Hokulani Holt

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Lessons on Leadership

 

This special edition revisits conversations with Hawaii’s business and community leaders as they share their thoughts on leadership. Featured are: Maenette Ah Nee-Benham, the late Skippa Diaz, Glenn Furuya, Hokulani Holt, the late Daniel Inouye, Thomas Kaulukukui and Colbert Matsumoto.

 

This program will be rebroadcast on Wednesday, Jan. 27 at 11:00 pm and Sunday, Jan. 31 at 4:00 pm.

 

Lessons on Leadership Audio

 

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I had my responsibilities as the platoon leader. And we had this code in the regiment; Don’t expect your men to go up if you’re not willing to go up. In the so-called book, the training book, it’s never led by the officer. Patrols go out. Scouts out, or something like that. The leader stays in the back. But in our code, as the boys would say, You go first, buddy.

 

Don’t ask anyone to do something—

 

Yeah.

 

—you’re not willing to do yourself.

 

 

The late Senator Daniel K. Inouye learned the intricacies and demands of leadership on the battlefields of World War II. He took these lessons with him into the world of government and politics, where he became one of the most powerful and influential leaders not only of our state, but of our nation. In this edition of Long Story Short, we will look back at some of our previous Long Story Short guests and their lessons on leadership, including how the nuances of local culture helped to shape their … leadership styles. Lessons on Leadership next, on Long Story Short.

 

Aloha mai kakou, I’m Leslie Wilcox. Master navigator Nainoa Thompson defines leadership as “stepping up….knowing … the right thing to do,,, and making it happen regardless of the consequences.” Doing the right thing can sometimes require an extraordinary amount of conviction, courage, and the ability to inspire others. In this special edition of Long Story Short, we revisit some of the stories and challenges shared by Hawaii … leaders. We begin with Thomas Kaulukukui, Jr., Chairman of the Board and Managing Trustee of the Queen Liliuokalani Trust, who, like Senator Inouye, picked up many of his first lessons in leadership on the battlefield.

 

I went into the Army in 1968.

 

You went to Vietnam?

 

I went to Vietnam for a year, 1969, ’70.

 

What’d you do in Vietnam?

 

I was a platoon sergeant in the paratroopers. Uh, did well in training, because I had the Kamehameha School ROTC background. And I ended up leading a platoon of men in … uh, basically jungle fighters.  Young men, at the time, uh, um, they’re like a pack of wolves. And they will do whatever the pack wants to do, unless there is an alpha wolf that keeps them on track. And um, if you’re not that person, they will get rid of you and get somebody else. So, you know, you really have to learn to step up.

 

Was there any particular event or moment when this all came clear to you, when you had any epiphanies over there?

 

Well, it was clear to me from the beginning. It’s uh, it’s—you know, when you’re with a group like that, it’s really clear. Uh, I’d never been in a fight in my life. I was in three fights in the first month I was there, because the men decided to test me. You have to realize, this is Vietnam War—

 

And you—

 

–and look at the way I look.

 

Uh-huh.

 

You know, I’m not a six-foot uh, uh, fair-skinned, round-eyed person. Uh, I was brought in to lead them, and I was obviously Asian. So I looked more like the enemy, than I did look like them. So it was an interesting experience, because um, I was in three fights with my own men, um, shortly after I got there, because they wanted to test whether or not I was tough enough to lead them.

 

And part of it was your culture?

 

Part of it was what I looked like. Uh, part of it was there was another leader there who they wanted, who had been there a month longer than I was, and they weren’t sure about me. So …

 

So you saw no—you had no—you had to fight. There was no—

 

Gotta fight.

 

–other way to do it?

 

Yeah. Fortunately, I was a black belt in taekwondo by then.

 

Before I got there, so without having to really hurt anybody, I guess they kinda … got some religion and said, Well, I guess he can beat up everybody else, so he’s all right.

 

We were someplace where uh, another unit got in trouble, and they called us and said, You need to go help them. Uh, there’s a battle going on, you need to go help them. And you need to get from Point A to Point B, right now. The trouble was, to go from Point A to Point B, you had to go between two hills. General rule, bad idea to go between two hills, because if the enemy is up on both hills, they’re gonna ambush you, and you’re gonna—you’re never gonna get there, you’re gonna be dead. So I called my squad leaders together. I ran a platoon of about thirty-five men. And I said, We have to go from Point A to Point B. They looked at the map, they said, We can’t go through there. I said, We don’t have a choice, because if we don’t go through there, by the time we take an alternative ro—route, our … people will be dead. So I gave an order. All the people kinda sat around, and they looked at me when they figured out where we were going. And they said, We’re not going. Now, think about the magnitude of that problem. Battle commander, give an order, people won’t go. Okay. Squad leaders, gave an order, they wouldn’t go. I tried to exhort them to move, they wouldn’t move, because … you know, the consequences were deadly. Uh, so finally, at that point, I got my radio telephone operator, made him saddle up, put on his backpack. I put my mine on. I said to everybody else, If you’re afraid, I’ll go save them myself; will fight this battle by myself. But you better hope I get killed, because if I’m not, I’m gonna come back and fix this. Off I went. Took the longest, slowest, smallest ten steps of my life down the trail waiting for—to hear if anybody else got up. And—and—and fortunately, I started hearing people getting up. They got up, and … they followed me, and off we went, and we—we made—we made it all right. Difficult experience, um … I’m not sure what would have happened if they didn’t follow. But one of the things I learned from that is, you gotta lead in front; can’t just tell people to go, especially if it’s difficult. You gotta be willing to pick up your rifle, put on your pack, and lead in front.

 

And be willing to go it alone.

 

And be willing to go it alone, if you have to.

 

So do you have a, you know, 25-word nutshell definition of leadership?

 

I have a … three-word definition, a three, word definition of leadership. My definition is that leadership is influence; nothing more and nothing less. If you have influence, and can influence, people and their thoughts, and emotions, and, actions, then you have leadership ability. That says nothing about your morality, because Hitler had leadership ability. But in—in a very … condensed, sense, I think leadership is influence. And—and learning to, influence in a positive way people’s thoughts, and emotions, and actions, were what—are the core of leadership, I think.

 

A wartime battlefield can shape leaders. So can growing up in a rural environment, where shared values help to create community well-being…. Colbert Matsumoto, born and raised on the Island of Lanai, is the Chairman of Island Insurance Companies. He also is a community leader in Honolulu, serving on … nonprofit boards in addition to corporate boards. Glenn Furuya, President and Chairman of Leadership Works, a leadership-training company he started more than 30 years ago, grew up in Hilo, on Hawaii Island. At the heart of the leadership style of each of these men is their understanding of local culture, and how being an effective leader in Hawaii can be very different from anywhere else.

 

Being local is not about where you were born. You know, it’s really about the kind of values, you embrace and the kind of philosophy that you use to guide your life, and the decisions you make in your life. So, there are many local people that you know, who were born and raised here that, you know, I don’t think espouse local values. You know. But on the other hand, there are many people that have moved here that clearly you know, the things that make, I think, Hawaii special resonated with them, which is why they chose to, come here and live here, and stay here.

 

This whole idea of local culture and what works; it used to be that certain positions in Hawaii guaranteed authority and respect. But that’s less and less true now; isn’t it?

 

Uh, yeah, I think that’s, definitely the case. You know, I think that you know, when I grew up which was when, you know, I think in the 60s, the plantations were still uh, very influential … forces in shaping our—our—our community. And there tended to be, you know, informal, leaders within those communities that people looked up to provide leadership. So in like the time that I grew up in, well, the principal of the school was, considered a very important figure. Some of the union leaders were considered important figures. Some of the, plantation bosses were also—

 

M-hm.

 

— looked up to as being, you know, important, community leaders. And so, um, people gravitated to them, and as they would in turn communicate, different, you know, projects or, concerns, you know, people would rally around them. And so, I think that those days have passed. I think that it’s harder to get people to align behind uh, different initiatives. In my experience, you know, run across, two different kinds of leadership. One—one is, implied leadership; leadership that is the result of the position that you hold. And most people fall into the category of having power because of, you know, the implied authority associated with them.   Whereas, you know, there are other people that, you know, have I think real power; a power that, you know, it generates from, they are able to assert themselves and the kind of vision and their ability to art—articulate concepts and ideas in a way that makes people feel like it resonates with them.

 

Definitely, you know, leadership requires a level of trust and confidence. It all starts from that. And if you don’t have the ability to engender the trust of the people that you’re trying to reach, you cannot lead them, you cannot convince them to move in any particular direction. That’s why, you know, great leaders have a certain special ability to engender that kinda trust.

 

You know, you have to be able to stick your neck out, because that’s how, you know, you progress. And, so asserting leadership involves taking risk, being willing to stand apart from the pack. And that takes a level of courage.

 

And so, you know, those kinds of leaders are fewer and harder to come by. But—but those are the kinds of leaders that I think exercise real, ability to move people, to affect change. And I don’t know why. I mean, it just seems that I don’t find as many of those kinds of people around as I think used to exist in the past.

 

I really do believe that the upbringing in Hilo— one thing it does is, you know, you’re humble. You you grew up humble.

 

Do you think humility … we prize humility—

 

M-hm, m-hm.

 

–in the Hawaiian culture—

 

M-hm, m-hm.

 

as well. But humility is seen as a weakness, other places.

 

Yes, it is. It’s viewed in many Western cultures as a weakness. But to me, I think that’s strength, when I can stand in front of my group and say, You know what, guys? I’m really sorry; I messed up, forgive me. You know, and just lay it out there. What’s the—what’s the alternative? What, blame people? Make excuses?

 

I do a lot of work on island style leadership, because I do believe it is a distinct and unique form of leadership. There’s this thing I call the same-same equilibrium; the same-same equilibrium. And it roots back to ahupuaa, where it was—society was an egalitarian society, where everybody in the society had a role, and everybody did their part. But all of the contributors within that society were viewed as equal, so everybody same-same.

 

M-hm.

 

Right? Okay. So, here’s the deal. Centuries later, the same-same essence mentality still is—is embedded in all of us. You’ve got to stay in this equilibrium, same-same. Everybody same-same, everybody does equal in their contribution. What’s very interesting is, whenever you break same-same, okay, and you think you’re—you act as if you’re better, right—‘cause if everybody’s same-same, then nobody’s more important or better than anybody else; right? But the minute you break it—and this is where a lot of times people who come from away, good people, they don’t understand this equilibrium. They break it. As soon as you get to this I’m better than you mentality, through your tone of voice, through your being too direct, not listening—

 

M-hm.

 

–showing everybody how smart you, the immediate response always is, Who the heck does he thinks he is? Who the heck does he think is? Immediate response.

 

Right.

 

And once that response comes out, you can’t lead in Hawaii. Who the heck you think you are? And they don’t tell it to you in your face. It’s—Hawaii is—

 

They just turn away.

 

I always say—

 

Right?

 

–to my leaders that I work with, Hawaii is the world capitol of passive aggressive behavior.

 

I do a lot of work with mainlanders coming down, to try to help them understand some of these little nuances of this place. Do not break the same-same equilibrium. Because as soon as those words come out, that question pops, it’s really hard to recover. The other thing with island people; they don’t—they don’t forgive. They—they take forever to let go.

 

The way I teach it is this. There are two types of leaders, Leslie. There’s circular leaders. These are people are who are very collaborative, they’re relationship-oriented, they’re kind, they—they really engage people.

 

M-hm.

 

Circular. Island people are generally more circular.

 

M-hm.

 

Okay. And that’s because in Hawaii, we’re a three-way blend of cultures. We are influenced heavily by Eastern culture, ‘cause in the 1940s, forty percent of the population of Hawaii was Japanese. So, heavy bushido code influence here.

 

The one element of the—the bushido code is this; you always operate from a sense of imperfection. You always come from a state of dissatisfaction. ‘Cause—

 

Oh, I didn’t know that.

 

Yeah. So, if you’re always dissatisfied, and you’re kinda imperfect, you always gotta work harder. You gotta try harder, you gotta study harder, you gotta go to school, you gotta learn. I never got praised by my parents; they never, ever praised, said, Good job, Glenn, won—you did a wonderful job. Nothing. And I think, bushido. They didn’t want me to get all big-headed and arrogant, and thinking I’m better than anybody else; right?

 

Right.

 

So, they kept—they kept it really, really restrained, the praise and things like that.

 

M-hm.

 

And yet, we’re all Americans; that’s the Western influence. We’re all Western educated folk. But at the same time, the host culture here is Hawaiian.

 

M-hm.

 

We have a major Polynesian influence. And there’s no place in the world these three forces come together like it does here in Hawaii. So, the Polynesian and the Eastern, Asian, right, give us the circular. We understand circular; that’s why people are so collaborative and warm, and aloha spirit, and ohana. Western culture is much more linear. You know, there’s the goal, here’s the plan, now do it. Now, move—

 

And if you have to run over somebody—

 

Yeah.

 

–to get there—

 

Right.

 

–it’s okay.

 

Right.

 

‘Cause that’s the goal.

 

Right, and there are a lot of island people who are just very linear, too. The biggest mistake you can make in Hawaii is take your linear approach, and slam it on the circular. Right? And then, that equilibrium gets broken. Who the heck does he think he is?

 

You’ve gotta be both. Circular, collaboration, involvement, build a relationship. But at the point of execution, we all gotta go linear; we’ve gotta get the job done.

 

I’ve always believed, Leslie, that whenever you impose things on people, when you just shove it in, you’ll get compliance. They’re gonna do it, because I’m afraid if I don’t do it, they’re gonna scold me or fire me, whatever. When you inspire people bottom-up—

 

M-hm.

 

–you get commitment. That’s real leadership.

 

Teachers are among our most important leaders. They have the power to influence and shape the minds of young people who will … become the next generation of leaders. Kumu hula Hokulani Holt, who is also the Cultural Programs Director of the Maui Arts and Culture Center, and Dr. Maenette Ah Nee Benham, Dean of Hawaiinuiakea at the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s School of Hawaiian Knowledge, are two such leaders. Their career paths are based on kuleana, the responsibilities handed down to them from their families and ancestors….

 

Hula has always been in our ohana. My grandmother was a kumu hula, she had seven daughters. Of her seven daughters, three became kumu hula. And of her granddaughters, first just me, and now my sister. And then of her great-granddaughters, my cousin Melia.

 

When did you decide you’re gonna be a kumu? Or—

 

Oh, I didn’t.

 

–did you decide?

 

I didn’t.

 

I guess that’s nothing you decide on your own, right, in the hula world?

 

Yeah, yeah; I didn’t decide. My mother decided for me.

 

She said, Well, I think it’s time for you to—to begin teaching. And I went, no, that—that belongs to other people, that doesn’t belong to me. And she said, No, I talked to your auntie, and I think it’s time for you to begin teaching. So I went kicking and screaming, but I went.

 

What kind of a kumu were you and are you?

 

I believe that I’m—I’m pretty strict. I hope to instill in my students a love for hula, but also a love for this place that we call home, and for all the many generations of people that came before us that created the—the chants and the songs, and the movements that we use. What a kumu hula is, is we want things our own way. And we demand that.

 

It is your world.

 

It is my world. I always tell my students, This is the world according to Hoku within these four walls.

 

And as a kumu hula, you get very involved in other people’s families.

 

Oh, yeah.

 

They become your family.

 

Oh, yeah.

 

So you’re privy to a lot of the struggles that—

 

Yes.

 

–people go through.

 

Yes. You know, you get parents coming and saying, You know, my daughter’s not paying attention to school, Kumu can you please talk to her? Or, you know, someone’s marriage or passing; you get involved in your students’ lives, and it’s a good thing.

 

Halau provides, focus, it—it really gets you to appreciate every little thing, I believe. And halau is not only learning hula, but it also teaches you about yourself. How to push yourself a little bit more, how to think about the welfare of others within the halau, and then that translates to others outside of halau, how to practice or do Hawaiian values, because that’s what you must have in halau as well, how to get past pain and tired, and late hours for a goal that you would like to reach. So those are all life lessons also.

 

So you were possessed at an early age of a conviction you wanted to lead.

 

M-hm.

 

Why?

 

Because I was always told that I would. I was always told. My grandmothers— both my Grandma Ah Nee and my Grandma Padeken explained to me when I was very young about my name, Kape‘ahiokalani. And it is a name of—of one of my great-great aunts, who was a chanter in King Kalakaua’s court. And basically, what they said to me was that because I held this name, I had the responsibility of—of remembering the moolelo of our family, and I had the responsibility of contributing to … the health and wellbeing of my family. That was it. That’s what they told me. And … you know, I said, Okay. Because that’s what you do. Your kupuna tell you that, and you say, Okay, so what do I need to do?

 

And there are all kinds of ways to accomplish that too.

 

Yeah, there’s all kinds of ways to do that. And I just found this to be my journey, you know, in educational leadership. I just found that to be what really gets me excited, um, what really inspires me is—and it all started because um, in fifth grade at Koko Head Elementary School, Mrs. Kwon made me do flannel board stories for the kindergartners. And I loved it. I loved just telling stories, creating stories and telling them to young kids, and watching the light bulbs go off. So my first job was as a kindergarten teacher. What a great job, you know, where you get unconditional love every single day.

 

And I know you’ve said you always want to be a teacher.

 

I always—

 

No matter what else you do, or how you do it, you want to be a teacher.

 

Yeah. Always; always. And that came from the stories and teachers over the years. You know, and good leaders are great teachers.

 

The genius of leadership is living into grace. And it’s—it’s that—that idea of creating a space where people can feel really safe, even though you say the worst things. I want you to feel safe here, I just want you to feel safe. And no matter what you have to say, no matter how angry you are, go ahead, go and do that. And when you’re pau, let’s get to work. You know, cause otherwise, we’re not gonna get it done, we’re not gonna—we’re just not gonna do it. And that’s how I—that’s how I lead. You know. And I try really hard to listen; listen, listen, listen. And as I listen, you know, I try to move it back to the core issue, as you said. Ask more questions about how that has to do with the issue, keep moving it, moving it, moving it.

 

But sometimes, there is no consensus.

 

And sometimes there’s not.

 

And then you have to figure out—somebody has to call it.

 

Yes.

 

This is not gonna be solved this way.

 

Yeah. And I do that. I do that too. You can ask the people who work for me. You know, it’s very open, we’re safe, we’re gonna talk about it, and this is how—this is the road we’re gonna take. I’m not afraid to do that. No; I’m not afraid to do that. It’s—it’s nice to know— I want people to know that everybody has a voice. You know, everyone has a voice. It’s a labor-intensive process, but everybody has a voice. And in the end, you know, there will be – everybody will know that there will be uh, a direction we’re gonna go. You know, and move on.

 

Because people want closure. I mean—

 

Yeah.

 

You can’t talk everything to death.

 

Yeah. In a microcosm, yeah, you know, we have a lot of diverse perspectives, but across the United States, across the globe, you know, there isn’t one way to do anything. But I do think that we’re reaching a time where there—there are more young people and young leaders who are seeing the promise and the potential of bringing together different groups, and really talking about hard issues, of renewable resources, about food safety, about education and wellbeing that’s very issue-oriented. And doing it in a way that is grounded in our religion, our stories. I think we’re ready at that point to do that, and I—I think that’s—that’s our work at the University to help prepare, you know, my community leaders to be able to do that.

 

I learned that, you know, you do good work. You have good intentions, you know. Doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter how much I can tell you about what I wrote, or what I studied, or what whatever, right? What matters is that I have good intentions, and I work really hard, and I try to be fair in everything that I do. And I try to be kind, you know. And I—and I lead in grace, developing a space where people can feel grace and welcome, you know. And then, we’ll move forward. Ohana does not always mean that we are of the same blood, ohana means that we can agree on a set of principles and a mission for the work that we’re doing, and we’re gonna be innovative and entrepreneurial, and we’re gonna work together really hard to get there. That’s ohana.

 

Humility, trust, listening, fairness, influence… all important qualities that Hawaii’s leaders say are critical to good leadership. These are values that we can use in our own lives, whether it is how we act with our families, in our jobs or how we conduct ourselves in the broader community. Our closing words of wisdom will be from the late Skippa Dias, legendary football coach at Farrington High School in Honolulu.

 

Mahalo to our Long Story Guests who have shared their stories and insights with us, and mahalo to you for joining us. For PBS Hawaii and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. Aloha a hui hou.

 

I developed um, an acronym. And the acronym was spelled out HEART, H-E-A-R-T. And—and each letter represented a basic tenet and belief that … you want the other person to acquire and mind for the young kinds. And the word HEART, the five five words are H refer to humility, the ability to … you know, to … listen to another person and … bite your tongue if—if he’s saying something that’s different than what you want. But being humble is a quality that is really, really … sought after for a lot of people, but never acquire. But humility is a good one. E, education. That one was very, very significant in my family’s upbringing. A, attitude; a positive attitude, making sure that, you know, whatever the goal, whatever the project, you set yourself out to be positive and g—and get the darn thing done. R, responsibility. You gotta be responsible for all the things that you do, and sometimes for the things that your friends and your loved ones are doing. But being responsible in that manner has—has some beautiful connotations that—that grow from it. And then T, of course, stands for team.

 

[END]

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Hōkūlani Holt

 

Original air date: Tues., June 8, 2010

 

Drawing Strength from Hawaiian Heritage

 

Maui-based kumu hula and Hawaiian cultural/language specialist Hōkūlani Holt talks story with Leslie Wilcox about growing up on Oahu and Maui, being hānai’d (adopted) by her grandparents, and growing up in a well-known hula family. Hōkūlani also talks about juggling her demanding yet fulfilling life as a kumu hula, Director of Cultural Programs at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center, and her active roles in a long list of community organizations. Through it all she draws strength from her Hawaiian heritage and a family history of strong, independent women.

 

Hōkūlani Holt Audio

 

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Transcript

 

I come from a family of very strong women who believe that you need to make a contribution to your community. And in order to make a contribution to your community, you must work there in your community.

 

Strong, yes, but also kind, generous, and self effacing. Her community is the island of Maui, but her influence as a kumu hula and Hawaiian culture and language specialist is felt throughout Hawai‘i and beyond. Meet Hōkūlani Holt—next, on Long Story Short.

 

Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawai‘i’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in High Definition.

 

Aloha mai kākou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. Hōkūlani Holt was born in Honolulu to a  family steeped in the traditions of hula. Growing up she divided her time between O‘ahu and Maui, and for over thirty years now she has led a respected hula hālau—Pāū O Hi‘iaka. She juggles her life as a kumu hula with her position as Director of Cultural Programs at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center and plays active roles in a long list of community organizations. And she does it all with a great sense of humor and calm determination.

 

Your name; don’t have four names all beginning with H? What’s your—

 

What’s the story?

 

—entire name?

 

What’s the story on all those Hs? Well, the story is, my father wanted our initials to be HHH. So my oldest sister, myself, and my half brother, my father, my grandfather, all have the initials HHH. So [CLEARS THROAT], it really was so that you don’t have to change the monogram. [CHUCKLE] No, I’m sure it wasn’t that. But, he wanted the Hs, and so it was. In the course the fourth H being added, when my Grandmother Holt, just before she passed away, she told my mother that she had always hoped that my oldest sister and I would also have my father’s Hawaiian name. So that’s what my mother told us, so both my sister and I added it to our names when we grew up.

 

What is your whole name?

 

It’s Hōkūlani Haila Hi‘ilealii Holt.

 

When you were a baby, you lived with your grandparents?

 

Yes. I was hānai’d, which is a kind of a Hawaiian behavior of taking a young one into your home. So I was hānai’d by my maternal grandparents on Maui, and lived with them from baby time until I was five years old, continuously. They missed having children in the home, so I was the next one up. My mother was pregnant with me, so they came to ask if they could have this baby. And at first, my dad said no. Several times, he said no. But finally, he agreed.

 

Do you remember the first time you danced the hula?

 

I don’t. But my mother has pictures; my mother has pictures of me about, I don’t know, maybe about three or so. I don’t remember that time, but I guess it happened, because she has the pictures. So it was quite young.

 

Do you think you just were like osmosis, picking it up and doing it?

 

Well, during the younger years, definitely so. When I got a little older, probably somewhere about seven, eight, or nine, then I went to classes. I was taught by my auntie and my grandmother, that I remember formally. So it wasn’t until then. It’s a little different when you have hula in the home. I lived with my grandparents, and my auntie lived in the same household, so when she had the neighborhood children over for hula, I’d go to that class. But because I lived there with them, when she got inspiration to dance, whether it’s Saturday at four o’clock or Monday at nine o’clock in the morning, or whenever, you just get up and dance.

 

Hōkūlani Holt graduated from the Kamehameha Schools in Kapālama and went on to study Travel Industry Management at UH Mānoa. She ended up graduating with a degree in Organizational Relations, but shortly thereafter her life would be dominated by hula.

 

Who were some of your mentors outside of the hula world?

 

M-m; outside of the hula world. Do I have a world outside of hula? I don’t know. I do know that for chanting, that was Pualani Kanahele. She was my chant teacher. But outside of hula, what do I do outside of hula? I think hula is mostly my whole life.

 

And it’s your whole life now, but you didn’t see it that way before. When did you decide you’re gonna be a kumu?

 

I didn’t decide. My mother decided for me.

 

And why did she decide?

 

After I graduated from UH, I was married, had my first daughter, my oldest daughter. And we were living in an apartment on Beretania Street. And I thought, I don’t want to raise my children in an apartment on Beretania Street. So the only place that I knew of was Maui. So I moved home to Maui to raise our family there.

 

You would have two more children after that.

 

Two more children after that. When I went to Maui, I was still a dancer, so I went to look for a hālau to belong to. And there was not a lot of kahiko being done on Maui at the time. And so I was moaning and groaning to my mother, and so she said, Well, I think it’s time for you to begin teaching. And I went, No, that belongs to other people, that doesn’t belong to me. And she said, No, I talked to your auntie, and I think it’s time for you to begin teaching. I went kicking and screaming, but I went anyway. So in 1976, I opened a hālau. The name of the hālau is Pā‘ū O Hi‘iaka. Literally, Pā‘ū O Hi‘iaka means the skirt of Hi‘iaka. When I began thinking about what to call hālau, I had long conversations with my mother. And I knew I wanted a plant name, I knew I wanted a plant that lived near the ocean ‘cause I always lived near the ocean, and so the Pā‘ū O Hi‘iaka plant was one of those that has always been around where I was. There’s a story about its getting its name from Pele, as the plant protected her sister down at the beach, Hi‘iaka I Ka Poli O Pele. But also in hula, Hi‘iaka’s pāū or her skirt was magical, and could defeat enemies and create storms, and bring people back to life. More importantly for me is, I wanted my students to be like the Pā‘ū O Hi‘iaka plant. It grows in really inhospitable places, Makapu‘u, Ka‘ena, the top of Kaho‘olawe, South Point, and still is a beautiful flower that’s no larger than your baby fingernail. So I wanted my students to be like that too, that no matter what’s going on, you keep chugging away, and you still look beautiful.

 

What kind of a kumu were you and are you?

 

I believe that I’m pretty strict. I hope to instill in my students a love for hula, but also a love for this place that we call home, and for all the many generations of people that came before us that created the chants and the songs, and the movements that we use.

 

When you were a young woman beginning teaching—

 

M-m.

 

—was it hard to have the authority to—

 

Oh, yeah.

 

—to teach people who might have been older than you?

 

Yeah. As a matter of fact, let’s say I’d open class or I’d be standing outside, or sitting inside, and people would come in, and they’d go, Where’s the kumu? And I’d go, that’s me. You’re the kumu? Yeah, that’s me. [CHUCKLE] So it was a little difficult at the beginning, but they either accept that this twenty-six-year-old is going to teach you hula, or you just find someplace else to be. I pity my first classes, ‘cause I was a little wishy-washy. Okay, we’re gonna be like this. Oh, no, no, no, no.

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

That’s a little bit too hard. Okay, let’s try this. Oh, no, no, no, no. I think I’m gonna change it to this. Oh, yeah, okay, we’ll do it like—so I pity my first classes. I was a little wishy-washy.

 

But you found your way.

 

Yeah. Then I began to then understand how I wanted to be, when I became a kumu.

 

There are so many kumu hula, and one of them is Keali‘i Reichel—

 

M-m.

 

Who sat here and said—

 

M-m.

I’m a control freak.

 

A lot of the times, that’s what a kumu hula is, is we want things our own way. And we demand that. It is my world. I always tell my students, This is the world according to Hōkū within these four walls.

 

While Hōkūlani Holt has dedicated her life to perpetuating centuries-old traditions, she is very comfortable making use of twenty-first century tools to navigate through her extremely busy lifestyle.

 

I enjoy technology. I have two laptops, two desktops, I have a Blackberry, iPod, but then I love taking photographs, so I have cameras. But I do all of that because I love being in Hawai‘i. I take my camera and I take pictures, because I want to keep that with me. One of my favorite things to do, though, is to just sit. Sometimes that’s the best thing to do too.

 

Just to be alone, or to look at other people? What are you doing when you sit?

 

Look at other people. I like driving to some semi-solitary place and just watching our environment. I’m very much a morning person, so I get up early. I like to get up early to watch the sun come up, and those bits and pieces of time, I enjoy a lot.

 

And over all this time of living on Maui, has that pleasure ever been—I mean, do you still get that? I mean, I know there’s traffic, I know there are a lot more people, but you still find that peace?

 

I find that place on my ancestral lands where I grew up. I still have a cousin that lives in the same place where I grew up, so I go down to their house, I go sit on the beach, park at the park; any little place.

 

But Hōkūlani Holt doesn’t need to go anywhere to get in touch with her ancestral roots. A veritable road map of her heritage is with her … all the time.

 

The tattoos that I have, the first one has to do with my grandmother. She was a shoreline gatherer. And we lived down at the ocean in Waiehu. And so these items have to do with the sea, and most especially the close shoreline. This is the hāue‘ue or hā‘uke‘uke and is gathered among the rocks where we lived.

 

And this that goes around here is called pū‘ili halua which has to do with the two meanings of the word pū‘ili. One, it means to grab on and to hold on tightly to something and the other is the hula implement. Both of these things remind me that I need to remember that my grandmother was hula as well, and that I need to hold on to the things that she taught me.

 

In 2007, Hōkūlani Holt was the artistic director, writer, and choreographer for Kahekili, a hula drama about Maui’s premiere chief, thought by some to be the biological father of Kamehameha the Great. Because the story takes place in pre-contact Hawai‘i, Hōkūlani and her collaborators faced the challenge of filling in unknown details of life in Hawaii from that era.

 

I was very fortunate that there were fellas that wanted to come down the road with me and so we sit down, we read what we knew of the research that we gathered, select the parts that we wanted to talk about, and then think about, well, what chants we want to use, what is the look, what do you want to see when the audience looks at it. So then there’s the look.

 

Did you take creative liberty with the look?

 

Somewhat; somewhat. Partially because we don’t really know everything. We don’t know everything about what their clothes was like when they went to war, or what they may have worn if they were going into a particular ceremony. We know some, and we made some of those creative leaps within there, but there was some choice as to staying completely kahiko, or bringing in possibilities of other things.

 

How much creative license do you allow yourself as a kumu hula who upholds tradition?

 

I think for me, the guiding principle is, no matter what I do … if it were to continue as such, would it be recognizable as hula a hundred years from now? Because now, a hundred years from when the turn of the century was, we can still see hula is hula. So a hundred years from now, is what I do recognizable as hula? And so that’s usually my guiding principle, that it must be hula. Can it incorporate—like in parts of Kahekili, we did dances that are reminiscent of warfare. Can it include things that look like warfare? Yes, it can, ‘cause it still uses hula. Some of the costuming, perhaps … a bit more than what it might have been, maybe. I think our giant leaps were not too far off the cliff.

 

So what were some of the other things you decided in making Kahekili?

 

That we will expand our look at warfare, ‘cause that is something that people don’t know too much about or think about. And to know that, sometimes people only think of Hawaiian culture as only aloha. We were a very competitive people, and we had warfare like we have warfare today. So sometimes, people don’t like to look at it, and we thought, no, it is where we came from, so it’s important to have that as well. I loved highlighting about the chiefesses. For me, that’s one of the greatest things that Maui contributed to the royal lines, is it’s females that created all the royal children. And so, some of those things are not commonly seen, so we decided to bring those out into the open more.

 

Kahekili received the prestigious American Masterpieces Dance award from the National Endowment for the arts and has toured Hawai‘i, California, Arizona, New York, and Germany. Between her job at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center, her halau, and productions like Kahekili, Hōkūlani Holt has found the time to be a Director of Pūnana Leo O Maui Hawaiian Language Preschool; the first Maui Site  Coordinator for Nā Pua No‘eau—that’s The Center for Gifted and Talented  Native Hawaiian Children; Culture and Education Manager for the Kaho‘olawe  Island Reserve Commission; and, on occasion, a judge at hula festivals.

 

I think competition in hula has created a phenomenon in which perhaps some, not all, but some kumu hula forget that the competition ends at the stage, and when they get off the stage, it sometimes continues. And for me, I like to always remember that we all love hula, that’s what we do. We love hula, and because of that, we have that commonality with each other. What I try to do when I judge is appreciate where that particular kumu hula is coming from. That maybe their style is not my style, but you can appreciate excellence in what they do, no matter what they do. Because this little pea brain cannot hold all the different performances that went on, so I only judge what I see on the stage at the moment, and never compare one to the next. I compare it to what is in my head as excellence, and I compare what I see on stage to what I believe is excellence in hula. There is always fallout, because you don’t go into a competition not thinking that you want to win, and you try your hardest, and you’ve practiced your hardest. And when you don’t win, it’s a great disappointment, and you want to know why. And so sometimes I remember, and sometimes I don’t

 

But people come up and say, How come?

 

Right; they do. And I say, sometimes I don’t remember, because I’m judging one performance at a time. And when that’s finished, I drop it out of my head and I look a hundred percent at the next performance that is in front of me. All I can say is, Did you do hula? Did you bring excellence to what you did? I tend to be a foot person, which means I watch the feet, because—

 

I thought you’re supposed to keep your eyes on the hands.

 

No, feet.

 

Oh, that was a composer from latter day. [CHUCKLE]

 

Feet for me, because if the feet is good, then the rest will be good, I believe. And then, there’s interpretation, there’s how they have expressed the words that they’re trying to dance. So I believe perhaps it’s because I try to be fair, and I try to always be consistent.

 

As a kumu hula, who gets to join your hālau?

 

Oh, I take anyone. I take anyone who would like to come. I don’t teach children well.

 

M-m.

 

I don’t teach children well, so I don’t have children’s classes, but I do have adults. And I take anyone who is willing to learn.

 

And what does it take to get them kicked out?

 

Don’t listen. [CHUCKLE] Don’t listen. If you don’t listen to the kumu, there’s no excuses, and out you go.

 

It’s not a democracy?

 

Not at all.

 

As I tell my early classes that come when you first come to be a new student, I tell them that I am goddess in the hālau, and if you think I’m the crazy woman, don’t come back next week, ‘cause it is my hālau. [CHUCKLE] So that’s how we approach hula.

 

And when somebody’s not very good at hula

 

M-m.

 

—but has a good heart—

 

M-hm.

 

—do they get to stay in?

 

Oh, absolutely. There’s always a place; there’s always a place. And you’re never too old to start hula. The desire must there. But just like anything else … your abilities are your abilities; it’s not the same as the next person. It is who you are. So maybe if you’re not in the advanced class, it’s okay. Because where you are is where you can flourish. So sometimes people need to remember that kumu knows best, and kumu will put you where she thinks or he thinks is the best place for you. But I believe hula is for everyone.

 

Hōkūlani Holt seems to believe that there is something of value for everyone in the Hawaiian culture, and while she cherishes and preserves Hawai‘i’s past, she also embraces Hawai‘i’s present, and is hopeful about its future. We’d like to thank Hōkūlani Holt for taking time out of her very crowded schedule to share her story with us. And we’d like to thank you for joining us on Long Story Short.

 

For PBS Hawaii, I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou kākou.

 

For audio and written transcripts of this program, and all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit pbshawaii.org.

 

What did you mean when you said that in hālau, you learn to appreciate little things?

 

M-hm. Little things for me from this week to next week, you have learned where to put your eyes. That’s enough. Because we have progressed from this week to next week, where to put your eyes. The little things like that are as important as where to dance your feet, and where to dance your hands. The little things.