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  • Georgia Kasameyer

Voices of Waimea Pt.5: Interview with Kumu: Waimea’s Cultural Essence

The strongest voices of our community are not always those you hear first. In my interview with Kumu Lani Isaacs, she took me through her story; growing up on the Big Island, moving to Maui to raise her family, and moving back to the Big Island. The first question I asked was “how would you like me to refer to you?” and she answered by turning the question on its head and asking me how I’d like to refer to her. We discussed the effects of Westernization on Hawaii's youth, and how many children are losing and forgetting traditional aspects of respect in Hawaiian culture. “They don't understand how to address local people… When you’re addressing someone older, rarely do you call them by their name. It’s a sign of respect.” I asked if I could call her Kumu, and she responded that “While I am not your kumu, I am a kumu to many others in the community. So yes, you can call me that.”

She has been teaching hula for years, from stages on Maui to fields and pavilions in Waimea. After moving back to the Big Island, she was offered a job teaching hula at Waikoloa Elementary School. She taught there for years, showing students what hula means to her and helping them find its impact in their own lives. When she told me this, I truly began to understand the effect that she’s had on keiki for years. I grew up learning hula at Waikoloa Elementary (from a different teacher), and when I look back at my years there I truly realize the impact that it had on me. The lessons I learned about Hawaiian culture, while surrounded by an excess of Westernization, helped me understand why we need to remember stories and history. 

Kumu later started her halau, Polynesian Dance Academy. She began with a core group of 12 dancers, and while the members shifted, “those who truly want to stay always come back.” Today, she still leads the halau. My mother is one of her dancers, and that was what inspired me to ask to interview her.

As we talked, I began to see Waimea’s growth through her eyes. She watched the town shift and change, newcomers arriving in waves and culture ebbing and flowing as the town grew into the melting pot Hawaii is known to be. I realized that there is a fine line between simply a variety of cultures and the dissipation of true Waimea culture. Kumu reminisced on the times when she could walk down the street and see a horse trotting next to her. The live music playing in the center of town, surrounded by a wide variety of places to eat that served real, healthy food. “Never been a fan of Mickey D’s,” she said. “Or the King.” 

The third facet of Waimea’s fading cultural essence is affordable education. This is a touchy topic, especially in our town. “Hawaiian style is to observe,” she said. Kumu has seen the privatization of education firsthand, and it has its good and bad sides. We talked at length about the mindset of “if I can afford to learn, I’m better than you.” As a student attending a private school, I can say that I haven't been exposed to this level of stigma, and I recognize the pitfalls of expensive education and have seen where this comes into play in the culture clash.

For Kumu, hula is a way to keep her culture alive. Her halau is not just a place to dance, but to learn language, drumming, and mo’olelo. The stories her students tell in their hula are stories that Kumu has endeavored to keep alive through her song, dance, and fierce protection of her culture.

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Melinda Mizuno
Melinda Mizuno
09 mei

What a great interview! Thank you for sharing, Georgia.

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