Text by Eunica Escalante | Images by Jonas Maon and courtesy of the Moanalua Gardens Foundation
The little clapboard house in Kamananui Valley sat alone amid acres of untamed forest just west of Honolulu. The single-story structure was simple, especially in comparison to ‘Iolani Palace, which was to be built 25 years later, in 1879. But the cottage had a charming quaintness to it. The white wooden walls were adorned with gingerbread trimming and crowned with a wood-shingled roof. It was accessible only by horse, and reaching it required more than a day’s ride from downtown. In every regard, it was a humble abode. But despite this, inside its walls lived royalty: King Kamehameha V, the last reigning monarch of the Kamehameha dynasty. And it was on its surrounding stretch of grass, and under its swaying trees, that the tradition of hula was able to endure.
Roughly 500 years ago, the cottage’s valley and the ahupua‘a it was located within, Moanalua, were home to a thriving Native Hawaiian community. Its abundance benefited a burgeoning population, who flocked to its streams and hillsides, where wild kalo (taro) grew plentifully. The valley’s ‘Īemi freshwater spring and pond attracted native travelers and warriors alike. By the 1600s, Moanalua was a cultural center where hula and chant flourished.
But two centuries later, Western contact introduced foreign disease that decimated the local population. Moanalua’s terraces and the spring were soon left untended. In 1820, hula was forbidden under decree of Kamehameha I’s wife, Ka‘ahumanu, influenced by Protestant missionaries who regarded the practice as blasphemous. “The missionaries felt it was more of a pagan rite than a cultural tradition,” says Pauline Worsham, managing director of the Moanalua Gardens Foundation. “Because of the missionaries’ ban on hula, it really went underground.”
In 1830, the man who would become King Kamehameha V was known as Prince Lota Kapuāiwa. Adopted by his aunt, Princess Nāhi‘ena‘ena, who was the daughter of Kamehameha I, he was raised under the guardianship of Kamehameha I’s trusted advisor, Ulumāheihei Hoapili-kane, who became like a father to him.
With the death of Hoapili-kane, Prince Lot (a moniker given to him by the people) inherited the glittering ahupua‘a of Moanalua. At this point, in the mid-19th century, the land was little more than a pit stop for travelers journeying from Honolulu to O‘ahu’s west side, but Prince Lot adored it. When the duties of his roles within the Privy Council and House of Nobles, and as Kuhina Nui and the Commissioner of Customs, grew too stressful, he would retreat to the valley.
These trips to Moanalua offered brief respites from the pressures of a growing nation. In 1854, Prince Lot commissioned a cottage to be built in the valley, which was to be his summer home. Construction began with a simple bedroom and bathroom unit. A kitchen and dining area were added years later. But the cottage’s most significant feature was its lāna‘i, a wooden porch that wrapped around the entire home.
Atop this veranda and away from the missionaries’ prying eyes, Native Hawaiians from hālau hula throughout the island were once again free to dance. Bare feet tapped to rhythms of ipu gourds, and chanters’ powerful altos rang out. Prince Lot, ever a bold man, ignored the royal edict banning the public performance of hula. Instead, he encouraged the practice, inviting numerous hālau to perform at his cottage.
“He never let hula get buried,” says kumu hula Coline Aiu, daughter of Ma‘iki Aiu Lake, who was considered to be the grand dame of hula. Aiu now runs the hula academy her mother founded, Halau Hula O Maiki, which trained the likes of kumu hula Robert Cazimero and kumu hula Leina‘ala Kalama Heine. “I’m so proud that he had the courage to do it,” says Aiu of Prince Lot’s choice to welcome hula at the cottage, despite the growing influence of missionaries who opposed it. “He did it at a time that he knew he had to.”
These royal actions would continue to resonate years later, after he was crowned King Kamehameha V in 1863. His open acceptance of hula and other Native Hawaiian traditions—he also ended the ban on kāhuna, the traditional healers of ancient Hawai‘i—set a precedence for future monarchs. “He had a love for Hawaiian culture and his people, and he didn’t want to see his culture die,” Worsham says. “He was the first ali‘i to really bring hula back—even before [King] Kalākaua.”
Years later, King David Kalākaua would have hula dancers perform at his 1883 coronation and his 1886 jubilee. History credits Kalākaua’s reign with the renaissance of hula. Yet some, like Aiu, remember the legacy that Kamehameha V first set. “He made the practice of hula more OK than any other ali‘i before him,” Aiu says. Each year, the Prince Lot Hula Festival is held in honor of Kamehameha V. Hālau from all over Hawai‘i have congregated in Moanalua, at the monarch’s beloved home. (This year, the festival is taking place at ‘Iolani Palace.) “We come to celebrate the hula and the tradition we have,” Aiu says. “What you bring is your aloha, and what you go home with is 100 times the aloha you brought.”
For more information, visit moanaluagardensfoundation.org.