Hawaiian scholar reflects on ‘Emalani’s 20th year at Koke‘e

KOKE‘E — For those who have made the journey to the upland forests of Koke‘e in cool October days past to attend or participate in the Eo e ‘Emalani i Alaka‘i festival, the experience remains engraved in memory.

Following the winding road from Waimea, the air becomes crisp. Further still, past Pu‘ukapele, the road narrows and climbs the last few miles to Kanaloahuluhulu Meadow, a spacious swath of green surrounded by towering cypress and redwood. 

“There are places in Hawai‘i we call wahi pana: noted or storied places — places with lots of stories because the land has power,” said Hawaiian scholar, Professor Puakea Nogelmeier of University of Hawai‘i at Manoa, and editor of “He Lei No Emalani: Chants for Queen Emma.”

“Koke‘e is such a place. This is why it feels so real,” he said.

At 10 a.m. tomorrow in Kanaloahuluhulu Meadow, spectators will await the arrival on horseback of Queen ‘Emalani, portrayed this year by Shantel Tiare Santiago of Kekaha. Hula halau from Kaua‘i, O‘ahu, Maui, Hawai‘i and as far away as Japan will greet the queen as she enters the meadow at noon to the voice of Nick Castillo singing his original tribute, “Kaleleonalani.” 

“There is such a magic in the annual commemorative gathering at Koke‘e,” Nogemeier said. “It gives a physical presence to history. When I brought some of my students to participate in 2000, we were honored to offer a chant. The queen was sitting there, she was so beautiful and dignified. Her face was rapt as she listened to us. Afterward, many people told us that we were chanting across the eras in a way.”

Each year hundreds of people gather at Koke‘e to honor Queen Emma Naea Rooke, a determined and sometimes “stubborn” queen who trekked in 1871 by horseback and foot over the rough trails and muddy byways of forest and swamp to fulfill a promise made to her late husband King Kamehameha IV.

“This festival, this re-creation should stand as a model for other events celebrating the lives of Hawaiian historical figures,” Nogelmeier said. “At Koke‘e, Emma‘s life is embodied there within that wahi pana. The possibility is there. The land and the people present at the event create the rest of the story.”

Once more it will be as if all in attendance are part of a real and rare moment in time celebrating a life triumphant and filled with value. More than pageant, observance, festival or celebration, it is what this Hawaiian scholar calls “a portal to the past.”

“The enactment of the role of the queen, the physicality of putting everything into place brings up an intuitive side of history — history becomes real,” he said. “We had all been  studying the ‘Emalani chants — all that poetry for her — and there we were at Koke‘e, with the physical presence that connected all the random data and information we had been collecting. We were in that living

vignette, making history more experiential rather than factual.”

Hundreds of chants were written for Queen Emma.

“The people knew she loved them and she was greatly beloved in return,” Nogelmeier said. “On the personal level … she lost her much-loved son and husband. She had lost her role as queen — everything was taken away — she could have immersed herself in death and mourning yet she chose to go on with such courage and purpose.”

Tomorrow Queen Emma will enter the meadow with a procession at noon. The day will be filled with hula, music, exhibitions and Hawaiian craft demonstrations.

“The Emalani Festival has such a strong foundation in Hui o Laka and all those that plan and support it each year,” Nogelmeier said. “They create this unique setting where the halau and all those present can bring their offerings of appreciation, so they, too, may travel across the eras.”

• Faye Hovey is a freelance writer living on Maui.

Want to attend Queen Emma’s party?

What: Eo e ‘Emalani i Alaka‘i festival

When: 10 a.m. tomorrow; queen’s procession at noon

Where: Kanaloahuluhulu Meadow

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