By COLIN M. STEWART
Tribune-Herald staff writer
Fifty years ago, she was selected to preside as mo‘i wahine, or queen, over the very first Merrie Monarch Festival. Since then, her hand-made, ornate feather lei and other creations have adorned participants as they attended hula performances and rode in the annual parade. And now, at 87 years old, she’ll be returning to serve as this year’s queen mother in the festival’s Royal Court.
But even after all this time, and after all her work, Doreen Henderson still feels like she has more work to do to help preserve and honor her Hawaiian heritage.
In many ways, her dilemma is similar to one she spoke of recently — that faced by the workers charged with making the feather cloaks for the great Hawaiian kings of old.
“They took up to 100 years to make. … They would watch the birds and see where they would go to eat,” she said recently during a break from teaching a class for seniors at the Keaau Community Center. “Then they would put sap on the branches, and when the bird would land on the branch, it would get stuck. Then they would take three feathers — only three feathers so not to hurt it — and then they would clean off its feet and let it go.
“They spent years and years doing this, long before the king was even born. … But they knew that one day the alii would wear it, that a great leader would need it. Many never even saw who would wear it. They died before he was born.”
Likewise, Henderson continues to pass on her knowledge of the “old ways” of sewing and fashioning feather lei, building upon the legacy that is already there and looking to spread her skills far and wide. Currently, she teaches up to five classes a week. Sometimes, she said, she wishes that God would allow her another 25 years or so to pass on all that she has learned.
“I wish He could stop my time, let me teach more people. My head is so crammed with stuff I want to share with people, but I feel like I don’t have enough time to get it all out,” she said with a laugh.
That feeling of having so much knowledge but so little time is the exact opposite of what she felt when she was in her mid-30s, she said, when she appealed to Aloha Week pageant judge Violet Nathaniel after losing the competition to be selected queen of the event.
“She told me, ‘If you want to be the queen, you have to act like a queen,’” Henderson said. “‘You can’t ever look at the ground. You must look straight ahead, or up, but never down. You can still see where you’re going if you keep your eyes looking straight ahead.’”
Keeping that advice in mind, the next year Henderson captured the title of queen of Aloha Week, which led directly to George Na‘ope, one of the founders of the Merrie Monarch Festival, offering her the same title in the inaugural Merrie Monarch.
“He saw me in Waimea and he said, ‘You’re going to be my mo‘i.’ I didn’t even know what that meant, but I said, ‘OK,’” she said.
It turned out to be a pretty tough gig, she recalled.
“We had practice before the festival. For a week, every day for one hour, we went to the armory, and we had to stand outside and just stand there for an hour without moving,” she said.
Back then, the king and queen were expected to travel around, visiting with people in each major town on the island, often with no seating available, so Na‘ope wanted them to be well-prepared, Henderson explained.
Much has changed since the early days of the festival, but some things remain the same, including the respect and reverence for the culture and spirit represented by the Royal Court, she said. While she will be returning for the special 50th anniversary events, she doesn’t plan on hogging the spotlight.
“This is her time, she is the queen,” Henderson said of this year’s queen, Bernadine Alohalani Kealoha. “I’ll be in the coronation ceremony and the parade, but that’s all.”
As for her thoughts about having the opportunity to be a part of the 50th anniversary, all she could say was that she regretted the others who were there are the beginning aren’t able to share in the celebration.
“We just lost Helene (Hale) and George. Dottie (Thompson). It’s such a shame, because they were there. They started it. They should be here, too,” she said.
Email Colin Stewart at email@example.com.