Photo: Keiki at Native Hawaiian Education Summit
Ke Kula Kaiapuni o Pū‘ōhala haumana welcome Native Hawaiian Education Summit attendees. - Photo: Courtesy Native Hawaiian Education Council

As Teresa Makuakāne-Dreschel opened this year’s Native Hawaiian Education Summit, she encouraged attendees to continue the convention’s shift since 2014, when Hawaiian educators decided to look for solutions from within.

“We don’t really need someone else to tell us what our knowledge is. It’s ours, our kuleana,” said Makuakāne-Dreschel at the summit held last month at Koʻolau Ballrooms in Kāneʻohe.

The three-day summit brought together educators, social service providers, students and other stakeholders for discussions on strengthening communities and continuing to encourage more Hawaiians to speak ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi and amplify their ʻike.

Prevailing themes included continued cooperation between educational institutions and advocacy for communities on a daily basis, not just at points of crisis. “We gotta break out of our silos, gotta raise a healthy community that raises a healthy child,” said Kaʻala Farm Executive Director Eric Enos during the opening kūpuna panel. “Stay on the mark and do your homework. You gotta just hoe, no matter what they throw at you, you just gotta hoe, dig in.”

The summit’s final panel brought together education leaders representing Pūnana Leo preschools, the Department of Education, Kamehameha Schools, the University of Hawaiʻi system and charter schools to talk about the road ahead, but also to share accomplishments of the past two years.

Within the Department of Education, the creation of the Office of Hawaiian Education in 2015 shows the public schools’ commitment not only to Ka Papahana Kaiapuni, the Hawaiian language immersion program, but also to incorporating Hawaiian history, culture and language into the curriculum for all students. For the kaiapuni program, creation of Hawaiian language arts standards and corresponding federal accountability assessments will offer a more accurate reflection of what immersion students are learning. “At the federal level, we’re kind of pushing the door open,” said OHE Director Dawn Kaui Sang. “Our practice is different because we have two official languages in the state and as a state we’re treating it that way.”

The University of Hawaiʻi is putting more Hawaiians in leadership roles, including its first female Native Hawaiian chancellor at UH-West Oʻahu, Maenette Benham, who participated on the panel. Since the 2000s, there’s been growth in the number of Native Hawaiians holding doctoral degrees and becoming academics and researchers – heading departments and leading laboratories. “People like us have been working very hard to shift the policy, to shift the processes so our voices, our ways of doing and teaching in a transdisciplinary way are central to the conversation and work of the University of Hawaiʻi,” Benham said.

Kāʻeo Duarte, KS vice president of community engagement and resources, said Kamehameha has made ʻike-based outcomes mandatory across its three campuses and 30 preschools. But the institution also wants to reach the Hawaiian keiki in non-KS schools and is working to align all its non-campus programs with the DOE Office of Hawaiian Education and Hawaiian-focused charter schools. “How can we do a better job?” Duarte asked. “How can we evolve as an institution, locking arms in our community?”

Representing ʻAha Pūnana Leo, Kauanoe Kamanā talked about growing a Hawaiian speaking workforce, making Hawaiian an operational language in colleges and universities, government offices, even in the media. When immersion students hear ʻōlelo outside of school, they can see it’s a living language, she said. “This is the only way we can really grow our language capacity by making sure we have employable adults who are proficient in the language.”

Puanani Burgess and Stella Pihana, who were on the kūpuna panel with Enos, talked about work they’ve been doing on the Waiʻanae Coast for decades – now in their 70s, Burgess noted when they started they all had dark hair.

Burgess, an attorney, went to law school so she could culturally-translate complicated requirements from agencies like the Administration for Native Americans to get communities the resources they need. She said more people will have to follow that path – learning how to decipher legal documents and write massive proposals – a role she calls “dragon trainer” because it feeds the beast and protects the village.

Burgess shared a story about young kānaka building a hālau on Kahoʻolawe, and how the builders got stuck, not knowing the right chants or ceremonies to move forward. Seeking advice from Aunty Pualani Kanahele, Burgess learned that while they might not have the chants their ancestors used, they had the same resources to create appropriate chants of their own. “The time in which you live, right now, you have to figure out the right ceremony, the right chants for this moment in this time,” Kanahele told her. “If you don’t chance it and do the work that needs to be done in this time, our culture is dead. How do we maintain our native heritage, who we are, our identity, and yet live in the world we find ourselves in?”

Encouraged by the changes she’s seen in children who receive culturally grounded instruction, Pihana called for support to reach more students. “Now when I look to see what we have out there, it’s truly teaching our children their heritage,” she said. “They’re happier for it, knowing who they are.”