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Smithsonian Folklife Festival

Hawai‘i: 1989

by Richard Kennedy

It took months for the curatorial staff to decide what tag line to use with the title of the Hawai‘i program at the 1989 Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife (now the Smithsonian Folklife Festival). Their final decision? Don’t use one; the program would simply be called “Hawai‘i.” In the process of researching this program, the organizers realized that any addition to the title could easily limit and misrepresent a program about this wonderfully complicated State.

The Hawai‘i State Foundation on Culture and the Arts decided to celebrate the 30th anniversary of statehood, in part, with a Festival on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The decision was particularly charged in the context of identity politics of the 1980s, a time when some Hawaiians questioned the value of statehood and others even championed independence and the establishment of a sovereign kingdom. The cultural renaissance of the 1970s had unearthed a variety of fissures between communities, and the lauded success of cultural diversity in the islands was, and remains, in question. In this environment, the Smithsonian Festival team began by asking local organizers a simple nevertheless challenging question: if you have only one hundred people to represent the traditions of Hawai‘i, who would they be?

The Hawai‘i program was also developed at a time when the Smithsonian Office of Folklife Programs (now the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage) was committed to broadening the involvement of local communities in the Festival process, particularly in its research phase. More than forty local scholars, community activists, and practitioners in Hawai‘i were identified to carry out research in preparation for the Festival. Over a six month period, these researchers created an archive of material that led to the selection of more than one hundred artists from nine ethnic communities living on every island in the state: Puerto Rican Kachi-kachi musicians; Hawaiian chanters; an outrigger canoe builder; an Okinawan textile weaver; a taro farmer; a Portuguese forno cook, etc. That archive, copies of which are now at the Smithsonian and the University of Hawai‘i, provides a snapshot of Hawai‘i in the late 1980s.

Once on the Mall, Festival participants from Hawai‘i addressed such topical and pressing issues as sovereignty, cultural diversity, and tourism from the front porch of the “K. Awa Store” narrative stage. These discussions and the cultural traditions shared in performances and demonstrations during the Festival never failed to surprise program visitors. One woman who attended a Korean dance concert commented that she had never seen performers like these on her visits to Hawai‘i, and therefore surmised that they must have come from “the other side of the islands.” For those of us working on the program—organizers and participants alike—this phrase became the program tag line we had been looking for. Even as seven-to-eight million tourists visit Hawai‘i every year, the traditions of the local communities remain strong at home, and visitors to the 1989 Festival had a rare opportunity to see that vitality proudly displayed on the National Mall.

Richard Kennedy was deputy director of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage from 1994 to 2008 and served as acting director until April 2009. He co-curated Smithsonian Folklife Festival programs Hawai‘i, Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines, Russian Music, Tibetan Culture, Silk Road, Oman, and The Mekong River and coordinated larger institutional efforts such the Smithsonian's 150th Birthday Party.

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The Festival was produced by Bart Fredo and PBS Hawai‘i in 1989. The film is narrated by Nalani Eilson-Ku and includes interviews and performances recorded at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C., and in Hawai‘i. Courtesy of PBS Hawai‘i; special thanks to Roberta Wong Murray

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Celebrating Hawaii's Cultures was produced by Juniroa Productions in 1989. The video is narrated by Honolulu Skylark. Producers Heather Giugni and Lurline McGregor created it from material recorded entirely on the grounds of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C., and the credit roll provides a list of all the crafts people who participated in the 1989 Hawai‘i program. Courtesy of Juniroa Productions and Heather Giugni