“Dance for the Aina” by Clemence McLaren

Dance for the Aina

In 1993, 12-year old hapa-haole (part-Hawaiian, part-Caucasian) Kathryn Kahele and her family – her father Robert, a lawyer who wants to fight for Hawaiian water rights, and her older brother David – move from their home in Pasadena, California to a small apartment in Honolulu, Hawaii.

It’s a big change for Kate: she looks different, taking after her Caucasian mother; she doesn’t speak pidgin; she doesn’t like Hawaiian food; and she doesn’t feel as if she belongs. She is shy and quiet, and doesn’t like to confront other people. She is uncomfortable with her father’s family – her domineering Uncle Kimo and silent Auntie Alohi – and at school, where she is taunted by her classmate Chad. For the first time, she experiences the kind of prejudice and discomfort that her brother David felt in California.

Then Kate begins learning hula (dance) with her classmate Mehana and kumu Kalama’s hālau (group). Just as she starts to feel connected with her friends and Hawaii, a bike crash leave with Kate with a cracked rib – and spurs her family to make a renewed effort to make her feel like she belongs.  And a hula performance at a Hawaiian protest at ‘Iolani Palace leads to Kate finding her voice and her family coming together for a ho’oponopono (healing session).

“Dance for the ‘Āina” (2003) by Clemence McLaren is a young adult novel about finding where you belong, standing up for yourself, how the past influences the present, how difficult it is to choose not to hate, judging people by their appearance, forgiveness, and connecting with the ‘āina (land) and nature. Through Kate, we see race relations and prejudice based on skin color. She begins to build a spiritual connection to home, not just a place where she lives. Alohi says, “Our ancestors believed that when you sat on the land, or better yet, slept on it, then the dust would come into your bones. I wanted you to know you’re a keiki o ka ‘āina, a child of the land.”

Through hula, Kate connects with people and finds a sense of family and belonging. “When the dancing was going well, as it was then, Kate felt at one with the music and with the whole universe.” Hula lets Kate express herself with movements and words, and later gives her the confidence to explain the sovereignty movement on television. Hula also helps people understand what the Hawaiians have lost.

The novel takes place in 1993, the year that President Bill Clinton issued an “Apology Resolution” to Native Hawaiians that acknowledged the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893. McLaren portrays a realistic Hawaii in which some Hawaiians are angry over injustices in the past, Hawaiian families are torn apart by the debate over sovereignty, and people are judged by their appearance or last name. Kate’s father argues constantly with her uncle about Hawaiian sovereignty (recognition vs. independence).

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