In Partnership with the Southern Weekend

The Merrie Monarch Festival celebrates 56 years of perpetuating Hawaii’s culture

The History of Merrie Monarch Festival

Hawaii is sharing the aloha and Hawaiian Culture with the world this week at the 56th Annual Merrie Monarch Festival. Joining HI Now host Kanoe Gibson to talk about the festival’s history is President Aunty Luana Kawelu, who has assisted her mother, Dotty Thompson, with the festival since 1976.

In 1963 Hawaiʻi island was struggling economically, stemming from the devastation of recent tsunami and the decline of sugar plantations along the Hāmākua coast. Helene Hale, the County of Hawaiʻi Chairwoman at the time, sought to give the island an economic boost by tapping into the burgeoning tourist industry. Hale sent a team to explore the Lahaina Whaling Spree on Maui to see what lessons could be learned there. They returned inspired, and the seeds for the Merrie Monarch Festival were planted.

In 1971, the Merrie Monarch Festival shifted its goals and objectives to replicate the ideals of King Kalākaua who sought to revitalize the Hawaiian people and culture. This revamped festival would gather the best hula dancers from all the islands, showcase Hawaiian artistry, and create a performance to serve as a rite, a celebration, a statement about Hawai’i and its people.

With advice from kumu hula Pauline Kekahuna, Louise Kaleiki, Iolani Luahine, Lokalia Montgomery, Puanani Alama, “Aunty” Dottie and “Uncle” George introduced a hula competition in 1971. Nine hālau entered the wahine (women) group competition that first year, and Aloha Wong (Dalire) won the first Miss Hula title.

When the Festival opened the competition to kāne (men) in 1976, the interest and enthusiasm for the event increased exponentially. The blossoming of the Festival coincided with the Hawaiian Renaissance, a time when cultural pride manifested through the perpetuation and practice of Hawaiian language, music, voyaging, arts, and crafts.

The Merrie Monarch Festival steadily grew, receiving more requests from hālau who wished to enter the competition, and seeing an increase in spectators as well. The competition outgrew the Civic Auditorium and moved to the Hoʻolulu Tennis Stadium (renamed the Edith Kanakaʻole Multi-Purpose Stadium) in 1978, where it is still held today. It was during this time of growth that the organizers decided to expand the festival to a full week. The next year the demand for tickets was so overwhelming that a stage was built for the performers, so additional seating could be included to accommodate more people.

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