PAYING TRIBUTE TO THE GUNA OF PANAMA: Mark the Closing of the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition

By Julie Mushet

December 1, 2015, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE
Eddie Madril, photo by RJ Muna

ON DECEMBER 4, 1915, the Panama-Pacific International Exposition closed its gates forever after 18 million people had visited the 635-acre World’s Fair in San Francisco’s Marina District. Many people consider this one of the greatest single events in San Francisco’s history. Dancers’ Group and World Arts West are marking the centennial of this historic occasion at the 2015 closing performance of the monthly Rotunda Dance Series at San Francisco City Hall.

The Panama-Pacific International Exposition (PPIE) was the first major World’s Fair on the West Coast of the United States and left a lasting imprint on the San Francisco Bay Area. The nine and a half month extravaganza featured over 80,000 exhibits from 42 countries. The purpose of the Exposition was to celebrate the completion of the Panama Canal, and the proceedings included much spectacle and celebration of imperial power. However, in regards to world dance and music, it was incredible that millions of people were able to experience an unprecedented breadth of world culture as never before in the Bay Area, where now more than 100 dance traditions are being sustained and performed by thousands of local artists.

One of the most popular attractions at the Exposition was a daily show at the Hawaiian Pavilion featuring Hawaiian musicians and hula dancers. It’s where millions of people heard the ‘ukulele for the first time. These Hawaiian shows had the highest attendance at the entire fair and launched a Hawaiian cultural craze that influenced everything from American music, to movies, to fashion. As more people heard Hawaiian music, there were hundreds of Hawaiianinspired songs written in all the popular styles of the day, including ragtime, blues, jazz, foxtrot and waltz tempos. More Hawaiian music records were sold in the US in 1916 than any other type of music. As this was way before the invention of YouTube (and television!), Hawaiian dance was left mostly unknown to the rest of the world until Hollywood attempted to incorporate some Hawaiian dance into films without representing the dance authentically.

Though Hawaiian people had been residing along the West Coast and intermarrying with the indigenous population for over 200 years, the period after the Second World War saw the arrival of a significant number of classically trained hula dancers to the Bay Area. These dancers, among them many kumu hula (master hula teachers) such as Ida Namanukawa‘a Wong Gonsalves, ‘Ehulani Lum, and Joseph Kamoha‘i Kaha‘ulelio, established a strong foundation of knowledge and respect for Hawaiian traditions. As a result, the practice of hula in the Bay Area closely paralleled its counterpart in Hawai‘i. By the 1980s, an era of creativity in the tradition had been firmly established thanks to the newer generation of Hawaiian Kumu Hula who relocated to our area, such as Patrick Makuakane, Kawika Keikiali‘i Alfiche, Mark Keali‘i Ho‘omalu, and Mahealani Uchiyama. Now the Bay Area is fortunate to have many halaus (hula schools) where thousands of people study and practice hula, and currently hula is performed all over the region.

Kau’i Peralto, photo by RJ Muna

Throughout 2015, World Arts West, in partnership with Dancers’ Group, has presented dance and music curated to reflect upon the 1915 PPIE and its lasting impact on the Bay Area. As we bring this year’s season to a close, we wanted to end with a reflection on the people who were perhaps the most impacted by the building of the Panama Canal: the indigenous people of Panama.

On December 4, 2015, members of the Bay Area’s Native American community will present a tribute to the indigenous people of Panama, the Guna, also known as Kuna or Cuna. They once occupied the central region of Panama and the neighboring San Blas Islands. They were deeply impacted by the construction of the Panama Canal and approximately 50,000 Guna now survive in marginal areas.

The Guna have a rich culture with many music and dance rituals and celebrations, and are especially well-known for their molas, a brightly colored textile art form made with the techniques of reverse appliqué. Mola panels are used to make the blouses of the Guna womens’ dresses, which are still worn daily by many. On December 4, people are encouraged to wear molas in honor of the Guna.

This tribute to the Guna will be under the direction of World Arts West’s Board President, Kumu Hula Mahealani Uchiyama, whose life’s work has embodied a deep respect for dance from many world cultures. Mahea has been a steadfast advocate for cultural understanding, and in 1983 founded the Mahea Uchiyama Center for International Dance, where students of all ages and abilities can take part in multicultural dance experiences through traditional training and workshops with master teachers.

The ceremonies will begin with a welcome blessing from Ann Marie Sayers, who is of Mutsun Ohlone ancestry. Anne Marie will bless the occasion and the space – giving good heart to the atmosphere of cultural exchange and remembrance. This honoring will include a special recognition of the Guna peoples and a welcoming to the Bay Area lands. Then, Eddie Madril (Pascua Yaqui) will continue this Native American cultural blessing with the gift of a Hoop Dance. This dance represents an age-old dance of healing and celebration, a story of creation honoring the interconnectedness of life, nature and community. Eddie is an active member of the Bay Area Native American community and the founder of Sewam American Indian Dance Company presenting Native American Arts and Culture for over 30 years.

The ceremonies will include dance and chant performed by Halau ‘o Kawainuhi, under the direction of Hawaiian Kumu Hula Kau‘i Peralto, whose hula lineage descends from her Kumu Hula grandmother, Victoria Kahaipo (Nuhi) Wright. Halau ‘o Kawainuhi’s performance will include traditional hula kahiko honoring sacred places deeply connected to the land (the ‘aina), from the mountain to the sea (I uka, I kai), including a special chant called Oli Mauna Kea done in the olioli style with hei (string figures). They will also perform a hula pahu (drum dance) written by Kumu Peralto called E Kipa Mai ‘O Lono, as well as a chant called Mele Makahiki in celebration of the Hawaiian New Year.

Please join us for the final program commemorating the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, and pay tribute to the Guna.

A Note from Julie Mushet

One hundred years after the gates of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition closed, World Arts West and thousands of artists work hard year-round to sustain and present dances from all corners of the globe. Throughout 2015, World Arts West presented a series of nearly thirty performances of world dance and music to mark the centennial of the PPIE. In June, the annual, monthlong, San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival was presented in the only grand structure remaining from the historic 1915 World’s Fair, the Palace of Fine Arts, which has been home to the Festival for 26 years.

As of the writing of this (Nov 2015), the City of San Francisco’s Recreation and Parks Department is debating whether or not to support our vision for transforming the Palace of Fine Arts into San Francisco’s Center for Global Arts and Cultures at the Palace of Fine Arts. Our goal is to transform the entire Palace of Fine Arts into San Francisco’s home for global arts and cultures with year-round performing arts and education programs for everyone. In May 2015, we submitted a concept proposal and then presented it at a public hearing in June. In early November, the selection panel and staff of the Recreation and Park Commission recommended that two hotel proposals instead of our arts center for the new 55-year lease for the Palace of Fine Arts be invited to submit a full proposal.

We believe that the Palace of Fine Arts is a one-of-a-kind historic building that needs to remain available for public use. A private enterprise such as a hotel should not occupy this public building. Thousands of local dancers and audience members rely on this venue to continue to share and experience important cultural heritage. The Center for Global Arts and Cultures at the Palace of Fine Arts is the only proposed project that maintains and takes to the next level the original intention of the Palace of Fine Arts.

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JULIE MUSHET is the Executive Director of World Arts West and is currently working on producing the 38th Annual SF Ethnic Dance Festival scheduled for June 2016. She has danced her whole life and has worked in the arts in California for nearly 25 years.