Alum named MacArthur Fellow for cultural preservation

Author: Jamie Oppenheim
January 9, 2024
Patrick Makuakane poses with a drum
Photo Credit: Photo Credit: © John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Patrick Makuakāne is the first native Hawaiian to receive the prestigious “genius grant”

Most cultural preservationists look to traditions, artifacts, history and language to keep a culture alive and intact. But that’s where alumnus Patrick Makuakāne (B.S., ’89), a kumu hula (master hula teacher) bucks tradition. His unique interpretation of the art form, which he calls hula mua (Hawaiian for “forward”), combines sacred elements like chanting, singing and traditional choreography with modern touches like techno music and themes drawn from contemporary culture. (His show “Mahu,” performed at several Bay Area venues this year, celebrated transgender artists.)

“In Hawaiian there’s a word called kuleana, which means your responsibility, what you bring to the table — something that’s unique and special that you do that uplifts your world,” he told the MacArthur Foundation. “Our ancestors were highly innovative people. What I’m doing with innovating in hula is keeping that innovative spirit of our ancestors and my kuleana.”

His groundbreaking work in hula at the San Francisco dance school he founded in 1985 earned him a 2023 MacArthur Fellowship in cultural preservation, a recognition that comes with a generous stipend of $800,000. He’s the first native Hawaiian to receive the honor, and he was among 19 other fellows from more traditional disciplines such as science, poetry, art, law, music and math.

The 62-year-old has made it his mission to challenge what’s considered traditional. “When people think of tradition, they view it as fixed or immobile,” he said. “You can still preserve culture and innovate at the same time. They’re not mutually exclusive pursuits. In fact, if your culture does not innovate or evolve then it becomes immobile and a dead culture.”

A raconteur, Makuakāne tells both old and new stories through hula. Traditional hula dances focus on the land and the Hawaiian people, but his choreography touches on edgier topics like imperialism and occupation. His 1996 production “The Natives Are Restless” explored the tragic history of Hawaii’s transformation from a sovereign monarchy to being annexed by the United States, which had overthrown the island nation’s first and only queen.

“I did this piece called ‘Salva Mea,’ which was about the missionaries. I dressed as a priest with techno music in the background and I was running around the stage with an 8-foot cross baptizing people,” he said. “It was like an incoherent, messy and incautious mix of tradition and experimentation that really worked. … People were blown away.”

That production set him on a path of experimentation ever since.

Hula often shies away from tough topics, he says, but hula is the right art form to tell these stories so that history doesn’t repeat itself. He credits San Francisco with being the perfect place for his art, a city known as a playground for experimentation, subversion and boundary pushing. Makuakāne arrived in the city around the time of Act Up, a grassroots political group working to end the AIDS epidemic. The group was known for its theatrical acts of civil disobedience, actions he calls influential.

He began studying hula at 13 years old. At 23, he moved to San Francisco for love — he followed a boyfriend who was a waiter at an exclusive French restaurant. After arriving in the city, Makuakāne taught hula to earn money. It was also his tie to Hawaii. He quickly attracted students and founded his award-winning hula school Nā Lei Hulu I Ka Wēkiu (which means “many-feathered wreaths at the summit”). Over the past four decades, he estimated he’s taught thousands of students.

While he was building up his dance company, he studied Kinesiology at San Francisco State University. After graduating he continued teaching hula and working as a physical trainer. As his school grew, he devoted himself full-time to hula, a decision that’s paid off.

He was at Burning Man when he got the call from the MacArthur Foundation. He had no cell phone service and wasn’t sure why they called him. When he finally connected with the organization five days later, he was shocked. As the surprise wore off, guilt surfaced. So much of his work is entrenched in community and rests on the shoulders of his ancestors. “There are many people in my position who are deserving of an award such as this,” he said. “So, you do feel a bit guilty. Why me? Why not somebody else? How did I get noticed, you know?”

But then again, he has been at this for more than three decades and he’s one of only few taking hula in new directions. And he’s grateful to be in the perfect place to do it.

“[A friend once said,] “‘It must be nice being in San Francisco without someone looking over your shoulder, critiquing your every move.’ I was like, ‘Yeah it is,’” he said. “So that sense of liberation in your arts, feeling unshackled and doing whatever you want was a part of my process. I feel like I’m at a place really where I can do anything.”