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Connecting Culture and a Canoe Race

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Hawaiian immersion students participating in last year’s Kulaia celebration. Photo courtesy of Lori-Lei Rawlins-Crivello.

Fifty years ago on the evenings before major outrigger canoe races, Molokai residents and paddling crews from Hawaii and around the world camped together on the shores of Hale o Lono Harbor. They shared tents, meals, music and conversation under the stars.

“It was really good for everybody to get together. No matter what club you were in, everybody had fun together,” said local fisherman Mervin Dudoit, who paddled in seven Molokai Hoe races during the 1960s. “… Now most guys don’t talk to the next team [before a race].”

As races got more competitive and a good night’s sleep more valuable, lodging separately in hotels or local homes became commonplace. Amid the shift away from a tradition of fellowship, said Molokai resident Lori-Lei Rawlins-Crivello, the joint festivities have been all but lost.

“The races have evolved to where our local people don’t even know there’s a race on the island if you’re not involved in paddling,” said Rawlins-Crivello. “… For the most part, there’s no interaction between the paddlers and the community because other than the race itself, nothing draws [the paddlers] to engage with the community.”

Rawlins-Crivello, her husband Kawika and resident Maria Holmes wanted to change that. Last year, they formed the Molokai Canoe Festivals Committee and brought back Kulaia, a celebration that not only echoed childhood memories but also revived Hawaiian traditions.

According to the committee, annual Kulaia festivities dating back to 1865 combined outrigger canoe races with the celebration of national holidays or mo`i birthdays. However, after the Kingdom of Hawaiian was overthrown at the turn of the century, the event became more about the race than a recognition of the culture itself.

To bring back a sense of community and tradition, the committee held a ho`olaule`a in downtown Kaunakakai during the weekend of last year’s Na Wahine O Ke Kai, the annual women’s outrigger race across the Ka`iwi Channel.

“The feedback was so awesome and amazing. I had no doubt this is an event our community needs,” said Rawlins-Crivello. “We had paddlers who said they were just in awe because they felt so welcome and a part of it.”

Kulaia is also a chance to reconcile rifts between visiting crews and the community. As a paddling hub, Molokai hosts a variety of races throughout the year, which bring in hundreds of paddling crews and escort boats. This aggravated locals, who felt visitors were overfishing Molokai waters during their stay. Rawlins-Crivello said through Kulaia, they want to make crews feel welcome but also instill in them a respect for the island.

At this year’s Kulaia event, Native Hawaiian resource management group Aha Kiole will have educational materials for visitors. Dudoit said that Molokai fisherman and educator Mac Poepoe has also been talking to coaches ahead of time about the issue.

“Our approach is educating with aloha,” said Rawlins-Crivello. “When you build that kind of relationship with people … they’re very open to wanting to be a part of the solution.”

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More than 60 crews came to Molokai for last year’s Na Wahine O Ke Kai. Photo by Bianca Moragne.

This year’s Kulaia takes place on Friday, Sept. 25 from 5 to 10 p.m. and will feature Molokai-based food and craft vendors. Artists like Amy Hanaialii and Makaha Sons will serenade the crowd and free lomilomi massages will be available. The deadline to reserve a seat on a bus from Kaluakoi to the event is Sept. 23.

The theme is “Hina i uka, Hina i kai,” which Rawlins-Crivello said is meant to reflect “the wahine and the maternal energy of protecting, nurturing and propagating our natural resources from mauka to makai.”

At the event, organizers will honor revered kupuna and Kumu Hula Eliza Kauila Poaha Reyes, along with the late Mel Paoa, a former Hokule`a crewmember who also dedicated a life of service to the community.

On Saturday, the festivities will continue with a free ohana lomilomi workshop at Home Pumehana, 4 to 7 p.m. The deadline to sign up is also Sept. 23. On Sunday the race starts at Hale O Lono Harbor at 8 a.m.

For more information, call Rawlins-Crivello at 658-0104 or email molokaikulaia@gmail.com. Details can also be found at kulaia.wix.com/kulaiamolokai.

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