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Vol. 15, no. 2
April/May 2012


Going Native at the Ritz 

Story by Paul Wood

Photo by Dana Edmunds


Cliff’s kuleana: Every spring Clifford Nae‘ole oversees Celebration of the Arts at the Ritz-Carlton Kapalua; this year the esteemed fest, dedicated to celebrating Native Hawaiian culture, turns twenty.

In the late 1980s
the new Ritz-Carlton Kapalua broke ground. When heavy equipment began turning up thousands of bones, the news triggered a crisis of conscience throughout the Islands: Should a resort hotel be allowed to desecrate a vast ancient burial site? Construction halted. Bones were ceremonially reinterred. Today the beautiful hotel sits well back from the beach, and the rolling lawn between the building and the sea serves as a silent reminder of the küpuna (elders).


Right from the start the Ritz-Carlton Kapalua defined itself as fatefully engaged with its place and its community. So in 1992 it launched the yearly Celebration of the Arts, open to the public, no charge. The three-day festival climaxes on Easter; the reference to resurrection is no accident.


Celebration gives all who attend one of the world’s best crash courses on the state of true Hawai‘i, from Friday’s pre-dawn hi‘uwai (which involves cleansing the self by plunging into the ocean) to Saturday night’s blowout lü‘au and afterhours kani ka pila, or jam sessions. Hands-on stations let guests make pä‘ü drums from coconut trees, tools from pöhaku (stones) and lei pipipi from Ni‘ihau shells. The kumu (teachers) at Celebration are the real deal— even the ladies from Ni‘ihau come over for the event. Panels and lectures are unafraid to push hot buttons, and hotel guests sometimes find themselves sitting next to native residents who are less comfortable with Hawai‘i’s resort environment than they. Kids can play at a Hawaiian-culture-based learning center.


Musician Henry Kapono played a major role in conceiving the celebration, which immediately adopted a kuleana, or responsibility, for the vitality of Native Hawaiian culture. It also offers a chance to learn from many of Maui’s most lauded visual artists (watercolor and printmaking, anyone?) as well as a sumptuous Easter brunch. (The lü‘au and brunch, by the way, are not free.)


Clifford Nae‘ole, the hotel’s cultural advisor and the event’s driving force, started as the hotel’s PBX (phone system) technician, but his personal awakening to the culture of his küpuna is now inseparable from the agenda of the celebration. “We are,” he says, “creating common ground between the host and the hosted so we can sit down and learn about each other.”