Ka Wai Ola

Earlier this year, reader Kelena K. Nēula wrote to Ka Wai Ola staff about the cultural classes he lead at Kūlani Correctional Facility and currently at Maui Community Correctional Facility. His experience offers a unique and inspiring perspective of känaka connection to culture behind bars.

Gathered in a grassy field, Kelena Kamamalähoe ‘O Kamehameha Nēula proudly stands surrounded by his haumäna (students) as they open the Makahiki in ceremony. After weeks of practicing, the pa‘ahao (prisoners) joined together in oli and dance to welcome in the new season. Like the Makahiki, so began the renewed path ahead for Nēula.

Nēula’s decades-long journey as a pa‘ahao has taken him across the Pacific to prisons in Arizona and back home in Hawai‘i. During the years he served time, Nēula drew upon his connection to his Hawaiian culture to reflect on his life choices and change his ways moving forward.

“The importance of being a Native Hawaiian in prison starts with humility, ha‘aha‘a,” said Nēula. “Being able to be corrected. For me its more of reconnecting and accepting obedience, than to lead not follow.”

Photo: Pū‘ali koa of Kulani Correctional Facility
Pū‘ali koa of Kulani Correctional Facility gathered in Nomember of 2018 to open the Makahiki in ceremony. Jordan I‘i, John Boy Kahalehoe, Keiki‘okalā, Moku‘ahi, Larry Boy Shamblin, Eric Vega, and other students seen in this photo continue to carry on the tradition at the Kūlani Correctional Facility on Hawai‘i Island. – Photo: Hawai‘i Department of Public Safety

Set with the goal of reconnecting others, Nēula now takes on the role of Alaka‘i (leader) and teaches Hawaiian culture-based classes in the prison system in which he was once a part. Nēula’s style of dancing is ha‘a koa (dance of warriors), which is rooted in traditional Hawaiian practices, including lua, hula, and oli. To dance ha‘a koa, Nēula requires inmates take on the kuleana of pū‘ali koa (warriors) by being in full control of their body from their breathing to the steps that they take. Ha‘a koa empowers the pa‘ahao to help them overcome addiction and prepare for the difficult journey of self-growth ahead of them.

When asked how he feels his classes impact his students, Nēula shares “my students change from uneducated to educated: ‘ohana strong and culture deep. Inmates make the best of themselves learning who they are behind prison walls, so that when they are out, they know where they’re headed.”

“Kelena Nēula inspired many MCC inmates to participate in Hawaiian cultural classes,” says MCC Warden Deborah Taylor. “He taught them Makahiki and they practiced every morning. Their recent passionate performance was a beautiful thing to watch as these men regained their cultural identity. Nēula is doing well in our work furlough program and when he eventually paroles out we hope he can come back as a volunteer and continue to teach Hawaiian cultural practices.”

“We would like to thank all who have believed in us, who have afforded us the time to practice,” says Nēula. He looks forward to continuing classes in the future.

This oli written by Kelena Nēula helps to inspire and transform the minds of his students.


Maoli, maoli, maoli te koko
Ke kino, ke kino, ke kino mai loko
Kiti, kiti, kiti ka ikaika
Maoli te koko
Ke kino mai loko
Kiti ka ikaika
Maoli, hī!
Native, native, native is the blood
The body, the body, from within the body
Flow, flow, strength swiftly flow
Native is the blood
From within the body
Strength swiftly flow
Native, surge!