Every Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter when I and my siblings were young Dad would drive 3 hours to Brooklyn to fetch Aunt Alice (Mom’s Aunt, our Great-Aunt), and then 3 more hours to bring her back to us. No one ate anything until Aunt Alice had arrived and had about half an hour to unwind from the drive. At those big holiday meals we always had a special treat… V-8 juice! A big deal for us kids. After the meal Dad would always conk out on the couch for a nap before driving Aunt Alice back to Brooklyn. On each of those special days Dad had to drive 12 hours in order for Aunt Alice to be with us so that our family could be complete, which just makes the point of how important family was for us. Being the oldest of us kids I was the first to leave home when I went into the Navy at 18; until then it was inconceivable that one of the holidays would be celebrated without all of us being there. The first Christmas after I went into the Navy I was away on a deployment at Christmas-time and didn’t return home until early February. When I walked into the house I was stunned to find that my family had left the tree up until I came home… lights still twinkling and presents mounded under the dying and brittle branches!
“Belonging” is a primal human need; when we do not belong, in some way we know ourselves to be incomplete. Each year, I am reminded of this need to belong when I watch the annual three-night Merrie Monarch Hula Festival in Hilo. Each night, at the opening, the conch shells are blown indicating the arrival of that year’s Royal Court. While there are still some branches of Hawaiian royalty existing today, the members of the annual Royal Court are elected. The procession, conducted with great solemnity, consists of the King and the Queen, their retainers, Kahus and various officials. Before any halau (hula troop) performs on the stage they turn and express respect to the Royal Court by bowing slightly in their direction. So, given that the Royal Court is not composed of actual royalty… why do they do this?
When the Hawaiian monarchy was overthrown by American businessmen Hawaiians went through the strange experience of non-family moving into their home and banning most things that were unique to that family: The hula, the Hawaiian language, the Monarchy, the Palace and its contents… but most especially the ability for that family to govern itself in harmony with its history and its traditions. It was like banning Aunt Alice from Thanksgiving! The Royal Court of today’s Merrie Monarch Festival is a way of enabling Hawaiians to remember who they have been and to belong to themselves by using the King and the Queen as the focal point of that belonging! This desire on the part of Hawaiians to still be who they have been for hundreds of years can also be seen in the current struggle of some Hawaiians against the proposed new giant telescope on the sacred mountain of Mauna Kea. The struggle is not an anti-science, luddite stance but rather a declaration about the spiritual underpinnings of Hawaiian culture: The Monarchy, the hula, the chants, the Hawaiian sense of the sacredness of the land entrusted to them by Akua, but especially about how, through this unique, holistic mindset the Hawaiian people know themselves to be Hawaiian.
When we were kids, the appearance of V-8 in the house caused a happy anticipation to build within us kids: Aunt Alice (in Hawaiian, “Tutu” Alice) was coming! In the same way, the appearance of the Merrie Monarch’s Royal Court is not really a hearkening back to a former “glory day”, but a proof to the Hawaiian people that they are still, despite attempts by outsiders, who they have always been: The Hawaiian ʻOhana, the Hawaiian family, with the Monarchy as the stand-in summation for the whole family. Judith Thurman in a New Yorker article on language commented, “It is a singular fate to be the last of one’s kind.” As the present-day Royal Court and the struggle on Mauna Kea exemplify, Hawaiians refuse to let this be their fate!