Kumu Hula (Hula Master)
2006 NEA National Heritage Fellow
George Na’ope was born February 25, 1928, in Hawaii and was known there as “Uncle George.” He devoted his life to preserving the ancient traditions of his people. “In the ancient hula and in all of our chants are the history of Hawaii.” Na’ope saw progress from his days in school, when teaching the Hawaiian language and traditions was forbidden. “All of the schools are teaching hula now. I’m glad they’re emphasizing the ancient dances in the schools and the youngsters are beginning to learn to chant in the Hawaiian language. They are learning the language in the schools, which is very, very good. “The hula is the ability to create one’s most inner feelings with the love and respect for our culture.”
As a deeply beloved Hawaiian musician and hula master, George Na’ope pushed the boundaries of traditional Hawaiian dress and wore individualistic, often flamboyant clothing, hats, jewelry, and leis. In this portrait, his long white lei, Polynesian print shirt, and ukulele are an expression of his distinctiveness, self-confidence, and stature in his community. Known on the mainland as the Hawaiian shirt and printed with flowers or Polynesian motifs, the Aloha shirt was first made and marketed by a Japanese immigrant to Hawaii in the 1930s. This loose-fitting shirt is worn untucked and usually has short sleeves and a left breast pocket. (See the story of another iconic shirt, the guayabera, in this issue.) The ukulele was adapted from instruments brought by Portuguese immigrants to Hawaii in the 1880s. The lei is an important symbol of love and friendship. The flowers and leaves and type of braiding are symbolic of different places and occasions.