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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, January 8, 2003

Photography exhibit honors Hawaiian values

A Hawaiian warrior stands watch after ho'okupu, or offerings to the ancestors, were placed on the lele (altar) on the highest part of Mauna Kea on winter solstice day Dec. 21, 1999. This highest point was named Kukahau'ula by ancient Hawaiians, honoring the god Ku. The summit is now called Pu'u Wekiu.

By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer

Cultural practitioner Harold Kaula participates in a winter solstice ceremony at dawn on December 21, 2000, the last spiritual gathering of Hawaiians on Mauna Kea during the previous millennium.

'Mauna Kea, The Temple: Protecting the Sacred Resources'

A collection of photographs, audio, video and text depicting contemporary traditional Hawaiian spiritual customs practiced on Mauna Kea

Second floor, Castle Hall, Bishop Museum

Friday through April

Adults, $14.95; children ages 4 through 12, $11.95; children younger than 4, free; special rates for kama'aina, seniors and military

Information: 847-3511 or bishopmuseum.org

It's a photography exhibition about a uniquely Native Hawaiian subject, shot by a person who is neither a photographer by profession nor, for that matter, a Native Hawaiian.

What then to make of California transplant Tom Whitney and the powerful images he has collected for "Mauna Kea, the Temple: Protecting the Sacred Resources," opening Friday at Bishop Museum?

First, Whitney stresses, the content — the essential stuff of the photos — comes from Native Hawaiian groups who have conducted ceremonies in the upper regions of the 13,796-foot volcano as a way of asserting the legitimacy of their native beliefs in the face of technological encroachment.

For members of the exhibit's sponsors — Mauna Kea Anaina Hou, the Royal Order of Kamehameha I, Kahakamaoli Religious Institute, Makaainana Foundation and the Sacred Mountain Society — Mauna Kea is central to Native Hawaiian beliefs about creation.

Frustrated by what they saw as cultural insensitivity in the expansion of astronomical equipment on the volcano, Hawaiian groups erected a wooden altar at the summit in 1998 and have been conducting solstice and equinox ceremonies there ever since.

The exhibit depicts these ceremonies with particular emphasis on the ways in which they represent an ongoing relationship between native peoples and native lands.

The photographs and accompanying text — based on conversations with and between Hawaiian practitioners — were supplied by Whitney, 63, a retired graphic designer and environmental activist. The effect, exhibit sponsors say, is authentically Hawaiian.

"This is about Hawaiians, by Hawaiians," says Paul Neves, ali'i aimoku of the Royal Order of Kamehameha I, one of the groups presenting the exhibit. "If you want to know how Hawaiians think, read our words on the walls of the exhibition."

Whitney, who headed the Environmental Council of Sacramento, an environmental lobbying group, moved to the Big Island four years ago to reunite with his ex-wife, Betsy. He said he spent his first six months in Hawai'i reading and exploring the island with his camera.

"Mostly it was pretty scenery," he said. But other aspects of what he saw raised troubling questions. "There were some fascinating footprints of ancient Hawaiians in the lava at the Ka'u desert, and petroglyphs of Hawaiian warriors at Volcanoes National Park — but where were the Hawaiians?"

Whitney eventually came across Pamela Frierson's book, "The Burning Island," and became interested in the author's observation that the modern environmental movement too often disregarded the connection between humans and the land.

Shortly after, Whitney watched the Merrie Monarch Parade in Hilo and was intrigued by a man he saw in a traditional Hawaiian malo.

"He was neither smiling nor frowning," Whitney said. "He looked like he had been deposited here by a time machine. Fascinating."

Whitney snapped a picture, and later tracked down the man, Kimo Pihana, to ask permission to use the photograph.

Pihana "said he felt the picture showed how he sees himself as (he) pursues his own journey to recover his Hawaiian roots," Whitney said.

The two became friends, and Pihana invited Whitney to document the Royal Order of Kamehameha I's ceremonies on Mauna Kea.

Whitney's first visit to the volcano sparked an interest in the personalized ways in which Native Hawaiians expressed their spirituality.

"The exhibit arose out of a series of accidents, but it also included an intent on my part," Whitney said.

Aware of the implications of his work, he took special care to ensure that his images and words maintained the integrity of his subjects.

"Typically, I would take a bunch of pictures and show them to the people I came to know," he said. "They would critique the photos. There was a long period of coaching that I received. This is a very sensitive issue in Hawai'i. ... By showing these pictures, maybe people will understand the depth of feeling Hawaiians have for the land and for the ancient values."

Whitney said he developed a particular interest in ahu and lele, traditional altars for Hawaiian offerings, called ho'okupu.

"I did a lot of research, and there's virtually nothing written about ahu and lele, yet they are in constant use by a lot of groups," he said. "There's no organized Hawaiian church or bible, and people tend to approach their spiritual beliefs on a personal basis. It's difficult for outsiders to get a glimmer of that."

Whitney said he was careful not to filter too much of the experiences through his own perspective. The lengthy texts that accompany his photographs largely are based on the words shared by his hosts on the volcano.

Guy Kaulukukui, Bishop Museum vice president of cultural studies, cautions that the exhibit reflects the beliefs and customs of specific groups with which Whitney worked, "not the totality of the Native Hawaiian people."

Yet, Kaulukukui said, "The exhibit is stunning. They're really good photos."