Story by Michael Shapiro
Photos by Monte Costa
The Lakota Sioux have a saying, Mitakuye oyasin. Roughly translated, it means “All my relations.” It’s a prayer honoring one’s relatives and ancestors, but not them only: It includes all people, whether or not they’re Lakota. It includes the living and the dead. It includes the animals and plants, the earth and sky, the stars and spirits. It means, basically, “We are one.”
So if the sight of buckskin, beads and buffalo hides against a tableau of coconut palms and volcanoes seems peculiar, if a white tipi in the tropical green of Wailoa River Park upsets our expectation of brown dust and sagebrush, that’s fine. The annual Memorial Day Hilo Inter-Tribal PowWow is full of contrasts and contradictions: Some of the dancers—often the most fervent and vibrantly dressed—have alabaster-white skin and blue eyes. The pounding of the drum and the wail of Lakota victory songs alternate with bombastic recordings of “America the Beautiful.” US military regiment standards wave alongside the flags of the Cherokee, Choctaw and Blackfeet nations; even Old Glory flies atop the tipi. Mitakuye oyasin indeed.
But that’s Hawai‘i, the Big Island in particular and Hilo especially: a place where everything is welcome, opposites attract and nothing is really out of place. And when it all comes together, there’s nothing quite like it, anywhere.
So it’s not surprising when Uncle Kimo, a Native Hawaiian, enters the powwow circle to consecrate it. With his clothes on, Uncle Kimo looks like a wizened old kupuna (elder) with a Menehune grin and a maverick eye. But in his loincloth, he’s Ali‘i Kimo Keli‘i Pihana, a tough, tattooed warrior descended from Kamehameha the Great. At the sounding of the conch, he leads a procession toward the ring where for the next three days, Indians from dozens of tribes will drum, sing, dance and celebrate their ancestry at the state’s largest gathering of the nations.
Raising a walking stick as gnarled and sturdy as his own arms, Pihana sends out an oli, a Hawaiian chant, reciting his lineage and asking permission to use the land. None of the Indians have a clue what he’s saying, but they bow their heads, trusting that the spirits and the land are being honored in the right way.
And they are. Pihana has been the official Hawaiian cultural practitioner for the Hilo powwow since it began five years ago. It’s a responsibility he takes seriously, because from his point of view, Hawaiians and Indians are close kin. “There’s an old Hawaiian thing, yeah? Extended ‘ohana?” He nods toward the circle where the morning’s first dancers, a blur of feathers, ribbons and tassels, are already lost in the pulse of the drum. “There they are.”