To Teach in Hawai'i, Educators Must Honor Indigenous Land

Voices | Diversity and Equity

To Teach in Hawai'i, Educators Must Honor Indigenous Land

By Kauakanilehua Adams     Sep 20, 2021

To Teach in Hawai'i, Educators Must Honor Indigenous Land

This story was published by a Voices of Change fellow. Learn more about the fellowship here.

My land tells stories, this I’ve known since I was a little girl.

On my way to work at Kealakehe High School, I see the sky and ocean meld into one monstrous mass of blue to my left and a wall of the invasive, dark green Monstera shoots on my right. I drive from my home up mauka, meaning “towards the mountains,” in South Kona where the rain pours heavy.

As I get into town, north of where things aren’t as wet and green, I take a right. I turn off Hawai'i Belt Road and go past the gym that used to be a bookstore that used to be an empty lot that used to be the remnants of a centuries-old lava flow. As I get onto Ane Keohokalole Highway, I practice saying the name out loud to myself, thinking about my father scolding me if he could hear me butchering the pronunciation. People jog along the road as the stadium lights of our football field come into view. I notice the same people every day at this time of the morning. In this small community, familiar faces are a given.

At the corner of Puohulihuli (I practice this name too, and I am pleased with how easily it rolls off my tongue), I turn up the hill between the sprawling high school campus and the protected lot where the school was originally supposed to be built. The plot of land doesn’t seem like much at first glance. A tangle of growth is kept in by a fence. Thin branches reach out through the cracks. Small signs posted state in bold letters: KAPU NO TRESPASSING.

Kapu, a word for something sacred, forbidden, and holy. It brings back a story told to me a few years ago before I even stepped foot on campus. A story about the place where the school was supposed to be until rare native plants were found before construction. This brought the entire project to a halt and the new school that everyone wanted could no longer be built as planned.

One of the plant species found was the wahine noho kula, “the woman dwelling in the plains.” It would take a powerful woman indeed to bring such an endeavor to a complete standstill. 'Āina, meaning “that which feeds,” is a Hawaiian word commonly used to talk about the land. The word has always held immense weight for me as a Native Hawaiian. It is the land that connects me to my history, my ancestors, and my culture. It gives me life and I am fortunate to see this cherished admiration for the land in my students.

I often ask them what it is they do outside of school and their answers almost always center around the land. Diving, fishing, hunting, soaking up the sun on the beach, and exploring past the end of trails—my students do not just love this land, they are a part of it.

This concept of a deep and resounding connection to the land has always come naturally to me. However, I have realized that educators who do not identify as either kama‘āina (born and raised) or Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) are often missing the key connection that is imperative to a culturally sustaining classroom on indigenous land.

As a Kanaka Maoli educator, I have come to the conclusion that those teaching on Indigenous lands such as Hawai'i have an obligation to educate themselves on the history of the land they stand on and the people whom they’ve come to educate.

Teachers Must Do the Work

The position of a teacher in the classroom is one of power. It is needed and necessary for all educators to consider their own privilege and implicit biases, but especially non-Indigenous educators in Hawai'i. Educators must adapt their teaching pedagogy to be cognizant of the importance of cultural and personal connection to the land. This effort must be self-directed, earnest and humble.

This is more than texts from kama‘āina and Kanaka Maoli writers to replace Shakespeare and Austen, and changing “Sara bought six apples” to “Kainoa bought six mangoes” is not the rich, culturally-sustaining curriculum your students deserve. It requires educators to completely rethink the ways we engage our students in the learning process.

  • Seek knowledge through community members, especially when incorporating Indigenous knowledge in your classroom. In Hawai'i, our kupuna, “elders,” are the most cherished people in our community. We look to them for guidance, knowledge and wisdom that is almost always grounded in the story. Sometimes the most important thing a non-Indigenous educator can do is realize that certain things are better said by trusted community members such as kupuna or even other kama‘āina/Kanaka Maoli educators. Some stories are not for you to tell.
  • Use the resources available to you. The Hawai'i Department of Education put out a comprehensive learning framework called Nā Hopena A‘o. This is a framework created to help educators guide their students in social-emotional learning and academic rigor while grounding in place. However, I have noticed that few teachers take the steps necessary to implement this framework in the classroom. Utilize the resources envisioned and created by kama‘āina/Kanaka Maoli educators.
  • Step back from centering the classroom around you. Recognize the oppressive systems at play and move forward with your students beside you rather than behind you. You can center your classroom around mo'olelo, “story,” by having students participate in an actual conversation about the skills, lessons, concepts and texts that they engage within the class. Break the barrier between you at the front of the room and them at the back. Have students face each other and allow them to speak candidly in pairs, groups and whole-class seminars. While they do this, you should task yourself with becoming the respectful observer, the active listener, the learner. They know more than you do about this place and these people and that’s OK. Your students are the authentic leaders of their community, and it is your job to nurture that.

Administrators Have an Obligation, Too

It is not only those teaching in the classroom, but school and district administrators that must take it upon themselves to provide opportunities for their educators to have meaningful, kama‘āina/Kanaka Maoli-led professional development that engages educators to think critically about the space they take upon this land.

I have found that place-based learning for educators is the best way to start fostering a cultural connection and understanding that can lead to a collective change of breaking down and indigenizing education. In my time as a teacher, I have seen more and more opportunities for educators to do just that. Here on Hawai’i island, there is a professional development course called Kia'i ʻĀina Kualoloa. It is a year-long course for educators to gain ancestral knowledge and apply that in their classrooms. However, these opportunities are often introduced by word of mouth or shuttered away in the massive catalog of professional development available.

In order for this change to occur, place-based professional development that targets non-kama‘āina/Kanaka Maoli educators must be brought to the forefront and highly encouraged, if not required, both at the school and district levels. Many non-indigenous educators do not even realize this is something they should take part in, so it is the responsibility of the administrators to make sure their faculty engage in that work.

Teaching in Hawai'i means teaching on Indigenous land. It means teaching on land that has been taken piece by piece, plot by plot. It means facing the truth of its history and not shying away from it.

Through these practices, you can experience the joy of learning the language of the land through your students and using your power to elevate their voices. It is an opportunity to unabashedly challenge the system by pushing back and rising up.

In Hawai’i, a place I’m fortunate to call home, honoring Indigenous land means teaching where a little plant, that no one even knew was there, could bring the world around it to a stop.

My land tells stories and I urge you to listen.

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