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The '70s: Viva la Cultural Revolution!

Dozens of great cultural organizations are celebrating 30th anniversaries in Hawaii. What was in the air when they were launched?


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Polynesian Voyaging Society (1973)

Photo by Monte Costa

The 1975-built Hokulea was the first voyaging canoe crafted in Hawaii in more than 600 years. It’s shown here off the north coast of Molokai in 1997.

By the 1970s, most things Hawaiian—language, chants, music, dance, good health, history, pride—had become endangered species. But a movement was afoot early in that decade that was so epoch-making, it is now called the Hawaiian Renaissance.

The decade of the ’70s restored the views of Hawaiian culture from a Hollywood version to one that respected the Hawaiians’ true cultural identity. In music, musicians Gabby Pahinui and Keola and Kapono Beamer restored Hawaiian pride through slack key music. In politics, the Protect Kahoolawe Ohana (PKO) fought to save the island from U.S. Navy bombing practice. Two of the group’s leaders, George Helm and Kimo Mitchell, even died in a 1977 attempt to occupy the island as a protest, though PKO would prevail.

Meanwhile, another organization formed to speak for the ancient Hawaiian ways—the Polynesian Voyaging Society, which aimed to rediscover centuries-old navigation sciences.

When anthropologist Ben Finney came to Hawaii as a graduate student in 1958, the prevailing scholarship held that ancient voyagers had discovered islands in the huge Polynesian triangle by accident. Finney, however, believed that the early Polynesians had both the navigational skills and the canoes needed to accomplish that amazing feat.

He built a boat, the Nalehia, to test some of his theories, but, “What was needed was a new canoe to sail to Tahiti using the ancient voyagers’ traditional wayfinding. It had to be a community project,” Finney says.

Herb Kane, the artist, and Tommy Holmes joined Finney in starting the Polynesian Voyaging Society as a nonprofit corporation that would allow them to pass along knowledge to future students.

By 1975, the voyaging canoe replica was completed, and in 1976, the Hokulea, captained by Niihau native Kawika Kapahulehua and navigated by Micronesian wayfinder Mau Piailug, sailed the 2,400 nautical miles to Tahiti without using instruments. The Hokulea became a symbol of the Hawaiians’ abilities and strengths.

That voyage not only made history, but also created the opportunity for a new generation of traditional navigators to come into their own, such as Nainoa Thompson, who learned, as Thompson calls them, “the fundamentals of the skies” from Piailug and another teacher, Will Kyselka.
The Polynesian Voyaging Society, its navigators and supporters, the boat Hokulea, the canoe’s continuing voyages and the society’s education programs are still fostering dreams and building pride 34 years after three men got together to “build a boat.”


Iolani Palace (Opened as a public museum in 1978)

Photos courtesy of Friends of Iolani

A 1976 shot (right) shows that Iolani Palace was in shambles before it was renovated and reopened as a museum. Left: Palace docents are trained.

In the ’70s, Iolani Palace was at a crossroads. The Hawaii State Legislature had moved out of the palace in 1969, in favor of the newly completed State Capitol Building, and the palace, unoccupied, had yet to find a new purpose. Alice Guild, board president of the Friends of Iolani Palace, recalls that, “Some legislators complained that the Palace blocked their ocean view.”

Historian Rhoda Hackler and Zita Cup Choy, one of the earliest palace docents, report that the building then was deteriorating and abused. In fact, it would take eight years to get the palace ready for its new life as a public museum.

“Liliuokalani Kawananakoa Morris founded the Friends of Iolani Palace to restore the palace and preserve the history of the Hawaiian monarchy,” Guild says.

The Friends hired one of America’s leading historical architects, Charles Peterson, to prepare plans for the restoration, while the Friends of
Iolani Palace supervised the years of restoration work. A noted architect, Geoffrey Fairfax, guided the physical restoration of the building.

Guild had proposed a prodigious research project to guide the restoration, for which the Junior League of Hawaii volunteered for with great enthusiasm, if little expertise.

“We had no idea how to research,” Guild recalls. “Even then, though, when someone was needed, a person with exactly the right skills materialized. Just when I was wondering what we had done taking on this project, Rhoda Hackler introduced herself and said, ‘I might be able to help. I have some background in research.’

“She’d transferred from the Mainland and was everything we could have dreamed of. Soon, she was leading us over to the State Archives building.”

Today, the Friends’ volunteers continue to search for, acquire and conserve the original palace furnishings and artifacts, all of which were auctioned off after the overthrow of the monarchy. To date, more than 4,700 artifacts have been returned to the palace because of their worldwide searches.


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