Princess Cruises Takes Guests Into Native Hawaii

Rebecca Jacobs
8/4/11

As Princess Cruises passengers voyage around and through the Hawaiian Islands, they are surrounded by endless on-board conveniences and seemingly limitless luxury, including casinos, boutiques, game and card rooms, salons, internet cafes, disco clubs, spas, 24-hour grand buffets, steakhouses, 17-course fine dining establishments … In short, if it involves an amenity in the hospitality industry, it can most likely be found aboard the ship.

To offer a different type of experience—and a dose of cultural awareness—to its passengers, the worldwide cruise line reached out to the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement a few years ago. “We started a program so that people know that they’re in Hawai‘i,” Princess Cruises public affairs consultant Dale Chikuami Hahn explains. “Our goal is to captivate our passengers with onboard experiences that capture the heart and soul of Hawai‘i.”

In 2007, the Cultural Connections Program was brought to life with on-board portside workshops. At that time, the late Aunty Ilei Beniamina, Native Hawaiian, presented the Treasures of Ni‘ihau on the island of Kaua‘i. This educational program entailed a Powerpoint presentation detailing the history and significance of the Ni’ihau shell lei made only on the tourist forbidden Hawaiian isle of Ni’ihau. This lei is one of the most prized types of leis available due to the size and delicacy of the shells found only on Ni’ihau. During her workshop, Beniamina detailed the type of intense training that Native Hawaiian children of Ni’ihau receive by elders in how to gather the best, appropriate shells for the lei, as well as the way they are made. She then displayed Ni’ihau shell leis for workshop participants to see.

Today, eight Ni‘ihau Shell Lei makers from Beniamina’s family continue her legacy. Because uninvited guests are not allowed to visit the island, the lei experts detail the history of the traditional style of shell lei-making and then demonstrate their art for cruise ship guests on Kaua’i.

Since its inception, Cultural Connections has expanded to include 48 Native Hawaiian cultural practitioners who board the ships at the ports of Hilo on the Big Island, L?haina in Maui, Nawiliwili in Kaua‘i and Honolulu on O‘ahu. To date approximately 100 workshops have been offered to more than 4,000 participants. “Because we want to make sure that our passengers go home with a deeper understanding of the islands and the people who live there, the onboard programming on these sailings offers a more multifaceted cultural experience,” Chikuami Hahn says.

On the Big Island of Hawai‘i, cruise ship passengers who choose not to explore Hilo have the rare opportunity to meet with Lei Hulu Kumu Doreen Moana Henderson, who explains that her lineage is Native Hawaiian/Chinese/German/Irish. During her one-hour workshop, Henderson discusses the history, mo‘olelo (traditions), and cultural relevance of the hulu (feather) work—one of the most distinctive and rare Hawaiian art forms. “Feather work in Hawai‘i began 100 years before the birth of Kamehameha [in 1758]. People knew there would be a king who would unite the islands and they needed to prepare,” she says. At that time, only members of royalty were allowed to wear feather clothing or adornments to denote their social rank and spiritual power. The length of the cloak, types of feathers used and patterning signified the wearer’s rank. Typically, these feather works were worn only for battle or ceremonial occasions.

In preparation for Kamehameha’s reign, feather artisans collected the most rare and valuable yellow feathers from the mamo birds, which are now extinct with which to make his cape. No design was used in Kamehameha’s cloak. This omission denoted that his presence did not need to be symbolized as he was closer in rank to the gods than to other royalty.

In the Hawaiian tradition, Henderson explains, birds were caught by placing a sticky substance on a branch and waiting for the bird to land on it. Only three feathers were removed from a single bird, and then it was released. The process was then repeated. “There were ways to preserve and respect the birds,” Henderson says. “We did not kill the birds. To us, the birds were sacred. They were like humans—just like us.”

These precious feathers were tied together with natural fibers including banana, coconut and olon?, a member of the nettle family with a durable, fibrous bark used commonly by Hawaiians for cordage, feather caps and helmets.

When Kamehameha was born, an ahuula (feather cloak), mahiole (feather helmet), and kahili (feather staff), were presented to him, Henderson says. This golden ahuula was made of approximately 450,000 mamo feathers. It was during Kamehameha I’s reign that feather work became popular among royalty and the elite in the islands and beyond.

During the hulu workshop, cruise ship participants are also given the chance to create their own pua aloalo (hibiscus flower) adornment. Wrapping and tying a thread around a piece of wire to create the flower’s stamen, then tying 10 feathers alternately around the stamen, the participants follow the traditional method of feather work crafted without a needle. “That’s the only way,” Henderson says. “Our ancestors did it that way; we have to do it that way, too.”

Throughout the class Henderson and her assistant work with each student to guide his or her progress and answer questions. Henderson began her feather work 37 years ago with her late sister, Wilma Rose, who had been diagnosed with cancer. The two decided to rekindle their uncle John Williams’ tradition as a way for Rose to find happiness and health. Williams used only yellow hulu in his work, and raised his own canaries to supply his feathers. He then used tweezers to tie his knots with precision, and Henderson and Rose followed in his way.

Henderson says that her teacher, the renowned Mary Kahihilani Kovitch, demanded meticulousness and cultural accuracy in each hulu project. When Henderson chose not to follow the protocol, her teacher tore the project to pieces. “She would say, ‘if you don’t do it the right way, you’re not going to learn it from me,’” Henderson recalls. “It’s important to do it that way to maintain the culture.”

Henderson is now one of the most well known Lei Hulu Kumu. She is, clearly, doing it the right way.

Off the ship, Henderson has approximately 172 students, some of whom were introduced to her work during her Princes Cruises workshop. She offers her instruction free of charge. “I do it as a way for my culture to stay alive. If I do this, my culture lives,” she says.

In addition to teaching the Hawaiian art of feather work, Henderson offers to workshop participants the unique way of thinking and sharing that is common in the islands. “It’s the spirit of Aloha. It’s changing their attitude and them knowing what could possibly happen if they had done something differently,” she says.

In addition to the feather and shell artists, Cultural Connections practitioners offer workshops detailing lauhala weaving—the ancient art of weaving the Hawaiian Screw Pine into intricate bowls, mats, purses and roof thatching, and the Hawaiian myths and legends on Maui; Hawaiian music and ‘ukulele in Hilo; and cultural practices on Kaua‘i. Coranne Park-Chun, CNHA community development specialist, says there is an increasing demand for culturally accurate activities and encounters between the visitor industry and the Native Hawaiian community. “Our overriding intent is to provide and increase visitor access to more authentic and intimate interactions with Native Hawaiian culture, practitioners and community-based organizations,” she says.

Through the Cultural Connections programming in Hawai’i, Princess Cruises passengers can add yet one more perk to their list of vacation faire: living history.

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