by Stu Dawrs
Photo: Hawaii State Archives
The year was 1918, and Prince Jonah Kuhio Kalanianaole?s people were in dire straits. With the introduction of foreign diseases and the prevalence of intermarriage, the population of pure Hawaiians in the Islands had plummeted to less than 25,000, down from an estimated 300,000 at the time of Captain James Cook?s 1778 landfall. After the institution of private property ownership, much Hawaiian land had passed into foreign hands. The Kingdom of Hawaii?s last monarch, Queen Liliuokalani, had passed away a year earlier, twenty-four years after a U.S.-backed coalition of sugar planters and missionary descendents had conspired to unseat her. And, the United States had entered World War I, disrupting shipping to and from the Islands, decreasing the availability of imported foods and driving up the cost of such traditional Hawaiian staples as fish and poi.
Under these conditions, Prince Kuhio convened a gathering of forty prominent Hawaiians in the roof garden of Honolulu?s Alexander Young Hotel. His goal that day was no less than the ?rehabilitation? of his people, which he hoped to accomplish in part through the establishment of the Civic Club of Honolulu ? the first of its kind in Hawaii.
Eighty-four years later, the Hawaiian civic club movement has blossomed into a coalition of forty-nine distinct organizations, with a total membership of 2,500 spread across every major Hawaiian island and in Colorado, California, Utah, Nevada and Alaska. These days, members can be found at virtually every public gathering in the Islands ? marching in parades, testifying before the Legislature and manning food booths at county fairs. Most people in the Islands know that the clubs exist, but very few non-members would be able to tell you just what it is they do.
Opera star Tandy MacKenzie
Photo: Courtesy of Carol
& Lori MacKenzie
?Many clubs participate in preserving our culture: The songs and the dances and the arts and crafts,? says Association of Hawaiian Civic Clubs president Charles Rose when asked to explain what the clubs are about. ?There are also several clubs that are involved with protecting historic sites within the various communities. There is a club that works in partnership with the Polynesian Voyaging Society to train crew members in traditional sailing techniques. And, we are very active in contemporary issues affecting Hawaiian people.?
Why, then, aren?t the clubs? endeavors better known? ?It?s sort of a PR challenge,? says musician, kumu hula (hula teacher) and community leader Manu Boyd, a recent president of the Civic Club of Honolulu. ?Many of the people who belong to the clubs come from families that over the years have belonged to the clubs, so information about their activities tends to stay within a fairly small circle.?
Originally limited to those of native Hawaiian descent, many of the modern clubs now allow non-Hawaiians to join ? either as full or ?associate? members (the latter usually being spouses of full members) ? but in virtually every instance, membership requires an invitation by someone already in the club. Illustrating his own point, Boyd was introduced to the civic club movement by his family. ?I joined the Honolulu club because my grandparents were members ? but my parents were members of another club, Prince Kuhio, so it was sort of a toss-up.?
The Island-based civic clubs are also occasionally confused with another set of benevolent organizations ? the royal societies ? that are often present at the same public events. The most visible of these ? the Royal Order of Kamehameha I, the Ahahui Kaahumanu (a.k.a. the Kaahumanu Society) and the Sons and Daughters of Hawaiian Warriors ? have their roots in the Hawaiian monarchy era, and while both the civic clubs and royal societies have cultural preservation as their ultimate goal, there are some important distinctions.
Take the Ahahui Kaahumanu, for example. One of the oldest of the royal societies ? it was originally formed in 1864, and then reorganized in 1905 ? the ahahui?s initial function was to attend to sick members and pay for their burials. Today, the society has branched out into fundraising for Kamehameha Schools scholarships, and one of its most important modern-day functions is to serve as a living link to the Hawaiian monarchy era. Dressed in black holoku ? loose dresses favored for formal occasions by their namesake, Queen Kaahumanu ? members of the ahahui lend a strong, regal air to public gatherings.
?You might say the royal societies are more ceremonial in their role of upholding Hawaiian traditions, and they?re meant to be somewhat secret societies,? says Boyd, ?whereas the civic clubs are way more out in the public. You see the clubs all the time at fairs and fundraisers, running food booths and that sort of thing, working to raise scholarship money ... it?s a completely different thing.?
This tradition of grassroots service was also, so to speak, Prince Kuhio?s thing. In 1895, at the age of 24, he took part in a Royalist uprising against the ?provisional government? that had dethroned his aunt, Queen Liliuokalani. Jailed for one year for ?misprison of treason,? in 1902 he was nonetheless elected to the first of ten terms as a delegate to the United States Congress for the Territory of Hawaii.
?It was very clear that Prince Kuhio wanted to see his people advance,? says Boyd. ?He became a Republican, and his brother, Prince David Kawananakoa, became a Democrat, just to try to get into the American system and get something back for the Hawaiian people.?
One of the ways the civic clubs have contributed to such advancement is through the funding of scholarships. In 1919, the Civic Club of Honolulu granted its first scholarship to Tandy MacKenzie, a young soprano who would go on to become a worldwide operatic sensation. Many other beneficiaries have followed, and today the club raises about $40,000 a year for scholarships.
Civic Club leader
Photo: Tom Haar
The club?s legislative lobbying has also played an important role. In 1920, for example, the club was integral in the push for what would become known as the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act, which sought, as the Act?s introduction notes, ?to enable native Hawaiians to return to their lands in order to fully support self-sufficiency ... and the preservation of the values, traditions, and culture of native Hawaiians.?
Asked if he thinks Prince Kuhio could have envisioned the civic clubs? role in the Hawaiian community today, Manu Boyd?s response is somewhat guarded: ?I think many of the alii (nobility) would be very disappointed with what is going on today in terms of challenges to Hawaiian rights. I don?t think they could have imagined it.?
And so it would seem that the clubs? contributions are as important now as they ever were, despite a slow decline in membership, as club kupuna (elders) have passed away and fewer young members have materialized to replace them. ?I?ve been in the movement since 1971,? says Charles Rose, ?and at that time we had about 5,000 members; now it has come down to about half that. You know, the young people are busy earning a living, raising families ... so they have difficulty participating on a steady basis. I myself didn?t get involved until I was in my 30s, so those things happen.?
Still, it?s clear that as long as the need is there, the civic clubs will persevere. At a meeting of the Civic Club of Honolulu last year, Manu Boyd wondered aloud about the future. ?As a club leader, I was posing this question: ?Can the civic clubs survive?? And that?s when an auntie stood up and said, ?Just a minute young man!? and reminded us of exactly what the clubs were for. For myself at least, it redefined the fact that we really are supposed to uphold those traits of Prince Kuhio ... we need to think the way he did.?