Photo by Alan Govenar, 2006
Native Hawaiian, Dance, Cultural Activism
Born in Kalihi, Hawaiʻi in 1928 and raised in Hilo, George Lanakilakeikiahialiʻi Naʻope was a foundational figure in the perpetuation, visibility, and celebration of Hawaiian culture. Affectionately and respectfully known as “Uncle George,” he was a revered kumu hula—a title that translates to “source of the dance” and carries layers of meaning. To be a kumu hula signifies that a person belongs to a lineage of revered culture bearers who have trained in and mastered the arts of traditional dancing, chanting, costuming, drumming, religious and ritual protocol, and other sorts of Hawaiian knowledge.
From a musical family, Uncle George’s grandfather, Harry Na‘ope, was a famous conductor and composer of several beautiful Hawaiian songs, including “Hawai‘i No E Ka Oi.” This family reverence for the arts is why his great grandmother, Mary Malia Pukaokalani, directed him to hula—back when it was still underground—taking him at the age of four to his first kumu, Mary Kanaile, the mother of Edith Kanaka‘ole. When he was ten, he moved to Oʻahu to study with Joseph ‘Īlālāʻole with whom he deepened his understanding of hula and learned the kapu (sacred) dances. Over subsequent years, he studied under many notable teachers, including Tom Hiona, with whom he would ‘uniki (graduate) as a kumu hula. In addition to the study of traditional arts, he also earned a PhD from the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music.
While he spent decades as a student, Uncle George’s journey towards being a teacher began at the age of thirteen in 1942, when he started a makeshift hula studio behind a barbershop. With the fifty cents a week he charged, he paid his way through school. After high school, he moved to Honolulu and opened the George Na‘ope Hula School. In 1978, he would ‘uniki his own group of kumu hula, which includes such people as Rae Kahikilaulani Fonseca. Throughout his illustrious career spanning over 60 years, Uncle George taught hula in underserved communities across Hawai‘i, in prisons, and around the world.
Arguably the most enduring of his legacies is the Merrie Monarch Festival, co-founded in 1964 with Helene Hale and Gene Wilhelm. Named after David Kalakaua (the “Merrie Monarch”), the last reigning king of Hawai‘i, the festival is now the premiere event in hula, with an international live audience, and is considered a touchpoint in the Hawaiian cultural renaissance.
Among other notable accomplishments, Uncle George founded the Humu Moʻolelo Journal of the Hula Arts, the ‘Iolani Luahine Hula Festival and Scholarship Competition, the Halau Hula Is Hawai‘i Trust, and Hula Is Hawai‘i, LLC. He was named a “Living Golden Treasure” by the state of Hawai‘i in 1960 and recognized by the National Endowment for the Arts as a National Heritage Fellow in 2006.
Resources available about George Naʻope’s legacy include:
Audio recordings of chants and music performed by him, Hawaiian Music Collection of the University of Hawaii at Manoa (Asch and Musgrove 2017)
George, Naʻope, “The early years of the Merrie Monarch Festival” in Humu Moʻolelo, Journal of the Hula Arts (1 (1), 72-89.
The Merrie Monarch Festival website, https://www.merriemonarch.com/