The Role of Education: Acculturation Back into the Future

Pualani Kanaka'ole Kanahele
The Edith Kanaka'ole Foundation
Hilo, Hawai’i

Aloha. Hello to all of us. I am very happy at this time to talk to us about my kupuna, or the Native Hawaiians. I am honored first of all to participate in this process for identifying and bringing clarity to Native life and culture, which are the sources for the stories, music, and dances that hold clues to ancestral thoughts, actions, and values. I admire and am in awe of all of you so passionate about the traditions you grew up with that you have taken on the continuation of these traditions as your responsibility. I would like to talk about “acculturation back into the future,” because that is a large part of who we Native Hawaiians are. We have acculturated, and we have been able to go back in order to go into the future.

I come from the Pacific, and so I know exactly what the Fijian woman Sivia Tora was talking about today when she said that natural and cultural, tangible and intangible heritages are one. My cultural identity is that of a Native Hawaiian, someone who comes from the oceans. We are ocean people. We are island people. And if we identify ourselves with our environment, then what will our cultural identity be twenty years from now, when there is little or no environment left?

One of our most important genealogical chants begins with the birth of the coral polyp. And then everything else evolves from the coral polyp, because it becomes the food source for everything around it. The coral also becomes the source of material for the making of an island. And so when I talk about cultural identity, I am talking about myself as a Native and my association with that coral and with the island and with the sea. And with that particular chant. And when I talk about environmental deterioration, I’m talking about hotels being built on our coral polyp. And the fact is, we cannot fight it as well as we can fight for our clothing or making certain kinds of jewelry or dyeing certain kinds of costumes for dancing. We cannot fight the disappearance of our environment and of my identity connected with it

Of course, there will always be people traveling in and out of Hawai’i because we live in the middle of the Pacific, and in this world one can go almost anywhere one wants. We need to learn how to get along with them. They also, on the other hand, when they’re coming in, need to learn who is living here, what the people are like, and what one can learn from them. I think that it’s all been a one-way street of “I’m going there, and I’m going to enjoy myself. And I’m taking who-I-am with me,” instead of learning what and who were there first.

Our official history also negates our Hawaiian culture and those who have practiced it. First, of course, is the coming of the English explorers, Captain Cook and others, and then the Americans, who were missionaries, educators, business people, and plantation owners. Whalers also came, a different sort of people. So that’s what we acculturated into.

What is not in the history books is our genealogy. And the genealogy clearly tells us that we are related to the elements. So if your name is something like Kauilanuimaki’aikalaniokauila, you are related to the lightning form that is in the sky, the fire of the sky. Therefore, you are also related to the fire of the earth and the fire of the ocean. And so all of these fires are related, and the three elements are related through the fire. So our names give us a lot of history about who we are. They tell us we are related to the environment, the natural elements. They may also tell us what our ancestors did, through occupational names. Some names are Kalaiwa’a, which means our ancestors were canoe carvers. Some names tell us that we are Kalaimoku, which means our ancestors were related to the chief. Some names tell us that we are Ka’ana’ana, which means our ancestors were related to that part of the culture that prayed people to death. And so our names tell us a lot about who we are and what our ancestors did. Nothing is completely lost if we look hard enough for it. This is not in our history books.

We finally learned how to write in the mid-nineteenth century, when young Hawaiians were taken under the wing of the missionaries and taught to write Hawaiian, people like [David] Malo, [Samuel] Kamakau, and many others. These were the young men who went out and collected the oral history of our people, knowing at the time that our history was slipping away from us very, very quickly. The latter part of the 19th century was when the history that was collected was then gathered and translated by people like [Ralph] Kuykendall. Eventually, with the translation help of Hawaiians, our history books were compiled by writers like Gavan Daws and Ruth Tabrah. People like Kuykendall and [Nathaniel] Emerson were the writers of our cultural books.

At the turn of the century, we lost our country to the United States. They saw Hawaiian culture as a form of entertainment. And we became deeply lost in our acculturation into Western society. As far as Western society was concerned, we knew nothing and had to start from scratch. We found out in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s--our parents did anyway—that education was a very necessary part of our existence. So they sent us to be educated. We all had to go to college -- to learn to be a teacher, an archaeologist, a historian, and the like. A whole bunch of us Native Hawaiians went to college.

During this time some people still held on very stubbornly to their cultural traditions. And the cultural traditions meant specialization -- you didn’t do everything, as our occupational names indicate. If you were Kalaiwa’a, you only did canoes, which means you knew something about the forest, something about the birds in the forest, etc. If your specialty was chanting the history of our people, you knew something about dancing, something about the birds, something about the forest. And so some of us kept our traditions and kept them underground. We maintained our traditions, and we are now very grateful to our ancestors who were so stubborn about maintaining them.

Today there are many educated Hawaiians who do not know their culture. Only a few educated Hawaiians do. And what we are coming to realize today is that, while education is power, culture is passion and soul. We have recently learned to take cultural practices into the school and college curriculums. We are teaching our Hawaiian children, our Hawaiian students in college, who they are. And to do this, we’ve gone back to the idea of what one’s name is and what it can tell you about where you are from. We are beginning like that and, I think, are learning to acculturate back into our culture.

Being educated has also helped us fight our battles. Being smart in our culture has taught us how to find our souls--and how to fight our battles with an even larger rod. And so, we don’t allow the archaeologist to translate our culture for us, or to interpret our culture for us. He can tell us what he knows as far as archaeology is concerned but cannot interpret our culture for us.

At present we occupy a very good place. There is a lot of interest in our culture, and even though we’re still fighting battles, we know how to fight them. We know what kinds of things to call on.

We are returning to cultural ceremonies because of the repatriation of bones from the Smithsonian, which was our first move to reclaim our ancestors. As soon as the laws were signed, we came to get all of our ancestors. We took them home and replanted them in the ground. This created new ceremonies, because we never before had ceremonies for reburying our ancestors. New ceremonies began, based on the old ones. And so I think we are in a good place, moving ahead by moving back into the past. The future seems close and bright.