Ashley Soares first fell in love with hula when she was seven years old.“From the time I saw my cousins onstage for Keiki Hula, I knew that’s what I wanted to do,” she remembers.

And she did practice hula growing up. Unfortunately, she also grew up with abuse within her ‘ohana – physical, sexual and substance abuse – and, as she got older, she became involved in “unhealthy relationships” and behaviors. An inmate at the Women’s Correctional Correctional Center (WCCC) since 2011, Soares and her experiences are just one example of what has been echoed by others: abuse can be intergenerational and related to incarceration, while cultural connections and community connectiveness can lead to positive change.

Previous WCCC administrators had asked Soares to teach hula to other inmates, but since she didn’t ‘uniki and wasn’t a kumu hula, Soares said it didn’t feel right, and so “we were just learning dances.” That feeling changed 2014, when Malina Kaulukukui retired from working at the University of Hawai‘i School of Social Work and Salvation Army’s Women’s Way, and she volunteered to teach hula at the prison. Kaulukukui is a social worker by training, and in addition to her work in ho‘oponopono, treatment programs for wähine, teaching and other mental health work, she danced hula under Maiki Aiu Lake and Mae Kamamalu Klein and studied under Kumu Hula Pohai Souza. She achieved her ‘uniki in 2008 and now teaches in her own hālau.

“Finding hula again, in here, has grounded me. When I dance, nothing else matters. It’s part of me learning to love myself first.”

– Ashley Soares

“When I proposed it to [WCCC administrators], I called it Hula as Healing,” Kaulukukui says. Not only do they learn how to dance different kahiko and ‘auana and give voice to different mele, but inmates in the “inside Hālau,” as they refer to it, also explore themes of
power and control in different mele and oli and in their own lives, for the inmates’ healing. Because we live in a colonized culture, says Kaulukukui, issues of power and control are at the heart of so many issues – including abuse. “There are so many power imbalances, especially for Native Hawaiian women. So, for example, we talk about Pele, and her strengths, and then also look at her sister, Hi‘iaka, and how Pele exercised control over her, sometimes destructively,” she notes. “By examining these mo’olelo and how they can relate to their own lives, they are able to gain perspective on their pasts and move towards healing. We have to arm our women with skills and choices that make sense culturally. Here, we happen to use hula. They are also expected to demonstrate discipline and caring for their hula sisters.

“I tell the women I want them to know their own na‘au – standing in my own truth, knowing my own na‘au, has to come fi rst. Once you have that you can start to heal,” Kaulukukui says. Soares agrees, “Finding hula again, in here, has grounded me. When I dance, nothing else matters. It’s part of me learning to love myself first.”

WCCC Offender Services Administrator Nicole Fernandez says they want the emphasis for these women to be on healing. “They’ve already been punished by the judge giving them their sentence to prison, taking them away from their families and communities – we don’t need to punish them further,” she thinks. “If restorative justice is a long line, then we are at the far end, and by the time they get to us, they have had gone through many other things already, so we want to focus on healing – not just their own healing, but healing ofthe community and culture that has gotten these women here in the first place. So part of what we do is help with rehabilitative services so that the women are prepared when they are released from prison. At the end of the day, they are members of our community – just like you and I.”

Fernandez has noticed some things in her eight years at WCCC: first, she’s struck by what seems like younger and younger women being incarcerated. Also, for mothers, Fernandez has watched their children age through visits, which means they are growing up apart from their mothers.

“I’ve literally watched these children grow up,” she notes. “It really hit me with the reality of it, of how many people are negatively affected by this system.”

In addition, Kaulukukui says that there’s a stigma – men can go into prison as individuals, but if you have children, women are labeled as bad mothers. She wants greater choices for family healing, such as ho‘oponopono for those who want it, so that these women’s relationships are in a healthier place when they get out of prison. They would also like if there was a program where inmates with toddlers or babies can have them in the correctional facility.

For her part, Ashley is trying her best to maintain a relationship with her two daughters, choreographing a hula for her elder daughter to audition for May Day queen, and using her phone time to help with homework. She also is Kaulukukui’s class “alaka‘i,” the person who has the kuleana (responsibility) of preparing the classroom, organizing the others and making sure basic hula protocols are followed. If she can’t be present, Ashley also arranges for another assistant to help Kaulukukui with the class. “I can see something internally happening with Ashley,” Fernandez says. “She’s finding her voice, not just culturally, but who she is: her self-worth.”