With all those hula dancers, what about the forest? 4-12-07

HILO, Hawaii (AP) -
Big Island hula teacher Nalani Kanakaole says she always trains her students to be ``good stewards of the forest.''

While progress is being made in conservation, there still is overuse around Merrie Monarch Festival time, says kumu hula Kanakaole. Each year before the festival, hula groups invade the forests near Hilo to gather maile leaves, ferns, flowers and other flora for the dances they will perform.

What some see as the ravaging of the forests is of growing concern to conservationists and some hula leaders. Hundreds of dancers compete in the Merrie Monarch from around the islands, Japan and the U.S. mainland starting Thursday.

Sam Gon, an ethnobotanist and chanter, said he has seen forest areas where ``it is obvious that maile has been ripped out.

``The saving grace is that most halau (hula schools) don't venture far from the highway,'' Gon said.

Most are not likely to go more than 50 yards from the road, limiting the impact to the edges and ends of the roads, he said.

``But the damage that can be done there can be pretty severe,'' said Gon, who holds a Ph.D. in zoology with a special interest in botany. He is senior scientist and cultural adviser for the Nature Conservancy of Hawaii. He also has graduated as a chanter after nine years of study and has written numerous Hawaiian chants.

While the halau are admonished not to pick young plants and shoots, Gon notes that new growth often looks best in a lei. ``This could kill a plant or set it back,'' he said.

The ideal is to do ``what is minimally needed and get out,'' he said. ``The forests are already challenged without having traditional practitioners contributing to that.''

Luana Kawelu, assistant director of the hula competition, said she believes the teachers are respecting the forest. ``We have people coming to talk to them at our meetings on the need to respect and preserve the forest,'' she said.

``And it's not just Merrie Monarch,'' Kawelu said. ``We know there are people who have been hired to pick ferns to send beyond Hawaii.''

Kumu Coline Aiu of Hula Halau O Maiki in Honolulu said she believes hula has become ``very visual'' where adornment is overdone, with dancers often wearing numerous maile lei.

Aiu, at her halau, points to a photo of her mother and halau founder, the late Maiki Aiu Lake, performing early in her career wearing a single lei.

She also said she continues her mother's tradition of using Chinese banyan in place of maile, as well as mock orange and bougainvillea.

``Use the abundant plant that is within your reach,'' she said.

``Look at the classic dancers like Iolani Luahine, who would wear just a simple lei,'' Gon said. ``It seems form has taken precedence over substance.''

Overuse comes with competition, Kanakaole said.

Responsibility for preserving natural resources lies with the organizers and promoters of festivals such as the Merrie Monarch, and those who set the rules as well as the halau, Aiu said. ``It's everyone's responsibility.''

Kawelu said she gives the halau an ``appropriate adornment list'' of materials that can be used in the kahiko, or ancient, competition but imposes no limits.

``We haven't taken the fishermen's approach where waters are fished out,'' Kanakaole said.

``I'm impressed when halau come in with handmade feather lei or materials like ti leaves that are easily grown,'' Gon said. ``I think it would be neat if part of the judging was based on respect for the forest. Judges could make a powerful statement. They could say too much is not a good thing.''

Kanakaole, who is a judge of this year's competition, said she would not penalize a halau that she thought had excessive adornment. ``But I definitely would write a long memo on overuse.''

Gon notes that a classic chant to Laka, the god of hula, used by most halau ends with a line that translators, ``Bring growth to us, Laka, your stewards.''