The San Quentin Native Hawaiian Spiritual group observed the Fourth Annual Makahiki ceremony, which tells the history of ancient Polynesia through traditional song and dance.
More than 20 prisoners gave family, volunteers and other inmates a taste of the Hawaiian Islands inside the prison visiting room. “Aloha,” the islands’ expression for welcome and embrace, was exchanged among the participants.
“Aohe hana nui ke alu ia, (No work is too difficult, if done together by all),” said Patrick Makuakane, the group volunteer sponsor and a renowned Hula instructor.
The ethnically diverse performers wore black T-shirts, a “lei po’o” (a green leafy crown for the head) and red/yellow waist wraps as they danced barefoot to the drums (gourds).
“I want my teachings to make a difference in these men’s lives,” said Makuakane. “I’ve seen these guys mature through dance. It gives them a sense of purpose and a strong sense of self as men, masculine, but caring and passionate.”
The Makahiki is a celebration to show honor to the great God of Nourishment, “Lono.” It’s the time between October through March, when the rains come and the lands give back. War is also prohibited during this time.
The men performed chants, commemorating children, elders and Hawaii’s fight for independence in the early 1900s.
“For years I had been disconnected from my roots,” said Derrick Kualapai, one of the elders of the group. “It took me coming to prison to reconnect. It makes you human again. Everyone needs to get back to their roots.”
Tith Ton, another group member, added, “I’m like the worst dancer; when the instructor told me to shake my hips, he had to show me how. In other places (prisons), we do the Haka dance. When Patrick came, it was all Hawaiian dance, which is a little softer.”
The men smile broadly and dance while uttering tribal cries. Family members clap and cheer them on in their performances.
“It’s a real blessing to have my folks here,” said Anouthinh Pangthong. “I call home and tell them a lot of the things I’m involved in. To see them here experiencing this … I can feel the love. It’s humbling.”
Kelly Pen, Pangthong’s sister, added, “I had an idea he could dance but not like that. To hear him talk about it and see it. Seeing all the hard work he put into it, is really amazing.”
After the dance, Pangthong gave a moving speech on the commitment needed and the struggle it takes for dancers to connect as one mind and body.
“I didn’t know he was a good speaker,” said Tony Douangmalalay, his younger brother. He captured the audience. He used to get stage fright. He’s a good speaker. He shocked me.”
The ethnic background of men in the spiritual group traced to Hawaii, Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, Tahiti, Philippines and different parts of Asia.
The dances were traditionally Polynesian, mostly of the Maori people of New Zealand. The origin of one dance was Samoan.
“That particular Samoan Haka (dance) speaks about war within ourselves and how we conquer those demons that hold us back from growth,” said Monoa Kukisi, the group elder.
“The process is a struggle, and only through the struggle can we truly discover ourselves, continued Kukisi.
San Quentin’s Ukulele Program treated the large audience to the sounds of “Blue Hawaii” and “Aloha ‘Oe.” The prisoners displayed the skills and songs they learned from the class.
“I was blown away,” said Adel Serafino, the Ukulele Program volunteer instructor. “They got the chance to showcase their achievements in front of their families. I’m so proud of them, both with the music and the dancing.”
The word ukulele is roughly translated as “jumping flea,” probably because of the movements of the fingers. It was developed in the 1880s based on several small guitar-like instruments of Portuguese origins, according to the group’s introduction and history pamphlet.
The last Hawaiian monarch, Queen Lili’uokalani, said the name means “the gift that came here,” according to the pamphlet.
“The group is more than traditional songs, dances and chants,” said Junjo Hamamoto, a volunteer. “The group helps them transform spiritually. They have progressed so much. The program is truly a valuable experience.”
The ceremony ended with a meal of chicken, fish, rice and coconut cake. Overall, the event left most of the people with a strong sense of community and love, one of the definitions of “aloha.”
“I really enjoyed that connection to ancestry and cultural traditions,” said Dunya Alwan, arts facilitator of Arts in Corrections.
“There was such a joyful atmosphere in the room. I’ve been to a lot of events and this felt joyous, relaxed and open. I appreciated them sharing with me as an outsider and a guest,” concluded Alwan.