John Keola Lake has shaped an entire generation of Native Hawaiians. In doing so, he is ensuring that the ways of his kupuna live on.
To listen to John Keola Lake is to hear many voices.
Some of those voices are familiar, some foreign, some from a past at once far away and intimately close. When he chants, his voice rumbles from the depths of his operatic body. When he speaks Hawaiian, his voice crackles over ‘okina and slides along kahakö.
When he speaks English, his words seem to come from the very back of his gigantic, fluttering throat. Unless, of course, he is making merry-which he does often and with abandon. Then his voice giggles and rises into a high, sweet, childlike pitch.
Protegees describe his voice as “at once stern and gentle.” It can be base and gutteral, or it can have an almost feminine quality. Some of his students and say that it reminds them of a “favorite old-style Hawaiian aunty,” or the “tutu I never knew.”
Lake himself doesn’t want to talk about his voice the day we meet at Zippy’s near Kähala Mall. He wants to talk about the voices, indeed the oratory, of the 19th-century Hawaiians, which he is doing his damnedest to bring back to life.
“The beauty, the styles, the topics and the metaphors of our chants make the Hawaiian oral form just as great as British orations, American novels or Greek tragedies,” Lake begins, in a rush of enthusiasm. A great chanter, he adds, has vocal power, nuanced delivery, knowledge of the language and the skill of a Cicero to evoke images and emotions.
“We contemporary Hawaiians have been raised with a Christian ethic of being humble, being deferential, not disrespecting your teachers,” Lake says, describing the difficulty of resurrecting the oratory of old.
“We have been socialized not to challenge. But Hawaiians have a long tradition of challenging. The a’a is a tradition of provocative oratory. The ho’opa’apa’a is like a ‘Dueling Banjos’ of speaking.
“This is the chanting described by my father when he told me stories about my grandfather, Charlie, or Kali, Lake. When that man chanted, it was exciting.”
I have tracked Lake down partly because I, too, am excited by chanting, but mostly because I’ve noticed his name here and there ever since my kumu hula, Patrick Makuakäne of San Francisco, first told me about the St. Louis teacher who inspired him. I see Lake in my hometown of Oakland, Calif., for a screening of a film he co-produced, which chronicles the 1991 ceremonies at the Big Island’s Pu’u Koholä Heiau.
I see him with his hälau at the Waikïkï Aquarium in May. Then, two days later, he’s blessing the Waialua Bandstand in the town I grew up in. In July, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin shows 8,000 postal workers (at the 64th Biennial National Convention of the National Association of Letter Carriers) cracking up as this guy explains the chant he picked just for them.
Who is this John Keola Lake?
When he walks into Zippy’s, where he suggested we meet, the first thing I notice-besides his lick of dove gray hair, his black boardshorts, his crisp white T-shirt and the tassel of keys around his neck-is that he is on a first-name basis with every server in the joint. When he orders a big bowl of Zipmin, our waitress asks knowingly, “With raspberry iced tea?”
Lake discreetly hands me his CV, tucked into a white envelope. I don’t have time to read it-it is as extensive as the chants he has taught to his students-as he launches into an executive summary: He is a 32-year veteran of the St. Louis faculty, where he began by teaching Spanish, and ended up running the Hawaiian Studies program. He is kumu-in-residence at Chaminade University, where he is an associate professor of Hawaiian Language, Religion and Oral Traditions. He is Kahuna Nui at Pu’u Koholä Heiau, and an advisor to the National Park Service there.
That’s not all, I learn later, studying the CV. He is a scholar of Hawaiian tradition and protocol. He is a community activist, working with other kumu hula to affect the legislative process. He is an ad hoc civil servant, blessing buildings, praying for postal workers and performing weddings.
He has been named Outstanding Hawaiian Civic Club Member (1978), Outstanding Hawaiian (1980) and an Outstanding High School Teacher of Catholic Schools (1992).
But the people who know him closely don’t call him “outstanding.” They call him ‘olu’olu-a living example of that traditional Hawaiian pleasantness that less sophisticated observers call “the aloha spirit.”
That ‘olu’olu quality is surely a result of Lake’s upbringing. So, too, is his history of accomplishment: He is hardly the first in his family to be a renowned teacher, a thrilling chanter or a respected priest.
His great-grandmother was a kahuna in Kaupö, but, by the time Lake himself was born in 1937, the family was based in Wailuku. Lake spent his early years, in Lahaina, though, with his maternal grandmother. “My mother’s mother, Abigail Kaukamakanikamana’oolokookalani Kaluaki, raised seven of her grandchildren,” Lake says, describing the schoolteacher who spoke “wonderful English,” but insisted on speaking Hawaiian to him.
“All my grandparents were converts to Christianity, but they lived in the Hawaiian way. We had an early morning rise, by 6:30. The house had to be cleaned and the yard watered by 7:30, when the heat set in. Once the chores were done, she would let us go to the beach to swim or gather the things that she needed-limu, fish, whatever.” He recalls catching nehu under the pier in front of the old Pioneer Hotel, and watching fishermen and families exchange the morning catch and poi.
His grandmother’s rules were simple, but unswerving: practice cleanliness, respect your elders and observe household protocol. (“She would not allow us to sweep dust out of the house after supper-that was when the küpuna would come visiting, and that was not a proper way to welcome them.”)
Kaluaki, a devout Episcopalian, would read to her grandchildren from the Book of Common Prayer after the evening meal. But she also saw to it that the young Lake was schooled in Hawaiian tradition. “I would be taken to see my grand aunt, Aunty Kai, from about the time I was 5 until I was about 12,” Lake recalls. “She would sit under a kiawe tree with her lomi stick-I would listen to her chanting and teaching others. At first I just listened and observed and mimicked-and danced till my thighs were sore.”
When Lake moved back to Wailuku, his parents insisted on speaking English and sent their children to private Catholic schools. Yet they still kept to the old-style Hawaiian way of life: rise early, clean the house and yard, work in the taro patches, help tutu wahine gather what she needed, feed the pigs and chickens and help dad mend nets.
“My father was a big man-a real Hawaiian: six-foot-three, 300-some pounds,” Lake says. “He was a canoe maker, a fisherman, a jailer-he had his prisoners under such control he would take them fishing! He told you something, you went ‘OK.'” Lake delivers this last word in a compliant falsetto. “He was a disciplinarian, but a gentle man.”
Among Lake’s prominent memories of his time in Wailuku was his grandfather Lake’s funeral in 1948. “It was huge. The chanters came out of the woodwork. Their chants went on and on. We kids were told not to move-we couldn’t even get up to go to the bathroom.”
When it came to schooling, the Catholic side of the family won out, and Lake headed to the Jesuit-run University of San Francisco. At USF, in 1959, Lake planned to go into education. “My roommate was from Bolivia, and we were teaching each other English and Spanish. So I decided Spanish would be my teaching minor.” Lake’s self-deprecating talk would have you believe he is an accidental polyglot, but he followed up his bachelor’s with a master’s in education and then headed to Valencia, Spain, to do advanced work in Spanish linguistics. (In addition to Spanish, he speaks Maori, reads French and writes in Italian.)
Lake then settled in San Francisco, where he taught middle school. Perhaps it was because he was constantly mistaken for a Chicano (“No, hombre,” he recalls saying over and over, “Soy Hawaiiana!”) or perhaps it was the destiny of a man with the middle name Keolamaka’ainanana-kalähuiokalaniokamehameha’ekolu-“the life of the common people, a nation of chiefs, during the reign of Kamehameha III”- but in 1962, Lake came back to Hawai’i to teach Spanish at St. Louis and to pick up where his grandmother and Aunty Kai had left off.
He sought out such hula masters as Edith Kanaka’ole and Aunty Ma’iki Aiu (who eventually became an in-law when she married Lake’s cousin and hänai brother Kahauanu.) By 1965, he was dancing professionally with Aunty Ma’iki at the Royal Hawaiian, the Halekülani and Paradise Park.
“I loved to watch him dance,” recalls his St. Louis student Patrick Makuakäne. “He was that Hawaiian cowboy, he was that handsome Hawaiian man. He fully embodied every role.”
In 1966, a nun asked Lake why he wasn’t teaching Hawaiian. This was right when teachers at other schools-such as Dorothy Kahananui at Kamehameha-were starting to teach what was then called Hawaiiana. Lake set about developing a curriculum and a Hawaiian club.
Those were the days when football players on the Mainland studied ballet to improve coordination. The trend played right into Lake’s hand. “The football team asked me to teach them hula-45 of them! I said ‘You go find 45 girls. So they did, from Sacred Hearts. All of a sudden I had 90 kids. They loved it. By 1970, you were a big man on campus if you were in the Hawaiian club and played football.”
Soon Lake was teaching academic classes in Hawaiian language, music and dance-and 300 students were members of Hui Na Opio. “When I joined the Hawaiian club in 1975, it was the thing to do,” says Makuakäne, who admits he was initially only “so-so on the idea.” When in the first class Lake asked his students why they were there, Makuakäne answered, “Learn Hawaiian songs. He said sternly-he was intimidating but still ‘olu’olu-‘If you want to join, you have to dance. This is the whole works!’ After two weeks, I was hooked. He was the most nurturing teacher I’ve ever had and he made me interested in my culture.”
Makuakäne remembers one other thing about the mentor he still calls “Mr. Lake”: the haunted house he, his wife Barbara and their kids built each Halloween in the garage. “The whole ‘ohana would turn out to build that thing,” Makuakäne says. “It was known throughout Kähala.”
Lake’s ‘ohana kept expanding. In 1975, he opened Hälau Mele, the Hawai’i Academy of Arts, Music & Dance, with his cousin Kahauanu. (The academy continues to this day and is housed at the Center for Hawaiian Studies at UH Mänoa.) Separately, in 1980, he founded Nä Hänona Hälau Hula Pa Ola Kapu, his performing group.
Members of his hälau echo Lake’s St. Louis wards when they describe his teaching. “His style allows him to be attentive to the level of his students,” says one of them, Dr. Sam Gon, 48, the director of Science at the Nature Conservancy and a member of Lake’s hälau for 10 years. “He knows how to encourage you if you’re just starting out-he’s forgiving of your blunders-but he doesn’t let you slack off later. As you raise your skills, he raises his expectations.”
Gon is just one of an entire generation of Hawaiians Lake has inspired to go back to the culture of their ancestors.
“He’s very skilled at hooking people disconnected from their cultural experience,” says Meleanna Meyer, a visual artist who first met Lake after she was given raw footage of the ceremonies at Pu’u Koholä, which eventually became the film Ho’oku’ikahi. “At first he just asked me to do a little reading, as preparation for the film,” Meyer recalls. “Then I started getting peripherally involved in the hälau. After three or four years, I joined. He’s the kind of person anyone would want to be mentored by.”
Lake left St. Louis in 1993, after 32 years. But he hardly retired. He kept a full schedule as a researcher, author and lecturer. He chanted at Onipa’a events and delivered the benediction before Gov. John Waihee’s address at ‘Iolani Palace. He composed and performed a chant honoring Father Damien in Belgium.
Even today, as he struggles with an illness that he concedes “has slowed me down,” his hälau is going strong, and he’s teaching at Chaminade. He serves on countless boards and committees, and he’s one of the official priests of the City and County of Honolulu. In fact, he is licensed as a kahu by the Board of Health, and has ordained eight others.
“I just gave an invocation for the mail carriers three weeks ago,” he tells me, as he orders custard pie for the two of us. (“The doctors are telling me I shouldn’t eat this,” he notes, but I am happily complicit in the indulgence.)
“I said to myself, ‘What prayer should I give to 8,000 letter carriers? What would be the most appropriate for when they get up and get ready to deliver letters?’ I ended up doing the chant my grandfather would do in the morning-he would go to church, come home, have his coffee and cracker and then go downstairs and chant.”
Sharon Ishii, Mayor Jeremy Harris’s executive assistant, is frequently the one who calls Lake for such official duties. She cites Lake’s idea for the dedication of the renewed Kühiö Beach as an example of the civil service he does so well. “He came up with a beautiful idea,” she says. The mayor and other officials would go out in a canoe to the breakwater and bring back gourds filled with the foamy water from where the waves break. “The waves bring the power of the ocean in,” Ishii added, “but then they break and allow us to swim and enjoy the beach.”
Lake’s role as a kahu is much broader that just blessing beaches. For the past decade, Lake has been studying what Native Hawaiians call-for lack of a better word-protocol. This is the deeply Hawaiian expectation of correctness in things-which manifests in a sensitive attention to detail, a concern for what is apt in a particular situation and a quest for moral correctness.
Lake’s preoccupation with protocol has become a focus of his professional life in the past decade, especially in his work at Pu’u Koholä Heiau near Kawaihae.
The heiau was built by Kamehameha I in 1791 after he captured all the Hawaiian islands and subjugated their chiefs. A small group of Lake’s peers decided to learn the rituals, ceremonies and chants that would be appropriate for its 200th anniversary, and Lake commenced 30 months of research on the protocol that would be associated with this last great temple. He was eventually named Kahuna Nui of the heiau, and each year in mid-August he leads a four-day summit there, with exercises, workshops, martial arts, ceremonies and-this being his kind of event-oratory.
He was also chief of protocol when the crew of the Hokule’a voyaged in 1999 to Rapa Nui. Lake shared with the crew the intricacies of “showing mutual respect.” He sent chanters ahead and himself performed the ceremonial greetings as the outrigger arrived. “First, you call the spirits of the ancestors, and the spirits of the house where you’re going,” he explained at the time. He also brought water from Waipi’o Valley-blending it with the water of Rapa Nui to make it safe for the canoe to land-and special pöhaku, or stones, as a way of expressing respect for the life of the land.
“He was the darling of Rapa Nui,” recalls Dr. Sam Gon, “because he could speak fluently in Spanish-their lingua franca-and explain the Hawaiian language and culture to them in a way they could understand.”
Not all audiences are as rapturous as the Rapanuians, though. Some Hawaiian scholars and kumu hula scoff at those who claim authority on the ways of ancient Hawaiians, given the ruptures of the 19th and 20th centuries.
“Some people might look at him dedicating a City and County building and say ‘Who’s pocket are you in?'” says Gon. “But he’s so steeped in what he does, it’s not a compromise at all. To him, it does not matter that you’re opening a new outlet for, say, the Banana Republic. If he’s asked to give a blessing, not only will he do it, but he will do it with all due respect to that ritual. It will not be a performance. He’ll make sure the participants-who may or may not be from here-understand the context of the blessing. Not many people of his stature would bless a new Banana Republic store. But he has figured out how to reconcile many worlds.”
Indeed, Lake has had a lifetime of bridging worlds-whether the Book of Common Prayer and Aunty Kai’s lessons, the prayers at St. Anthony’s and the chants at his grandfather’s funeral, or the needs of a heiau and the needs of politicians.
He seems to understand the paradoxes of being a Native Hawaiian kahu trotted in to bestow his blessing on very bureaucratic projects-and doesn’t let them stop his life’s work. Sure, he’s unfailingly conscientiousness, but he doesn’t seem to take himself too seriously. Mentioning a recent ceremony for a new road near Fort Armstrong, he says, chuckling, “That was the first time I blessed a road.” When the government official called to give him the logistics, he answered, “I’ll be the guy dressed like a Hindu.”
For all his joking, Lake is dead serious about his attempts to bring ancient Hawaiian ways into our modern world. His kuleana today, he says, is to bring stability to traditional protocol-and, especially given his age and health, to find the next generation to keep it.
“There is so much more to be done and honored,” he says, polishing off his slice of custard pie. “The first level of teaching Hawaiian studies is teaching the language. Then, teaching the hula. Then, teaching someone to chant, to really use his or her voice. Can you tell a story? Can you get up and persuade someone of something? Can you literally get up and glorify someone?
“Our language is on its way. Our science is on its way. Now, we’re getting our literature on its way.” He is too humble to credit himself in all this, but the thought crosses my mind.
“The greatest satisfaction of a teacher is to see something that was lost rekindled,” he muses, “to see others take it up and make it theirs.”
“I’m a teacher. Period.”