UnCruise the Hawaiian Islands to Talk Story
The words of the Hawaiian language are melodic. From the voice of the right storyteller, they roll off the tongue in a form of lyrical poetry. When joined by the ukulele and hula, they combine to tell a verbal history that is passed from generation to generation. This is what they call in the Hawaiian Islands Talk Story. It was one of the highlights of my trip when I had the opportunity to cruise the islands aboard a 36 passenger expedition ship.
What makes a good storyteller? It’s a question I often ask myself as I try to translate the experiences I have as a traveler into words for my readers. As one who loves the telling of tales, I don’t think I could have been luckier than to have Danny “Kaniela” Akaka Jr. and his wife Ana as our onboard hosts during a 7 day island exploration with UnCruise Adventure in Hawaii. I had the chance to interview them both during a quiet moment on deck overlooking the Pacific and volcanic mountains of Maui.
Traditional Protocol and Talk Story
We started our journey with a blessing of the ship and then the traditional greeting and exchange of HA. This exchange of breath is done when two people press together their noses while inhaling at the same time. By exchanging the breath of life each is welcomed into the other’s space. A sacred greeting in the culture. Ancient Hawaiians recognized that their breath was the key to good health. It possessed spiritual power. Before an elderly person died, they passed along wisdom to the chosen successor by sharing ha in this fashion.
What is Talk Story in the Hawaiian Islands
Unfortunately, our Hawaiian ancestors did not pen a written history of our islands. Information was passed from generation to generation verbally, with the ‘Ōlelo (the language and spoken word) and in storytelling. Today there is much effort in our Hawaiian renaissance to record what we know about our past history before the kūpuna (our elders) forget and can no longer tell it to us.
Still today, for us to communicate and dialogue is to “talk story.” There is so very much I personally have learned from the ‘ōlelo form of teaching, perhaps most of all that anyone who speaks has the potential to be my teacher. I only need listen as well as I can, quieting the voices in my own head. ~ Ana
As much as I love reading, you cannot replace the interchange that happens between human beings when you ‘ōlelo and talk story with each other. Learning is just as much about the questioning, and the requests for clarification and complete understanding. ~ Dan
The Experts of Hawaiian Island’s Talk Story
Danny is a fascinating individual, eager to share his encyclopedic knowledge of the islands he loves so dearly. As a child, he grew up around music in the church where his father, the late US Senator Daniel Akaka, was the choirmaster and a band teacher at the local high school. Kaniela became a leader in the youth choir and over the years he learned from great Hawaiian musicians; he even recorded two CD’s.
Anna grew up on Hawaii nurtured by the balance of spirituality and physical well-being. She learned hula at an early age and continues to practice this tradition as well as working with indigenous crafts.
The couple met in highschool. The Kamehameha private school system was developed for native Hawaiians to learn English. Studying a college prep curriculum, their courses were enhanced by Hawaiian culture, language and practices. Continuing Hawaiian traditions was of historic and practical value; a priority in this school system. Kamehameha I(c.1736-1819) was the founder and the first ruler of the Kingdom of Hawaii and over 30 schools, named in his memory, operate around the state.
Continuing their education at the University of Honolulu, it was fortuitous their arrival coincided with the beginning of the Hawaiian studies program. Danny and Anna’s participation helped shape the future of the curriculum. In the early 70’s they never imagined they would be pioneers in the syllabus and such an integral part of its development.
We were so fortunate to have a professor from Hawaii, who knew the language. Growing up with his grandmother, if you closed your eyes he sounded Pure Hawaiian. The only native speakers at that time were grandparents; use of the language had been banned since 1896. Residents were not allowed to speak it. Indigenous people were asked not to use it at home. ~Ana
At that time, the powers that be felt learning the western culture was necessary to succeed in life. The law that banned learning the Hawaiian language was not erased from the books until very recently (1978). Oral history documentation was part of Danny and Ana’s college education. In rural areas recording craft techniques and culture was a priority. The language was fading; it was their mission to document the native lifestyles.
Their Professor (Larry) started a weekly Hawaiian radio station that would be in the native language. The focus was on music; they found songs about remote places the native speakers were from to help tell their story. Sometimes Dan would assist in composing songs about the radio guests location: the characteristics, the geography, what made it unique, the elements and nature, prominent features of the landscape. Larry did the words, Dan did the music. Flying by the seat of their pants, it worked. Very poetic. ~ Ana
After completing school, Danny worked for Aloha Airlines, Hawaiian Holidays, and Hawaii Maritime Center. I can’t imagine a better ambassador to welcome visitors to the state.
A Stay on the Hawaiian Islands to Talk Story
Dan began sharing what he learned with others. His years of training, learning and teaching made him a powerful influence in the community. The work that Ana and Dan do, is all about sharing the Hawaiian protocol and ceremony. Public interest is abundant, no matter where they happen to be.
People yearn to get that cultural connection when they visit. It’s all the same, people look to make a connection so their visit is not just the physical, but a sense of place, a spiritual connection. ~ Dan
Since 2000, he has held the position as the Director of Cultural Affairs for the resort, Mauna Lani Bay Hotel & Bungalows on the Island of Hawaii. They host a monthly talk story session for guests and members of the community where he delivers a dose of Hawaiian history and culture. Often the stories are not even known to the native population.
Danny acts as the master of ceremonies. He brings in other storytellers, ukulele and traditional artisans which find their way into folk stories in the form of a relaxed presentation. The setting sounds quite magical.
“Ancient fish ponds, an old cowboy cottage and the sun is gently setting, they share their talents, their life, come to share their story and passion in a relaxed Hawaiian Islands talk story format. Very communal. A relationship is formed, there is a bond. The Spirit of Aloha, the unconditional sense of love and welcome hospitality. Look Alo–being in someone’s presence both physical and spiritual + HA share that greeting of breath and spirit of presence. A part of who we are and a sense of respect for each other are shared in that moment of time and hospitality. Aloha-that is Hawaii’s gift to the world. ~Ana
The guests aboard our small boutique yacht were lucky to have this master story teller (and Ana for a few days) for the entire trip. He shared meals, snorkeled, was a nightly raconteur, and incredibly generous with his time. He shared folklore about the whales, Captain Cook, the sacred spaces we visited and legends of the volcanoes. It added another dimension to an already bespoke travel itinerary. With UnCruise, over the years the Akakas normally visit for a few hours, sharing aspects of Hawaiian culture. To have him for the entire trip was a priceless gift with lasting impact. His cultural stories colored and enhanced every adventure.
Why Is Talk Story So Important to Hawaiians
Through the years, many of the traditions and stories of the islands were lost. When westerners and missionaries were introduced to the area, the population of native Hawaiians dropped and the culture slowly started being forgotten. Native Hawaiians were restricted from doing certain practices, speaking in their native tongue.
Many diseases that were not native to Hawaii were brought by those coming to “help”. It all ended up taking a toll on the Hawaiian population. Later the United States stepped in, and established Hawaii as a territory. The Archipelago was declared a state in 1959. The Hawaiian culture is over a thousand years old, but only recently have outsiders been able to realize the many unique culinary, artistic and religious practices that fill the breadth of their heritage.
Hawaii is like the Renaissance, it has been since we went to university in the 70’s. Language, music, hula, protocols all started back then and a new generation had the opportunity to learn subjects in the Hawaiian language. Everything was coming together in a perfect storm. We borrowed the template from New Zealand. The idea is to use the “nest” of the home; many times parents and children are learning the stories together. Parents took the opportunity to learn from the Kapuna, the native speakers who were still alive and could translate the stories. These elders are the basis of our culture.
The language is simplified but very poetic. Because is was so simple, the mechanics were not the focus, it was the prose of the language, the storytelling, that was the focus. As the language was being taught, it was done in the western context of English to Hawaiian. The poetic was lost in translation. Speak with native speakers and hear the nuances of the elders. Everything sounds like a song, the cadence is there even when you are not singing.~ Dan
Pay it Forward – Talk Story Wherever You Go
Through Dan and Ana I learned about the Hawaiian tradition of “talk story”. Friends can talk story, but also strangers as well. It’s become an important part of Hawaiian culture and also a way to preserve traditions before elders have passed. Many of the original stories may have been lost over the centuries, however, a modern day exchange of culture is alive and well in Hawaii and one that every Hawaiian knows; the joy of listening to – talk story.
Talk story allows people to learn from each other and promotes the value of inclusivity, which Hawaiians call KĀKOU. Dan believes Hawaiians represent the compatibility of humans with each other and nature, that everyone in the community is extended family. It’s a beautiful sentiment in this day and age; talk story is the perfect way to honor this.
In a time where many people don’t know their neighbors or are too busy to slow down and notice those around them, taking the time to talk story can turn any interaction in to an opportunity to learn.
I’ve found when I travel, it’s so easy to make conversation with strangers. Rarely does someone not engage. Some of those conversations give incredible insight, allow you to discover hidden gems and are responsible for many of the best memories that go into storytelling when I arrive back home.
This storytelling couple shared a gift with all of us on the voyage. After meeting Danny and Anna, I have been much more present in my own environment and made the effort to connect with random folks I meet out and about in my neck of the woods. People seem so happy to connect, even if just on a superficial level, The next time you are at the grocery store or sitting on the bus, will you talk story with those around you? I can’t imagine anyone wouldn’t benefit from receiving the Aloha spirit. After all, shouldn’t Hawaii’s greatest gift be shared with the world?
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Disclaimer: As is common in the travel industry, the author was the guest of UnCrusie Adventures for review purposes. Opinions and experiences, as always, are her own.