Cultural Treasure of Kauai

Story by Amanda C. Gregg | Photos courtesy Stella Burgess

Aunty Stella Burgess enriches Grant Hyatt staff and visitors with Hawaiian traditions, and offers her expertise to Kaua’i festivals and parades

She has a love for all things Hawaiian. Stella Burgess, known at the Grand Hyatt Kaua’i Resort and Spa as “Aunty Stella,” is its director of Hawaiian culture and community relations. She considers herself a “sharer” rather than a “kumu” of local culture, as every day she learns something.

“Every day my umeke (bowl) fills up,” she says. “And so every day there is something else I can share.”

Named Na Wahine Alaka’i O Kaua’i in 2010 for her work to perpetuate Hawaiian culture, Burgess was born and raised in Koloa. She cherishes land and ocean, ohana and oral histories.

“I like the ocean when it is time for cleansing and clearing my spirit,” she explains. “Most Hawaiians will do that on a regular basis.”

Her father Portuguese and her mother Hawaiian, Hawaiian culture wasn’t something she got from school growing up – in fact, the nuns didn’t even know she was Hawaiian until graduation.

“I was raised very Catholic,” she says. “September through June, in school I was Caucasian and Catholic, and parts of June through August I was Hawaiian.”

Burgess says she looked forward to the benefit of spending time with her cousins and kupuna.

She also was fortunate to get a career start with Village Resorts (now Outrigger). Following that, she went on to Pono Kai, later through the coconut wireless from Lorraine Wichman she heard about an opening for her current position at the Grand Hyatt.

The interview for the position and dinner meeting that ensued included Carla Thomas, the hotel’s head of human resources, as well as several auspicious signs – ho’ailona – revealing to Burgess that it was kismet.

“A pueo (owl) flew over us, it drizzled rain and a wind came from the mountain,” she says. “And I got the job.”

That was 1999, and she’s since elevated Hawaiian cultural education by enhancing new traditions around the island. Those traditions include this week’s “Tree Tunnel” cleanup, Koloa Plantation Days later this month and Kaua’i Aloha Festivals, slated for the end of August through October. It also includes Na Lima Hana in October, which highlights traditional Hawaiian musical instruments, healing practices, weapons, quilt-making and weaving.

But perhaps the biggest festival she coordinates is in honor of Prince Kuhio, a celebration in March that began as a one-day event and has since grown into a weeklong festival. The celebration includes a visit to the salt pans, lessons in ukulele, poi-pounding and lei-making.

Always evolving the events, Burgess says she likes to consider “things that the ali’i (royalty) would do. Each is something that would be a reflection to Prince Kuhio and his time period.”

The week also includes a kupuna “talk story” session with olelo no’eau (maxims) applied to modern times at National Tropical Botanical Garden.

Talk-story sessions about topical issues are of keen interest to Burgess, who also helps coordinate the annual Hawai’i Hotel and Lodging Association event at the resort. This year’s topic is ‘iwi kupuna (ancestral remains).

Among those invited are Nathan Kalama, Barbara Say and Kimo Lee of the Big Island Burial Council.

Topics Burgess has chosen previously include “Is the Hawaiian culture alive and well?” and “La’au lapa’au,” herbal medicine and relationship to the plants.

“We believe that we have a direct kinship to plants, to nature, to everything, so the plants were discussed in medicine and in relationship to gods and goddesses,” she says.

Burgess’s gift for sharing mo’olelo (stories) comes through in several facets, whether it is helping students who are guests of the hotel with a show-and-tell assignment, or offering culturally relevant stories for college-level projects.

“I love telling stories,” Burgess says. “I enjoy sharing my culture.”

She’s worked with Ku’ulei Martins on a recording of a mo’olelo for a student’s oral history assignment. Martins is a manager at the Grand Hyatt who has worked with Burgess for 16 years.

“Aunty Stella embodies aloha,” Martins says. “She lives it, she breathes it, and with all that she has, she shares it.”

Hotel guests also receive one-on-one sessions with Burgess. In cases where a guest may miss a lei-making lesson, for example, Burgess has made a habit of going out of her way to ensure they get the experience.

“If they miss lei-making, my husband and I go out early in the morning to pick plumeria and then make appointments with the guest, and will sew one with them,” she says. “If they were disappointed beforehand, they are very happy by the time we are through.”

And Burgess is sure to throw in a little Hawaiian education during that time, too.

“I love my culture, and no matter what I’m doing I’m weaving that in. While I’m trying to teach them how to sew lei, I may talk about the value of respecting kupuna. I also try to make sure that our guests have what we consider ‘true aloha,'” she says.

Doug Sears, general manager of the Grand Hyatt Resort and Spa, says her commitment to the culture “guides our resort in every way and grounds us to our sense of place for our community, ohana, guests and owners.”

Burgess says she enjoys helping visitors as well as employees understand native cultural values.

“We have classes for new employees,” she says. “I like to think of how ahupua’a and a corporation are the same thing – how taking care of an area from the mountain to the ocean is much like how, in a corporation, it is important to consider the top all the way down to the bottom. The landscapers need to care for the koa tree, the plants, the food supply, the lo’i that grows, and the hierarchy makes sure everything runs as it should. The ahupua’a is a working system of ohana and corporation and how it relates to us.”

That sense of ohana also motivates Burgess to carry on the teachings of those with whom she has worked in the past.

“We had the pleasure of having a great loea Charles Ka’upu as part of our ohana. He is with ke akua, god, but still a great part of our resort and ohana,” she says. “He began our first hula halau that was made up of friends and employees of the resort. We continue to try to carry on his teachings as to his life and the halau was and is a kane (male) halau.”

When she isn’t enjoying her work ohana, she is enjoying her own ohana, including son Keolu and husband Kimo, whom Burgess says support her “in every way.” She also takes pleasure in reveling in the natural serenity of the island.

“I can take my chair and drive my 4×4 on a road no one has used and pop it open and sit in the forest and read a book,” she says. “It is awesome and so good for me, and my husband picks maile and we go and have a good time.”

Nalani Brun, one of Burgess’s colleagues who works with the Office of Economic Development and Tourism, says one of the most intelligent things she’d ever done was patiently wade through Burgess’s tough exterior to find a good friend with a soul of gold, and one of the most extensive and well-read backgrounds on history and culture of Kaua’i, and especially the South Shore area.

“She thinks and speaks from her na’au (gut), which constantly drives her to find ways to assist her culture and island home.

“In my book and many others’, Stella Burgess is a Kaua’i treasure.”

Mark your calendars for Aunty Stella’s upcoming cultural events:

July 13 Tree tunnel cleanup
July 19-29 Koloa Plantation Days
Aug. 30-Oct. 20 Kaua’i Aloha Festivals (various island locations)
Oct. 17-19 Na Lima Hana
Oct. 18 Hawai’i Hotel and Lodging Association Na Iwi Kupuna
Mar. 16-30, 2014 Prince Kuhio celebration

For specific times and locations, go to