Hundreds of kumu ratify 'groundbreaking' declaration to protect, preserve and perpetuate hula

Oct. 3—There is a saying that kumu hula Cody Pueo Pata often refers to : "Strike while the iron is hot." And when it comes to preserving and protecting Hawaiian culture and hula, Pata said he and many other hula practitioners believe that "right now, the iron is hot."

Pata is part of a coalition of about 200 kumu hula from Hawaii, 10 mainland states, Japan, New Zealand, French Polynesia, France and Spain who convened an inaugural convention in August to ratify a first-of-its-kind declaration that out ­lines a call to action and vision of what they hope to see with hula moving forward.

The 17-page, released Sept. 21, details the basic tenets of hula, the responsibilities and recognition of kumu, and the group's collective concerns that their revered traditions are being over-commercialized, misused and culturally appropriated.

"We want to build a tsunami of support, " said Pata, kumu hula of Halau Hula 'o ka Malama Mahilani. "What we focused on was turning challenges into opportunities."

In the declaration, the coalition of kumu hula, called the, say there is abuse and ignorance about the practice of hula and that more protection, recognition, access and resources are needed to address that.

Additionally, the group says kumu hula should hold "exclusive authority to choreograph and direct the presentation of hula in public, professional and commercial spaces." Huamakahikina also objects to "the intentional and unintentional appropriation and misappropriation of any aspects of hula, including choreography, designs, proper names and lexicons " in photos, videos and media.

Any performances presented without permission from kumu hula should not be labeled hula, according to the document.

Pata said the declaration underwent an extensive process to ensure it represented all 200 ratifiers, who include hula masters and other well-known practitioners such as Etua Lopes, Hau 'oli Akaka, Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, Kaleo Trinidad, Keali 'i Rei ­chel, Keone Nunes, La 'akea Perry, Maelia Loebenstein Carter, Maile Loo-Ching, Manu Boyd and Pualani Kanaka 'ole Kanahele.

Prior to the Kupukalala Kumu Hula Convention, held virtually Aug. 21 and 22, all registered kumu hula, who went through a vetting process to ensure they have the proper credentials, training and experience, were sent a draft of the declaration. The event was broadcast live from the University of Hawaii Maui College by members of Leo Kahoa, the all-volunteer steering committee.

At the convention, each section of the draft was read and voted on. Over the two days, kumu hula were split into breakout groups to further discuss feedback and concerns. Moderators and note takers assigned to each group compiled the input, which was then incorporated into subsequent drafts of the declaration by an eight-member team that included lawyers who specialize in Native Hawaiian rights, intellectual property rights and policy making.

The final version of the draft passed unanimously, Pata said.

After the convention, Leo Kahoa also reached out to kumu hula who expressed interest in signing the declaration but couldn't attend the event.

Pata and kumu hula Hokulani Holt, who are both part of Leo Kahoa, pointed out that nothing of this size or magnitude has been done before and called the declaration groundbreaking.

"It was extensive, and it was tedious, " said Holt, kumu hula of Pa 'u O Hi 'iaka. "Kumu hula, believe it or not, are not always listened to. That's why it was important to take people's thoughts, synthesize them, combine them and rework them. We wanted them to know that they are valued and that we were serious in helping to make this document speak for all of us."

The arose last year when kumu hula came together on Zoom to talk story about the COVID-19 pandemic. Those sessions eventually led to deeper discussions about the state of hula. Recent controversies over legal protections for cultural intellectual property rights involving Hawaiian culture and hula amplified the need to take action, Pata said.

Holt said the coalition's next steps are to begin advocating for what is in the document, which includes better awareness, support, and public funding and resources for hula. They plan to reach out to and work with Hawaiian civic clubs and royal orders, the tourism industry, government officials, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and the alii trusts to see the effort through.

Although it may be "easier said than done, " Holt and Pata said they are hopeful that with the backing of so many kumu hula, the work of the Huamakahikina will come to fruition. And now that they have a list of hundreds of kumu, they plan to convene more conventions in the future.

"I believe the most important thing to us is to share our culture. That's what we love to do, " Holt said. "Part of the document is to help change policy, to change laws perhaps and to change thinking. We all must be concerned with what happens to the Hawaiian culture."------Jayna Omaye covers ethnic and cultural affairs and is a corps member of Report for America, a national serv ­ice organization that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under ­covered issues and communities.