Seated at a FestPAC Hawaiʻi Commission Board meeting, Kumu Hula Snowbird Bento listens intently to how plans are shaping up for the 13th Festival of Pacific Arts & Culture. As a commission member and former Festival delegate, she knows the incredible impact FestPac will have on participants and attendees in June 2024.
Bento was just 16 when, she says, the Festival of Pacific Arts & Culture transformed her life and began charting her future.
“I was hooked. I think some of the trendier manaʻo (knowledge/wisdom) at the time was to want to be someone else. The Māori and their kapa haka with their reo (language) real strong, and a lot of my counterparts would say, ʻThey’re so awesome!’… For me, it was the exact reverse. I was so proud to be Hawaiian, so proud to come from a rich culture, and so aware that some of what we were witnessing in the FestPAC was that some people still had ties to their land.”
That sense of unity, nurturing cultural pride, and strengthening bonds is what Bento hopes will grow even stronger for future generations.
“Who better to lead in the Pacific than the people of the Pacific? Who better to do that?… When we unite in that way, we understand each other’s struggles and triumphs, then we understand how to deal with each other, and it comes down to us as a people,” says Bento. “The Festival of Pacific Arts is not necessarily only about the governments that are coming. It’s about the people that will be here. It’s about the opportunity for us to relate on that level.”
Bento attended her first Festival in 1992, as a delegate. During that visit, it became even more apparent just how powerful the connection is between the people of the Pacific. She described being a part of the Hawaiʻi delegation and others welcomed to pay tribute to a Cook Islands woman who passed away.
“We sang for her. She was right there. There was a grave right there outside the house. They said, ‘We bury our family right here on the land, so that everybody knows whose land this is.’ And I thought, we do the same. We do the same…We still have lands where our family members are buried. That’s the palikū. That’s the foundation of who we are.”
Bento says, the voices of her kūpuna (elders) helped guide her on her path from delegate to kumu – including those who were on the her first FestPAC journey.
“I can hear Dr. Kekuni Blaisdell saying, ‘Look at the map, young people. Look where Hawaiʻi is. Look where Rapa Nui is. Look where Aotearoa is. Look at this map. We are the largest nation in this world. We are the people of the Pacific, and we are one.’”
In 2004, Bento also traveled to Palau as a FestPAC delegate, and over the years attended festivals as a spectator. Each experience has given the Native Hawaiian educator a chance to reflect on ancient times.
“The Cook Islands felt a lot like home. I remember we would talk amongst ourselves and say, ‘Is this what Hawaiʻi looked like 50 years ago?’ 2004 in Palau was eye-opening in a sense that I knew what I was expecting, but I could see the differences between some of the island groups that I visited as a student in the 90s and seeing them performing, dancing, and singing in 2004 and thinking, wow, this is really different. It was almost like watching the evolution of a culture and realizing that our culture was doing the same.”
Back at the table, among her fellow FestPAC Hawaiʻi commissioners, she carries a sense of responsibility to deliver a similar experience for others. When Bento learned that FestPAC would be coming to Hawaiʻi for the first time, she answered the call for kōkua before it even went out, knowing first hand how the festival changes lives.
“It’s so important for Hawaiʻi to host the Festival of Pacific Arts, so we can remember who we are, that we come from a really rich legacy, because I think a lot of people have relegated in their minds that Hawaiians only exist in certain venues,” Bento says. “Being Hawaiian is not only speaking a language and involving yourself in cultural practices. It is also a way of being.”