Nightmare on Front Street
The scary politics behind the fight over Lahaina Town's annual Halloween celebration
October 25, 2007
|Photos from the 2002 Lahainatown Halloween celebration|
Halloween is safe, at least for another year. Ghosts and goblins of all ages and races will again pack Front Street this Halloween. Friends will gather, music will play, and the festivity in Lahaina will last into the night.
But there's a trick to enjoying this year's treats.
The event will be under closer scrutiny than ever before, as voices from the Native Hawaiian community have pegged the annual observance as culturally offensive and disrespectful of the town's heritage. If the event's opponents have their way, historic Lahaina will become a ghost town on Halloween.
Patricia Nishiyama, coordinator and kupuna with Na Kupuna O Maui, has taken the lead in evicting Halloween from her hometown. She said she filed a complaint with the Maui County Planning Department, the body that oversees the permit for the event, last September at the urging of members of her group.
"Our kupuna view the situation in Lahaina like Sodom and Gomorrah," Nishiyama said. "We love the keiki parade, but not shoving a fake penis at someone."
Risqué costumes are one of several reasons the group finds the event offensive.
A second complaint was filed by U'ilani Kapu, who alongside her husband, Cultural Resources Commissioner Ke'eamoku Kapu, helped found Kuleana Ku'ikahi. The stir led Planning Director Jeff Hunt to send the permit application submitted by the Lahaina Town Action Committee (LAC), the group responsible for organizing many of the Halloween festivities, before the county's Cultural Resources Commission (CRC) for review.
Such reviews are uncommon for applications that have been approved in the past and don't include significant changes. The LAC's permit, which addresses the closure of a portion of Front Street, allows food and drink booths, live music at Banyan Tree Park and a parade, was last reviewed in full by the CRC in 1996.
“Our kupuna view the situation in Lahaina like Sodom and Gomorrah. We love the keiki parade, but not shoving a fake penis at someone.”
- Patricia Nishiyama, Na Kupuna O Maui
When the CRC took up the issue at its July 2007 meeting, dozens of residents attended. After hours of passionate public testimony—both pro and con—a final decision was deferred until the commission's August meeting. Commission Chairman Samuel Kalalau III urged representatives from both sides to get together in the interim and work the situation out on their own.
"They're smart people," he said. "We wanted the people of Lahaina to sit with the LAC and the Hawaiian groups and tackle the problem."
Na Kupuna O Maui and the LAC met twice, finding some common ground but leaving many points of contention unresolved. Permit opponents officially took issue with the event on eight points: nudity, alcohol and drug use, use of county funds, availability and placement of public restrooms, traffic, duration and cultural impact.
While the LAC compromised on some issues, like promoting guidelines for "creative, wholesome" costumes, the issue of cultural impact, arguably the most significant point of contention was reportedly never discussed. The final verdict on whether or not to permit the event again landed in the lap of the CRC.
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Approximately 60 people filled the room at the West Maui Senior Center for the CRC showdown on Aug. 2, including permit supporter State Senator Roz Baker. Representatives from the county Planning Department noted that it had received 48 letters in support of the event and just four opposed. An additional stack of letters and signatures, all supporting the LAC, were submitted at the meeting.
More than 20 people gave five hours of emotionally charged testimony, almost evenly balanced between supporters and opponents. Passionate voices from both sides filled with room with anger, tears and, occasionally, hope.
Both Nishiyama and Kapu testified that the event betrays Lahaina's history, fosters illegal activity and dishonors the Hawaiian culture. While testimony was going on inside, a scuffle between the sides erupted outside, resulting in Captain Charles Hirata of the Lahaina Patrol District being shoved, and a county parks supervisor being slugged. There were two arrests.
At the end of the seven-hour meeting, the CRC voted five to one to grant LAC's permit. Kapu, the most ardent opponent of the permit on the commission, recused himself from the vote.
Kalalau, whose five-year term on the CRC ends in March, voted for the permit but said it was one of the hardest votes he has ever cast.
"I voted with strong mixed feelings," he said. "Both sides had good, positive comments."
Kapu argued that part of the problem is the application process, a sentiment Kalalau echoed.
"The county and the CRC need to get together, review the process and consider what paths to take and guidelines to use," Kalalau said. "If we evaluate the application process, maybe things need to be changed."
Even before the votes were tallied, the commission promised to revisit the issue in December. That meeting will include a full review of next week's event. Kalalau added that prior to that meeting the commission will seek clarification from the federal government as to what's allowed in an area recognized as a national historic landmark.
Nishiyama said that the meeting's public testimony only proves that people don't take her organization's concerns seriously. She cited testimony from one Lahaina resident who suggested that a King Kamehameha costume contest become a part of the Halloween festivities. The idea was met with immediate and vocal disapproval from the Native Hawaiians in the room.
Though frustrated, Nishiyama said she understands the commission's decision.
"They did it because there was no time," she said. "We knew this was going to happen. In reality, we couldn't stop it. But it's not over. We will be prepared for the meeting in December. Hopefully we can tone things down."
Jerry Kunitomo, a long-time Lahaina business owner who recently became LAC president, said that though the permit was granted, he was personally heartbroken after the meeting.
"Those points [from permit opponents] were well taken, but the people were celebrating Halloween in Lahaina long before the LAC got involved," Kunitomo said. "We have simply tried to create a safe and controlled environment for them."
He also pointed out to critics that the LAC organizes events throughout the year that celebrate a variety of cultures, including the host culture, noting the annual International Festival of Canoes, a two-week long event promoted as "Maui's signature cultural heritage event."
"We did it because we wanted to reestablish the historical significance of this historic town," said Kunitomo, one of the event's founders.
Some in the community worry about what it means for other celebrations and observances if Lahaina's Halloween celebration will eventually be regulated on the basis of how "Hawaiian" it is.
"It's a dangerous precedent if the Halloween celebration is banned," Pat Endsley, a retired educator who has volunteered at LAC events for more than a decade, said. "Our community has always worked together for the good of the whole and I believe that the few complaints expressed can be remedied. Lahaina is highly respected as a culturally significant Hawaiian town, but it has also been a rich ethnic community where the traditions of many ethnic groups are observed and should continue."
Though few pushed the point, the argument that Halloween is a cultural celebration has some merit. The Celts noted the day as a time of seasonal change, and it was believed that on Oct. 31 the spirits of the dead could make contact with the physical world. The observance moved to America with the Irish and British in the 19th century and has since become ingrained in popular culture, with nearly two-thirds of Americans celebrating All-Hallows Eve each year.
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Designated a National Historic District in 1962, Lahaina has a long history of controversial behavior. During the whaling era of the 1800's, the town was notoriously rowdy and overwrought with drunkenness and debauchery. More recently, during the now-defunct Whaling Spree celebration of the 1960's, people partied to excess and the event folded under its own weight.
The town's Halloween observance began informally in the late 1970's. The congregation grew steadily through the 1980's and evolved into an 800-pound gorilla, with a predictable influx of thousands and little organization.
"It had grown to a point where it was disorganized and there were safety and health concerns," Kunitomo said.
It was in 1990 that the LAC asked to take the organizational reigns, working with local authorities to provide trash collection, portable toilets and the opportunity for local nonprofits to fundraise. Today an estimated 30,000 celebrate Halloween in Lahaina each year. The patronage is predominantly Maui residents, with a healthy percentage hailing from the neighbor islands and abroad.
Event opponents seemed to waver somewhat on whether they want the observance of Halloween in Lahaina eliminated or simply moved elsewhere.
"Move 'em," an emotional Francis Kamakawiwo'ole said. At the August CRC hearing, he testified that the event in Lahaina is like allowing costumed revelers to party at Pearl Harbor or the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl. "Move them somewhere else instead of where our ali'i was born and raised."
In fact, Kapu raised the question repeatedly during the August CRC meeting: Why is this happening in a cultural place?
But at least on the surface, the "move 'em" approach seems flawed. Even if the event could be moved from Lahaina, which according to the county is home to at least 60 Hawaiian sights of cultural importance, is there anyplace on Maui (or the rest of the island chain, for that matter) that's void of Hawaiian history? What locale is considered culturally insignificant?
Nishiyama doesn't have an answer, but has an idea who may. "Ask the kupuna," she said.
According to Kunitomo, the "move 'em" argument is moot. While opponents feel that denying the LAC's permit will eventually force partiers to go elsewhere, Kunitomo believes the celebration is bigger than the LAC; they couldn't make the public celebrate elsewhere even if they wanted to.
"We don't have that power," he said. "We can't just lure the people to another location. We're not that great at marketing."
The stage is now set for the two sides to face-off again in December, raising fears among event supporters that this Halloween could be Lahaina's last.
"The culture that we want to leave for our children is about the 'aina, not the 'Mardi Gras of the Pacific,'" Nishiyama said, referring to the old slogan once used to promote Halloween in Lahaina. "Halloween is inappropriate for Lahaina. We want our kids to remember the culture and history, not some new thing that came in from the Mainland."
Kunitomo remains hopeful that both sides can come together for the sake of the community.
"At the end of the day, Lahaina has become a landmark recognized around the world," he said. "It's important that Lahaina's cultural significance is restored so erosion through progress can be curtailed, but as we evolve, the safety of the community has to be put foremost." MTW
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