Award-winning kumu hula Māpuana de Silva holds true to the traditional vision and values she learned from her teachers.
By Catherine Black ’94
In 1976, the same year Mapuana de Silva founded Halau Mohala ‘Ilima, she and her husband, Kıhei, were among the 15,000 people gathered at Magic Island to welcome the voyaging canoe Hokule‘a home from her maiden sail to Tahiti. “We just held on to each other and cried, it was so overwhelming,” remembers de Silva. “To be that impactful, to carry that courage and that kuleana – we said, ‘If Hokule‘a can do that in voyaging, we can do it in hula.’”
Eleven years earlier, de Silva had transferred to Punahou from Kamehameha as a junior in the Academy. “In those days, the few Hawaiians at Punahou really stuck together,” she says. “Classmates like Henry Kapono Ka‘aihue, Wes Kamakawiwo‘ole and Joe Ka‘akua really watched out for me; they taught me the ropes, made sure I had someone to eat with at lunch, so I never felt alone.”
De Silva went on to get her degree in physical education from Pacific University in Oregon and married her childhood sweetheart from Kamehameha. It was while accompanying a friend to watch a hula class taught by Maiki Aiu Lake that she realized she had to study with the renowned kumu, who was one of the first to reintroduce many traditional elements of the art in a modern teaching environment. A few years later, de Silva went through the rigorous ‘ūniki ceremony to become a teacher herself and her classes quickly filled their family home in Ka‘ōhao, Kailua.
There were a number of important milestones in de Silva’s journey to becoming one of Hawai‘i’s most celebrated and respected kumu hula. One was the hālau’s first Merrie Monarch competition, where they placed last. This prompted de Silva to take a hard look at the traditional hula she had “doctored up” to impress the judges. The following year, she and her husband resurrected an old Kailua chant for their performance and the hālau placed second, inspiring de Silva to shift back to the pure, unadulterated roots of the art as she had learned it. The process was not without its hardships and the decision to direct her hālau according to traditional standards resulted in the loss of many students. But over time, it produced the rigorous and serious teaching style she is known and highly respected for today.
De Silva says she draws her strength from the towering examples her own teachers set. “How do you repay them for that, except to do what they would be happy with?” she asks, indicating the six framed portraits of her kumu and their kumu on the wall of her hālau. “I can’t just do anything I want, because they didn’t give me just anything. They gave me hula that has been passed down for generations because they didn’t want it to die, so who am I to let it die with me?”
Although her dancers have consistently triumphed at Merrie Monarch over the years, de Silva’s goal is to teach her students to think and act according to Hawaiian values: “I want them to learn how to carry kuleana, how to mālama their kūpuna and their family and how to practice aloha ‘āina, to care for their land. I want them to be self-reliant, confident, humble, patient, kind and generous. I want them to lead by actions, not words, in everything that they do, whatever work that they’re in. I want them to learn how to love something passionately, and I tell them that hula is the vehicle with which all of these things are taught. I try to teach them to be a Hawaiian the way our ancestors were, but in today’s world. Because that’s the challenge – being a Hawaiian in today’s world.”
Last year, de Silva led her classmates into their 50th Reunion Lū‘au with an oli that few present will ever forget. It was only the second Reunion she had attended since graduation and, in her words, both an honor and a surprise. “Back when I was at school, we were Hawaiian in spite of Punahou so I think it’s wonderful that President Scott sees the value in all students learning more about Hawaiian culture and what it means to be Hawaiian today.”
Exactly one week after her 50th Reunion, de Silva celebrated another emotional homecoming with Hōkūle‘a’s return from the Worldwide Voyage. “I couldn’t stop sobbing,” she recalls. “Remembering what it was like the first time and now, sharing it with my children and grandchildren, and my hālau. Like Nainoa (Thompson ’72) says, it’s not impossible to do something so significant – you just have to believe and work. And if you just focus on one sail or one stroke at a time or, in my case, the one person and one hula you teach at a time, then one day you look back and say, ‘Oh my gosh, we did more than we ever thought we could.’”
Nana i ke Kumu Look to the Source
The traditional saying popularized by Mary Kawena Pukui is often invoked as a reminder of the ancestral wisdom at the heart of Hawaiian culture. By honoring our roots and history, we are better equipped to face the present and shape the future. As ‘ike Hawai‘i, Hawaiian knowledge, becomes more intentionally woven into the Punahou experience, the School’s graduates can honor and represent the host culture of their home, wherever they end up in the world.
The featured alumni in the fall 2018 issue of the Punahou Bulletin demonstrate the impact that Punahou graduates can have on Hawai‘i, as well as the different ways their Punahou experience informed their life’s calling. From hula to aloha ‘āina to ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i, their work strengthens the bridge between ke kumu, the source (or the teacher), with an inspiring vision for Hawai‘i’s future.