Ashdown, Inez: Look for the Beauty

Kīhei de Silva

Photo: Kīhei de Silva

Inez Ashdown at Kekūhaupi‘o Gym on the Kamehameha School’s Kapālama campus. September 3, 1985.

We first met Inez Ashdown on September 2, 1983. The date is easy to remember because it was Lili‘uokalani’s birthday, and we were performing at Mu‘olaulani at the invitation of the beneficiaries of QLCC. I was off to one side, photographing the dance-line in profile. In the background I could see several smiling kūpuna, and I tried to position myself so that their approving faces would show up in my pictures.

When the hula was over, Aunty Mili Hopkins signaled me over to meet one of those approving kūpuna. “Kīhei,” she said, “this is Inez Ashdown; she knew the queen personally when she was young, and she belonged to the last family that lived on Kaho‘olawe before the Navy took it away.” I expected a feeble handshake and some innocuous pleasantries; what I got was a knuckle-jarring grip, piercing look, and a friendly command: “You tell those dancers that they are keeping beautiful hula alive; you tell them that I knew the queen and the kind of hula that she liked; tell them that the queen would be very happy with the way they dance; keep that beauty alive.”

Two years and a day later, at the invitation of Roxanne Freeman Canonigo, Inez ‘Āina Kaulana MacPhee Ashdown met and talked with the members of our hālau. These are her words, transcribed with her permission from a tape-recording made that evening. This transcription has been collecting dust for almost 20 years; the tape itself is dust; shame on me for waiting so long to share the words of this amazing woman.

It was Christmas time when we got here. My mother and I were going over to the ranch of Mr. Low, Eben Low, and Queen Lili‘uokalani had my mother and me sit beside her, otherwise I think perhaps we'd have gone back to Wyoming on the next ship. Anyway, we were accepted when she did that, and I thought, “Oh! A really and truly queen.” I had never seen one before. I thought she was so beautiful, and I gave a deep curtsy to her, and she thought I was a nice little girl.

That was in December 1907, and when we went to Maui, my mother and I, in January 1908, the queen and her party were going to Lahaina. That was about a four or five hour trip by the old steamships. When we got there, before she left the ship, she put her hand on my shoulders, and she said to me, “You will live in my land all your life; help my people to remember aloha.” She would tell me what aloha means; she said, “This is the kū lima, the five, the basis of our language: a, e, i, o, u. A: light. That's what God said when he started to create the universe. A, and light came. E: the sound e is the atmosphere, the air around us. I is the waters; there are two: the twin waters of life; in other words, male and female. O is mother earth. U is the altogether, mankind.” This is what she said; she spoke in this fashion. Now I’ve never learned Hawaiian in a formal way; I'm not a linguist, but that is the basis of Hawaiian language, and if you learn that first, at least you can pronounce the words fairly well. But she said to me that day, as we got off the ship about four o’clock in the afternoon, “Help my people to remember aloha, and aloha means when we say it: a, light, intelligence, and inspiration; lo, to mother earth, in other words a female sound; hā, what God creates when He breathes on the seeds, the twin waters of life. Whatever He's breathing on, He gives you His own soul, that's our soul, our ‘uhane.”

This is the kind of thing I learned, from her and from the older Hawaiians of that time. It has stayed with me all my life; it has been an inspiration to me…One of the things I like to tell about the queen, whose birthday we remembered yesterday with the Hui Hānai, one of the last things she ever told us: “Remember that the ‘Iolani, the bird, the beautiful bird of heaven, the royal hawk, is equivalent to the hae Hawai‘i, our flag over the islands here; remember that they are the same as the golden eagle and Stars and Stripes are for America; they fly over our land to protect us.”

Today you hear people say that she was angry, that she hated people. She never did. And I want you to remember that as you meet people and they tell you this, don’t believe them….Do as she did. Try to look, always, for the beauty. As the queen said, “Look for the beauty, my child.” She always wore black and her hair up in a pompadour like that, and sometimes a little lei of pīkake around the topknot, and she loved children; she would do anything for them. I'm so glad to belong to Hui Hānai and to help as much as I can, as she did. And I think that’s the greatest thing probably of her short reign on the throne there in the ‘Iolani Palace, is what she did for the children. All these things we learn, the things that these beautiful Hawaiian people did who were so beautifully educated, many of them in Europe, many of them in England, and they were very pro-British. They liked the English style, the manners, the customs. You had to be a lady; you had to be a gentleman, and all this kind of thing.

And most of it I learned here rather than in Wyoming because I was seven years old when I came here on my birthday, on December 20th, in 1907. Now I'm 85. I’ll be 86 in December. And all these things you learn as you're growing up.

I grew up on Maui. From ‘Ulupalakua I could see across the ‘Alalākeiki sea, the channel ‘Alalākeiki; I could see the island of Kaho‘olawe. Now the old name of Kaho‘olawe was Kanaloa. Now did I tell you that Kanaloa is the giver of the gift of eternal life? God of eternal life. Kanaloa. Afterward, mankind ruined that island. Today it's called Kaho‘olawe, which means “gathering driftwood.” It is a symbol of what mankind has done to mother earth, rather than take care of her properly. When you ruin the earth, you're not doing your work around here properly. We should not be living as we are now. We should be able to take care of the sea, of the fresh waters, of the rains, the fish, of everything that grows that God give us as gifts. We should be able to take care of them properly. Don't be unkind. You can't make the grass grow; God does that, so you take care of it, keep it beautiful. The same with the tree. We planted a lot of trees on Maui; it's now one of the most tree-full places in the world, I guess. I always think of a tree as the kumu, the trunk, so tall and giving beautiful shade, and maybe having flowers as well as leaves, and breathing just as we do. The leaves breathe. But anyway, this is the way you learn.

Do you want me to tell you something about Maui? All right. You know Haleakalā, don’t you? They call it House of the Sun. Well it wasn't always House of the Sun. If you go down the Kaupō Gap by Holoholokū Trail you will see a peak on the right hand side, and that is Haleakalā, House of the Sun. That's because the sun's first rays touch that peak before they touch anything else that's there. But for the tourist business, they call the whole mountain House of the Sun, Haleakalā.

Another thing I learned from the Hawaiians, particularly in the last years that I was a member of the Lahaina Hawaiian Civic Club, was that you don't say “Lāhainā” to mean “cruel sun.” You combine “Laha,” which is “prophecy,” and “‘āina,” which is “land.” You say “Lahaina,” and it means “land of prophecy.” It is a much nicer name than the one we give to the tourists along with the story that says an old chief was going up the hill and he complained, “Oh what a merciless sun: Lāhainā.” Don't say it that way. Say “Laha,” “Lahaina.” That's what they taught me in the Hawaiian Civic Club.

We saved historic sites. The Lahaina Hawaiian Civic Club. Mrs. Ka‘ai and the rest of them that worked with us. She was one of the matriarchs, and then we joined the East Maui one, and that was with Senator Harry Field and his wife. And we did more work over there; we finally started a historical society on Maui. I was Girl Scout director then, and I started with helping the Maui Women's Club. ‘Iolani Luahine came to Maui, and she danced up there at Baldwin High School, the first public appearance I guess she'd given on Maui. So the Maui Hawaiian Women's club asked me to speak, cover the story, and I wrote a chant for her because she danced as the old folks did in the days of Lili‘uokalani and her brother King Kalākaua. I'll never forget seeing ‘Iolani dance. It was one of the most beautiful things I had seen for many years, and I love that girl.

I have lived on Maui off and on, school and all, since 1908. I love that land with a great and wonderful love. There is no land like these islands of yours. Most of you here have Hawaiian, don't you, all of you here? Be very proud of it. I don't think there's any more wonderful people in the world than the Hawaiians I have known. We're all here together, and we're all pretty good friends, and one thing I want to ask is that you remember always, no matter what they tell you, that Queen Lili‘uokalani did not hate anyone. She did not. She tried to keep her nation, surely she did, same as you or I would. But she did not hate. She is one person I know who lived aloha. I see God in you. God is in me. And God is in all. He created. And that's the end of my story. If you want to ask me some questions, I'll tell you some answers if I can.

You know all the names of the eight islands and the eight seas, don't you? Be sure you remember those names, like ‘Alalākeiki and ‘Alenuihāhā between East Maui and Hawai‘i. ‘Alenuihāhā – what does that mean? “Engulfing waves.” It's a very rough sea and that's because one of Pele's sisters has charge of that area, and she used to fight with Pele. Up there at Kekewi, Nāmakaokaha‘i, the older sister of Pele that's in charge of ‘Alenuihāhā, she came up through a pit and she and Pele fought at Leleiwi. Pele was saved by their brother Kamohoali‘i, the head of the Hi‘iaka family, and so Pele today lives over there. Now she's raising the dickens over there; I love when she does that.

I'll tell you why I think she's real. I don't know how many of you are Roman Catholics, but I believe in the saints, and I don't think there is much difference. The Hi‘īaka family was here centuries ago, and there was someone by the name of Pele centuries ago, so maybe I'm not too wrong. It's nice to be superstitious. One time in Lahaina, I was going to make a window box, and I needed some cinders for drainage, so I got in my car, new car, and away I went with my shovel and a pail. I was going to bring home some cinders to put in my window box.

On the way out, there was an elderly Hawaiian, an older man, driving an old jalopy ready to fall apart. He gave me the hi sign and said good morning. Then I went out to the cinder field and put down some cigarettes and matches, sulfur matches. I said, “Pele, would you please let me have some cinders?” All of a sudden, I felt as if she said, “No, get out of here!” Boy, what did I do then? I said, “I'm sorry if I did something wrong; I won't touch your cinders.” So I put the shovel and the pail back in the car, got in the car, and started back along the road I had come on. But then the car stopped and would not go.

So there I was thinking, “I'm going to have to walk back to Lahaina,” when along comes this fellow again. He stopped his old jalopy. “Missus, you pilikia?” “‘Auē,” I said, “yes, I'm pilikia; look what's the matter with this new car.” So he got out a piece of Japanese mat and spread it on the ground and crawled under the car. He said, “Oh, the cotter pin is gone.” What's a cotter pin? I knew horses but not cars. He took a piece of wire or something, fiddled with it, and then he was done. I said to him, “Who's your ‘aumakua?” “Ah, Tūtū Pele,” he replied. “‘Auē, what can I do for you.” “I need a job. You know all the hotels and all. I cannot go fishing like before. And I don't have job.” “My husband,” I said, “is bookkeeper down at the new hotel. You go down there and tell him that I said to give you a job.”

And then I got in the car, drove down to Lahaina, had the wire replaced, and went on the three-to-eleven shift at the switch-board. We were all helping out the new hotel; there were no people to hire at that time, and there he was. He raised his hat and gave me the hi sign again, and he got his job. And that's why I believe in Pele. You can believe that or not, but it's a true story.

Okay, now you'd better go and do your hula and learn, and when you do your hula, you do it nicely like the old folks used to do. You don't do all this kind of stuff [she makes fast, wild motions]. Remember, your body is made of a lot of water that is very fluid. Do it gracefully, no vulgarity. The queen would not like that. Her dancers were beautiful dancers. One of the last ones was Jennie Wilson, the mayor's wife. So I hope you like my silly stories that I love to tell. When you get old, you like to tell stories.

Would you like to hear more about what I remember of dancers? …When they danced, they wore the ti leaf and underneath a short mu‘umu‘u. Maybe it would be yellow Chinese silk or something like that. Usually it was because the Hawaiians in those days liked the color yellow; it was like ‘ilima. And when they danced, they were just something fluid, just beautiful. And the hands, nobody has hands like a Hawaiian. The fingers sort of turn up as though different from other people's hands, beautiful hands, something an artist would like to paint, you know. Of course mine are all busted up from roping cattle.

When they came out, they came out. If it was one or more, they came out just as you do today, but they reminded me of a whole group of forest fairies or something that had come down and were dancing with their palapalai and their lei, whatever they were wearing, and they were so beautiful.

They wore their hair down long, and their hair usually was wavy but sometimes was straight, very black and beautiful, their skin smooth and soft, and their lovely hands and beautiful fingers…and their eyes, you watch their eyes.

If you want to express beauty, then you will express beauty. If you want to be vulgar, you will express vulgarity. It's all in here. God gave you a mind to think and reason, and a heart to feel emotion. And unless you keep them like a team of horses, steady and together, you're going to have trouble. This is too cold and calculating if it's alone. This is too hot and passionate if it's alone. You have to use both. I hope you enjoyed hearing my funny stories. It's not all funny. It's very serious. Life is very serious, but be as humorous about it as you can.

So now you go dance. So you remember what I tell you: be graceful, be gracious, be polite, have a lot of humor, because there's an awful lot of serious things in life that you have to make up your mind about. Don't forget that. And always think, when you look at a flower's face, always think that maybe there's a little pixie or elf in there, and love your flowers. I have never thrown a lei away in my life, or any flower. I have leis hanging all over my house, some of them falling apart. The hands that made the lei with love gave the lei to you, and you wear it. You remember that: handle them carefully; they're so beautiful, like little babies, those lovely beautiful things. ..I wear them proudly and happily. Thank you for your gifts

A biography of Inez Ashdown – friend of Lili‘u, horsewoman extraordinaire, last resident of Kaho‘olawe, Historian of Maui County, defender of sacred sites, author, columnist, and story-teller – can be found at the Maui Historical Society website