The Pacific Islanders ancient traditions were commemorated at San Quentin’s Chapel B area to recognize the prison’s Native Hawaiian Religious Group Makahiki Celebration.
The Dec. 30 event was held after more than a 24-month hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic that caused the celebration to be canceled since 2019.
Absent from the festivities were families and friends who would occasionally attend the event when it was held in the prison visiting room. Kumu Patrick Makuakāne, the group’s outside spiritual leader, also could not attend due to work obligations, but plans to return soon.
However, longtime volunteers Adel “Auntie Adel” Serafino and Jun “Auntie Jun” Hamamato added their presence to the festival. Serafino is the Ukulele Program’s volunteer instructor and Hamamato teaches origami classes. (Origami is the Japanese craft of making art out of cut paper.) “Aunty” is the honorific title given to the female elders of the islander community.
A lone performer Danny Pita did the colorful Haka dance, which features aggressive facial expressions. Pita performed solo, although it is normally performed by a group of incarcerated men to symbolize the islands’ historical battles. Pita’s performance featured the aggressive arm movements, stomping of bare feet, hostile looks and tongue gesture displays that illustrate the importance of staying grounded into one’s ancestral roots. The prison’s recent Asian American Pacific Islander arrivals had the chance to witness the group’s dedication to honoring the ancient traditions.
“This event brings me closer to my roots. My mom is Samoan. This helps me to connect with her,” said incarcerated islander Gregory Houchins. “It’s my goal to go to the island, to learn the language, connect and understand my roots.”
According to traditions, Makahiki is a time of peace, thanksgiving and renewal. It originated hundreds of years ago when warring factions agreed to a three-month ceasefire to allow their warriors time to reflect, replenish and celebrate life.
The celebration tells this history of ancient Polynesia through traditional song and dance.
“As our ancestors traveled throughout the Polynesian Islands, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, Tahiti, Raro Tonga, and Hawaii, they mixed and shared many traditions including dance and song,” said Auntie Serafino. “We help them [incarcerated participants] learn how to play the instruments and sing the songs. It’s a challenge for them, but they like it once they realize the history.”
The Ukulele Group spends hours learning to play the four-string and eight-string ukuleles. The class preformed “Ulupalakua.” The lyrics of the song are translated thus: “Famous is Ulupalakua/the pangs of the cold evening air … The home of the cowboy.” “Ru’I Hanahna” was another song the group performed. It says, “A night of joy, a peaceful night, a night to love/Look at my country, look at the children that you created, that cherish you/This voice is a call from deep inside my heart.”
The chapel event was a way to build a bridge between the outside local AAPI community and the incarcerated AAPI community. The Native Hawaiian group congregation consists of Samoan, Tongan, Pilipino and other Asian Islanders. The members are learning about rehabilitation as well as each other’s cultures.
This annual Makahiki festival was combined with San Quentin’s Native American Spiritual Group’s Winter Pow Wow. The small gathering was a recognition and celebration of indigenous life and culture. The special day was grounded in the Hawaiian word “Aloha,” which has several meanings: hello, good-bye or I love you.
Photos by Vincent O’Bannon // SQNews