Ku exhibit helps to uncover roles, responsibilities of modern-day Hawaiians

Beth-Ann Kozlovich

HONOLULU—Personal identity can be tough to figure out. Whether or not you ask yourself, “Who am I?” the question is implicit in every choice we make. Add the overlay of Hawaiian identity and the answers can get more difficult to find, especially, it seems, for Hawaiian men ... unless you have someone to show you the way.

That’s the point of a discussion next week at the Bishop Museum. Ku Rising: The Roles and Responsibilities of Hawaiian Men Today will feature three cultural practitioners and scholars. It’s being held in conjunction with a historic display of the Ku images returned to Hawaii after 150 years.

Noelle Kahanu, education project manager with Bishop Museum, says details are somewhat sketchy as to how the images left Hawaii in the 1830s, but what is significant is that the images left Hawaii after the overthrow of the traditional Hawaiian religious system in 1819.

“These images survived the difficult transition period when all other images were removed, destroyed or hidden away,” Kahanu says.

After so much time away from Hawaii, all three images have been able to be brought back together, if only until October 4 when the exhibit closes, Kahanu explains.

The timing of the exhibit has specific meaning according to Ty Kawika Tengan, an associate professor in ethnic studies and anthropology at the University of Hawaii and the principal humanities scholar and consultant for the museum exhibit.

“This year is the bicentennial of the unification of the Hawaiian kingdom under Kamehameha in 1810 and it’s an important time to think of our people, our nation, who we are,” Tengan says, “and in particular for men to think of the many roles and responsibilities we have.” 

Umi Kai, who is a generation above Tengan and also a community consultant on the Ku exhibit, is a Hawaiian artist and martial arts master known for his Hawaiian weaponry. Kai says he has defined himself as a Hawaiian man who has changed over his lifetime. He says he has come to see that “the past wasn’t so bad and our ancestors had more sense than most people give them credit for. I’m growing and changing and I’m learning.” 

For his dissertation, Tengan interviewed Hawaiian men like Kai who grew up in the 1950s and ‘60s before the Hawaiian renaissance became mainstream. Many of these men grew up not speaking Hawaiian and were told that the “best way to go is just be American. It’s later in life when they try to reconnect to language and culture,” Tengan says.

Tengan’s paper became the basis for the recently released Native Men Remade, a book exploring gender and nation in contemporary Hawaii. The Ku images, he says, are challenging several generations of Hawaiian men to reconsider their contemporary identity in the context of an ancestral past.

“Ku is the deity that represents the male generating power,” Tengan explains. “To think about the way in which this particular image and his representations were dispersed and then came back together is a very visual way of having our men think about the way in which we may have been dispersed and how we can come together again.”

Kai calls Tengan and his peers “the intellect generation” and says that while they now have the Hawaiian language and may even know more about their culture than some of the middle-aged men, Kai believes many younger Hawaiian men are having identity issues.

Of his own generation, Kai says they learned the practicality of being Hawaiian without considering it Hawaiian; it was just how they lived their lives. Kai believes both skill sets need to be integrated through on-going intergenerational mentoring. “We have the physical experience and we need to bring both groups together,” Kai says.

Kai has made some considerable attempts at bringing the generations together. As a member of the planning committee of the second Aha Kane, a Native Hawaiian men’s health conference held in June, Kai was one of over 600 men who attended the event.

Kai and Tengan hope the conference and the activities and workshops that will flow from it will help change perceptions Hawaiian men have of themselves, as well as teach the responsibilities, habits, and attitudes to develop a mentally and physically healthier Hawaiian population and help counter culturally negative stereotypes and statistics.

Neither Tengan nor Kai disputes the high rates of incarceration, poor access to healthcare, and involvement in domestic and sexual violence in the Hawaiian population but they say the negatives are only part of the story.

Changing some of the negative aspects will take Hawaiian men willing to speak up. Tengan cautions: “The larger question is how the message is delivered so that the men who need to hear it will respect it. What we’re looking for in the Hale Mua is a culturally appropriate forum and institution for teaching behavior that is pono.”

Kai believes that also comes back to teaching Hawaiian men the cultural approach to creating a balance of male between female elements within each person’s identity.

“Hawaiians believe you have a balance of Ku and Hina,” Kai explains. “Many Hawaiian males have too much Ku and they don’t recognize they have a Hina side. But if you can recognize you have both, and that you can find a balance point that you can work with, you’ll feel better about yourself, be more open with your spouse and your children, and be more gentle.”

Kahanu adds, “This Ku exhibit is an opportunity to look at the importance of the roles of men—and women. If you go to the concept of kuleana we all have our responsibilities, passions, and abilities. Part of it is trying to find out what we’re good at, what we’re best at.”

Which is to say, Hawaiian or not, it’s a lesson in identity for all of us.

The display of the Ku images continues through October 4 at the Bishop Museum. The discussion, “Ku Rising: The Roles and Responsibilities of Hawaiian Men Today” is scheduled for next Tuesday evening, August 10 from 6:00 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at the Atrium at Bishop Museum. For more information, call (808) 848-4190.

The entire interview with Umi Kai, Ty Kawika Tengan and Noelle Kahanu is on the Town Square archive on the newly redesigned HPR website at www.hawaiipublicradio.org.

Ku Rising: The Roles and Responsibilities of Hawaiian Men Today
August 10 from 6:00 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Atrium at Bishop Museum, 1525 Bernice Street
(808) 848-4190