By Léo Azambuja
In January 1871, Queen Emma, still grieving the loss of her husband and their young son, made a remarkable journey from Lawa‘i to Koke‘e, and through Alaka‘i Swamp to Kilohana Lookout.
Along the way, riding on horseback, dozens of hula dancers, women, children, musicians and folks from all walks of life joined the queen, adding to a cavalcade extending for more than half mile.
Queen Emma’s journey would never be forgotten. For the last 27 years, the Eo e Emalani i Alaka‘i in Koke‘e honors the queen’s journey by reenacting part of the events that took place 144 years ago. This year, Nalani Kaauwai Brun will incarnate the queen.
“She loved the people, she never shied away from touching them or being near them,” Brun said of Queen Emma, one of Hawai‘i’s most beloved royals.
The Eo e Emalani i Alaka‘i was first held in 1988, with less than 100 people. Today, more than 2,000 converge to Koke‘e every October the celebrate Queen Emma, and about 500 of them are hula dancers who come to perform hula for the queen, just like in the queen’s historic journey.
When the queen arrives on horseback with her lady in waiting and her guide at the Kanaloahululu Meadow at Koke‘e State Park, it’s not unusual for people to break down in tears.
“I’ve seen people actually cry when they watch her ride in. They feel they are taken back in time,” said Puni Patrick, who got to personify the queen in 2012.
“I was really honored to do that,” she said. “Having grown up dancing hula, especially when I was younger, having learned mele for Queen Emma, I can only image what it is like for these young hula dancers to be in Koke‘e and to share mele for Queen Emma in front of someone who represents her.”
For the last three years, Wai Kuapahi has been the doing the selection of who will become Queen Emma for a day. But she says it’s not really her doing the choosing; it’s Queen Emma herself, who appears to Kuapahi in her dreams.
“I classify myself as a messenger from the queen,” Kuapahi said. “I’m like the conduit for her; my selections are based on dreams that I get from her. … She appears in my dreams, it’s her choosing.”
Kuapahi has experience portraying the queen as well. Back in 2009, she was picked to portray Queen Emma by the director and the staff of Hui o Laka, the nonprofit that runs Koke‘e Museum and organizes the Eo e Emalani i Alaka‘i.
“Who would ever know she would pick me to be her messenger, the bearer of good news?” Kuapahi said of Queen Emma’s visits in her dreams.
On June 19, 1856, the 20-year-old Emalani Kalanikaumaka‘amano Kaleleonalani Na‘ea married Alexander Liholiho, who had been reigning Hawai‘i as King Kamehameha IV since Jan. 11, 1855. Both were members the Kamehameha family: Liholiho was Kamehameha I’s great-grandson, and Emalani was the great-granddaughter of Keli‘imaka‘i, Kamehameha I’s only full brother, according to Hawaiian historian George Kanahele.
Together, Kamehameha IV and Queen Emma championed Hawaiian life and culture. They raised initial funds to open a hospital for the Hawaiians in 1859, now called Queen Emma’s Medical Center. The queen’s efforts also helped fund two schools; ‘Iolani School and St. Andrews Priori on O‘ahu, both still operating. Additionally, she helped in the building of St. Andrews Cathedral in Honolulu.
Life was good for the young royal couple, beloved by the Hawaiians. But soon disaster would strike them. On Aug. 27, 1862, their four-year-old son, Prince Albert Edward Kamehameha (Princeville is named after him), succumbed to an illness, likely meningitis. Fifteen months later, King Kamehameha IV, who had never recovered from the loss of his son, also died. He was 29.
“In a matter of two years, Queen Emma lost her husband and lost her son,” said Patrick, who is also a member of Daugthers of Hawai‘i, a nonprofit organization founded in 1903 to perpetuate the memory, spirit, history and language of old Hawai‘i.
Despite her loss and pain, the queen continued to champion Hawaiian culture and a better life for her people.
“She persevere past the death of her husband and her son,” Brun said. “She still took on the role of ali‘i, which is to always take care of our people, and she became the greatest humanitarian ali‘i that there was. In fact, she was the first ali‘i to bequeath things to the people.”
Over the course of her life, Queen Emma became the “people’s queen,” according to Tami Chock, the Kaua‘i representative for the Daughters of Hawai‘i. The Queen was also a role model for Hawaiians, especially to the women.
“I see her as a leader of Hawaiian women, our culture, our language,” said Daughters of Hawai‘i member Kanoe Ahuna, adding Queen Emma was a strong, empowered woman, loyal to her people and to the ‘aina.
“I think what attracted me to her was, she suffered such a tremendous loss, but she worked through it and continued to give back with her time and resources to uplift her people,” Patrick said.
In December 1870, Queen Emma arrived on Kaua‘i, staying at a beach cottage in Lawa‘i. The cottage still stands today, in the property owned by Allerton Gardens and managed by the National Tropical Botanical Garden. The next month, she took off on horseback to see the beauty of Koke‘e that her husband’s brother, Lot Kapuaiwa (King Kamehameha V), had seen during a hunting trip.
With the help of Waldermar Knudsen, she was provided a guide named Kaluahi. During Koke‘e’s event this month, Kaluahi will be played by his great-grandson, Harrom Kaili.
As people found out Queen Emma was heading to Koke‘e, they asked to join the queen on her trip. By the time the queen left Waimea heading toward the mountains, more than a 100 people were following her.
Michelle Hookano, a member of Hui o Laka, said when the queen and her entourage arrived at Koke‘e, they could only go so far on horseback, and had to walk the rest of the way through the Alaka‘i Swamp to get to Kilohana Lookout to see the stunning views of Wainiha Valley and Hanalei.
“They actually had to spend the night in the swamp, and you can imagine what a night there would be in January,” said Hookano, adding the queen chanted to keep the spirits high in the cold of the night. It also said hula dancers performed for the queen, which inspired the hula-performance tradition at the event.
The next morning, the queen and her followers reached Kilohana Lookout and made their way back to Waimea, where the governor treated the queen to a large pa‘ina.
The Eo e Emalani i Alak‘ai is on Oct. 10, starting at 10 a.m. with Hawaiian music. At noon, the queen arrives with her lady in waiting and her guide at the meadows. From then on there will be hula performances from several halau from all over Hawai‘i, the Mainland and even a few countries.
Organizers are asking people not to bring dogs as a safety precaution, and there will be officers in the area to enforce the rules.
Kuapahi said to see the event is a “humbling experience.”
“Words cannot describe what you feel when the queen starts to come into the meadow,” she said.
Hui o Laka organizes the event sponsored by the County of Kaua‘i, through a grant from the Hawai‘i Tourism Authority, and the Kekaha Host Community.
A shuttle will take people to Koke‘e from Kekaha Neighborhood Center at 9 and 10 a.m. The shuttle will return at 3 and 4 p.m.