Updated: November 30, 2023
Many around the globe know George Kahumoku Jr. as the famous, multiple Nā Hōkū Hanohano and Grammy award-winning slack-key guitarist who recently received a Hawai’i Academy of Recording Arts Lifetime Achievement Award.
But on Maui he’s just Uncle George, the Big Island-born farmer and agriculture teacher at Lahainaluna High School for 30 years.
“All the Lahainaluna students, that’s all they can remember – in Kahumoku’s class, you eat,” he said with a laugh.
The recent fires in West Maui hit hard for this educator, farmer and passionate community member who says the grief is beyond difficult and hard to put into words.
“The first thing is that it’s just so unbelievable. I think our bodies and our minds can’t handle it. COVID was a lot. It was precursor to this — it helped us get together, support each other.”
Currently Kahumoku Jr. lives in Kahakuloa, on the west side of Maui, with his wife Nancy where he has a farm and works on his music. He was going to deliver food that evening in Lahaina but had to cancel due to other plans.
“If I went to Lahaina, I would have been stuck in Lahaina,” he said.
Kahumoku Jr. said many of his friends and students have suffered great losses from the fire, and he, like many others on the island, are still waiting to hear about missing people.
His former student and fellow performer Sterling Seaton lost his house and car during the fire and as a result his hanai (adopted) nephew started The Slack Key Show Ohana – Fire Relief Fund, a GoFundMe account that has already raised more than $174,224 with the number still rising.
Kahumoku Jr. says giving back is what the island needs right now.
“We have to think what can we do to help to serve others,” he said.
From a hospital bed where he was being treated for an irregular heartbeat on Tuesday, he said that is the meaning of life.
“My whole life that’s what it’s been — connection. Through my music, my work, my land, my mentorship, and because of it we were able to reach a lot of people,” he said.
The proceeds from the GoFundMe will also assist the June Workshop ʻOhana and their immediate needs, and anything extra (over the $100,000 original pledge) will be donated to the Maui Food Hub.
They are also raising awareness about developing legislation for a foreclosure moratorium while Maui rebuilds on the GoFundMe.
“With Lahaina’s infrastructure decimated and no tourists on the island, our livelihoods are at risk. Any help is greatly appreciated,” reads the GoFundMe page.
Aside from mourning the loss and coping with the tragedy, Kahumoku Jr. sheds light on the importance of land and water management as the island moves forward.
Kahumoku Jr. has been an integral part of the agriculture industry not just on Maui but throughout Hawai’i in his lifetime, making it his life mission for the islands to be self-sustainable, and he believes now, more than ever, is an important time for the community to be aware.
He recalls the use of water diversion during the plantation era growing up, and believes now is a good time to reassess how the water in West Maui is being used and for what purposes.
In the meantime, he reminisces about his legacy in this community through the land and the keiki: “I’m blessed to have helped create a food forest around me 30 years ago with my students from Lahainaluna High School — full of wild guavas, lilikoi, avocados, mangoes, mountain apples, and wild pigs, chickens, deer and cattle.”