Native Hawaiian artisans Kapa-maker Roen Hufford and Master Indigenous Architect Francis P. Sinenci were recognized at the National Heritage Fellowships Awards Ceremony last month at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.
The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) National Heritage Fellowship Award (NHFA) is the United States government’s highest honor in the folk and traditional arts.
“The 2023 National Heritage Fellows exemplify what it means to live an artful life,” said NEA Chair Maria Rosario Jackson, Ph.D. “Their rich and diverse art forms connect us to the past, strengthen our communities today, and give hope to future generations in ways that only the arts can. Our nation is strengthened through their meaningful practices, expressions, and preservation of traditional artistry.”
Along with fellow awardees, Hufford, who was honored as this year’s award recipient, and Sinenci, recognized as a 2022 fellow, represented Hawai‘i before members of Congress and the nation.
Roen Halley Kahalewai McDonald Hufford is an accomplished kapa and lei-maker and farmer in Waimea, Hawaiʻi Island. She makes kapa in the traditional way, using traditional tools, and growing wauke (Broussonetia papyrifera) and plants used to make natural dyes.
Hawaiian kapa (bark cloth) made from wauke, or paper mulberry, was used for clothing, bedding, and for religious and ceremonial practices. Kapa made in Hawai‘i had a refined technique to process the bark, beating it thin and even, then adding a signatory watermark. This subtle element is unique to Hawaiian kapa and was not done in other areas of the Pacific.
Upon the introduction of cotton and other materials to Hawaiʻi in the 19th century, the laborious process of making kapa slipped out of practice.
In the 1970s, Hufford’s mother, Marie Leilehua McDonald, was part of a hui of artisans who revived the art of kapa-making. In 1990, McDonald was also an NHFA recipient, recognized for her skill and perpetuation of lei-making,
Inspired by the natural environment and Hawaiian mo‘olelo, Hufford’s artwork features vibrant colors and bold watermarks. She proudly carries her mother’s legacy forward, perpetuating and expanding this unique art form by passing on her knowledge of kapa-making and encouraging her students to be creative with their pieces.
Master Hawaiian Hale Builder Francis P. Sinenci “Kumu Palani” from Hāna, Maui, was asked one day to build a hale pili (traditional thatched house). That request led him on a journey to grow in the ‘ike kūpuna (ancestral knowledge) of hale-building.
Building a hale is arduous and requires many hands and resources to complete the work. The process brings people together and keeps them together. The hale is a place for learning, meetings, and celebrations.
Since building his first hale 20 years ago, Sinenci has lost count of exactly how many others he has built, but it exceeds 300. Some of his more prominent projects in Hāna include building a Kauhale, a traditional Hawaiian village, at Maui’s Hāna Cultural Center and Museum, and restoring Piʻilani Hale, the largest heiau on Maui.
Sinenci continues to apprentice and teach the traditional practice of hale-building and strongly believes the knowledge of building traditional hale is a critical element to the perpetuation of Hawaiian culture.
“I hope men and women can carry on this tradition because it’s not just about the hale itself; it’s about building community,” Sinenci said.
The NEA recognizes up to nine master folk and traditional artists annually. These fellowships recognize artistic excellence, lifetime achievement, and contributions to the nation’s traditional arts heritage.
National Heritage Fellowship nominees must have a record of continuing artistic accomplishment and be actively participating in their art form, either as practitioners, mentors, or as community scholars. They must demonstrate significant contributions to living folk and traditional arts, source communities, and/or the transmission of traditional knowledge to future generations.
Recipients are selected based on nominations from the public.
In addition to Sinenci, Hufford and McDonald, 14 other Native Hawaiians have been named NEA National Heritage Fellowship Award recipients since the inception of the program. They are: Gladys Kukana Grace, Richard Hoʻopiʻi, Solomon Hoʻopiʻi, Ledward Kaʻapana, Mealiʻi Kalama, Eddie Kamae, Pualani Kanahele, Nalani Kanakaʻole, Raymond Kane, Genoa Keawe, George Naʻope, Clyde “Kindy” Sproat, Kaʻupena Wong and Kauʻi Zuttermeister.