Waikoloa did a good job of evoking Polynesian culture. The lapses were easy to forgive, given the charismatic, Ricky Nelson-esque M.C, Hoku, whose smile shamed the moon. The variety show-style dancing featured plenty of drums, fire, bamboo clacking, authentic reedy costumes and pan-Pacific choreography.

When the luau pig was hoisted from the imu, the underground oven lined with hot stones, the feast began. The buffet table also featured luau turkey for non-pork eaters, the much-maligned violet-grey taro mash called poi, lomi lomi, and a pedestrian array of pasta and vegetable salads, no doubt meant to placate timid mainland palates. I preferred the exotic, such as laulaus—luau and ti leaves filled with chicken, pork, and salted butterfish, pleasantly redolent of the earth in which they were baked.

The Big Island also hosts the Clyde Kindy Sproat Falsetto and Storytelling Contest, October 4. Sproat, whom the Smithsonian has declared a living legend, charms your ears with his voice pushed to high registers. All contestants warble their way through personal stories, the medium of choice in a place that had no written word.

Neighbor Islands

This year, Big Island’s Paniolo Parade in Waimea is September 20; Sam Choy Poke Contest at Hapuna Prince Resort is September 21.

If you’re headed to islands other than the Big Island, you can find a variety of popular Aloha events, many well-attended by locals. Here are selective highlights.

If Oahu is your destination, don’t miss opening ceremonies in Honolulu. Governor Cayetano opens the statewide festival in downtown Honolulu the evening of September 12 at the historic Iolani Palace, the only palace of a reigning monarch in the US.

The Victorian palace was completed in 1882 by renowned "Merrie Monarch," King David Kalakaua. After the US annexed Hawaii, it served as prison to Queen Liliukalani in 1895 (she had been deposed by foreign businessmen backed by US Marines in 1893).

Iolani is an easy bus ride from the hotels of Waikiki. After the Royal Court makes its ceremonious appearance, traditional hula and chants are performed. Then everyone heads over to Bishop Street for the downtown Hoolaulea, a huge block party. Nine stages rock with musicians, from paniolo and military bands to slack key guitars and ukuleles. Dancing fills the streets, which are lined with booths peddling inexpensive leis and traditional foods.

Next day the Floral Parade with lavish, flowered floats rolls down Ala Moana Boulevard. A week later, on September 19, another Hoolaulea takes place on Kalakaua Avenue, Waikiki’s main street.

On Maui, October 12, the isle’s best parade and floats roll through quaint little Hana on the quiet east side of the island. But you’ll also find a Hoolaulea in the old whaling town of Lahaina, where tourists and locals gather under the largest known banyan tree for food, music, dance, arts, crafts. Back in Hana on October 18, Hawaiian cowpokes perform in the Roping Club Invitation Rodeo. Maui also has a fishing tournament (October 13), luau (October 18).

Lush Kauai, the Garden Isle, has its poke contest (August 16), native peoples’ powwow (October 11-12), hoolaulea (October 10), hula competition (October 18), and the Paani, Hawaiian Sports Challenge (October 25).

Molokai, which is easily reached on a day-boat trip from Maui, boasts the side-splitting laughter of its Mule Run, October 4. The contestants run alongside their mules, who make grand displays of their famed stubbornness, running in the wrong directions. The island’s lantern parade is filled with illuminated floats on October 9.

Small Lanai galvanizes its residents for hoolaa, investiture of its Royal Court, on October 17. Lanai’s parade and hoolaulea are October 18, Aloha Street Dance, October 24.

How Hawaiians Became Cowboys

Long before the West was won, Hawaiian cowboys got their start, pre-dating their American counterparts by a few decades.

This unlikely turn of events began in 1792, when King Kamehameha the Great received from Captain George Vancouver gifts of beef cattle and goats and sheep of breeding stock. Gift horses soon followed. The king had the strange beasts protected under kapu laws, but by the 1830s they were quite a nuisance, trampling taro fields and farms.

Kamehameha III called in a few Spanish vaqueros from California, where Mexican missions had been proliferating. He asked them to get the unruly cattle under control. Soon enough Hawaiians were riding, roping, lassoing, and crafting rawhide saddles and pommels. The word Paniolo evolved from the word for Spanish, Español.

Photography courtesy of Carol Highsmith/ Library of Congress

This article was first published in July 1997. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.