The Oahu-born kumu hula, 54, spent the last 30 years of his life promoting Hawaiian culture, especially at the resort that the Waiaha Foundation named “the most Hawaiian hotel on the basis of 100 different criteria Akoni played a key role in helping meet.”
One of the early programs at Kaanapali Beach Hotel involved bringing employees to a new archeological dig at Moku‘ula, the ancient home of Hawaiian royalty that Akana spent the last 13 years of his life trying to restore.
Head of the hotel’s Po‘okela Program for ten years until 1998, Akana also advised the Maui Arts & Cultural Center and ‘Ulalana, the cultural show at Lahaina’s Maui Theatre.
Hired by General Manager Mike White to run a program of excellence on Hawaiian culture, Akana was instrumental in helping employees earn “He Kuleana Ke Aloha” recognition from the Hawaii Tourism Authority, “demonstrating an ongoing responsibility, commitment and dedication to honoring and perpetuating the Hawaiian culture for generations to come.”
Akana was involved in creating many of the 14 separate cultural programs for guests, including co-founding Hula O Na Keiki, a children’s hula festival.
Lori Sablas, Akana’s successor at the resort, described him as “a one-of-a-kind person; one of the most creative persons I ever worked with.
“He was never afraid to do what had never been done before. He would always come up with ideas that were wow,“ including composing the song “E Kui” sung daily by the staff to departing guests.
Akana was “a wonderful person with a great sense of humor,” Sablas added. He once told a risqué, unprintable joke about his desire to have his ashes scattered ocean side.
His real passion, however, was the restoration of Moku‘ula.
Located mauka of Front Street across from Kamehameha Iki Park, Moku‘ula was home to Maui high chiefs from the 16th to 18th centuries and the Kamehameha monarchy until the 1840s. It contained royal structures and a mausoleum.
Mokuhinia, a pond surrounding the island, included taro patches and fish ponds. According to legend, the sacred goddess Kihawahine, a Mo‘o Akua (large, lizard-like god), lived in the waterway and protected the ali‘i.
The site was considered the center of Hawaiian political and spiritual life for 300 years.
Akana spent untold hours exploring the nature of the sacred site across from 505 Front Street and brought back families who had lived there to mark the graves of their ancestors, according to Kaanapali Beach Hotel Concierge Malihini Heath, a close friend.
Ten years ago, Shirley Kaha‘i first heard Akana speak about Moku‘ula at an Aston Manager’s Conference. Within 30 seconds of his talk, “I made a commitment to work for Akoni,” she said.
“I did it in an unorthodox manner by quitting my job first and then applying at FOM.”
Six months later, she was hired by Akana as the project assistant. Working “a job of my dreams,” she was recently promoted to executive director.
“It is an honor to have been chosen as Akoni’s successor, and I have a tremendous kuleana to fulfill,” she commented.
She said that FOM will remember Akana for the passion he instilled in the restoration and perpetuation of Moku‘ula, attributing his work to his favorite slogan, “I ka wa mamua, ka wa mahope (The future is in the past).”
“Akoni was passionate about the restoration, as he knew of the significance of this sacred place (wahipana) and what it would represent for our people, our culture, our history,” said Kaha‘i.
“Looking at the legacy of our ancestors, we can always learn from them and apply it to today’s lifestyle and for the generations ahead of us.”
She noted that Akana was a prominent kumu hula. Through that foundation, he was able to share his knowledge and mana‘o with his haumana (hula students), staff and with the community.
The world came to know about the former royal retreat buried under a park in Lahaina through Akana’s presentations at the Smithsonian Institute, National Geographic and at major conferences worldwide.
Maui services and scattering of ashes will begin at 9 a.m. on April 23 at Moku‘ula along Front Street across from Kamehameha Iki Park, followed by scattering of remains at Pu‘ukukui and Napili Bay. Oahu services will begin at 9 a.m. on April 30 at Oahu Cemetery Chapel. Call 661-3659 for information.
“We are just in the planning stages of his memorial service, and we have had numerous phone calls from his friends, business associates, students, all wishing to kokua in some way. We will have a protocol service befitting of Akoni and keeping in mind of what he has given to our community and how we can honor him with song, dance, chants,” Kaha‘i explained.
Kaha‘i, who shadowed Akana at Friends of Moku‘ula for ten years, said “magic always happened around Akoni.” She feels the community has lost a great cultural teacher, who enjoyed talking with kupuna for hours on end.
“The community has lost an icon who was always willing to share his mana‘o, and he was always at the forefront on passing on his wisdom in such a humble manner,“ she said.
“His approach in teaching was to step out of the box, and he always had brilliant, yet simplistic, ideas and solutions. He had a special way of using humor and through stories could teach and get his message across.”
Reflecting Akana’s love for teaching and sharing his knowledge, FOM is developing a scholarship fund in his honor.
In a recent visit to Moku‘ula by the Hawaiian Chamber of Commerce, Kaha‘i outlined plans to build a hale on the site. Combining archeology with restoring a wetland, the project has been a long and complicated effort.
The ambitious project will now have something new going for it, Sablas noted. Akana’s passion was to see Moku‘ula unearthed.
Perhaps now that Akana is at a higher place, “he will use his influence to help us down there fulfill his mission,” Sablas concluded.
(Norm Bezane and Mark Vieth contributed to this article.)