Open the Gate and Come to the Ritz on Maui
WHEN THE ANNUAL CELEBRATION OF ARTS opens each year on Maui at the entrance to the Ritz-Carl- ton in Kapalua, Kanaka Maoli and resort cultural advisor Clifford Nae‘ole take center stage. A festival planned on Maui by Nae‘ole is a must-attend annual event for anyone who wants an introduction or continuing education in Hawaiian culture.
A spiritual sunrise ceremony at 5:30 a.m. on a Friday welcomes the Maui day. Later, hula will be performed. Hawaiians will demonstrate ancient crafts. Kupuna in full regalia will offer opening prayers. Stimulating 90-minute discussions will take place on everything from the sensual meanings in hula to Maui tourism and culture.
One of only four resort cultural advisors in the state, Nae’ole has a heritage that uniquely qualifies him for the job. Some 210 years ago, a Nae’ole ancestor was a warrior king so trusted by Hawaiian royalty that he was charged with bringing up the future great King Kamehameha I, uniter of the Hawaiian Islands. Yet Nae‘olealmost turned his back on his own culture.
Growing up near Waihe‘e, north of Wailuku on Maui on the taro fields farmed by his grandfather and father, Nae‘ole remembers running through Maui taro patches and picking huge sweet guava other trees, playing in the mud and having fun while his hardworking parents did the tough work of putting food on the table.
After graduation from high school in Wailuku, Nae’ole was taken aside by his grandfather and told it was time for Kou Manawa, your turn as a hiapo (the first born) to continue the legacy of farming.
Nae’olerefused, aspiring to be a travel agent—an idea he later abandoned—and took for the good life in California, where he married a lady from England. “Why did I marry her? Because,” he joked, remembering his royal heritage, “England still has a king and queen.”
When Nae’oleleft Maui, he was told by his grandfather, “You’ve chosen to dine on the buffet of life.” Coming back after 12 years, Nae’ole said, “the table was empty.
“The land was lost. It really hit hard, but what I have accomplished since would make my grandfather proud.”
Nae’ole sought to learn his culture, starting with hula les- sons, then language and chants, and finally embracing Hawaiian spirituality.
“My son was enrolled in a Hawaiian language immersion school. One day he asked for help with his homework. His textbook was written in Hawaiian. I spoke zero. I knew aloha and mahalo and that was it,” he explained. He is now the man whose Maui voice mail today starts and ends with Hawaiian. (Incidentally, he now considers himself a Kanaka Maoli—one, in his definition who lives the old culture.)
Nae’ole’s renaissance—a work in progress, much like today’s Hawaiian Renaissance of things cultural—is still underway because he says he still has much to learn.
Hired by the Ritz-Carlton as a telephone operator two weeks before the resort opened in 1992, Nae’ole took inspiration from the iwi, the bones of 2,000 Hawaiians whose discovery and preservation led legendary landowner Colin Cameron to move the location of his hotel. Pushing the general manager to do even more by the culture, Nae’ole was quickly promoted to be full-time cultural advisor—as he puts it, “the best job in the world.”
“As cultural advisor, I have the opportunity to create bridges to reconnect the host culture to those we host (our visiting guests). I serve as the link between the Hawaiian community and the hotel on things cultural,” he noted. It ranges from little things like correcting spelling of Hawaiian words on menus to supporting Aloha Festivals and this weekend’s free Celebration of the Arts.
“Our purpose,” Nae’ole continued, “is to help Maui visitors and those who live here understand our culture better through the lure of art, intellectual discussion, panels and music.
“There will be a timely discussion of timely topics but no confrontation. Say to people what you believe, we tell panelists, but listen to others’ points of view.”
Nae’ole notes that Hawaiians “want understanding of who we are and what we can become and understanding of the injustices that have been done and continue to this day.
“I am not a Hawaiian according to law. is hurts me deeply. You are a Native Hawaiian with a capital N and capital H only if you have 50 percent Hawaiian blood, and I do not.”