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Hula brings Hawaiian culture to Northern Utah

April 23rd, 2010 Posted in Arts and Life

By Kara Kawakami

For some, hula may be a quaint throw-back to the 1960s, Pacific beach movies and hula hoops. But for Amelia Meatoga, hula is a lifestyle, a passion and an outlet that has been woven through her life since she was a child. It continues to be an integral part of Meatoga and her legacy.

“I was dancing at the age of 4,” the Hawaiian native said. “My auntie, she danced.”

Her aunt was very strict and demanding in training the 4-year-old girl her island heritage, and Meatoga says she sometimes cried because of the pain. But hula became a central part of her life as she learned both modern hula its ancient ancestor, kahiko.

“It’s not just a dance. You have to know the story behind the dance,” she said.

Now a Cache valley resident, Meatoga passes her culture along to others through dance.

One of those is Malakia Fife, another Hawaiian native who learned hula from Meatoga at Utah State University.

“She taught me that hula is not just a dance, but a sacred tradition in which we are the storytellers,” Fife said. “I can remember putting my costume on the wrong way and being scolded for not putting it over my head.”

Meatoga is a very strong woman, Fife said, and when she speaks, everyone listens.

Along with hula, Meatoga learned that strength from childhood. She was taught to respect others and to listen and learn from them.

Born on Maui, Meatoga had a rich childhood influenced by her family, friends and culture. Raised in Nahiku, or “the seven stars,” she was surrounded by her grandparents, great-grandparents, cousins and siblings.

“Even if we were poor, I think I lived a rich life,” she said, her eyes misting over.

After receiving her GED, Meatoga went to college and played basketball, volleyball, baseball and football. But she missed hula and reacquainted herself with the art.

Her deep love of Hawaiian culture prompted her to learn more of these traditions, so she brushed up on her Hawaiian language by taking classes at the Kamehameha School for Hawaiian children.

With her knowledge of the Hawaiian language and her skills in dancing and chanting, she participated in a program called Kupuna, which is Hawaiian for elders or ancestors, bringing Hawaiian culture, dancing and language into the schools.

Encouraged by an instructor to write a chant of her childhood experiences, Meatoga performed her creation at Kamehameha Day, a holiday celebrating Hawaiian King Kamehameha.

Traditional chant and dance are sacred to Meatoga. “You can feel the Kupuna who lived there long ago,” she said. “You need to be quiet, because all of our friends and ancestors are listening to us.”

In 1994, after years of traveling extensively with her husband John, who was in the Air Force, Meatoga and John moved to Cache Valley, to watch their son’s family grow up. She taught her grandchildren to speak Hawaiian and to dance the hula.

“I want to teach you so if you ever go back to Hawaii, you won’t be ignorant of your culture,” she told them.

Meatoga credits her need to serve and help people to her family. “I come from a good family, I always see them giving; that’s why I always give,” she said.

And her gift makes a difference and touches lives. Helene Honda, another native Hawaiian, attended USU 10 years and learned hula under Meatoga’s tutelage. To Honda, Meatoga was more than an instructor. She was family.

When Honda graduated from USU, her brother and sister-in-law came from Hawaii to celebrate, and Meatoga opened her home to Honda’s relatives with the aloha spirit.

“She’s a wonderful lady,” Honda said. “She has that open, local, aloha heart,.

“She’s very welcoming,” Honda added. “That is kind of a local thing—my house is your house, whatever you need is yours. She’s very helpful and very thoughtful and very wise.”

Honda and other former students cherished that family connection with Meatoga long after the classes were over.

“Whatever we did, we would go back to her, get her advice, her approval, her okay,” Honda said. “We’d say, ‘Auntie is this okay?’

“She was kind of a mother away from home. Going to her and having that warm feeling was always good. She was so helpful to us, she was our mom,” she said.

Now a crossing guard at a Cache Valley elementary school, Meatoga still interacts with children, teaching them hula and playing soccer with them.

And she goes farther to care for her young charges. “I cannot see a child who doesn’t eat,” she said, and sometimes she pays for a school lunch so a child doesn’t go hungry.

“I’m not here to brag,” she said. “If we can feed our children far away, we can feed the children in our backyard.”

Although her hula dancing has slowed because of a knee surgery, Meatoga is still active in the community and loves to attend USU’s annual luau. She enjoys watching her granddaughters dance. They are beautiful dancers, she says.

Far from her Pacific childhood home, Amelia Meatoga’s Hawaiian heritage is still strong and alive in her, and through her those Hawaiian spirits and culture live in others, who learn the hula, and what it means—even in northern Utah.


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