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Cultivating Cultural Revitalization and Sustainable Futures in Hana, Hawai'i

Ma Ka Hana Ka 'Ike– “In working, one learns.” Rick Rutiz, a homebuilder in the East Maui community of Hana, had an epiphany while watching his students of Hana Elementary and High School. Witnessing the students gravitate towards experiential learning, he realized that abstract concepts they found challenging on paper could be grasped through hands-on practice. Lipoa Kahaleuahi, the Executive Director of the Ma Ka Hana Ka ‘Ike (MKHKI) Building Program, recounts the inception of the program in 2000 with this narrative. 

Now in its 24th year, MKHKI stands as an acclaimed organization of vocational training, offering engaging activities and paid apprenticeships tailored for Native Hawaiian K-12 students, with a focus on ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi (Hawaiian language).

The program aims to foster a deeper connection with Hawaiian culture among both the keiki (youth) and kūpuna (community elders). Moreover, it tackles the developmental challenges arising from urbanization, environmental conservation concerns, and the imperative to preserve Hawaiian culture, experiences common to Hana and the broader Hawaiian community.

“We're seeking to solve issues of colonization, language decline, cultural exploitation, and environmental degradation while harnessing the beauty and power of language revitalization,” says Kahaleuahi.

Despite Hana's population being about 72% of native descent, roughly 82% of its residents exclusively speak English. The effects of colonization in Hawaii led to a significant decline in the indigenous Hawaiian population and proficiency in the Hawaiian language.

Kahaleuahi explains that she and her team are now poised to participate in the broader Hawaiian language revitalization movement that spans across Hawaii; a movement that provides students with the opportunity to learn and develop in ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi from preschool through to a Ph.D. in certain fields.

“Families across the islands advocated for more than 50 years to bring Hawaiian language back into schools. Hāna families advocated for more than 10 years to create the program within our community. So we, too, recognize this transformative need to occur in everything we do for the continued health and well-being of our people,” says Kahaleuahi.

The program holds that the well-being of Native Hawaiians is linked to their cultural identity. The responsibility to honor Hawaiian heritage and land is seen as essential, yet it raises numerous thought-provoking questions.

“It's an honor to be able to grow up and live where we're from where connection to land is still alive, yet, it's something that we have to advocate for,” says Kahaleuahi.

Harmonizing Education with Cultural Heritage

Homesteading is ingrained in Hawaiian life, particularly in the compact urban area of Hana. MKHKI's programs serve as a reminder to students that traditional classroom learning with a set school schedule is not the sole path to gaining valuable knowledge that nurtures intellectual and cultural development.

“I think that the lines between home, academics, and community should be blurred,” says Kahaleuahi. “We need to connect their innate intellect with their surroundings, both in the classroom and out.” ”

In MKHKI, students acquire skills in a new trade that have the potential to pave the way for a career through service-oriented projects centered around four key pillars: construction, agriculture, cultural practices, and culinary arts.

Hāna Build

In the foundational Hāna Build program, about 40 high school students and 10 graduate apprentices annually undertake a range of projects on the school campus and in the local community, including constructing portable buildings to accommodate increasing class sizes, developing educational facilities for Hāna High and Elementary School and local nonprofits, as well as building ramps and railings for elders to support aging in place.

Graduate apprentice of the Hāna Build Program assists a student in making a jewelry box in Building & Construction class.

Mahale Farm

East Maui spans 145,000 acres of fertile land, characterized by volcanic soils and abundant sunlight and rainfall year-round. However, challenges such as biochemical operations, dust storms as well as an aging population have impacted agricultural productivity. 

In 2010, MKHKI established Mahele Farm with the aim of addressing these challenges and fostering community unity.

Graduate apprentice of Mahele Farm kneels amongst the rows of kale and lettuce, some of the few produce items that are distributed to volunteers and elders each week

“The idea of the community farm was that people would come and be able to work a little bit and take home produce that was harvested,” says Kahaleuahi. “Furthermore, it was a pathway to reintroduce some of our Hawaiian varieties of plants such as banana, taro, and sweet potato into our diets today.”

Through engaging in various tasks that encompass all facets of running an organic farm, students and apprentices acquire crucial skills for processing locally sourced foods from the land ('āina). The farm distributes 100% of its monthly yield of 2,000 pounds of produce, to those of Hana.

Mālama Hāloa

Kahaleuahi explains that beyond its function as a primary food source, the taro plant, referred to as “kalo” in Hana, is sacred in Hawaiian culture. Seen as the elder sibling of mankind, kalo encapsulates deep cultural meaning, symbolizing fertility, abundance and bonds to the land.

Young student pounds kalo at a community event using the traditional implements of the practice.

The Mālama Hāloa program was initiated in 2015 to offer students a culinary program centered around kalo cultivation and reviving the traditional practice of kuʻi, or hand-pounding kalo into poi. 

“We focus specifically on the stories that stem from this plant, our connection to it, and the cultural implements that are associated with this practice of growing and preparing this cultural food,” says Kahaleuahi.

Kahu ʻAi Pono

Then, in 2021, after years of incorporating food in various ways throughout its programs, it was time to officially develop a culinary pathway. In partnership with Hana High & Elementary School, MKHKI began to steward high school culinary classes in the same way as its foundational Hana Build Program had since the organization's inception. Now, youth learn culinary skills while preparing meals for their elders, snacks for the entire student body, and sometimes, for their community, under the tutelage of famed, local chefs from around the islands.

Students prepare a meal under the guidance of their teacher and guest chef, Kyle Kawakami, during their high school culinary class. Prepared meals such as this are also distributed to elders weekly.

“Our organization is comprised of people all intimately involved in the experiences we face as a community,” reflects Kahaleuahi. “We often share how we wish some of our programs and activities were around when we were in school! But that is what it is about: creating more opportunities for the next generation hoping that we’ll spark in them the willingness and capacity to carry the torch long after we are gone.”

Forging the Future of Hana

With a poverty rate of 25.4%, significantly higher than the state’s average of 10.2%, and a median household income of $51,188 compared to the state median of $92,458, Hana residents face economic challenges. Kahaleuahi finds it daunting to keep the native community thriving locally, acknowledging, “I can’t change everything and Ma Ka Hana Ka 'Ike can't solve everything.”

Nevertheless, Ma Ka Hana Ka 'Ike's efforts have been instrumental in supporting families dedicated to preserving cultural traditions and remaining in the region. The program has garnered millions of dollars to support programming at  Hana School, bolstering their operations, infrastructure, and staffing to cultivate favorable student outcomes. Moreover, the organization has witnessed its alumni choosing to stay in Hana, contributing as tradespeople, agriculturalists, farmers, construction workers, electricians, and artists.

The leadership at Ma Ka Hana Ka 'Ike intends to persist in ongoing discussions and exploration of strategies that empower Hana natives to thrive in the community.

“I think we have the opportunity to continue evolving to serve our community,” says Kahaleuahi. “We're constantly thinking of: ‘How can be better employers and continue to do our best to serve our community?’”

To support Indigenous innovators and community-based organizations like Ma Ka Hana Ka ‘Ike, get involved with Solve.

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