Issue 20.2: April/May 2017

Life of the Land

Hawaiian cultural advisers strive to educate visitors and keep the resort industry pono—on the right path
Story by Shannon Wianecki. Photos by Dana Edmunds.

In 1972, Hawai‘i Island’s Kohala coast was raw and unspoiled. To access the sparkling shoreline, Danny Akaka Jr. and his classmates bumped across the lava plain on dusty jeep roads, stopping periodically to ask for permission to pass through private gates. If the resident gatekeepers were feeling especially hospitable (or lonely), this could take days. No worries. No one was in a rush. Kaka's class—the first-ever Hawaiian studies cohort at the University of Hawai‘i—was there to soak up the mana (spiritual power) and record the mo‘olelo (stories) of the few Native Hawaiian families living at Kalāhuipua‘a.

On the shore of the ‘ili kūpono (royal land division) of Kalāhuipua‘a, Akaka would drink in the idyll: coconut palms bending over eight-hundred-year-old fish ponds filled with fat mullets and nearly tame eels. Petroglyphs and salt pans decorated the landscape. A crushed coral trail ran along the sea, past a few rustic cabins and King Kamehameha I’s old canoe landing. By day the students caught black crabs with coconut snares. At night they played music and danced hula under a sky full of stars. “It was pristine,” Akaka reminisces. “I felt like I was in Shangri-La, a dream place, and I never wanted that dream to end.”

Fast-forward forty-five years: The Kohala coast is now a travel destination dotted with high-end resorts. Akaka is still playing music and sharing stories at Kalāhuipua‘a—now in his role as the director of cultural affairs at the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel. This transformation begs the question: How do kānaka maoli (Native Hawaiians) navigate the tourist industry’s presence in sacred places?

Tourism can present a Faustian bargain to those who live in desirable locales, and Hawai‘i is no exception. And while hotels often include facets of Native Hawaiian culture—‘ukulele lessons, lomilomi treatments and poolside lei-making—rarely do indigenous values guide executive decisions. There are exceptions, though, and they are growing. As travelers increasingly seek out more authentic experiences, hotel CEOs see the value of incorporating the local culture in meaningful ways. At least a dozen resorts now employ Hawaiian cultural advisers, allowing these businesses to burnish their credibility with locals and offer guests a glimpse of the culture they’ve come to experience. But what’s in it for the Hawaiian practitioners? How do they negotiate the divide between the cultural high ground and the corporate bottom line?

Akaka is the embodiment of aloha: amiable, unhurried and generous nearly to a fault. He greets guests at the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel with unreserved joy and asks after return visitors’ families. His sunlit disposition is no surprise given his background: His father, Daniel Akaka Sr., was a beloved US senator, and his uncle the Reverend Abraham Akaka coined the phrase “Hawai‘i, the Aloha State.” His grandmother couldn’t let a farmworker pass by her home in Pauoa valley, O‘ahu, without calling out, “E kala mai, come in and eat.” Ho‘okipa, or Hawaiian-style hospitality, is in Danny Jr.’s bones.

With his Hawaiian studies degree in hand, young Akaka had no intention of working for a resort. He traveled the world playing music for Aloha Airlines, and when his job was cut in 1982, he found himself in line for construction work at a new resort in South Kohala. At first he didn’t recognize the enchanted site of his college days. The cottages were gone, replaced by the scaffolding of a three-hundred-room hotel. But the fishponds, petroglyphs and history-saturated coastline remained.

Their preservation was no accident. The Mauna Lani is unique; it might be the only Hawai‘i resort initiated by a Native Hawaiian. Francis ‘Ī‘ī Brown, a descendant of one of Kamehameha’s generals, purchased Kalāhuipua‘a in 1936. He was a bon vivant who served in the territorial government, traveled extensively and loved golf. While attending the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, he befriended Noboru Gotoh of the Tokyu Corporation. The men discussed developing a world-class golf resort together. Gotoh visited Kalāhuipua‘a and felt for himself the spiritual magnetism of the place. Brown sold the property to Gotoh with the understanding that its sacred sites would be respected.

“If it were my place, nothing would have changed,” says Akaka. “But if it was inevitable for change to happen to a very special place like this, at least it was done with a lot of care and sensitivity.” When the Mauna Lani opened, Akaka stayed on as a groundskeeper—and de facto tour guide. Guests with questions about the fishponds would invariably find the gregarious Hawaiian out trimming trees. He’d tell them to return at 3 p.m., when he punched out from work. Then he’d take them around the property, stoking their imaginations with tales of old Hawai‘i. “It was like two jobs,” says Akaka, “but I loved it.”

“I bless people or houses 
or businesses because I want them to be fresh, clean, to help them,” says Nettie Tiffany (seen here). Tiffany is the ancestral kahu (caretaker) of Lanikūhonua, once a favorite spot for Hawaiian royalty that today adjoins the Four Seasons Resort O‘ahu, where Tiffany is a cultural adviser and educator.

Brown’s nephew Kenneth Brown served as the Mauna Lani’s president. Expanding on his uncle’s vision, Brown became a pioneer of Hawaiian culture-driven tourism. He recognized that the hotel had gold on its hands with Akaka. The groundskeeper’s intimate knowledge of Kalāhuipua‘a, his fluency in the Hawaiian language and his enthusiasm for sharing his ‘ike (knowledge) sated the guests’ desire for authenticity. Brown promoted Akaka first to caretaker of the fishponds, then to resort historian—the first position of its kind at any Hawai‘i resort. Akaka’s contributions proved so essential that he was granted his own department and current title.

Akaka’s office in the lower lobby is a veritable museum, decorated with portraits of Hawaiian royals, koa rocking chairs and ‘ūli‘ūli (feathered gourd rattles used in hula). There’s a story behind each item, and once he gets started, hours can elapse in conversation. Several times a week he leads guests around the resort’s property, pointing out old fishermen’s shelter caves and the mākāhā (sluice gates) that funnel fresh water into the functioning fishponds. He relays stories about Kalāhuipua‘a’s original inhabitants, who settled here some eight hundred years ago. Reportedly, King Kamehameha’s fastest runner could reach Hilo—seventy miles away—with fish from Kalāhuipua‘a still wriggling.

At the pond called Waipuhi (literally, eel water), Akaka tells the story of a Hawaiian mother who left her infant beneath a tree while collecting shellfish. She returned to find her babe missing and a trail of slime leading into the pond. A kahuna (priest) told her that the child had transformed into a puhi, an eel. Thereafter she brought offerings of food to the pond. Some people believe that the mythical eel-baby still lives here. On three separate occasions, guests reported hearing an infant’s cries at this pool. They told Akaka that they’d looked for a baby, only to discover an eel that seemed to be making the noise. After they inquired whether such a thing were possible, he told them about the legend. “For them, that was a life-changing experience,” says Akaka. “For me, it was proof that you don’t have to be Hawaiian to experience the spiritual things of Hawai‘i.”

Sharing the Hawaiian culture with malihini (newcomers) is the paid part of Akaka’s job; the unpaid part includes defending the values and legacy of his ancestors. When things aren’t right, he says so—and his word carries weight. Not long ago he was asked to bless the groundbreaking of a housing development north of the Mauna Lani. He walked the fifty-four-acre parcel at dawn and proceeded with the blessing. Months later the developers invited him back to bless their sales office. On the drive there, Akaka was stunned to see a massive new hill, built to provide future homeowners with a better view. He addressed the crowd with somber humility.“When I first blessed this place, I didn’t know that you folks were going to build a mountain here,” he said. “This will affect the air currents, the ocean currents … it will affect many things. I don’t feel right being here, doing this. I will give a blessing, but it will be for all of you.” After hearing these words, the company president decided to reduce the hill by half. Sometimes committing to cultural authenticity carries stiff consequences.

Working with a resort might seem like a dilemma for many Native Hawaiians. “I have had people come to me and ask, ‘Why are you down here?’” says Thomas “Anu” Anuheali‘i (seen above), who partners with Four Seasons Resort O‘ahu. “I say, ‘Better me than somebody else!’ Integrity is required.”

“We’ve become the keepers of the flame,” Akaka says of the growing cadre of Hawaiian cultural advisers. “It’s our job to keep the stories and history of these sacred places alive. It’s an honor and a big kuleana—responsibility.”

Twenty-five years ago Clifford Nae‘ole had a conversation with himself on the way to apply for a job at the Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua. While cruising along the Lahaina pali (cliffs), he asked himself, “What’s going to be the lesson here? Am I sleeping with the enemy, or am I going to make a contribution?”

His decision to work for the West Maui resort felt weighty because of the context. During the hotel’s construction in 1987, excavators turned up an ancient burial ground with the remains of more than nine hundred Hawaiians. This sparked a passionate outcry from the indigenous community. Seeking to protect the iwi (bones) of their ancestors, kānaka maoli from across the state held vigils and protested. Ultimately the hotel owners agreed to relocate the resort farther up the hill, reinter the remains and preserve the burial site in perpetuity.

Nae‘ole hadn’t participated in the protests, but he was grappling with profound questions of cultural identity and kuleana.“I was just beginning my personal renaissance,” he says. After enrolling his firstborn in a Hawaiian-language immersion school, Nae‘ole realized how little he knew about his roots, which reach deep into chiefly lineages. He began dancing hula with a few other fathers from the school. “Hula opened the door to Hawaiian language, which opened the door to chant, which opened the door to spirituality. After that, everything just took off.”

But spirituality doesn’t pay the rent, so he took the job as switchboard operator at the Ritz. Occasionally he’d notice things around the resort that ran against Hawaiian values—the plan to build an imu (under-ground oven) too close to the burial ground, for example. He mentioned his concerns to John Toner, the general manager. “I just stuck my neck out a bit more and more each day,” Nae‘ole says. After a few years of this, Toner created a position for him as full-time cultural adviser.

Anu brings guests to Pālehua, a preserve in the Wai‘anae range (seen above). For him, there is no dilemma: “Is it a meaningful partnership? “Yes,” he says, “or I wouldn’t be here.”

To prepare for this new role, Nae‘ole consulted with Akaka. “He was not one who would scold or ridicule decisions that might be awry,” says Nae‘ole. “He’d smile and he would educate. By watching him I learned the trick of creating more allies.”

Over the past quarter of a century, Nae‘ole has created plenty of allies at the Ritz-Carlton. He’s a cultural powerhouse who presides each year over the Celebration of the Arts, a three-day festival that opens with a traditional Hawaiian ‘awa (kava) ceremony and ends with a dynamic lū‘au. Over Easter weekend the resort’s hallways teem with tattooed Hawaiians wearing malo (loincloths) and kīhei (capes). Renowned musicians, carvers, weavers and feather workers come from across the Pacific to demonstrate their skills. Kids practice throwing fishnets in the lobby while their parents are welcome to listen in on panel discussions on topics such as representations of Hawaiian culture in the media or native rights regarding the Islands’ freshwater resources.

Thanks to Nae‘ole’s encouragement, the Grammy Award-winning Masters of Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Series got its start at the Ritz, as did the Richard Ho‘opi‘i Falsetto Contest. Every Thursday night, a Polynesian navigator sets up her charts in the lobby and shares hōkū mo‘olelo (star stories), Hawaiian-style astronomy. On Friday nights Nae‘ole screens Then There Were None, a hard-hitting documentary about Hawaiian history.

For many guests at the Kapalua resort, the “E Ala Ē” sunrise ceremony is a transformative experience. In the predawn darkness, sleepy-headed participants stream down to D.T. Fleming beach and huddle on the damp sand. Nae‘ole gathers them into a circle, standing shoulder to shoulder. Speaking with soft authority, he prepares the group for hi‘uwai, a ceremonial cleansing. He encourages each person to forgive and ask for forgiveness from his or her ancestors. One by one they enter the surf with the intention of shedding whatever no longer serves them. With skin still wet and tingling from the plunge, they turn to face east. Nae‘ole leads a rousing chant to summon the sun: “E ala ē ka lā i ka hikina.” Awake. The sun is in the east.

Two questions govern Nae‘ole’s actions at the Ritz. First, he asks: Is this a hotel with a burial site under it, or is this a burial site with a hotel over it? For him the answer is obvious: His ancestors’ hallowed resting place takes precedence. Next he asks: What kind of ancestor will you be? This reminds him of his responsibility to his mo‘opuna (grandchildren) and their mo‘opuna. Every month, Nae‘ole asks this question at the hotel’s orientation for new employees. “I throw away all of the corporate notes,” he says. “I explain to every single person, I don’t care where you come from or what color you are, the common denominator is, you’re here. Therefore, you need to know how to represent my people.” He empowers his co-workers to act with integrity, identify with the indigenous culture and call him when they have questions. “It works well,” he says.

While Akaka has been fortunate to serve under a single, supportive company, Nae‘ole has weathered five different hotel owners during his tenure at the Ritz. Each time the resort changed ownership, Nae‘ole had to re-establish the stakeholders’ commitment to Hawaiian culture and practices. Because his kuleana extends beyond the resort to past and future generations, he’s been willing to put in the effort. Now Nae‘ole is finding himself in the role of mentor; he often fields calls from other Hawaiians considering stepping into advisory roles. “The good news,” he says, “is that many other hotels are hiring cultural advisers.” Prior to himself and Akaka, he says, “the job title was pool activities director, and you had no clout.” He urges colleagues to insist on executive status. “You need to have the ability to make decisions across the board, and your decisions have to have impact.”

Lanikūhonua on the leeward coast of O‘ahu has long been a refuge for Hawaiian royalty. Kamehameha I’s favorite wife, Queen Ka‘ahumanu, bathed in the protected coves here, as did Hawai‘i’s last monarch, Queen Lili‘uokalani. Auntie Nettie Tiffany, a 75-year-old Hawaiian matriarch, points to a large saltwater pool at Lanikūhonua that’s separated from the ocean by a lava rock shelf. “Aniani kū, the looking glass pond,” she says. “I bless babies down there.” She herself was blessed in these waters, when she became a woman at age 12. Her mother and other kūpuna (elders) led her out onto the rocks in the moonlight. Chanting in resonant voices, they anointed her with seawater. It was part of her initiation as a future kahu, a guardian of sacred wisdom.

Tiffany’s ties to this region date back to her great-great-great grandfather, a kahuna (priest) during Kamehameha I’s time. His bones are hidden up the coast at Mākaha. Tiffany’s mother served as a kahu and resident caretaker at Lanikūhonua. She was a close confidante of sugar magnate James Campbell’s daughter, Alice Kamokila Campbell, who took up residence here in the 1930s. Tiffany grew up watching the two women perform rituals on this shore and eventually inherited her mother’s job.

Caretaking Lanikūhonua became more complicated in the mid-1980s, when developers bought up the surrounding real estate. The sanctuary now sits within Ko Olina Resort, a 642-acre luxury community replete with hotels, restaurants, four man-made lagoons and a golf course. When asked about it, Tiffany shrugs. She’s resigned to the necessity of cooperating with the tourist industry. “In the modern world it gives our children jobs,” she says. “Without these jobs some of them would leave.”

Nae‘ole began work at the Ritz-Carlton in Kapalua as a switchboard operator. He began noticing things around the resort that ran against Hawaiian values and mentioned his concerns to general manager John Toner. After a few years Toner created a full-time position for him as cultural advisor.

These days Tiffany hosts hula and canoe festivals, concerts and weddings at the Lanikūhonua Cultural Institute, a ten-acre beachfront sanctuary. She safeguards the site’s cultural treasures, including a Tahitian marae (stone temple) and a large pōhaku (stone) associated with Hina, the Hawaiian moon goddess. Occasionally a rare native monk seal rolls onto shore here for a nap, and Tiffany speaks to it in Hawaiian. “When you walk through the gate here, you feel nanea, peaceful,” says Tiffany. “It’s my responsibility to keep it like that.”

When Ko Olina hotel managers approached her about serving as a cultural adviser, she says, “I told them to train the children of Hawai‘i so they can stay here, where they took their first breath.” The Four Seasons Resort O‘ahu at Ko Olina, Lanikūhonua’s newest neighbor, complied. Rather than hire a single cultural adviser, the resort forged partnerships with emerging Hawaiian experts in a variety of disciplines: a textile designer, big-wave surfer, surf photographer, freediver and forest ranger.

Of this group, Thomas Anuheali‘i has assumed the largest role at the Four Seasons. He was involved in the resort’s early development, well before it opened in June 2016, and has made a point of speaking to every single employee. “It’s been a joy,” he says. “I like to think that I serve as the cultural conscience.” He draws from a wealth of resources; he studied oli (Hawaiian chant) with revered kumu (teacher) John Lake and assisted archeologist Patrick Kirch with uncovering significant sites in the mountains above the hotel. Anuheali‘i is the resident caretaker for Pālehua, a 3,700-acre private preserve on the southeastern edge of the Wai‘anae mountains. He considers himself a modern day konohiki. In pre-contact Hawai‘i, konohiki were in charge of managing the natural resources within their ahupua‘a—the ancient land divisions that run from the summit to the sea.

Anuheali‘i likes to broaden people’s sense of place during staff trainings at the Four Seasons in part by sharing ahupua‘a-specific knowledge. “The security guards and the beach attendants should know about the tides and when the mullet are running,” he says. One of the quickest ways to get a sense of place at Ko Olina is to visit Pālehua. Anuheali‘i leads guided hikes through the upland forest for schoolchildren, local community groups and hotel guests. The guests pay fees that fund native forest restoration.

As director of cultural affairs for the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel, Danny Akaka Jr. welcomes questions—from both guests and hotel management— and shares his mana‘o (knowledge) about the area called Kalāhuipua‘a, where the ancient fishpond of Waipuhi is located (seen above).

Before setting out on a hike, Anuheali‘i chants in Hawaiian, following traditional protocol. He introduces visitors to “the stone schoolhouse,” a grassy area enclosed by ancient rock walls. He and Kirch determined that the corners point precisely north, south, east and west and that during the winter solstice the sun sets in line with the passage through the northwest wall. Inside the schoolhouse Anuheali‘i demonstrates how Polynesian navigators used island-shaped rocks to teach apprentices how to find their way around the Hawaiian archipelago. It’s a living history for him; his own grandmother came here by canoe, relocating from the small village of Miloli‘i on Hawai‘i Island in the 1930s.

The views from the 2,700-foot crest of Pālehua are arresting. On clear days the neighbor islands can be seen floating out on the horizon. Down below, the predominantly Hawaiian communities of Mākaha, Wai‘anae and Nānākuli fan out from the valleys. A little farther south the four identical lagoons of Ko Olina scallop the coastline. With effort one might be able to pick out the Four Seasons, which Anuhea li‘i jokingly refers to as “the castle.” Fifty percent of the resort’s staff comes from this stretch of coast, says general manager Sanjiv Hulugalle. That’s an impressive percentage, given the competition. Before the resort opened, fifteen thousand applicants from around the globe vied for the seven hundred available jobs. But, as Hulugalle says, “You get real heart from this coastline.”

That comes as no surprise to Anuheali‘i. After all, he says, “Hawaiians created hospitality.” HH