Mina May Reflects on the Traditions of Hula Dancing and Its Impact on Her ‘Kuleana’
Keep dancing was always the answer for Mina May.
She grew up in Oahu, also known as “the gathering place” among Hawaii’s eight islands, and it’s the place where hula became what she would later see as a lifeline between her present day and her colorful past having grown up in an island culture.
She was first introduced to hula at the age of 3, barely having a year or two of walking under her belt. Every Saturday morning meant waking to see Aunty Leilani Alama, a highly revered but strict kumu hula (hula teacher) who said things like, “Swallow that yawn,” to little girls when she caught signs of their fatigue and instilled in her pupils a respect for the dance’s traditions. She was Mina’s first kumu hula and the group she danced in was also her first hālau (hula group). The training could be tedious, but Mina recognizes the significant role Aunty Leilani Alama played in her life: She was central to awakening Mina to the raw and historical roots of the dance.
“When you dance hula in Hawaii, you’re not just dancing like you would take a jazz class or ballet class, you dance in a hālau,” she said. In many ways, dancing hula is like being cast as a new member in another family, which you rarely leave. “You’re usually expected to stay with that hālau,” or family, said Mina.
She didn’t, however. Mina stepped away from hula dancing during her pre-teenage years. It was at ‘Iolani School where Mina dived back in, inspired by her then-high school boyfriend who danced hula for Ed Collier, a kumu hula who taught at ‘Iolani for 22 years and was a former judge for the Merrie Monarch Hula Festival, much like the Olympics for hula. She joined Uncle Ed’s after-school hālau and broke tradition by also joining the hālau of Aunty Lehua Carvalho, who encouraged Mina to dance competitively with her group. During this time, Mina delved into other aspects of hula, such as gathering the materials needed to make the ti leaf skirts and adornments (kupe’e) for around the wrists and ankles. She also learned to oli, a chant that is not danced to, and to this day Mina is grateful for the experience and personal connection it offered her to the Native Hawaiian culture.
“It made a very powerful impression on me,” said Mina. “This is the culture I am most influenced by.”
While born and raised in Hawaii, Mina isn’t a Native Hawaiian. That is to say, she and her family don’t trace their ancestry to the original Polynesian settlers of Hawaii. She is what they in Hawaii call a hapa haole, a person of mixed race. Mina is half Japanese and the other half is a mingling of Mexican, Irish, and German ancestry. However, she’s always felt a strong bond to the Hawaiian culture, and hula was crucial in planting those seeds in her. Later, her work for Na’alehu Anthony, first at his start-up film company, Palikū Documentary Films, and then ‘Ōiwi TV, further boosted her appreciation, knowledge, and passion for Hawaiian culture, language, and people.
“Lehu founded Palikū Documentary Films and then with his partners created ‘Ōiwi TV, with the primary purpose to give a positive voice to Native Hawaiians through mainstream media. He employed me as a young and impressionable 19-year old and has kept me as part of the Palikū and ‘Ōiwi ohana (family) for years now. By working for Lehu, I was included in many incredible accomplishments for Native Hawaiians, such as the planning and implementation of the Hōkūle’a’s World Wide Voyage. Lehu is a true leader in every role he takes on, whether as a filmmaker, boss, or Native Hawaiian,” Mina said. “He taught me the power of giving voice to the underserved population, which is most often minorities, and how we all have a responsibility to give back to our people, whether they are part of our ancestry or part of our community. He was and is so influential in my life and a big part of why I am doing the work I do now in Montana.”
It is this heart for advocating for the underserved minorities that drove Mina to pursue her current line of work. Mina recently graduated from the University of Montana with a master’s degree in Speech Language Pathology and is now working with a private speech therapy practice contracted by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes to work with young children throughout the Flathead Indian Reservation.
“Communication has always been really interesting to me, and how people communicate,” she said. “How does what I’m trying to say…actually get to your heart? Not just you hearing me and nodding your head but how do I actually make a difference?”
Mina’s careful consideration of her own heritage and work is by no mistake or coincidence.
While filming at a Native Hawaiian conference with Na’alehu, Mina plucked an affirmation card from dozens of others at random. Hers read: Kūpa’a i kou pu’uwai. When translated, it means to stand firm in your heart. Mina referred to this as part of her kuleana, a Hawaiian word referring to a higher sense of responsibility to yourself and others in your community. It’s a way to remind her to stay true to her calling.
“If I can figure out a way to use what I’ve learned from working with strong Hawaiian leaders like Lehu and the folks at ‘Ōiwi TV and somehow share that knowledge with Montana’s tribal communities, and then share my experiences here back home with Hawaii’s native communities, then I will be fulfilling part of what I feel is my kuleana because the issues we have affecting native communities up here,” she said, “are so similar to the issues we have in Native Hawaiian communities.”
Long before Mina graduated from UM, she was offered several jobs back in Hawaii, all of which she turned down. Not because she didn’t want to return to Hawaii and do meaningful work, but because she was called to be here in Montana.
“I kept feeling as though I needed to be in Montana, and I didn’t really know why,” she said. “I’m just going to do what my heart tells me.”
Right now, that means working—in any way possible—with Montana’s native population. Having come to the Northwest directly from Hawaii, Mina remembered what it was like to suddenly be the minority, and also keeping her strength when she was teased for using words within the Hawaiian Pidgin English (Hawaiian Creole English) or judged by the color of her skin. Her answer wasn’t to shame herself or to shed the evidence of her culture—it was to educate those around her about it through hula by standing firm within her heart.
“I just hope to share the aloha (love) for and knowledge I have about Hawaii to do my part for the original people, the kanaka maoli, who are still working hard to perpetuate and preserve their language, history, and culture,” she said. “Hula is one way I can keep doing that.”