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Hula as a Sustainable Practice

By Charlotte Cheek, Hawaiʻi Community College Sustainability Initiatives Coordinator and Kupu Community Resilience VISTA

In consultation with Drew Kapp, Hawaiʻi Community College Geography Instructor and Kūkūʻena Hula Cohort Member

This summer has been unlike any other; the pandemic brought stay-at-home orders, a transition to online classes, the unprecedented cancellation of the Merrie Monarch Festival, and the closure of parks and beaches. This unusual situation has forced us to change our lives and pay closer attention to our surroundings and our connections with the world. As we examine our relationship with the world, many of us are yearning for a deeper connection with the earth. People across the globe are refocusing on their surroundings, turning to walks around their neighborhood and gardening to keep themselves physically and mentally well. This can be a good time to reflect on practices that are linked to sustainability.

Hula is an example of a traditional practice with roots in sustainability. Hula was traditionally performed as part of ceremony, to honor deities, praise chiefs, describe environmental phenomena, offer historical accounts, tell stories, entertain, and much more. Hula still retains these functions, and is practiced throughout Hawaiʻi and the world, and is seen in kīpaepae, protocols, classes, celebrations, exhibitions, competitions, demonstrations, and expressions of environmental kinship. Many aspects of hula have connections to the natural world, including the dancing itself, mele and oli (songs and chants), the practice of kuahu, ʻaʻahu (costuming), and implements. Just a few weeks before stay-at-home orders were put in place, a few members of a Hawaiʻi-CC/UH-Hilo joint hula cohort discussed how hula makes them feel more connected to the environment.

This cohort, called Kūkūʻena, is one of many in the Unukupukupu family, which is a specific Hula curricula under the stewardship of Dr. Taupōuri Tangarō, Hawaiʻi-CC Hawaiian Studies Professor, Director of Hawaiian Protocols and Engagement, and Kumu Hula. The Kūkūʻena cohort was formed in 2008 by Tangarō, together with Gail Makuakāne-Lundin, UH-Hilo Director of Kīpuka Native Hawaiian Student Center and Director of the Office of Hawaiʻi Papa O Ke Ao. Kūkūʻena are now under the direction of Kainoa Ariola, UH-Hilo Interim Associate Vice-Chancellor for Student Affairs and Kumu Hula, who herself was once a Kūkūʻena, and a student who went through the ʻūniki process (graduated) under Tangarō. Kūkūʻena cohort members have included faculty, staff, administrators and traditional students from both Hawaiʻi-CC and UH-Hilo. The cohort’s namesake, Kūkūʻena, is an elder sister of Pele, whose functions include caretaking the hearth, ʻawa ceremony, lei-making, and guiding others. The functions of the cohort include bridging campuses and institutions through hula and Hawaiian cultural practice, fostering success of Native Hawaiian students and all students at both institutions, and supporting community relations. Kūkūʻena Karla Sibayan, Secretary for the Hawaiʻi-CC Nursing Program, shared how the cohort contributes to institutional indigenization efforts, “using hula as the foundation… and thinking about student success through the eyes of hula.”

When many people think of hula, dancing is often the first thing that comes to mind. Many elements of the dance have connections to the environment, as many of the dances emulate environmental phenomena. In fact, Kūkuʻena shared that when they dance they strive to embody, to become the environmental element, whether itʻs the wind, a volcanic eruption, the sea.

Allie Atkins, Hawaiʻi-CC Science and Botany Lecturer and member of Kūkūʻena spoke about how dancing hula helps her feel connected to the environment. “Hula is trying to bring the environment into your dancing and into your thoughts,” she said.

There is no hula without the words and chants that accompany the dancing. The motions follow the words, and the words often prompt the dancer to emulate or embody the natural environment, as the words are creating imagery of environmental elements ranging from volcanic activity to surf, winds, rains, mountains, plants and animals, specific places. These environments and elements can also speak to emotions, relationships, circumstances, or stature. Hula tells a story through environmental imagery.

“There are layers of meaning to everything we dance, and the more you learn ʻŌlelo, the Hawaiian language, the more that opens up to you,” said Leo Kalama, a longtime Kūkūʻena, and Hawaiʻi-CC and UH-Hilo graduate. Trina Nahm-Mijo, Hawaiʻi-CC Professor and Department Chair of Social Sciences, spoke fondly of the way Tangarō had the cohort make connections to the chants. “He always encouraged us to have that personal relationship with the chant… You realize why the Hawaiian ancestors were inspired to write about their experience; it makes everything come alive.”

While many elements of hula, such as oli and dance, are symbolic of the environment, some aspects of hula directly involve nature in a tangible way. For example, dancers go into the forest to gather plants for lei and ʻaʻahu. Before entering the forest, they conduct protocol including chant to announce their presence, state their intentions, and request permission to enter. “[We get] out into the environment regularly, not just once a year,” Allie said. “You start to get that mentality of mālama.” This speaks to reciprocity that is also part of the practice.

The plants chosen for placement in hālau as part of the practice of kuahu speak to the hula practionerʻs commitment. Each plant contributes a different element of inspiration to the practice, and the dancers develop personal relationships with those kinolau (multiple forms, manifestations). The position and roles of these plants in their respective forest ecosystems often speaks to what they bring to hālau, whether they provide an understory foundation as do ferns, are vines that provide connections within the forest or strive to reach ever higher to upper levels of the forest canopy, or the trees themselves.

Some traditional hula practices have been altered to reflect human-induced changes in the environment. For hula people ʻōhiʻa is a sacred tree that can be associated with Pele and Hiʻiaka, and is an important kinolau. But, because of ROD (Rapid ʻŌhiʻa Death), ʻōhiʻa is under kapu and is currently not used in hula. “The environment takes precedence over our desire to use it as a hula plant. We have to reflect what is going on in the environment and mālama it, so we’re hoping it does come back to health… It was such an important kuahu plant. I miss it terribly. Itʻs like someone is sick in your family.” Trina said.

Melanie Wilson, Hawaiʻi-CC Dean for Liberal Arts and Public Services, has danced with Kūkūʻena for two years, and spoke about how kuahu practice helps her strengthen her personal connection to the plants. “I slowly learned all the different myths, legends, and stories that go behind the different plants, and that they are embodiments of certain beings.” Trina said kuahu practice was transformational, connecting her intimately to the environment. “You get to know the plants … They really are relatives; they are live energy.” Trina said.

In addition to kuahu, the dancers carry elements of nature on their bodies in the lei and costumes they wear when they dance. The cohort spoke fondly of a journey to Kaʻū. Inspired by their experience dancing a hula honoring winds of Kaʻū, as well as the 2018 eruption of Kīlauea, they dyed their ʻaʻahu in the volcanic ash, both ancient and new, of that powerful Kaʻū environment. Hula costumes are also often dyed naturally with plants, and commonly decorated with stamps made from plants, such as a tī leaf and ʻulu.

Dancers also go out in nature to harvest materials for implements. For example, Kūkuʻena harvested coconuts for pūniu (knee drums) and bamboo for pūʻili, and did so with proper protocol, strengthening their commitment to certain groves and special places. For their implements called kālāʻau, they harvested strawberry guava, an invasive species, an act that also functions as a conservation measure. Similarly to the kuahu and ʻaʻahu, the practice of gathering materials for the implements is done thoughtfully, with the intention of stewardship.

Many dancers spoke about how hula makes them feel more connected to the earth. “For the first time, I don't feel separate from the earth. I’m not living on the planet, I am part of the planet. I never felt that before,” Melanie said. For hundreds of years, hula has helped people connect to their environment. Dances and stories have been passed on for generations, and still have profound impacts on people. Karla spoke about why she dances. “[These are] the stories of our ancestors coming forward and staying alive. We make sure that is what we perpetuate when we perform. It's about sharing the meles and keeping it alive within ourselves, and for our communities and families.”

Hula helps people connect with themselves, nature, ancestors, and Hawaiian culture. Learning more about this traditional, sustainable practice, and how it is tied to the environment, can help us strengthen our personal connection to the environment and understand the importance of mālama ʻāina.

Hawaiʻi Community College has had a robust Hawaiʻi Life Styles Program for many years, which includes a Hula Track. Program information can be found at:

And visit Unukupukupu on Facebook

More Hawaiian cultural and academic resource links may be found at: