LAHAINA - Keeaumoku Kapu, head of Na 'Aikane o Maui, the increasingly important cultural group here, in early life got no respect. Today he is one of the leading practitioners of Hawaiian culture, last week honored by leading the Maui delegation that greeted the Hokule'a voyaging canoe headed around the world.
As a Hawaiian man living in his ancestoral lands, where he was a minority, Kapu quit school at 17 to help with family finances. On the job one day, he was called lazy by a union foreman for returning five minutes late on a lunch hour.
Kapu had been working 18 hours a day. "I did not see my wife. I did not see my kids. I had to leave at 4:30 in the morning and didn't come home until 1:30 at night. I used to work 18 to 20 hours a day."
Keeaumoku Kapu (kneeling at right) participates in a cultural ceremony.
His immediate response to the foreman's lazy comment: "I quit."
"I was steaming," he remembered years later. "I went to the office and talked to all the head bosses and said, 'This is what you guys did to me after working six months straight?' I slammed the door. Then, two weeks later, they offered me a contract for $190 a week, and they flew me back home once a month. So instead of not seeing my kids for six straight months, I could see them once a month."
At 27, Kapu moved on, settled on Maui and began growing his own fruit, vegetables and taro (15 plots) above Launiupoko for subsistence. He also set out to learn as much about the Hawaiian culture as he could, so that his sons and daughters would not be culturally deprived.
In trips to Tahiti and even New Zealand, Kapu found elders who could teach him more about Polynesian and Hawaiian culture than almost anyone back home.
Each year, the family makes a cultural pilgrimage to Hawaii Island ("Big Island is not its Hawaiian name," he said). After the first trip, he got rid of all the furniture in his house except the TV. He told his kids material things didn't matter.
Kapu over the years has been involved in multiple groups. He has served on the Maui County Cultural Resources Commission, chaired the Maui/Lanai Burial Council and Native Hawaiian Historic Preservation Council and serves as a member of the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council. His service of various boards adds up to 30 years.
A few years back, he led a Torch March around the entire island, his Hawaiian brothers greeting them in the greatest numbers in Hana.
"The walk was magical," he said. It enabled him to identify people in each ancient Hawaiian district who anyone, including developers, could consult to assure proper respect for the culture.
For several years, Kapu was known as the man who wanted to curtail the once raucous Lahaina Halloween celebration as being foreign to Hawaiian tradition. His input spurred the county and LahainaTown Action Committee to bring Halloween under better control.
To tap his deep knowledge, Lahaina Restoration Foundation has been working closely with Kapu on its new Imagine project to revitiliize of the harbor area while respecting Hawaiian values.
Sara Foley, who heads an initiative by the Maui Friends of the Library to transform the Lahaina Public Library front lawn into a Hawaiian garden with Polynesian and native plants, has brought Kapu in as member of the group's lawn planning committee.
Kapu, his family and others have agreed to restore an ancient stonewall on part of the lawn and install a new "King's Taro Patch." The family has already planted a test plot and will take care of the new plantings once they are permanently installed.
Supporting the culture is a family affair. His wife, U'ilani, heads Aha Moku of Hawaii, a group with an emerging museum and education center near the Front Street tennis courts.
Kapu would have been a great candidate to sail on the Hokule'a voyaging canoe. But he won't. He is too busy teaching, protecting and preserving the culture in Lahaina.
Columnist's Notebook: The columnist's quest to learn about and appreciate the Hawaiian culture continues. The long-needed Hawaiian cultural renaissance has been underway for some time now, and we all benefit by touching and embracing the culture in a place where most of us are guests.