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Sunday, September 5, 1993 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Roots Blossom On Kauai -- The Lush `Garden Island' Reveals To Thoughtful Travelers The Essence Of Hawaiian History And Culture

KAUAI, Hawaii - Many visitors come to Hawaii in search of a romantic tropical paradise with smiling hula girls and bronzed beach boys.

Almost buried under this imaginary ad-agency version of the islands lies the true place.

The reality of Hawaii's spirit comes from its people who live by a set of values called "aloha," and from the land, the place native Hawaiians call 'aina - a word that takes in far more than simple real estate.

As thoughtful travelers to these islands, we wonder where the true experience of aloha survives. Does its spirit disappear under the sheer weight of 6.5 million visitors a year?

If aloha is the essence of native Hawaii, what does it mean to be Hawaiian in 1993, the United Nations Year of Indigenous Peoples? What does it mean to be a visitor, especially a "responsible" visitor, today?

Kauai is a good place to try to answer these questions, to look for the essence of the islands.

This "Garden Island" draws those who connect with the calm spirit of its landscape, not those looking for action or glitz. Here live leaders in the cultural renaissance that has led native Hawaiians back to their history, creating a sovereignty movement aimed at reclaiming their land and rights.

Nowhere on Kauai can one find the sterile high-rise enclaves that dominate parts of Maui and Oahu. The 1980s saw the tourist industry rush to Kauai like boomers headed for the next gold rush. But Kauaians have fought to maintain their country lifestyle, to avoid the worst of the overdevelopment of their neighbors.

All development ceased on Sept. 11, 1992, when Hurricane Iniki roared over the island. Every life on Kauai changed. Resorts and towns were devastated.

But a unique opportunity blossomed through the hole exploded in the economy. Forced to pull together after the hurricane, low-income native Hawaiians and well-heeled immigrants learned that they share an enormous affection for this island and its cultural heart. Class differences disappeared for a time; in the crisis, aloha replaced competition.

In rebuilding Kauai, native Hawaiians are seeking to redirect the tourist industry with a new commitment to indigenous culture.

Mahealani Kamau'u, a Hawaiian legal advocate and poet, hopes that tourists will look beyond the resort image and "really experience Hawaii. I want them to know that tourism has been harmful for native people. It has commercialized their culture."

When the United States annexed Hawaii in 1898, native Hawaiians disappeared under the same juggernaut of assimilation that mainland Native American tribes struggle against - but without the reservations that give mainland native tribes their homelands.

About 1 million native people lived in the islands when the Hawaiians first welcomed Captain Cook in 1778. Today, about 8,000 full-blooded Hawaiians total just 4 percent of all people with Hawaiian heritage.

In place of exploitation, Hawaiians on Kauai plan to create a community-based network of native entrepreneurships that can accommodate visitors who wish to share and learn from Hawaiian culture, conserving the local environment and sustaining the well-being of local people.

The first of Hawaii's major islands to rise from beneath the sea, today Kauai is leading once more, creating a unique chance for visitors to Hawaii to experience the indigenous Polynesian culture of the archipelago.

Lushness, serenity, holiness - all contribute to Kauai's spirit. Westernmost of the major Hawaiian Islands, Kauai faces southwest into the unbroken blue Pacific. Waves roll in from 2,000-mile-distant Polynesian neighbors to lap on the shores of this verdant volcanic mountain rising from the sea.

A dangerous channel separates Kauai from the cluster of the eastern Hawaiian Islands. The island was never conquered in battle but was joined by treaty to the Hawaiian kingdom forged by Kamehameha I at the end of the 18th century.

Kauai stands apart - in its land, its people, and its possibilities for travelers.

Unlike the Big Island of Hawaii, which approaches the size and diversity of a mini-continent, Kauai feels more like a single place - the largest Hawaiian island to retain this quality. Its 50,000 residents think of the whole island as home, whether they live on the wet northside, the more densely populated east coast or the quiet and drier west coast below Waimea Canyon.

The roadless Na Pali coast on the northwest quadrant of the roughly circular island blocks the island highway from circumnavigating Kauai's perimeter. Hikers, kayakers and helicopters go beyond the roads. The 11-mile Kalalau hiking trail penetrates the Na Pali canyons and cliffs.

But most visitors rent a car and drive the not-quite-closed crescent of paved highway: from Koke'e State Park in the western highlands, south past Waimea Canyon to the coast and then counterclockwise around the island to where the road ends at Haena on the northern coast.

Look for the underlying indigenous experience along the way. Bumper stickers on the locals' cars remind us that Kauai is a native homeland: "No Rockets In Paradise" (protesting the missile launches from Hawaiian sacred sites on Kauai's west side). "March For Sovereignty, January 1993."

In a land where everyone is a minority, part-Hawaiians total 24 percent of Kauai's population, the highest native component of any of the six major islands.

To understand this island, think in terms of many layers, hidden beneath the thin commercial veneer. The innermost layer is the native Hawaiian core.

To peel away these layers, start at Koke'e Natural History Museum, sponsor of Hawaiian artists, craftspeople and native events.

The canyons along this roadless coast shelter ruined Hawaiian villages and temples seen only by buzzing helicopters, motorized raft tours and an occasional sea kayaker.

Drop down past Waimea Canyon, a mist-enshrouded Grand Canyon where red earth and tropical greens mottle the views. In side canyons, homesteads and plots of taro give away the presence of native people. This west side of Kauai remains quietly Hawaiian.

Sugar country comes next, long the backbone of the economy but now replaced in importance by tourism. Chartreuse fields of cane still border the highway near Hanapepe. Rainbows arc over bougainvillea along the road. And then the resorts of Poipu take over, where native Hawaiians can be found only in low-paying service jobs and performances by island hula schools.

Every island has dozens of hula schools (halaus) - where as many as four generations of dancers (who begin studying at 3 or 4 years of age) borrow a schoolroom or push the television and stereo into a corner of the living room to practice the ancient dance with reverence.

These schools grew from the cultural renaissance that began in the 1970s, restoring pride to the Hawaiian people. Hawaiians began claiming every drop of native blood.

Now, nearly all Hawaiian children have a Hawaiian first name. Elders bestow long, unique names as blessings, with hopes that the person will take on the characteristics of each element in his or her name. Young Hawaiians who go by shortened nicknames like Kalani or Lani may have a full name such as Keala Lauwe O'Makana, "the fragrance of the lauwe fern of the Makana Mountains."

Hawaiian music has retreated from the hapa haole (half-Caucasian) music of the mid-20th century "Hawaii Calls" radio shows to traditional folk roots.

Native musicians cringe at requests for "Little Grass Shack" or songs that turn their lovely metaphorical language into baby talk, like the "Yaaka Hula Hickey Dula." Today, double-gourd drums accompany hula groups, and chanters accompany dancers, while acoustic slack-key and steel guitarists seek out ukuleles and stand-up bass fiddles as backup.

Carving of koa-wood bowls, images of Polynesian gods and double-hulled canoes for racing between islands is thriving. Lau haula mat weaving, stone-on-stone carving, feather work, lei-making - these traditional arts are vital again. In Lihue, the commercial hub halfway around the island, the Kauai Museum offers exhibits on these Hawaiian crafts.

Beyond Lihue, you soon reach the Wailua River area, with many Hawaiian temples along Hawaii's only navigable stream.

The river flows from Kauai's emerald heart. Rain forest cloaks Mount Waialeale, considered one of the wettest places on earth. Waterfalls plunge extravagantly into rockbound pools. White ginger blossoms and ripe guavas scent the breezes.

The native people of Kauai favored this Wailua-Kapa'a area in the old days. They still do. Several local diners serve Hawaiian food for small prices - generous plates of poi, marinated lomi lomi salmon, and lau lau pork wrapped in steamed ti leaves.

In Kapa'a, too, most native organizations have consolidated their offices. Here, the new community-development organization Hui Ho'okipa is creating a unique interchange with the Hawaiian community.

In the future envisioned by Hui Ho'okipa, you will be able to stay in a bed-and-breakfast run by a Hawaiian family, "talk story" with their elders, spend time in a taro patch, lay net and ride horses - all with Hawaiian guides, all funneled through businesses that return proceeds directly to the Hawaiian community. Additional educational efforts will bring Hawaiian cultural values and traditions into the big resorts as much as possible.

To place yourself in the path of serendipitous encounters with Hawaiian events and people, ask your hotel about native guides; check bulletin boards in businesses; look for ads and listings in local newspapers. Sincere curiosity and a willingness to listen can connect you with a new friend - and yield a lesson in Hawaiian language and protocol, an offer to share a meal, come to a family luau or watch a hula practice.

On Kauai, by this fall, official word of these possibilities will come from a Hui Ho'okipa community journal listing current cultural festivals and community events at which respectful tourists will be welcome. The tens of thousands of acres that may be restored to native sovereignty (returning lands lost when Queen Lili'uokalani was overthrown in 1893) will form the base for community-controlled responsible tourism.

North of Kapa'a, the road runs along beaches to Anahola, another concentration of Hawaiian people. Drive down to Anahola Beach Park and you will spot a United Nations flag flying in front of a small, homey Hawaiian Cultural Center.

Here, Michael and Sondra Grace refuse to wait for the government to verify their rights. They live on land they believe to be Hawaiian, where they welcome all visitors. Michael, a stubbornly traditional man, says: "If tourists come, they can stay with us, camp on the beach and learn about the culture. We take them to throw and lay nets. The next morning we pick up the nets and cook the fish."

Grace and Sondra (a warm and eloquent haole), have watched their facility bulldozed by the National Guard and, with their neighbors, undergone arrest. Always, they return and build again.

Beyond the resort area of Princeville is Hanalei, set in a mosaic of taro fields. Here, on Tuesday afternoons, one of Kauai's farmers' markets offers fresh produce for sale in a clearing next to headquarters for Project Waipa, the Hui Ho'okipa taro-farming cooperative.

Stacy Sproat, a young Hawaiian freshly graduated from the University of Southern California Business School in Los Angeles, works as project manager, "first, reviving taro-growing, family style. Then we can bring in tours and study groups to share in the process."

Her younger sister, Kapua, home from a mainland college for the summer, "thinks there will be an explosion of younger people involved" in Hui Ho'okipa's projects, countering the "brain drain" which has seen the educated leaving for the mainland. Stacy Sproat hopes her sister is right: "It's getting lonely out here."

As Kauai rebuilds, visitors can help invent a new kind of tourism, to see the rebirth of a culture, the staking out of new ground.

Copyright 1993, Stephen Trimble. Distributed by Universal Press Syndicate.

Stephen Trimble lives in Salt Lake City. He writes about and photographs western places and native peoples. His latest book is "The People: Indians of the American Southwest" (School of American Research Press, Santa Fe, N.M., 1993).

Copyright (c) 1993 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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