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Op-Ed: FestPAC offers lessons of Pacific unity

reprinted with permission

The sound of conch shells and the incessant beat of drums reached from the white sands of Kualoa Beach Park and across the centuries. The popular beach park was the venue for the recent arrival of voyaging canoes carrying officials for the opening event of the 13th Festival of Pacific Arts, which Hawaii was hosting for the first time in the Festival’s 52-year history.  FestPAC brought together over 2,000 of the best artists and dancers from more than 20 Pacific Islands countries and territories.

My guess is that Hawaii may never be the same because of the Festival. Each day brought new teachable moments for the large crowds that packed the Hawaii Convention Center, the main venue. Let me share two such lessons.

Lesson One is the overriding importance of protocol in the Pacific, where elected and traditional leaders share places of honor in daily life. I’m particularly sensitive to this point because I have two friends who were recently made high or paramount chiefs, and both hold or have held high elected office. And both have strong Hawaii ties.

One is Christopher Loeak, former president of the independent Republic of the Marshall Islands, who last fall in an elaborate ceremony called Kailojoj had his already high chiefly status elevated to Iroijlaplap or paramount chief. A softspoken man who was educated at Hawaii Pacific University, President Loeak comes from a long lineage of influential iroij or chiefs in the Marshall Islands. He and his wife, who is also of chiefly rank, are often in Hawaii.

The other friend is U.S. Representative Amata Coleman Radewagen. She was recently bestowed with a high chief’s title in her native American Samoa, which she represents in Congress. The special honor – the title, created over a century ago, was given to her father, the late American Samoa Governor Peter Tali Coleman, a graduate of St. Louis School — was presented during an ancient ceremony known as a saofa’i in Pago Pago. Congresswoman Radewagen’s late mother, Nora Stewart, was of Hawaiian ancestry.

Hers is a good example of the challenges we in Hawaii, and Americans in general, have getting it right when it comes to proper Pacific protocol. If proper protocol were to be followed, the Congresswoman should now be formally known as The Honorable Afioga Uifa’atali Amataupulevasegaotupu Catherine Coleman Radewagen, MC.

Now it should be noted that during FestPAC Hawaiians were not unknowing in matters of Pacific protocol. Far from it. Perhaps the most powerful moment came, appropriately enough, on the grounds of Iolani Palace from hula halau. That’s where dancers from Halau Na Mamo O Puuanahulu and Halau Hula Ka Lehua Tuahine performed historic hula of high honor for guests who were all Pacific traditional leaders. Those leaders responded with shouts of “Vinaka!” and “Malo!” (thank you).

In Congresswoman Radewagen’s case, she is taking this one step at a time. “It’s hard enough to pronounce,” she told me of her married name, Radewagen, which is of German heritage. “So as much as I would like, I’m not about to inflict Afioga Uifa’atali on the palagis (the Samoan word for outsiders, similar to haole in Hawaii) in Washington.”

I mention this in some detail because of Lesson Two: FestPac may have been the first time many Native Hawaiians heard other Pacific Islanders refer to these islands as a “host nation.” That honor, expressed many times, was most poignantly made during FestPac’s ecumenical church service when members of the American Samoan delegation sang a medley of “Hawaii Aloha” and “Lota Nu’u Moni,” a traditional Samoan hymn.

To hear those magnificent Samoan voices sing “Hawaii Aloha” in perfect harmony in honor of the Hawaiian nation was a life changing moment. Listening to one proud Polynesian race sing praises of another, you could feel that anything was possible.

Floyd K. Takeuchi is a Honolulu-based writer-photographer who does much of his work in the Pacific Islands. This commentary first ran in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s Views & Voices section on June 11, 2024.