The Merrie Monarch
Kalākaua was elected king of the Hawaiian Nation in 1874, and reigned until his passing in 1891. He was a patron of the arts, especially music and dance. Known for his flamboyant and fun-loving ways he was given the nickname "Merrie Monarch". For many decades under Christian missionary teachings, Hawaiian beliefs and traditions were suppressed. Kalākaua advocated for a renewed sense of pride in all things Hawaiian such as the arts, medicine, music, and hula.
Ancient Hawaiians used an oral form of communication like chanting and hula to record their history, geneaology, mythology, religion, politics and land management. Hula and chantings were two among many means by which culture was expressed and chronicled. By supporting the practice and expression of Hawaiian knowledge, Kalākaua ensured that future generations would inherit a robust Hawaiian heritage.
In 1886 King Kalākaua celebrated his 50th birthday with a two-week celebration of Hawaiian culture on the ʻIolani Palace grounds. One of his goals was to Hoʻoulu Lāhui Hawaiʻi, to increase and preserve the Hawaiian Nation. The festivities featured hoʻopaʻa (chanters) and ʻōlapa (dancers) performing in public for the first time in years. A parade wound its way through downtown Honolulu to the palace, where throngs of well-wishers lined up to offer gifts and pay their respects to Kalākaua.
Today, this rich source of traditional chants provides us with insights into the poetic expressions of the Hawaiian language. Since its inception the festival continues what the king started by hosting a week long festival of music, crafts, art, demonstrations and a hula competition. During festival week, the grandeur, pride, and spirit of the Silver Jubilee is alive in Hilo, Hawaiʻi. Through these efforts, along with those of other organizations, the festival seeks to ensure that the unique traditions of Hawaiian people will continue to flourish.
In 1963, Hawaiʻi island was struggling economically, stemming from the devastation of the 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.
The first Merrie Monarch Festival included the following events: King Kalākaua beard look-alike contest, barbershop quartet contest, relay race, re-creation of King Kalākaua’s coronation, and a holokū ball. By 1968, under the leadeship of Dottie Thompson, Festival Executive Director, Merrie Monarch became a recognized world-wide Hawaiian event. Thompson ensured the festival would exemplify the ideals of King Kalākaua who sought to revitalize the Hawaiian people and culture. The Merrie Monarch competition attracts the best Hālau Hula (hula dance academy) from the across the Hawaiian archipelago, to showcase Hawaiian artistry and create compelling performances that celebrate and make a statement about Hawaiʻi and its indigenous people.
To protect the Festival's integrity Dottie Thompson gathered the luminaries of the hula community to include: Pauline Kekahuna, Louise KaleikiIolani, Iolani Luahine, Lokalia Montgomery, Puanani Alama, and George Naʻope. The blossoming of the Festival coincided with the Hawaiian Renaissance of the 1970's, a time when cultural pride manifested through the perpetuation and practice of Hawaiian language, music, voyaging, arts, and crafts. While the hula competition remains the focal point of the festival, other events have also drawn a loyal following, including the Wednesday night hōʻike (exhibition), invitational Hawaiian Arts Fair, and parade through downtown Hilo.
Luana Kawelu, Aunty Dottie’s daughter, had worked with her mother since 1976 on all facets of the Festival and took over the reins as the Festival President to continue the organizational legacy left by her mother. The organization's leadership officially transferred to the next generation in 2010, when Aunty Dottie passed away. In 2013, celebrating 50 years of existence, organizers paid homage to the Festival’s roots by bringing back some of the pageantry of the early years like the coronation ball as well as more fun events like the Kalākaua beard contest.
Although the initial motivation for the Merrie Monarch Festival was to boost the economy of Hawaiʻi island through tourism, this event has come to serve a far greater purpose, which is perpetuating Hawaiian culture. Just as Kalākaua, sought to strengthen Hawaiian people through the revitalization of cultural practices, the Festival strives to promote the vibrancy of Hawaiian culture for future generations.