“ALOOOOOOHA!” Damon Cooke greeted the guests and set the tone at the second annual Makahiki ceremony, on behalf of the Native Hawaiian Spiritual Group in San Quentin’s Arc building.
“Today is about paying homage to our ancestors and everyone who has helped us form our identity and grow as a unit,” said Cooke, an inmate organizer.“Aloha is a greeting, salutation and farewell all in one word,” said Reginald Hola. “Broken down, aloha is sharing…spreading, sunshine…aloha is love.”
The spirit of aloha was felt throughout the ceremony from its inclusiveness in everything from the sharing of Hawaiian culture to story telling, dances and the menu.
“They are bringing Hawaiian culture, all feeling present and aloha spirit,” said guest Monique LeSarre. “I’m amazed by their spirit of generosity, strength, channeled manhood, power and connection through love and spirit related to culture. They have invited many nationalities to share in their culture.”
Makahiki is the season of Lono.
“Lono is the patron spirit of agriculture, fertility, peace and healing,” A. Panthong told the crowd.
Many of the men in blue, who performed the spiritual dances, weren’t Hawaiian, but that didn’t matter.
“You don’t have to be from Hawaii to be a part of it. If you believe in love and togetherness, you are part of it,” said Vinh Nguyen, who is Vietnamese. “I got involved to help with paperwork — I can’t dance.”
“I embraced their culture, and they embraced me,” said Donald Ray Walker Jr., an African-American. “I learned the dances in the native Hawaiian group on Saturdays.”
“I personally embrace those who embrace my culture,” said Hawaiian elder D. Kualapai.
“Being a Pakistani and having so many Samoan and Hawaiian cell mates, they wanted me to come to their services,” Adnan Khan said. “I noticed everybody’s culture is universal. It is very relatable to Pakistan culture and Islam — unity, oneness, doing righteous deeds and fostering brotherhood.”
“Our weaknesses are strengthened by diversity. Everybody learns from everybody,” added Hola. “Our main goal is giving self-ID through tradition and culture. Everybody is part of Pacific Island Asian culture, so we decided to give everybody a chance to promote unity.”
The dances, like the Kila Kila, Manu Samoa and Aoteroa Haka, were done with aggressive stances, bare feet stomping to a single drum beat, hostile looks, tongues sticking out, eyes bulging, beating of chest, strong arm movements and chants done in an intimidating fashion.
“It was symbolic of a battle; literately and figuratively. There was bloodshed, but there was a spiritual battle too,” said Cooke. “We mean you no harm; peace is in our hearts. In this culture, it’s love.”
Indeed, the Haka dances are fostering peace. The Hawaiian community has been seen performing the Haka at many events, including Roots, a Restorative Justice symposium, and a Patton University graduation.
“I am here because of the performance at last year’s graduation, I was so moved by it on a metaphysical and spiritual level, it was exciting,” said Joy Brooke Fairfield, Prison University Project instructor.
“We have a huge community that includes these guys, and they didn’t have a venue,” said Kara Urion, a Patton coordinator. “Almost every person who performed the Haka is in our program.”
Many stories were shared. Among them tales about “Uku,” the custom of reciprocity and how it spreads prosperity.“I live in a prison cell, but that’s not my home. I have to reconnect to the heart to navigate my way home,” said Upu Ama.
Khan explained the concept of “Mana.”
“Mana is the energy you can’t see, but you feel it,” said Khan. “Senior spirits disturbed it everywhere. In humans, it’s our talents, our strength, our intelligence, our leadership and charisma. Mana is what made Jordan, Jordan. If you abuse Mana, you will lose it. Don’t lose your Mana — be righteous people”
“We were all newborns representing new hope, love and opportunities,” Ama said from the podium in between dances. “As I grew up, I got lost and became the enemy who attacked and destroyed the village. Today we are aiding rebirth — a process of reconciliation.”
Even the menu showed the thoughtfulness of the Native Hawaiian Spiritual Group. They served 13 different entrees, which included several options for everybody—Halal, vegan and Kosher.
“Our culture is family orientated. Once we get to know you, you are automatically family. We are into oneness; that’s indicative of our culture,” said Grace Taholo, the group’s sponsor.
Aunties (older ladies in the community) and Kasi Chakravartula, a Roots volunteer, made the leis the guys wore.
“We didn’t have enough money for leis,” said Jun “Auntie Jun” Hamamoto. “But a friend taught us how to make them for free when she found out who it was for. I put a call out to the aunties, and just like that, they were there. They came, and we made 25 leis.”
After everyone ate, the event ended with calls for Nick Lopez to dance. An impromptu half-circle was made on stage and the dancers performed the male Hula. Lopez was cast into the center where he delivered. Also, O. Hameti hilariously incorporated the Cabbage-Patch dance into the traditional moves.
“The Hula and story-telling were amazing,” said Chakravartula.
“I’m honored that they reached out to me and were inclusive,” said Earlonne Woods.
“These guys are a new group. I’m amazed by how much they’ve accomplished,” Hamamoto said.
-Aaron “Harun” Taylor contributed to this story.