The ti leaf is dark green and glossy. Using her hands, Kalei’okalani Matsui deftly weaves, folds, shapes and bends the leaves into a rope, adding more leaves to elongate the lei. Her fingers move quickly, bracelets clinking gently around her wrists from the movement of well practiced wilii, the technique of twisting and weaving together lei.
Matsui was born and raised in Hawaii, but it was only after she moved to Seattle that she found herself called to make lei. Deeply steeped in her Native Hawaiian heritage, Matsui felt urgent questions pressing her into action the longer she stayed on the mainland: How do I continue being Indigenous without being in the land I am indigenous to? Am I even Indigenous anymore?
A larger force called to Matsui, and she was compelled to find raffia rope, lau and pua, leaves and flowers and wrap them together to create lei.
“I honestly felt like my heritage was working through my fingers, helping me to know where to exactly place things. Somehow I was creating this lei I had never made before, and it looked like I had for a very long time,” Matsui said.
Living in Washington, it was going to be a challenge to find the same leaves and flowers that one would use to weave a lei in Hawaii. So Matsui scouted a local Northwest wholesale florist who orders flowers from Hawaii but also from California and Washington.
“It doesn’t look Native Hawaiian because it doesn’t have the Native Hawaiian flowers, but I don’t look Native Hawaiian too sometimes and that doesn’t mean I am not,” Matsui said.
Hawaii has been idealized in popular discourse as a state that has figured out how to balance, accept and blend all of its cultural influences, where being a multiracial person is not something to be questioned the way it is in the fraught landscape of American identity politics. But Matsui says even in a place like Hawaii that has interwoven cultural influences, people still categorize one another.
Matsui has Japanese, Chinese, Black and Native Hawaiian ancestry and has felt pulled in all four directions. She attended Kamehameha schools, which teaches a curriculum meant to serve underprivileged and marginalized Native Hawaiian children. A child must be Native Hawaiian to attend.
This concept of blood quantum turns identity and race into a measurement. “It’s difficult because there was so much debate about how Hawaiian you were because of blood quantum. Blood quantum was such a huge thing among little fourth graders arguing about that,” Matsui said and explained how students would compare the percentage of blood quantum: The more “Hawaiian” her classmates deemed someone, the more say that person had in defining what it means to be “Hawaiian.”
“The history of mixed blood and identity [runs] so deep, and we never unpacked that in our education — where you feel that’s the one place you could. So there was difficulty there.”
When it came time to choose a second language class, Matsui chose Japanese because her father’s family had stopped speaking Japanese during the plantation era in Hawaii and Matsui wanted to be able to connect with that part of her heritage. She was ridiculed for choosing Japanese over Hawaiian, which was a dying language that required a conscious cultural effort for revival.
Matsui is also Chinese, but because of an animosity toward the Chinese in Hawaii, she didn’t feel she could claim that either. “And then don’t even get me started about being Black as well, because when you look at me, you wouldn’t know I was Black because of my features, but when you look at my mother, that is a beautiful Black woman. When I walk into places with my mom, they don’t think we’re together,” Matsui said.
Matsui’s mother is also Native Hawaiian, but she couldn’t access her own heritage easily as a result of generations of oppression, colonizaton and cultural genocide imposed on Native Hawaiian people by colonizers and the forces of American imperialism in the 19th and 20th centuries.
“We weren’t allowed to speak Hawaiian; we weren’t allowed to dance hula; we weren’t allowed to practice anything that our ancestors had. So, my mother herself hadn’t been connected to language or dance, but she was very motivated to allow us to at least have that opportunity to taste it, to feel it, to know it,” Matsui said.
That was how Matsui began learning Polynesian dance, both hula and ‘ori Tahiti, when she was 6 years old. For two weeks, Matsui would come back from class crying because her legs were in pain from the half-squatting position needed for dance. By the end of the trial period, her mother asked if she wanted to quit. Matsui said no: She wanted to keep learning not just one dance form, but two.
In the months that followed, young Matsui was introduced to the rhythms of the toere drum and the rich, multilayered lyrics of oli, or chants, that were part of the tradition of learning hula and ‘ori Tahiti.
In these traditions, Matsui, who was at the time shy, quiet and “scared of noise,” found her voice and inner power. With drum beats echoing in her head, dance started to transform her sense of inner strength. “Looking back, I had found my mana, my spiritual power, my source. And I put that out in my oli, and I was so proud to be the loudest one in class.
“The Kumu would be like, ‘You got to “oli” like Kalei — see how loud she is?’ And I’d be like ‘loud? Me?’ And equating that with strength.”
Matsui began to learn dance shortly after she had experienced trauma from sexual assault. She says some of her introversion arose as a coping mechanism to deal with that trauma, and the process of healing has been lifelong. Movement and dance was pivotal in helping Matsui reclaim her strength and her sense of self.
“It was a huge deal to feel so connected to my body, to feel like I know what my body is doing: If I am feeling certain emotions, I’m feeling exactly where my hands are being placed; I know how my legs will be able to carry me into telling this story,” she said. “So in the physical sense, being connected to this motion that my ancestors had created … flowing through me … it was very healing. If I didn’t have that at that time in my life, I don’t know how I would have overcome that trauma.”
The language and practice of hula and ‘ori Tahiti have not only grounded Matsui to her own mana and healing; it has instilled in her a deep fascination with and respect for the Polynesian value of interconnectedness, meaning life and time move in a spiral rather than in a linear fashion and people are deeply intertwined with one another and with the land they share.
“I feel motivated to share this feeling with other people in the physical sense, but also culturally and spiritually. I have come to embrace what it really means to identify with what I identify, which is my background, my lineage, my heritage,” Matsui said. “I want everyone to realize this perspective: the Polynesian perspective of interconnectedness and shared roots.”
Matsui followed her older sister to Washington and attended Seattle University in the late 2000s just as her sister had previously. Matsui got involved with a Hawaiian student club and was compelled to share her love of dance with other students, many of whom had never danced before.
“It was so great to see how happy people were and to be proud of it and to share that with their Ohana … feeling this joy from what was once fear. And that put a whole fire in me,” Matsui said. “I was like WOW, we can do this, we can do that for people!”
Then Matsui started teaching dance there. She had so much to offer — her passion, dedication and excitement for dance and Hawaiian culture comes through every time she talks about it — but after seven years at SU, she felt it was time to move on. By then, Matsui was working at the Wing Luke Museum full time, and was thinking about how to keep dancing and teaching in her life.
In 2017, Matsui created Huraiti Mana — Huraiti means “closeness to dance” in Tahiti and Mana means “spiritual power” in Hawaiian — with a broader vision of sharing dance as more than an art form. When Matsui really started teaching on her own, her sense of purpose was shadowed by looming insecurity.
“Feeling totally dedicated and serious and proud about it is one thing, but to have to flip it and teach that same etiquette [and] purpose — it took me to a whole different level. Empowerment and pride, but at the same time extreme insecurity and worry that I wasn’t good enough.” She explained that the feelings of whether she was “Hawaiian” enough to teach, or whether she had reached the level of artistry to really be a leader, plagued her.
“And realizing that my kuleana wasn’t just to teach choreography; it was to teach perspective, ideology, values and all that good stuff. Then I felt the pressure,” she said.
Matsui’s family — her mother, her sister, even her little niece — were her biggest sources of support, reminding her that her dedication to dance was more than enough proof of her integrity.
In the early days of Huraiti Mana, Matsui applied to teach hula and ‘ori Tahiti at Hazel Valley Elementary through an English as a second language program. Working with children was a turning point, as Matsui began playing the gourd drum herself and sharing oli with a much younger age group.
“Being able to tell mo’olelo, stories, legend, and being able to incorporate that into our hula. That also helped me with my insecurities,” Matsui said.
Matsui eventually found the perfect home for Huraiti Mana at a small community dance studio in the Chinatown-International District for dancers of all backgrounds and levels to gather and take multiple classes a week. But Matsui didn’t realize what she would manifest was more than just teaching dance and Polynesian values — “I didn’t realize I’d make a community.”
“I wanted to instill a skillset, be able to share who I am, empower people, feel connectivity — I had all that intention — and still yet not realize that creating this placenta around Huraiti Mana, we are creating a community together.” Matsui’s practice and her sharing were circling back to the crucial tenet of interconnectedness.
The community spirit at Huraiti Mana is so strong that Matsui says they did not even “skip a beat” when the city closed down to prevent the spread of COVID. By the next class, Matsui had gotten all her students online. In fact, the technology has allowed her community to expand beyond those who can make it to in-person classes. Students who have since moved away are able to join again and Matsui has had to add more classes to her teaching schedule.
This summer when Black Lives Matter protests swept the nation and grew, Matsui found herself thinking deeply about not only the larger societal inequities affecting Black people, but also how she constantly navigates the tensions of race versus identity. She talked a lot with friends and family but, as always, found herself reaching back to dance and the Huraiti Mana community to find calm as well as a call to action.
In July, Matsui held a workshop to raise funds for Black Women’s Blueprint, which works to end sexual violence againt Black women and girls; this is one of many ways Matsui is making a large impact with dance.
In every class, she conducts a breathing exercise which invokes “ha,” the breath of life. Matsui says that focusing on the concept and lived practice of “ha,” a shared breath, reminds her to reach beyond her own personal struggles, to lift up her voice for “the people who live through the world unable to walk as themselves.”
“Considering how George Floyd wasn’t able to breathe, we can right here right now lift up our ha. Let’s lift up through him and into everyone who cannot breathe,” Matsui said. “I found that is where my kuleana is.”
Going back to the practice of making lei, Matsui says it is hand in hand with the ethos of Huraiti Mana for her. She knows she doesn’t look distinguishably Native Hawaiian to others though it is her core, her backbone much like the lei she makes.
“Just because it doesn’t look Native Hawaiian on the surface, when we flip the lei over, flip all the northwest flowers over, and you see that wili and you see that perfect spiral covering every inch. That is so beautifully Hawaiian.”
Huraiti Mana manifests from offering oneself to the world, as Matsui does with her dedication to teaching dance. “You put all of your mana into it; you put your ha into it and it culminates when you then give it away,” said Matsui. “I’m putting who I am. I am putting in my stories into that lei. And I hope to give that lei to my huraiti and my community and have them be adorned with all that aloha, that love.”
Kamna Shastri is a staff reporter covering narrative and investigative stories for Real Change. She has a background in community journalism. Contact her at email@example.com. Twitter: @KShastri2
Read more in the Sept. 9-15, 2020 issue.