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Hilo Inter-Tribal Powwow Kicks off in Hawaii

For the past five years, a pow wow like no other has taken place on Moku Hawai`i, also known as the island of Hawaii. In a dance of cultures, Native Hawaiian families welcome Native Americans of every nation into their homeland for a celebration of culture, family, spirit, dignity, honor and hope. The Federation of American Natives’ sixth official Hilo Inter-Tribal Powwow will be celebrated from May 28 to 30 this year.

Since its inception, Native Hawaiian Kahu Kimo Pihana has conducted the oli (chants that recorded the history of the land and the lineage of the aristocracy) and pule (prayers) ceremonies to open the weekend of celebration.

Hilo Inter-Tribal Powwow founders Troy Good Medicine De Roche, Blackfeet; and Liz De Roche, Métis, say that these ceremonies are essential. Prior to their inaugural pow wow, they searched for months to find the person who could grant permission to use this Hawaiian site. “We believe that we can’t dance on someone else’s land,” Liz explained. “Finally, someone told us that Kimo [Pihana] was the one who we needed to ask.”

At their request, Pihana agreed to meet with the De Roches to discuss their intentions. Troy said he was skeptical at first and wanted to make sure that the pow wow events were culturally relevant as well as legal and fully permitted. “Being the host culture, we have to put out a real good example,” Pihana said. “We have to work with other cultures to make sure that there are certain Hawaiian protocols that are observed.”

Pihana, born a chief in the bloodline of the royal order of Kamehameha, explained that as a cultural practitioner, priest and teacher, he is responsible for protecting the Hawaiian spirit of the Native Hawaiian land and people on the eastern half of Moku Hawai`i from Kohala to Kau. After learning of the De Roches’ intentions, Pihana was happy to help them and now opens the pow wow every year.

The opening ceremony begins with the blowing of a conch shell, which summons attention to the Hawaiian high priest’s entrance and to the ensuing sacred events. This introduction signals that the Hawaiian culture is present, and that the Hawaiian spiritual presence of the family, the aina (land) and the ocean are to be respected.

“We need to have the host culture open up the ceremony and then we can have the American Indian cultures open with their prayer,” Pihana said. “Then the drums can begin. We then have the international placement of flags…what we are doing is opening up the doors and building bridges between the cultures.”

Following the oli and pule, the first Grand Entry will be held. It will include masters of ceremonies John Dawson, San Carlos Apache, and Darrel Iness, Yakama; head woman dancer Naomi Billedeaux, Blackfeet/Salish; head man dancer Joe Barbosa, Yakama; arena directors Dan McDaniel, Choctaw, and Eddie Hummingbird, Cherokee; and the host drum, the Wildhorse Singers, an inter-tribal group from California.

Over the three days, primarily inter-tribal dances will be held. These will be interspersed every one to two hours with feature presentations from visiting dance groups.

Troy said that each year tribes throughout the U.S. get in touch to express interest in attending with large groups. These visitors have been willing to offer highlight performances throughout the weekend.

This year, the Kodiak Alutiiq Dancers of Alaska, the Oneida Tribe of Wisconsin Dancers and the Wapato Indian Club, a youth group from Washington, are the featured visitors. Troy, a renowned Native American flutist, and the Leo Nahenahe O Pohai Ke Aloha, a Native Hawaiian elder hula group, will also be featured.

Also, for the first time in the pow wow’s history, the Federation of American Natives hosted a series of indigenous cultural events including workshops, performances and film screenings prior to the Memorial Day weekend pow wow. On May 22, Troy and Manu Josiah, Native Hawaiian, conducted a workshop detailing Native American flutes and the Hawaiian nose flute.

On May 25, Chippewa artist David Craig will offer participants the opportunity to create a rawhide Native American hand drum, and Kumu Leilehua Yuen, Native Hawaiian, will demonstrate how to make a Hawaiian ipu (gourd) drum.

In the evening there will be a screening of the documentaries Finding Their Own Dance: Reawakening the Alaskan Alutiiq Arts and Reel Injun by Cree director Neil Diamond. In conjunction with the Alutiiq film, the visiting Kodiak Alutiiq Dancers will hold a live 20-minute traditional Alutiiq dance performance.

On May 27, Yuen and Josiah will lead a Huaka`i ma Kïlauea (“trip to the volcano”)—first to show reverence for the ocean, and then to honor Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of the volcano. This excursion, Liz said, was added to the pre–pow wow events two years ago to give visitors a glimpse of yet another aspect of Hawaiian culture that they would not normally have the chance to see. Besides, she said, most visitors to Moku Hawai`i want to see the volcano. “We will begin at Moku `Ola, or “Island of Life,” in Hilo Bay, with a pïkai ceremony to prepare for the trip,” Yuen said. “It is a process of renewal signifying the eating away and renewal of life. We will clean everything off at the ocean and let everything wash away…starting with a new leaf. Then we will go inland.”

Upon arrival at Kïlauea crater, the group will proceed to the edge of the volcano’s crater, the goddess’s home, Halema‘uma‘u. There, they will share stories and chants related to Pele and learn how to make a ho`okupu, an offering bundle. Inside the ho`okupu, Yuen and Josiah will place a lei made of plants grown in their garden and woven with good thoughts and hopes. The lei will be added to the bundle, as is prayer salt from Kauai collected by Yuen’s grandfather. The sacred package will then be tied with a ti leaf and left at the crater edge as an offering to Pele. To conclude the journey, Yuen and Josiah will offer a hula dance and chant as a further honor.

Josiah said that his involvement with the pow wow has been, deep, spiritual, and even fun. “It has caused me to be more a part of my own culture because people are always asking questions.”

One aspect of Hawaiian culture that he has developed more deeply because of his work with the pow wow is making and playing the Hawaiian nose flute. Through their friendship, musical and cultural sharing, Troy and Josiah created a new form of Blackfeet/Hawaiian music and recently released a Native Hawaiian nose flute/Native American flute CD.

Also on the 27th, and to conclude the pre–pow wow events , Naomi Billedeaux will host Rez Moves, a free aerobic workshop with exercises based on pow wow dances.

The Federation of American Natives founded this pow wowto celebrate the cultures of the 30,000 Native Americans who live in the state of Hawaii. According to Liz, the event is now a way for Native Americans to celebrate, but also for individuals of other cultures to learn about Native American and Native Hawaiian cultures. “What we wanted to do was come as close as we could to old-land traditional pow wow,” she said. “A lot of people in Hawaii are mixed-blood—Native Hawaiian and Native American. They have experienced their Native Hawaiian culture, but have never been back to the rez.”

The Hilo Inter-Tribal Powwow is a uniquely Hawaiian event, she said, in which all cultures—Native American, Native Hawaiian, European American, Chinese, Samoan, Japanese—celebrate while being celebrated. “People who live here say, ‘This is our pow wow.’ There’s something special in the park—the bonding that we see there. It is such a coming together for so many people—so many different people.”