The following speech was delivered at the 2017 Hawaiʻi Island EdTech Collaboration (HITC) conference that took place on March 31, 2017 at the Kamehameha Schools Hawaiʻi campus in Keaʻau. The conference focused on the blending of Hawaiian culture based education with 21st century skills and technologies. I decided to reproduce it here, as a blog, so that I can share it with the people who inspired the many stories shared in this piece. May it be nourishing for us all.
This keynote was inspired by a conversation with my Tūtū, my maternal grandmother.
Now, before I proceed, I should mention that I never met my Tūtū. She left the world before I came into it. Therefore, our interactions exist only in my dreams, in the memories that I’ve heard about her, and in the imaginings I’ve created with her, around her, and at her side.
A few weeks ago, I sat at the place where her iwi are buried, stared up at the Koʻolau mountains, and sent whispers into the wind for her. It was the first time in months that I had come to feel a sense of grounding, a sense of true belonging. You see she was my connection to ʻāina, to place.
Let me explain.
I currently live on the island of Oʻahu. But, I’ve always been grounded here, on the Big Island. Thus, after relocating, I found myself somewhat adrift: not rootless or anchorless, but instead somewhat uncertain of the ground I was treading upon, feeling like a malihini, or a stranger, in a place not completely new to me, but also not completely known
So, I went to visit Tūtū.
It was a late afternoon and I could smell rain approaching. I knew I only had a brief moment before I would be drenched. So, I sat with her and greeted her presence, deeply rooted in the land beneath me. And in that small moment, after reaching down and putting my hands to the earth, I looked up to see a landscape drastically changed. What were once unfamiliar mountains and streams became those that Tūtū would have gazed upon, those that Tūtū would have undoubtedly loved, those that would have sheltered her, taught her, and guided her when she had children, and those that would have soothed her soul when she was in pain.
In that brief and quite moment, her world became my world. When I stood up to leave, I knew that my ancestral connection to Oʻahu had been reawakened through her: through her story, through her life, through her memory in and of ʻāina. I could walk away feeling a bit more rooted, having been reminded that I never traverse this world alone. For, as the great poet Maya Angelou once said, “I go forth along, and stand as ten thousand”, with every grandmother at my side.
I share these reflections because, for me, they tell a story of culture, experienced in moments carved out for connection. And as I hope to share in this keynote, these types of reflections provide the space for nurturing relationships, something that I believe is central to any culture-based education. My conversations with Tūtū form the foundation of this address, one in which I will weave in and out of memory, story, analysis, and indigenous theory, one that will be rooted in ʻāina.
Before I do so, however, I should note that ʻāina is not merely the land upon which we walk, dance, sing, and shout, or the land in which we plant. ʻĀina is that which feeds. Yes, it is where our mea ʻai, or food, comes from. But, on a much larger scale, it is also where all of our physical, spiritual, emotional, and cultural nourishment comes from. Thus, ʻāina can be land. However, it can also be sky, ocean, river, and mountain. It can also be heritage and culture. It can be any source that feeds.
In the weeks prior to visiting Tūtū, I had a craving for something from the ʻāina. I had an intense craving for ʻulu, or breadfruit. I knew that we were not quite into ʻulu season yet. However, something in me wanted it. Something in me needed it. So I visited every farmers’ market I could think of, I searched between the branches of every breadfruit tree I passed in ʻEwa, and as a last and desperate resort, I thought that if I could even find processed ʻulu flour that I could finally satisfy this hunger. Weeks of searching, however, turned up empty until a dear friend gifted me a gorgeous, round, and perfectly plump ʻulu just a few miles away from where my Tūtū is buried.
So, with breadfruit in tow, I went to visit her, to sit at her side. And as I got there, I knew where the cravings had come from.
She had been trying to nourish me: my grandmother, whose name was ʻUlulani. My own heavenly breadfruit. You see the fruit was my way back to her. It was not the physical food that I needed, but rather the connection, the story, the relationship that it embodied. She wanted to connect me to ʻāina.
I’m sure of it.
Now, you may be thinking that this is a bit of a stretch, or that to link these experiences to one another is a far reach from anything realistic, practical, measurable, verifiable, or even commonsense.
That, I would argue, is precisely what a good Western education would tell me.
And that, I would argue, is why Hawaiian culture-based education is essential.
You see I believe that our people understood themselves in relation, never in isolation. There was no separation between themselves and the land, themselves and the sky, themselves and the ocean. As one of my dearest mentors, the late Teresia Teaiwa, once said, “We sweat and cry salt water, so we know that the ocean is really in our blood” (qtd. in Hauʻofa, 1998, p. 392). Our people understood themselves as part of the natural world.
Everything existed together because it had to. And the space between any entity and another was a space that connected. This is what Samoans and Tongans call the vā, the space between, not a meaningless or empty space, but one of potential and one of purpose; it is a space to be nurtured, a space of relationship.
Each one of us in this room, for example, is connected, perhaps not physically or even ancestrally. But we are here, each contributing to the energy of this space. We are here, each bound by what we are hearing and seeing and learning and tasting. We are here, each bound by the potential to form relationships with people, with place, with knowledge, and with story. And we are here, each connected by our dedication to aʻo, which is the reciprocal process of teaching and learning that must inspire our students.
Therefore, in an attempt to feed that potential, or that space between each one of us in this room—between the content we will explore, the lessons that we will teach each other, and the stories that we will share—I will offer some thoughts as a point of connection, something that we can think about, and chew on, as we get a taste of what Hawaiian culture-based education can mean for us today.
Of course, any attempt to do so, however, must begin with culture. Culture, as Samoan novelist and poet, Albert Wendt (1976), argues, is not fixed. It is not stagnant. Culture cannot be pinned down or captured. It cannot be frozen behind a glass in a museum. Culture, he proposes, is as fluid and flexible as the ocean we come from, the ocean that we call home. It must move and shift to survive. And our survival depends on our ability to move and shift with it. In fact, “The only valid culture worth having,” he argues, “is the one being lived out now,” the one moving with the current rise and fall of the tides (p. 76).
Now, his words have certainly caused a stir, particularly among those romantics of culture, or those caught up in notions of tradition and authenticity. Whatever the reaction, however, it is hard to ignore the fact that his words have power. His words make us creators of culture. His words make us those with the agency to make choices about how we will live our lives each and every day, dedicated to our people, to our customs, and to our indigenous knowledge. His words give us the mana to choose, every second, to be indigenous and to act upon that indigeneity.
We build on the past—on our values, on our core beliefs, and on our practices—and create culture so that we can extend the lives of our people into the future, ensuring that our children and grandchildren can survive as Hawaiians in a contemporary world. We build on the past and create culture to ensure that they will always have that same opportunity, or that same space to shape culture for themselves, a culture based firmly in their ancestral heritage but one that meets the needs of today. We build on the past and create culture, becoming the grandmothers who will stand alongside our descendants by the thousands, even if or when they don’t know we’re there.
Why? So that we can help them to satisfy that craving for ancestral belonging when it comes.
And it will come because our children and our students live in a world that continues to try to distance them from who they are; that continues to try to distance them from ʻāina, or that which feeds; and that continues to try to distance them from a true sense of nourishment and satisfaction, rooted and cultivated in place.
When I took my ʻulu home, after having visited with Tūtū, I could not wait to cook it, to be fed by it. So I used the element of heat, as people around the world have done for centuries, making it more digestible for my body, making it soft enough for my soul. In the process, I employed adaptations of ancient technologies, as cooking in itself is an ancient process. Where families would have once gather around the hearth, or around a pit of heat and fire, however, I used modern tools to prepare my ʻulu all the while remembering where it came from and who it came from: both the friend who gifted it to me and the craving that drove me to my grandmother.
And as the smell of breadfruit slowly filled my tiny house, my mind drifted to ʻulu-scented memories of people and places that I remembered fondly: the breadfruit my father used to bake and salivate over; the breadfruit I was given as a gift by one of my most influential teachers after I graduated; the breadfruit I ate in the Marquesas that reminded me of home and made me savor connections across our sea of islands; and the breadfruit I was overjoyed to find cradled between my friend’s hands, before she smiled and quietly placed it in my own.
Then I remembered that for our ancestors food was ceremony and consumption was ritual.
And I wondered: Do we still nourish ourselves in this way?
Before her recent passing, a close friend and mentor of mine shared a poem with me. It came from a day where she was supposed to go to church and didn’t. It was Easter Sunday. As she sat pondering her decision, her mind wandered to food rituals that are bound to religious practice. We eat wheat bread and drink grape wine, symbolic of the body and the blood of Christ. But, why, she wondered, must our Savior always be imported, shipped in or flown in from faraway lands? Why must God always be colonizer, tourist, or even cargo?
I chewed on her poetic musings for a while and realized that we had our own ways of eating that connected us to our divine entities, that connected us to place and people, that connected us to all of creation and to each other.
Therefore, as I ate my ʻulu, I remembered my grandmother and I remembered stories of sacrifice: an old moʻolelo tells us of the god, Kū, and his life as a planter on this island. Although quite skilled in cultivating and growing food, his people were once stricken by a famine that left them starving and hopeless. Seeing their pain and anguish, he told his wife that there was a way he could help them, but that he would need to leave them in order to do so. Looking at her children, slumped over in weakness, she consented and offered Kū her last goodbye.
With his family close, Kū stood as his name instructed: kū, erect; kū, strong; kū, firmly planted in the ground. And as they watched in sorrow, he began to sink into the earth, until he was completely buried in it, surrounded by ʻāina.
With heavy tears, the people cried over this patch of earth, and in the early morning, they noticed a shifting, a movement, a stir in the ground. What began as a tiny sprout of green grew into a wondrous tree, branching out towards the sky, with thick, dark leaves, and with swollen, plump breadfruit.
Looking upon this figure, Kū’s wife understood that her husband had become this tree: the trunk his body, the branches his limbs, the leaves his hands, and the fruit his head, each ʻulu containing the memory of his life, his sacrifice, and his love for his people.
When I ate the ʻulu, I remembered this. I remembered that our ancestors considered food their relatives, their greatest teachers, their communion with gods. Thus, true nourishment was not just about satisfying physical hunger. All human beings on the planet are linked by the biological need to eat. But, for us, for kānaka maoli, true nourishment came from realizing the relationship between food and body, between ancestor and descendant, between place and people.
Thus, it’s no wonder that one of the first strikes of colonialism, one of the first acts of war against an indigenous people, is to cut them off from their food, and from their resources, so that they are not only stripped of the ability to feed themselves physically, but are simultaneously stripped of the ability to nourish themselves spiritually, emotionally, and culturally. They are stripped of connection, and in doing so, from an entire way of being and seeing the world.
And we need not look far into the past to see examples of this. Think of pipelines, think of telescopes, think of oil drilling, think of dredging, think of bombing, think of the pillaging of land and the erasure of history for profit. Examples of forced disconnection are everywhere. And examples of lived disconnection are even more abundant. So abundant, that we sometimes can’t see them.
Therefore as I ate, and as I considered these seemingly disconnected ideas together, filling the vā, or the space between memory and food, between story and ancestry, between ritual and consumption, I wondered: Is it possible to eat this way again?
Is it possible to feed ourselves with foods that come from the lands of our birth, from the lands of our ancestors; foods that link us to who we were, who we are, who we can be; foods that take us back to our grandmothers?
Now, with such a lengthy introduction, you may be asking yourself what this has to do with Hawaiian culture-based education. And it is precisely this:
Education, in the traditional sense, fills.
Hawaiian culture-based education, on the other hand, must nourish.
As a teacher, I often wonder what I’m feeding my students. When I walk into the classroom am I going to supply them with things I’ve picked up off of a shelf, like the shiny and perfectly packaged foods labeled “healthy” or “nutrient-packed” when in reality they are overly processed, and often times, devoid of any true substance? Or am I going to go an even easier route and feed them a pre-designed, pre-determined, and pre-made meal, one that can be consumed anywhere in the world and still taste the same? Or, am I going to give them the knowledge, the resources, and the technologies—both old and new—that they can use to one day sustain themselves?
Now, I believe that the metaphor of food actually translates quite well into the classroom. Why? Because we live in an era of McDonalidization. (Yes, that’s a thing). And although we may not want to admit it, even our education systems are in danger of being “McDonaldized.”
Think about it. McDonalds runs on certain core values: predictability, reliability, and convenience. Wherever you are in the world, you can walk into one of these restaurants and know that they will have certain key items on the menu, thus making them predictable. These items will not only taste the same, but will also feed your increasingly homogenized palette (a product of globalization, no doubt), thus making them reliable. And, these items will be convenient, supposedly saving you time while also conveniently distancing you from ʻāina, from connection, and from a sense of identity and urgency to maintain your food ways and life ways.
As we’ve been feasting on “fast” foods to accommodate our “fast” lives, societies have adopted these same principles to the point where they can be seen everywhere. In fact, the very ubiquity of these principles makes them almost invisible to us today. If you consider it, you can see that we are constantly exposed to “quick fixes” and “time savers”, anything to help us be more efficient. Even our banks and our pharmacies have adapted so that we don’t even have to get out of our cars to get what we need; money and medication come straight to us. But the more our lives are introduced to “efficiency” through machines and advanced technologies, the more we are living the impacts of disconnect, sometimes even without being aware of it.
In fact, it’s even in the way we educate our children. Yes, I would argue that standardization is the McDonaldization of education. It is the assumption that you can serve students the same curriculum, presenting it on the same trays, with the exact same components, regardless of location, or perhaps more precisely, while ignoring location altogether. It is the assumption that you can walk into any school in the country and students of the same age will be receiving the same content, passing the same tests, and achieving at the same levels as students at another school. It is the assumption that these classrooms will produce students with similar knowledge, making it easier to assess them, easier to predict their outcomes, and easier to rely on so-called proven methods that although suited for some, are never suited for all.
Hawaiian culture-based education is the antidote to this. It is the foundation of relationship and connection that our students need. Yet, in today’s world we are presented with a challenge: with all of the advancements that make our lives “faster” and apparently more efficient, our children and our students seem to have less and less space and time to slow down and savor the richness of their heritage.
I increasingly hear phrases in my own classroom like, “I’m Hawaiian but I didn’t grow up that way.” Or, “I never knew my history.” Or “I don’t really know what my Hawaiian name means.” While I am also honored to know many young kānaka maoli who are solid and steadfast in who they are, my classrooms seem to be filled more with examples of the former: those starving for a sense of identity, not quite knowing where and how to feed that ancestral craving for connection.
This has made me realize that while our students are advantaged with every technology imaginable some of them are simultaneously disadvantaged because they’ve lost the ability—and perhaps even worse, the opportunity—to connect without these technologies. Thus, I believe that a 21st century skill to cultivate and grow is one of relationship, of teaching students how to see themselves as not only part of the ʻāina, but also part of an ongoing genealogy of people, places, and events that they can add to, or perhaps more precisely, that they must add to.
The students of today will be far more literate in modern technologies than we ever will be. Since I started teaching in 2007, I’ve noticed a drastic change in my classrooms. The students of today are those who have never known a life without swiping left, without Googling, without the wonders of the Internet. They are used to having the world at their fingertips—literally. They can go anywhere and be anything virtually in a matter of seconds. Thanks to technology, the world is becoming smaller and smaller as humans are more and more connected, and sometimes to my own dismay, more and more the same.
The students of today seek instant gratification, instant approval, instant confirmation of worthiness and importance in a like on Facebook, a heart on Instagram, or a comment, solidifying their existence. The students of today, in fact, are so connected to everything and everyone, that they are at the same time disconnected. Connected to the world, disconnected from ʻāina.
So, my question is: What are the 21st century skills that you are going to cultivate and how will these skills empower our youth to live understanding themselves as indigenous, as part of the land, as feeding from their ancestors, as standing, always, with ten thousand at their side? What opportunities will you afford them in and out of the classroom? And together, how can we mentor them and not necessarily teach culture, but provide spaces for living culture?
I believe the potential of Hawaiian culture-based education is as wide and vast as our ocean. To be culture-based is not to bring tokens of culture, small tidbits of knowledge, or relics of a deserted past into the classroom. It is not to centralize imported, shipped in, or flown in concepts and to “Hawaiianize” the foreign. Rather, it is to tap into the ways of knowing and being that our kūpuna lived by and to teach and learn in that fashion: respecting the pilina, or the bond, between all things.
Postcolonial scholar, Ngugi Wa Thiongo (1986), once wrote about what he calls the cultural bomb: “The effect of a cultural bomb,” he said, “is to annihilate a people’s belief in their names, in their languages, in their environment, in their heritage of struggle, in their unity, in their capacities and ultimately in themselves” (p. 3). I see the lingering impacts of this in our communities, in our families, in the things we say to ourselves about ourselves, in the things that our students say to themselves about themselves and their potential.
Culture runs the risk of becoming a required subject, a portioned-out time of the day, spoon-fed to them. Culture, however, must frame their day. It must be so ubiquitous that they are almost unaware of it. Culture must simply be the way things are. It must be part of every day: starting from how they meet and greet one another, to how they are welcomed into a shared space of learning, to how they become co-carriers of responsibility, with the ability to respond to the challenges of today. They must be immersed in aloha while also being primed to be cultivators of it, to ready the soil for an empowered future. Our children and our students must never be complacent, must never forget the past, must never be without connection. Our classrooms can provide the space to taste the realities of what it means to be a contemporary Hawaiian today and what it takes to carry a nation forward.
I think about my Tūtū often these days and wonder how she would have taught me, how she would have nourished me and showed me the wonders of the world. Although we never had that chance, I imagine that it would have started with ʻāina and that would have included great food: nourishing, healthy, from the soil and sea. I imagine it would have involved story-telling and ancestral memories, working and sweating, feeling the weight of our pasts: the beauty and the pain.
I imagine that it would have included sitting with her without a screen or an app between us. Instead, I imagine that we would have filled that space, that vā, with story, creating memory and creating culture.
Now, I’m not saying that technology is a hindrance to deep learning, or to a type of learning that goes beyond the feeding of facts and the regurgitation of information. What I am saying is that technology must be a tool for tapping into the breadth and depth of our ancestral knowledge. In short, it must be a tool used to cook the ʻulu as it cannot, and should never be, the “meat” or the “substance” to be consumed. It must be used to make knowledge more digestible or softer for our contemporary palettes, but must never become the sole source of nourishment itself. Culture must be what feeds. ʻĀina must be what feeds. History and ancestry must be what feeds. And modern technologies can be the spoon for that, but not the meal. It must lead us to new tastes, new smells, new experiences of connection.
A couple of days ago, I took a walk with my father and my older sister. As we hiked forest trails in mud-soaked boots, embraced by mist and the scent of dancing ʻolapa, my dad recounted his time eating hāpuʻu shoots. He had recently taught my sister how to prepare them, and as he spoke, he reminisced. Telling me about these fern shoots brought back memories of place and people, so many in fact, that he could almost trace a moʻokūʻauhau, or genealogy, through food.
When I thought about hāpuʻu, I was reminded that these shoots were once a famine food, something that our people would only eat when they had nothing else. It was a survival food. But, when my father spoke about them, it was with fondness. And when my sister recounted the process of learning how to prepare them the week before, it was with pride. They had gathered the shoots together in the forest above our home. My father had instructed her on how to choose the right ones. They then boiled them so that they could peel them and soak them, all in preparation for the final cooking.
And when they ate them, days later, it was a solidification of their relationship, a confirmation of ancestral knowledge, and a validation of connection to ʻāina. They had been fed and nourished by the experience. And they were still salivating over it.
As I listened to their memories unfold, I realized that our children need these types of experiences. Why? Because they are starving for them and are in danger of being malnourished, perhaps not physically, but spiritually and culturally. Thus, they need the so-called famine foods so that their taste buds can readjust, and rejoice, and begin to hunger for more. They need “foods” for survival because our survival as a nation depends on it.
Our students need a true taste of what it means to be aloha ʻāina.
Aloha ʻāina is far more than loving the land. As many contemporary Hawaiian scholars agree, it is about a constant and loyal dedication to the life of our nation. It is a never-ending fight for the betterment of our people. This commitment, I believe, comes through knowing the land, the ocean, and all of our sources of sustenance intimately: knowing them as ancestors, treating them as ancestors, seeing them as the grandmothers who march at our sides by the thousands.
The future of our people will reside in the ability of our youth to see beyond the screen in front of them—beyond the glow of their social media outlets, their instant likes, and their constant updates—so that they can slow down and savor the depth and richness of everything around them, so that they can put hands to ʻāina and feel its pulse.
Our children and students need the skill and the strength to ʻauamo kuleana, or to carry their responsibilities, to serve and feed their people, to strengthen ancestral connections, and to use them as a base for protecting and safeguarding all of those sources that feed. To ʻauamo is to put a pole across your back—one used to carry large bundles of food, water, or supplies—and to shoulder the burden for the next generation. Thus, our students must be awakened and reawakened, constantly, to the beauty, power, and pain of being indigenous.
What is responsibility but the ability to respond? And in today’s world, where our children can access anything and everything at the push of a button, they will need guidance in becoming stewards of what’s beneath their feet. They will need guidance in learning how and when to respond to today’s challenges. And that can only come through connection, through pockets, and moments, and silences for feeling and tasting kuleana.
Without this, we will be lost.
Thus, the 21st century skill that I hope to cultivate in my own classrooms is one of connection. Everything that I teach is taught in relation to my students. They are always pushed to find that personal relevance, or that string of thought and action that can make anything, even the seemingly foreign, somehow personal, or something with the potential to impact them and they way they see the world. Any and all modern technologies used are to support this mission, never to distract from it.
Because our youth have enough distractions.
What they need now is hope. We need to grow hope from the soil, we need to harvest it from the sea, and pull it from the clouds. We need to be washed in it. But we will not see it, or grasp it, or be nourished by such hope until we are able to cultivate it, starting in our classrooms. Hope, in itself, is a radical political act, one that defies any and all attempts to silence us, to marginalize us, or to even bomb us out of existence. It is a political act in a world that expects us to lose hope, to dream smaller, and to give up and assimilate.
Thus, we must build hope and a sense of pride and this must come from a willingness and a dedication to stand for something bigger than oneself. I firmly believe that our students will only know what that “something bigger” is when they can look up from the screen momentarily, or turn off the music in their headphones, or distance themselves from the keyboard, and close their eyes, putting ear to the breeze, putting hand to the earth, putting heart to the knowledge of who they were, who they are, and who they can certainly become.
Give your students this chance through a culture-based education that nourishes, that feeds them experience and moments for change, moments for connection, moments for communion with their grandmothers. Give them the chance to fill the spaces between with meaning and purpose.
Feed them. Nourish them. And let them sigh, audibly, “mmmm”.
Mahalo e Tūtū.
Angelou, M. Our Grandmothers. http://www.ctadams.com/mayaangelou25.html
Hauʻofa, E. (1998). The ocean in us. The Contemporary Pacific, 10(2), 391-410.
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Thiong’o, N. (1986). Decolonizing the mind: The politics of language in African literature. Portsmouth, Heinemann.
Wendt, A. (1976). Towards a new Oceania. Seaweeds and Constructions, 7, 71-85.