Clifford Nae’ole’s Celebration of the Arts Program at Ritz-Carlton Maui, Kapalua

The hotel's cultural advisor on what it means to have visitors come to his home

For mindful travelers, it’s crucial to respect and celebrate the places they visit and the people who live there. Curiosity is often a cohort of mindfulness, thus authentic and educational experiences are of utmost importance. Perhaps surprisingly, it’s at the The Ritz-Carlton Maui, Kapalua where some of those kinds of experiences can be had. The hotel’s Celebration of the Arts program attracts visitors and locals alike, and has been helmed by Clifford J Nae‘ole, who was born and raised in Maui and works as the Hawaiian cultural advisor at the hotel, for over 30 years. Nae‘ole wants the program—which includes demonstrations, workshops and rituals led by cultural practitioners, artisans, craftspeople, musicians, dancers and chefs—to encourage participants to “engage, participate, create, learn, share and teach.” We experienced Celebration of the Arts earlier this year and found that Nae‘ole (who was given the Historic Preservation Award from the Historic Hawaii Foundation last year) is intrinsic in the endeavor’s success and spirit. We spoke with him about everything that Maui offers and what it means to have visitors come to his home.

by Josh Rubin

What makes Maui special?

For me, Maui offers a dose of reality. Visitors can come to Maui and find all kinds of experiences. So one day maybe that dose of reality is shopping, restaurants and resort areas. They can go and visit all these things within five to 10 minutes of where they are. Then of course you can run away to another dose of reality, which would be spirituality. You could find a beach by yourself, hold your significant other’s hand, or just walk and just think. That’s the opposite side of the spectrum.

You can find a dose of rustic reality from the big swank-looking hotels to rustic towns like Paia and Haiku and Makawao and just go back 20, 30 years. Even the environmental side: you can go from a very hot, humid section and 10 minutes down the road you see a line where it’s raining and you can actually go through this rain. Then you’re in an environment of green, of wetland, of an upland forest. Go another 10 miles and you’re in a black lava desert of people who live in Kaupo. It’s a stained glass window of colors and experiences for a person to behold. Maui offers everything.

Courtesy of Ritz-Carlton

When and, more importantly, why was Celebration of the Arts created? 

It was created in 1992 and it stemmed out of the errors and the trials and tribulations that occurred at the inception of the [Ritz-Carlton Maui, Kapalua] hotel, where the hotel was taking precedent over the culture. The hotel was going to be built over the human skeletal remains of our people. Thankfully, at that time the Hawaiian renaissance had began and the Hawaiians said, “no, enough is enough”—we have the right to protect our skeletal remains, artifacts, etc. And so we protested. The Ritz-Carlton was the first hotel to listen and take heed of what the native Hawaiians had to say.

So the agreement was made that the hotel would no longer be a low-rise ocean-front but a high-rise ocean-view. The land the hotel was mostly built on is now state land, which we caretake. Because of that, new laws have come into effect to protect remains, and the Burial Council is in charge of determining whether or not a building will affect any artifacts, any sacred sites. We preserve that land in perpetuity now.

Because of the Ritz-Carlton, that happened. It was bad, yes. But sometimes when you make a mistake, there’s only good to kick out of it. The hotel says, “We could easily just stop now; we did the job,” but they said “Let’s continue to set precedent. Let us dedicate ourselves to the culture and show that this is not a one-stop deal.” We created Celebration of the Arts to honor all things Hawaiian.

Courtesy of Ritz-Carlton

And its focus goes beyond traditional arts. 

From problems that may be facing contemporary Hawaiians now to the history of the Hawaiians—their accomplishments and mistakes—to asking for solutions from our visitors. I think it is really great to have visitors ask “what can you do? Tell us what you’ve experienced in your lifetime? Your country, your county or state, or city?” It’s a conglomeration of Hawaiianness and asking for solutions for the future from our visitors. They become partners in the future of these islands, because visitors play a huge part here in Hawaii.

If you come into my house, learn, listen, share, and perhaps contribute

Everything we do at the hotel, we honor our ancestors first. We pay tribute to them first. You see it at opening ceremonies and with the chanting and all of that. It’s very moving and it’s very real. That’s what we want to do, to keep it real. Celebration of the Arts will always include that reality, that emotion that spiritual reward and commitment, and at the same time, invite everyone in to the house. If you come into my house, learn, listen, share, and perhaps contribute.

Courtesy of Ritz-Carlton

Regarding the problems that occurred when the hotel planned to build on sacred sites and land, were you part of those conversations back then?

I was a student of the dialogue at the time. I had not found my Hawaiianness until I was 35 years old. I was living in California and I came back to Hawaii when all of this was happening. I was reading about it, and I was studying Hawaiian hula and chant and spirituality. I remember distinctly driving to the hotel to apply for a job and thinking, “Am I sleeping with the enemy? Am I selling myself out?” But I was hired as a PBX operator—”good morning, this is your 5:30 wake-up call,” blah blah blah. But also being a student of Hawaiian history and protocol, I saw things that were amiss at the hotel. I started to open up and tell them. And thankfully, they listened. They created the position of cultural advisor.

I was wondering what the lesson is in this—and the lesson is sometimes the kuleana or responsibility chooses you rather than you choosing the responsibility. When that comes, you’ve got to open your ears, your eyes, your soul, because it’s on your shoulders. They chose you. You take your profession here and do what you do because you’re a professional. They chose you. Your ancestors made you who you are.

Courtesy of Ritz-Carlton

From that point forward was the hotel completely on board in finding this this balance, this harmony?

I can honestly say 100% they were. When we say to the [local] community, “Come to the Ritz-Carlton, enjoy this,” a lot of them think it’s going to be expensive. Absolutely not. The only thing the hotel charges for is food and beverage. All the experiences are free. The hotel has never made a penny out of this. The success is because the hotel has been able to listen and allow a Hawaiian crew to run a Hawaiian event, rather than to have a corporate team try to design a Hawaiian event. They say, “Just go and do it.” And that’s what I do. I bring my sister, my brother, my children, aunties, uncles, kahuna, senior citizens—they’re all here and they want to help because now you have the ability to navigate your own canoe.

Courtesy of Ritz-Carlton

Over the past few years, there’s been a lot of conversation about how mainlanders should stay away from Hawaii for the islands to stay intact and be preserved, both environmentally and culturally. I’m curious what your thoughts are on that idea.

This was a result of the pandemic because we were running 100 miles an hour for so long and when the pandemic hit, it went back down to 10 miles an hour. Our eyes opened. One of the major goals during this 100-miles-an-hour thing was connecting the host to the hosted, but when the pandemic came we realized it was time for the host to reconnect to the host. It’s time for us to open our eyes and see the water’s clearing, the fish are coming back. I had space to go camp with my family. We had to slow down to reconnect with ourselves. Now we’re asking, “How do we maintain this status?” I will say this: I don’t want visitors to come; I want visitors to arrive here with a different type of respect. Respect for a culture that has accomplishments. I want them to come into this space like they are going to visit their home where they were born—they’re going to come with respect. I want them to come into my home, but I don’t want them to demand the master bedroom.

With the influx of cultural advisors at the hotels, with their Hawaiian renaissance, we’ve rethought our priorities. Lei-making classes are not just lei-making; it’s the discipline of lei-making—the why, the who, the what, when and where. There’s responsibility with that. Now we will be teaching hula as if we are being taught by our elders. The disciplines that go into hula, the male, the female, the positioning, the pain, the physicality that you need. The kaona and the double-entendre of the word. The bombastic hula of the ancient days versus the flowing motions of the contemporary days. We are opening up and saying, “You’re coming into my house. Here’s my rules. Here’s my disciplines. Enjoy it, because this is what Hawaii is all about.” If you elect to come to Hawaii, come here with an open heart and mind and be prepared to learn.

Hero image courtesy of Ritz-Carlton