“Thatʻs your kuleana.” Translation: Thatʻs your responsibility. Thatʻs your thing. Thatʻs what youʻre supposed to do. Thatʻs your obligation. Thatʻs your contribution. Thatʻs your piece of the puzzle. Thatʻs your arena. Thatʻs your domain. Thatʻs your part of the whole. Thatʻs what you are supposed to take care of. Obligation. Responsibility. Contribution. Destiny.
Itʻs a lot for one word to carry. And it is a huge pū‘olo of expectations for any one person to take on oneself, even before placing it on anyone else.
Several years ago I put on my thinking cap and composed an essay called “On the Kuleana of a Kumu Hula.” The essay now lives on its own page on this blog. In the last two weeks there has been a spike in the number of hits on that page. A lot of folks apparently are reading it right now. I am guessing that one or more teachers have found it and have been assigning students to read it. (I am deliberately choosing to use “teacher” instead of “kumu” here, because I want to avoid the automatic-reflex jump that “kumu” will naturally mean “kumu hula.” I suspect that the teacher or teachers in this case may not necessarily be kumu hula, but rather schoolteachers or university instructors.)
That essay was several months in the making. In that several month period, I sought feedback and input from a circle of folks who I respect and admire deeply for their principled conduct. Not surprisingly, most of them are, in fact, longtime kumu hula. I have refrained from naming any of them, because they are not to blame for any shape or form of the final document. That kuleana is solely mine. I wrote, too, that the essay represents thinking aloud. It is NOT any kind of “how-to-become-a-kumu-hula” document, because that process is the kuleana of those who have been entrusted with stewarding the knowledge of hula practice. I am not part of that particular group–while I have had the privilege of being entrusted with knowledge of hula and hula practice, I have not been entrusted with the kuleana of ʻuniki. As one keeper of hula knowledge, I do take seriously my kuleana to share that knowledge with those who seek it, to ensure that that knowledge passed to me does not end with me.
One important reason why I wrote the essay, however, is to get folks to think about expectations. Kumu hula are expected, by their own kumu, to be stewards of knowledge and practice that has been passed from the past. But — have everyone elseʻs expectations of kumu hula exceeded what is realistic? Have expectations placed on kumu hula gone beyond what their kuleana is–and even ballooned out of control? Have kumu hula been expected to take on roles and demonstrate expertise in areas beyond the stewarding of hula knowledge? Have those expectations begun to affect how kumu hula can actually fulfill their kuleana to hula knowledge and practice?
In California, for example, where I lived for 8 years and where I still maintain my commitment to Kūlia i ka Pūnāwai (Kumu Hula Association of Southern California), kumu hula are acutely aware of the fact that they represent Hawaiian culture in their communities. Many have become community leaders and advocates for health and wellbeing, arts and crafts, concert production and promotion–activities far beyond the kuleana of stewarding knowledge of hula practice and presentation. But in California, where people are not surrounded 24/7 by access to lived culture in the way that people in Hawai‘i enjoy, haumana and their families and friends look to their kumu hula for guidance. And kumu hula have risen to the challenge, in recognition of their kuleana to their students. So, one question that could be asked is–are kumu hula now expected to develop expertise–not just knowledge, but expertise–in areas that have traditionally been the kuleana of other people–like la‘au lapa‘au medicinal healers, featherworkers, taro cultivation, ipu harvesting? Another question: at what point does pursuit of activities outside of hula practice cross the line into being counterproductive to (try “get in the way of”) a kumu’s particular expertise in cultivating haumana and creating hula?
Try a different direction. The path I chose is that of a scholar committed to research. In my life as a university professor, promotion brings new opportunities. New positions open up, opportunities to move up the ladder of hierarchy into positions of institutional leadership. But those new activities have costs. And one of the costs is less time that I can spend on research and writing, because my time is now spent on fulfilling the kuleana of the new position. A department chairperson, for example is expected to attend and support department-sponsored events, even if those events are not directly relevant to that personʻs own interests. A department chairperson is also expected to attend meetings with higher-ups outside the department, thus reducing oneʻs time on oneʻs own work, in the interest of the wellbeing of the department.
So–itʻs time to step back and assess. What is my kuleana? What contribution can I make that is most effective? If my passion is to share the what I find, and to get folks to think about things differently when new insights present such opportunities, then how can I best accomplish that?
What is the kuleana of a Hawaiian musician? To be the best possible musician by practicing and rehearsing? To be a reliable musician by showing up at a gig on time with the necessary gear (like instruments)? To be the most successful musician by securing the highest paid gigs? To make a livelihood to support oneself (and even a family–partner, children, parents)? After all, musicians have to eat, and buy clothes and pay for shelter as well as keep the instruments and gear in working order. Are musicians expected to have the expertise of fluent Hawaiian language speakers and language instructors? Are all musicians expected to be teachers of students at all age levels? Are musicians expected to nurture and mentor younger aspiring students? (The kuleana of a performer is not completely identical to the kuleana of a teacher. Some of the most effective teachers in western art music were not concert musicians, but rather teachers whose gifts enabled them to conjure and inspire the best out of their students.)
So, Dear Readers, what are your kuleana? And what kuleana are you expecting of others?