Mary Jo Freshley has been to every Festival of Pacific Arts since 1980

She has photos, slides, videos and t-shirts to help her recall the incredible memories of Festivals of Pacific Arts and Culture that took her to faraway lands she barely knew of, but she doesn’t need to see them to remember the impact they’ve had on her life.  At 84, MaryJo Freshley has been to 10 of the international festivals, and she is eagerly looking forward to FESTPAC Hawaiʻi 2020. 

Her eyes light up when she speaks of her adventures around the Pacific, recalling vivid memories from each festival and the souvenirs she still treasures.

“PNG was this mysterious place.  Even then, there were certain groups of people that lived in certain mountainous areas that no one had done much research.  Very little was known about them. It was still a country being discovered,” explains Freshley of her first festival in 1980.  “I think there was still headhunting going on in some areas.  Usually at festivals, I would buy things in craft areas.  I bought a food hook, but there were also skull hooks, where you know, here’s a guy you killed and put his skull up there and that’s your trophy.” 

Since 1980, the retired Kamehameha Schools educator, who taught a number of FESTPAC delegates over her career, has been discovering new adventures with old friends, making new friends and absorbing everything each unique gathering had to offer. 

“I found out they rotated every four years in Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia.  Because I had moved to Hawaiʻi in 1961 and didn’t know much about the Pacific Island nations, this was a good way to learn about different cultures.  In Hawaiʻi, you’re able to see some of these cultures, but not all of them.”

For the Ohio native, getting to and from the festivals over the years proved as memorable, in some cases, as the festivals themselves.  New Caledonia was supposed to host the festival in 1984, but political unrest forced a change in plans.  Tahiti took the reins, hosting the gathering in 1985.  For Freshley, her friends and the Hawaiʻi delegation, the trip to get there was quite a challenge.  

“The airline we were supposed to travel on went defunct.  The tour lady was trying to find passage for all of us, including the Hawaiian contingency that were dancing.  We ended up overnighting in American Samoa.  They offloaded the luggage from the plane, but not all of it got on the plane to Tahiti, including the luggage for the Hawaiian performers.” 

The luggage arrived a week later.  

With memories of past FESTPACs delicately placed in her Kalihi home, Freshley has not stopped smiling–sometimes chuckling, as she vividly describes the intricate arts and crafts and vibrant performances.  “Tahiti was fun with a lot of groups from the area.  Marquesas, for example, I don’t think ever performed again at any festival that I can remember.  Then you have Rapa Nui make a big splash that year.”  Her memories seem to take her back in time to the many FESTPAC experiences.  

“Townsville (1988) was an interesting place.  A lot of people in Australia didn’t even know the festival was happening.  A lot of great aboriginal groups, Torrey Strait Islanders, and I loved the kids from Nauru with their string figures and frigate bird dance,” says Freshley.

In 1992, Freshley and two of her Kamehameha Schools colleagues turned the festival in Rarotonga into a learning experience of a different sort, bringing back lessons in arts and crafts, language and games to build into their curriculum. 

“There was one great day at a park where they just featured games.  There was stilt-walking from one of the islands in Rarotonga.  There was stilt-walking in Hawaiian culture.  Then there was rock-lifting and a variety of things.  I introduced games to the kids in my curriculum and did a presentation to the faculty.”

As she rattles off some of her favorite performances, the panpipers from the Solomon Islands, the energetic dancers from Kiribati, the unique rhythms of the performers from Pohnpei, Freshley thinks back to the nations that are on the verge of extinction.

“Pohnpei hasn’t been around in a number of years.  Banuban, an outlier of Fiji, is pretty much not there.  People don’t think there is climate change.  I think there definitely is. People have had to leave islands.  They’re sinking.”

Sustainable development is a crucial part of FESTPAC, ranging from climate change to gender equality and beyond.  The importance of preserving and perpetuating what is left of Pacific Island arts and culture is not lost on Ms. Freshley.  She sees the impact first hand.

“People don’t seem to think old stuff is worth keeping, and I think old stuff is part of your history and your tradition and you learn from it.  If you don’t want to get involved, that’s your kuleana, but at least know what it is and understand it.  In a lot of island groups, the younger generation doesn’t seem interested in maintaining traditional culture.  If you don’t have some of the elders still willing to teach and some of the young kids willing to learn, pretty soon those traditions, whether it’s arts and crafts or music or canoe building, they’re going to be gone.  People need to wake up,” she says adamantly. “We have to take care of our world, or there’s not going to be much left.”

The lifelong educator, who still teaches Korean dance in her Palama studio, sees FESTPAC as an educational opportunity unlike any other.  “We’re all sharing the same Earth together.  To realize that people all over the world have different ways of dancing, playing music, different crafts, different foods– it’s an eye-opening experience that only happens every four years, take advantage of it.  For me, I never knew about most of these places, but every time you go to a festival you learn more.”

Freshley knows all to well the life-changing power of FESTPAC and its ability to bridge cultures, to connect people, to inspire action and to motivate change.  Her advice to those who have yet to experience FESTPAC: “Be a part of what you see around you at FESTPAC.  Absorb it.  Make that connection you never knew before.  You’ll discover a nation that is no longer just a pinpoint on a map.  It’s a real place.”

For a look at some of Ms. Freshley’s photos over the years, click here.   

Countdown to FESTPAC 2020 Opening Day