By Sarah Elisabeth Sawyer (Choctaw Nation), Artist in Business Leadership Fellow 2015
Hula, leis, and partners from the mainland came together to honor a culture bearer on the island of Molokai. Kanoelani Davis (Native Hawaiian) was recognized as a 2018 Jennifer Easton Community Spirit Award (CSA) recipient for 30-plus years of practicing, preserving, and perpetuating her culture through art. Though CSA honorees like Kanoelani often do not view their work as significant, they represent vital strands woven into the fabric of their communities.
“The Community Spirit Award was definitely a surprise for me,” Kanoelani says. “It was an honor to be recognized by somebody in my community who sees the work I’ve been doing as a Hawaiian on our small island.”
The CSA honoring held at the Molokai Community Health Center reflected the impact of Kanoelani’s art. Over 100 people gathered to recognize her work as an artist-leader. Culture bearers are at the heart of communities and the work of First Peoples Fund (FPF), and why we honor artists through the Community Spirit Award.
Duncan Ka’ohu Seto (Native Hawaiian), 2016 CSA recipient and FPF trainer, welcomed Kanoelani to the First Peoples Fund family.
“I shared with her the responsibility that comes with the award,” Ka’ohu says. “I know she’s on that road already.”
The youngest CSA honoree awarded in Hawai’i to date, Kanoelani took the opportunity at the gathering to honor those who made the way for her, including grandparents and mentors.
“It’s my responsibility before they pass and you can’t tell them ‘thank you,’ you can’t show them, ‘I am here because of you,’” Kanoelani says. “For me, the most important part of the ceremony was being able to bring them up and honor them.”
Before the gathering, she selected twelve maile leis, one of the highest adorning leis.
“As I’m giving them their leis and sharing their stories, you could see them crying, and that they felt uplifted. I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity and space to do that.”
For 37 years, Kanoelani has practiced hula, wood carving, weapon making, and gathering shells for lei. She integrates traditional and contemporary wear into her growing fashion design company, PōMahina Designs.
“I just finished the MAMo Wearable Art Show on two islands with 65 models total,” Kanoelani says.
She is respected as a leader in her community, a sustainer of Hawaiian culture. Brandon Jones, executive director of the Molokai Arts Center, has worked closely with Kanoelani and recognizes her hard work in the community. He nominated her for the CSA award.
“Kanoe is a powerful and vibrant force in the community,” Brandon says. “From the moment I met her, it became clear that her number one mission in life is to propel and care for her culture. She received the honor of becoming a Kuma Hula which means she’s been blessed by her teacher to teach hula. She was given that honor at an unusually young age. By carrying that honor, she carries a weight of leadership in the community.”
Without culture bearers like Kanoelani, community values and traditions are lost to time and advancing change. These culture bearers strengthen communities and undergird the programs within First Peoples Fund. CSA honorees embody the Collective Spirit® and drive the work forward, integral to every piece. CSA nominations always come from within their own communities, from those impacted the most by their dedicated work.
The tapestry of Kanoelani’s art expanded internationally with the Pacific Fusion Fashion Show in New Zealand, and recently with an invitation to Fashion Week in New York and Paris.
Her tapestry also covers unification of communities. Kanoelani experienced this through her Intercultural Leadership Institute (ILI) fellowship and subsequent convenings where fellows discussed the importance of “showing up” to support one another. Three ILI fellows showed up for Kanoelani at her community for the honoring.
“They brought their tradition and their culture into our culture, showing unification as a people,” Kanoelani says. “It was special not only for me, but community members were able to see and experience this themselves.”
For culture bearers like Kanoelani, the significance of their work always flows back to their community’s needs. While her art brings traditions of the past into the contemporary world, Kanoelani passes on ancient practices to new generations to embody the spirit of their community.
“She is taking the sensibility she has and relating purely Native Hawaiian sensibility and using it to have a discussion through design about what it is to be Native Hawaiian and a contemporary Hawaiian,” Brandon says. “She is showing a younger generation that it’s possible to retain that precious sense of culture and identity and not lose that going forward. By being honored for this, I think another generation coming up sees that others understand the value of that.”
Though it was hard for Kanoelani to accept recognition as a CSA honoree, it was part of the process of moving her forward in preserving and perpetuating her culture through her art.
“I’m grateful to Lori Pourier and the Jennifer Easton Community Spirit Award because it has changed my entire consciousness regarding recognition,” Kanoelani says. “There are unheard stories and unseen heroes that are still working tirelessly and unconditionally for our people, our culture, and our community. This award has inspired me to work toward doing honorings like this for our people in Hawai’i. I understand how important that can be as an individual who’s receiving it. Sometimes it’s okay to be recognized. That’s a big life lesson for me.”