Issue 15.6: Dec. 2012 / Jan. 2013

Of King & Country

Story by Jocelyn Fujii

Photo by Ann Cecil  


Ever wonder why school’s out on March 26 in Hawai‘i? Or why we get to hit the beach every June 11 while our Mainland friends are dragging themselves to the office? Or why we in Hawai‘i barely notice Columbus Day while Mainlanders are hitting the sales at the mall? Hawai‘i’s always been a place slightly apart; America, yes, but not always American. No other state commemorates a king, a prince and the restoration of sovereignty after a British occupation. But Hawai‘i does, and with the full measure of pageantry: miles of lei draped on royal statues, outrigger canoe regattas, hula competitions and parades. Hawai‘i’s three unique holidays—Kamehameha Day, Kuhio Day and Restoration Day—reflect its Polynesian roots and monarchic history. In Hawai‘i they’re lavishly celebrated, while federal holidays such as Presidents’ Day and Columbus Day get barely a nod.



It was Kamehameha V, Lot Kapuaiwa, who by royal proclamation designated June 11 as Kamehameha Day to honor his grandfather, the king who united the Islands in 1810. Kapuaiwa chose the date, which is not his grandfather’s actual birth date, partly for the gentler weather: Kamehameha I’s late fall or winter birthday was in ‘ikuwa, the cold, stormy period of the Hawaiian seasonal calendar—not ideal for outdoor celebration. But there was another strategy behind the June 11 date, notes kumu hula and cultural practitioner Manu Boyd. Kapuaiwa was disconcerted by the growing popularity of the July 4 holiday among foreigners in the kingdom. A rousing June celebration, with horse riding and other outdoor sports, would honor Kamehameha I in advance of July 4. As Boyd points out, the holiday “is about his accomplishments and his life, not his birthday.”


The elaborate Kamehameha Day celebrations require a massive organizational effort throughout Hawai‘i. In last June’s ninety-sixth Kamehameha Day celebration in Honolulu, it took a fire engine and a posse of volunteers to drape almost fifty thirteen-foot-long lei on the outstretched arm of the Kamehameha statue across from ‘Iolani Palace, the starting point of the annual parade, in which the pa‘u riders —women on horseback wearing the traditional pa‘u skirt—are a main attraction. Neighbor Island celebrations are no less enthusiastic. The 2011 “Pa‘u Queen,” Hannah Kihalani Springer, prepped for a year for the Kamehameha Day parade in Kailua-Kona, on the island where Kamehameha was born. For Springer the holiday is about much more than celebrating a remote historical figure. “Kamehameha Day holds a special place in the lives of several people who rode with me and whose ancestors’ lives were intimately entwined with Kamehameha,” says Springer, herself a descendant of Kame‘eiamoku, the king’s uncle and one of the twins depicted on the coat of arms of the Nation of Hawai‘i.


The other ali‘i (royal) state holiday, Prince Kuhio Day, is no less an occasion, with parades, a school holiday, canoe regattas and concerts statewide. While Prince Jonah Kuhio Kalaniana‘ole lacks the name recognition of Kamehameha, he is considered a hero for his work on behalf of Native Hawaiians. Had Western interests not succeeded in overthrowing the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893, Kuhio would have succeeded Lili‘uokalani as Hawai‘i’s monarch. But that’s not the reason his birthday—March 26—was singled out for a state holiday, says Boyd.


“From 1904 until his death in 1922, he was a respected delegate to Congress and was influential in trying to regain some ground for Hawaiians that had been lost after the overthrow,” he says. Kuhio had joined the royalist uprising following the overthrow and was jailed for treason. He was, says Boyd, “in it all the way” for the benefit of the increasingly landless Hawaiians. As the territorial delegate to the US Congress, Kuhio wrote the first Hawai‘i Statehood Bill in 1919 and spearheaded passage of the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act two years later, which made two hundred thousand acres of land available for Native Hawaiian homesteads. Kuhio saw the program, which continues to this day, as critical to what the powers of the time called the “rehabilitation” of the Hawaiian people.


“Kuhio himself spent a year in prison in 1895 after the rebellion. I doubt that he wanted to live in Washington for twenty years,” muses Boyd. “He made sacrifices for Hawai‘i, and he brought a lot of fight back into the Hawaiian community.”


Boyd points out that even without the official designation, Hawaiians have always celebrated Kuhio’s birthday, as they do the birthdays of other ali‘i like Queen Lili‘uokalani. “Their birthdays are still their birthdays,” he notes. “Whether or not they are designated as state holidays, Hawaiians still commemorate them.” Some communities celebrate Kuhio Day in staggered events over a month—with festivals, parades, lu‘au, Hawaiian games, poi-pounding, food tastings and of course hula and Hawaiian music. On Kaua‘i, Kuhio’s birthplace, the celebration continues for weeks and includes spearfishing competitions and a rodeo.



In contrast to the state’s ali‘i holidays, federal observances such as Presidents’ Day and Columbus Day are lukewarm if not nonexistent. On Presidents’ Day you’re more likely to find commemorative retail sales than hula performances. It’s a little different with Discoverers’ Day, Hawai‘i’s answer to Columbus Day. Captain Cook notwithstanding, the idea that Westerners “discovered” the Hawaiian Islands seems fairly Eurocentric to many local people. Rather than honor Christopher Columbus, in 1971 the Hawai‘i Legislature decided to re-designate the first Monday in October as Discoverers’ Day, paying tribute instead to the Polynesian voyagers who first came upon the islands of Hawai‘i some 1,500 years ago. Discoverers’ Day is Hawai‘i’s version of what many Mainland cities have designated “Native American Day” and “Indigenous People’s Day.” On Discoverers’ Day federal offices and some banks are closed, but state, city and county offices remain open.


“I’ll tell you one holiday that was scratched off the books, probably right after the overthrow but certainly by the time the republic was set up in 1894,” says Manu Boyd. “It’s La Ho‘iho‘i ‘Ea.” He calls it the “other” July holiday, the day that sovereignty was restored to the Hawaiian nation after an unauthorized takeover and five-month occupation led by a rogue British naval officer in 1843. To resolve a dispute over land, Captain Lord George Paulet threatened to attack Honolulu, and in the process claimed Hawai‘i for Britain. The Crown responded by sending Rear Admiral Richard Darton Thomas, who restored power to Kamehameha III on July 31, 1843. A phrase from Kamehameha III’s speech that day eventually become the state motto of Hawai‘i: “Ua mau ke ‘ea o ka ‘aina i ka pono,” usually translated as “The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness.”


Before it was banned, Restoration Day was lavishly celebrated. On its fourth anniversary Kamehameha III hosted a legendary lu‘au for twelve thousand guests, which so far as anyone knows is the largest in Hawai‘i history. Thrum’s Hawaiian Annual of 1930 recounted the numbers: four thousand horses, one thousand horsewomen and 2,500 horsemen were among those who gathered at Kaniakapupu, Kamehameha III’s summer home in Nu‘uanu. The preparations claimed 271 pigs, 602 chickens, more than a thousand salt fish, four thousand taro corms and staggering quantities of other foods, with hula and chanting in abundance. After 1893 the holiday faded from cultural memory, and Restoration Day went mostly unremarked until Hawaiian independence activist Kekuni Blaisdell resurrected La Ho‘iho‘i ‘Ea in 1985, in the wake of the Hawaiian Renaissance that began in the mid-1970s. Today observers commemorate Hawaiian independence with Hawaiian games, crafts, speeches, entertainment and food booths each July 31 in Honolulu’s Thomas Square, named for the admiral who returned power to Kamehameha III.


To some the celebratory aspects of La Ho‘iho‘i ‘Ea evoke thoughts of Makahiki, the four-month season in ancient Hawai‘i when work and warfare ceased and people devoted their days to games, sports, hula and leisure. Makahiki was observed in honor of the fertility god Lono. When the star cluster of the Pleiades appeared in the October evening sky, it was thought that Lono had arrived with gifts for the Hawaiian people. Makahiki was also a time when the people offered tribute of pigs, kapa (bark cloth), feathers and other precious ho‘okupu (offerings) to their ali‘i. But Makahiki wasn’t, as Boyd points out, “just about fun and games.” Rules and taboos were strictly observed, and athletic prowess determined the warriors of the future under the watchful eyes of the ali‘i.


While the Makahiki season is too lengthy to be generally observed today, its significance, like that of Kamehameha Day and Kuhio Day, is not lost on Hawai‘i’s cultural practitioners. And just as those holidays honor the native culture of the Islands, the many celebrations on Hawai‘i’s calendar reflect its uniquely multicultural society. There’s Samoan Flag Day, commemorating the day Samoa became a US territory, and Japanese Obon season, a summer-long festival honoring departed ancestors, and Girls’ Day, the third day of the third month, and Boys’ Day, the fifth day of the fifth month. There’s Tet and Chinese New Year and many more.