The Native Hawaiian religious group of San Quentin made history when it performed its New Year Fertility event, the Makahiki, inside the prison.
“The Makahiki is our celebration of Lono-Ika-Imakhiki, a time of harvest, whether harvesting the land or the ocean,” said Damon Cooke, a spiritual advisor to the group. Cooke explained that the festival recognizes Lono the patron spirit of agriculture, fertility, peace and healing. It is at the time of year when Lono returns to repossess the land as his wife.
“It brings with it seasonal rains where the land renews its fertility but the underlying message is that the symbolism of the Makahiki is a time of peace, thanksgiving and renewal,” Cooke said.
The Makahiki ceremony took place December 7, 2013.
Incarcerated for 24 years for attempted murder, Cooke said the Hawaiian cultural and spiritual group represents all islands in the Polynesian triangle. Moreover, this Makahiki gives them the opportunity to embrace their culture, reinforcing who they are as the Pacific Islanders, an Island nation.
“Our goal is to spread the true Hawaiian Aloha, because our congregation has Samoan, Tongan, and Philipino members learning about each other’s cultures. We do this through song, dance and chants,” Cooke said.
As the event continued, a procession of 10 men dressed in native Hawaiian Lava-lava’s (colorful sarongs tied at the waist), danced down the aisle welcoming guests and volunteers with lei’s. Afterward, the men began the Haka, a traditional ancestral dance or challenge from the Maori Polynesian people of New Zealand.
“As our ancestors traveled throughout the Polynesian Islands, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, Cooke Islands, Nuie, Tuvalu, Pitcarn, Tahiti, Vanuatu, Raro Tonga, Easter Island and Hawaii, they needed a way to announce their presence as they landed on each island,” Cooke said.
Originally, the Haka was a war cry, a dance or challenge.
“We do it to maintain the history of our people, and it’s now done as a form of respect for the fallen warriors,” said Cooke. “So that’s why you see the Haka performed before football games, soccer matches, or rugby, where two opposing sides are about to do battle.
“Yet today the Haka symbolizes more than war, today it’s a call for all communities to come together in unity and share knowledge so we can help each other move forward,” Cooke said.
Upumoni Ama, aka Upu, is also a member of the San Quentin Native Hawaiian Religious group. Incarcerated for 20 years for second-degree murder, Upu said that when he was a youngster his parents taught him their history and the movements through the Haka.
“I’ve used this to open up lines of communication with our younger members because, as in the free world, sometimes people feel excluded. But with the Haka, everybody is included; we make sure that everyone has a voice,” said Upu.
They do this by teaching the young men how to speak up and not to be afraid of failure. Upu added that the Native Hawaiian Religious Group of San Quentin constantly reaches out to the youth through the Haka. “It’s always been a platform to stress a message of self-worth.”
The ceremony moved forward as 15 inmates danced to their positions to perform the “I Ku Mau Mau,” a time-honored native Hawaiian call and response chant done by island workers.
“This chant and dance literally calls for us to work together, no matter what our ethnicities, because what makes any community strong quite often are those things that make us different,” said D. Kualapai, (Kuh-wa-la-pie).
Anouthinh Pangthong said that he was invited to the group to do a dance but was not expecting the camaraderie that came with it.
“I spend time with the guys on the yard, and I never expected the brotherhood and I really love it. Today was a gift; it was just a good day,” said Anouthinh.
Incarcerated for 13 years, Kualapai, 64, has been at San Quentin for about a year and is considered an elder of the group, a “Makua.” They are like the parents of the group, explained Kualapai, and as the Makua, “I’m here to offer similar support and guidance.”
“This is a miracle that this event is happening; it’s been a struggle to say the least,” said Grace Taholo, the outside sponsor of the Native Hawaiian Religious Group.
Taholo is Tongan-Fijian and a college student. Born in New Zealand, Taholo has been coming to San Quentin for two years and said that this is her way of giving back.
“I come here and do what I can to help them out, but more times than not, they’re actually helping me out. That’s why it’s good to see that they’re doing this. I want our guests to leave the Makahiki inspired about this community,” said Taholo.
Robin LeNoue, aka Maui, was convicted of murder for hire 23 years ago, and has been in San Quentin since 2010. He said this is the fourth Makahiki he has performed in, but the first he has done at this prison.
Maui is teaching the younger members what the elders taught him. “Now that I’m an elder, I’m passing down our values which is self respect, not to be involved in gangs, no drugs, and no gambling,” he said.
Hector Heredia, San Quentin’s Native American spiritual advisor, said he learned that their cultures are very similar, for instance, “we also recognize the creator and the seasonal changes through song and chants.”
Hera Chan, a volunteer with San Quentin’s K.I.D. CAT (Kids Creating Awareness Together), a program for inmates convicted as juveniles, described the event as moving. “I want to say that being in San Quentin, I never knew I could find such empowerment for myself here.”
Eliza Bruce another K.I.D. CAT volunteer, exclaimed, “The Haka, wow, I was definitely honored to see that. I felt the power. It was beautiful to see the men celebrating their culture and heritage.”
Bruce said she had seen the Haka done on TV but that did not compare to watching it in person. “You could feel the energy in the room; it was very moving.”
The Native Hawaiian Religious Group also performed the Haka at the 2013 Veteran’s Day memorial service held on San Quentin’s Lower Yard, said Cooke. “It allowed the Native Hawaiian spiritual group a platform to show our respect and to thank our veterans for their service, dedication and commitment to this great nation.”
“I’ve been incarcerated for a quarter of a century and this is the first time I’ve really felt like I’ve been able to give back,” Cooke said. “The spirit of Aloha is what we feel when we say good-bye, hello, or I love you. This is a special day for us; it means a lot to us. This day was for our ancestors, Aloha.”