Herb Kane changed my life. I’m a pre-baby boomer. I grew up during an age when it was not cool to be a Hawaiian. We were a lost and wandering people without a reflection in the water. It was a time of assimilation, a time to shed what was left of our cultural skins to be something—anything—other than Hawaiian. The prevailing historical images of Hawaiʻi up until then were renderings of us by sketch artists who traveled with the early European explorers such as Captain Cook. These images of us and our culture made us seem like little more than cultural curiosities. Some of our aliʻi who traveled to Europe were paraded around like zoo animals. That was the Hawaiian history I grew up with.
In 1975 I came home after 20 years on the mainland as somewhat of a cultural vagabond. I did learn to play the ukulele and guitar and sang a few Hawaiian songs but beyond that I had little clue about what it meant to be a Hawaiian. Deep inside me I felt something was missing from my life but couldn’t explain it. When I stepped off the plane at Honolulu Airport I stumbled on to a Herb Kane poster of the Hōkūle‘a, majestically broaching a wave, crab-claw sail rising high above the sea, a feathered lei hulu flying from the mast, warriors standing proudly on the deck. It stopped me in my tracks. I had never seen such a stunning portrayal of my history and my culture. The Hōkūle‘a was still a work in progress and was just building up steam. The Hōkūle‘a and everything it represented was transformational for me and hundreds of Hawaiians like me.
As Herb Kane the artist, historian, and scholar began to unleash the power of his brush and pen, a cultural nation began to resurface. With his powerful images, stories, and characterizations of what constituted a Hawaiian existence, Herb Kane defined for us, in great detail, a Hawaiian cultural nation—-a nation that did not need an Akaka bill or the government’s permission to exist. A nation that was past, present, and future. A nation punctuated with great human achievement. Exploring, discovering, and settling over one-third of the earth’s surface hundreds of years before the Vikings, our knowledge of astronomy and the turning of the world surpassed that of the Europeans who were afraid of sailing off the edge of the earth. Our Kumulipo story of creation paralleled Darwin’s theory of evolution long before Darwin was born. Our natural resource management system is the model that 21st Century sustainable growth planners are attempting to re-create as the “green” revolution.
Herb Kane flung open the doors of our legacy and unleashed a firestorm of passion and commitment to rebuilding our cultural lives and identity. He created a time tunnel to our past through images and stories of who we were in an up close and personal way. He rebuilt the nation. He helped us find our dignity and restored our honor. Ka wa ma mua, ka wa ma hope (the time in front, the time in back). By rediscovering our past he made us relevant to Hawaiʻi’s future. Nowadays, whenever I see men dancing the hula, or a Hawaiian child speaking Hawaiian, or a sailing canoe, or a restored heiau, or the proliferation of our art forms, I think of Herb. Thank you Herb Kane – from a grateful nation.