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Source: University of Waikato

Chance meant Hailiʻōpua Baker met University of Waikato’s Professor Rangi Matamua at a conference in Hawaii in 2012.

That meeting introduced her to Te Pua Wānanga ki te Ao – Faculty of Māori and Indigenous Studies. The pair had similar values and beliefs, as well as an Indigenous worldview she travelled to Aotearoa New Zealand to explore and develop in her own field of Hawaiian medium theatre – Hana Keaka. Dr Baker wanted to write a text for the courses she teaches at University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, where she is the Director of the Hawaiian theatre and playwriting programmes. Professor Matamua suggested doing her PhD in Hamilton would be the perfect time to write it, and before she knew it she was writing chapters in Waikato.

It was an amazing kind of freedom for Dr Baker to have the time for critical reflection on Hana Keaka. The art form involves combining the western medium of theatre with different traditional forms of performance. She started participating as an undergraduate.  “For many many years we were doing it, busy actually performing. There wasn’t much time to go back and do critical analysis.”  In a sense, doing the doctoral thesis and the research was a gift back to herself, and back to her community. “To be able to understand the fundamental aspects of this art form that our kūpuna practiced. I was able to do a lot of research in our old newspaper archives, from 1834 into the  1940s. And I was able to basically prove a case that this form did exist before western influence. We had our own form of theatre.”

Hana Keaka is different from western theatre in that it is performed outside in the round or in meeting houses. Dr Baker says the performance narrative was more dependent on chanting than dialogue. “As the form evolves, we see different styles of dance and music and instrumentation. We see new types of hula created for different types of storytelling as well. In many ways our theatre making is still very similar to what our kūpuna did. However, we do take the tools of the western stage, lighting and design and costumes, to elevate the work today.”

The major goal of our Dr Baker’s work is language revitalization. She says that through language native Hawaiians are able to empower identity and self, and elevate consciousness. “A Kanaka Maoli consciousness. Whether we recognise it or not, it is a political statement to be speaking our language. My partner and I have raised our children speaking our language – Ōlelo Hawaiʻi. We’ve ingrained in them this understanding of who they are, without them even knowing it. That is the foundation they stand on. It is a link to the past, to their kūpuna,and also the link to our land, our ʻāina.”

Hana Keaka’s role is to validate and empower native Hawaiian peoples. Dr Baker says that when she performs for children at  immersion schools, they hear their language, see their stories, and see themselves on stage. “That is empowering and also gives them this feeling that this is something they can do. It opens up language for them in the classroom. There are arts forms, design opportunities, ways to create in our language, which affords the freedom to express ourselves.”

Dr Baker’s thesis is becoming the book she always hoped to produce. It will be instructional material in the courses she teaches, but she is also hoping it will have a world wide distribution to inspire other indigenous communities. “When we read about the journey of different people and it resonates, then it empowers us. We start to think this is something we can do as well.”

Getting the those letters – Dr – in front of her name has also been significant. “For many years I was arguing that this Hana Keaka had always existed, that my kūpuna were practicing it. I no longer feel the need to do that, I no longer have to justify it. This is what we do, and we stand on this foundation of hundreds and hundreds of years of speaking our language and doing our art. I feel like the Faculty of Māori and Indigenous Studies gave me that strength, and gave me the platform and understanding, so that I can carve the space for academic scholarship, and we will be recognized. It has been a really amazing journey.”

Hailiʻōpua Baker is graduating at Te Kohinga Mārama Marae on Friday 3 May, 2019. She will be supported by nine members of her family, along with friends and Faculty members. An example of Hana Keaka produced by Dr Baker is available here.