Giving Sanctuary, Nurturing a Tradition of Nationhood

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Kekipi and Osborne, co-directors, developed the Pu’ala’a Cultural Education Center in rural Pahoa, Hawaii as a safe space for youth to explore and celebrate their Native Hawaiian culture and history while rebuilding the notion of the village.

Keikialoha “Keiki” Kekipi co-directs Ho’oulu Lahui, a grassroots educational and development organization on the Big Island of Hawaii. Co-directors are unusual in our sector but in this case, the leadership structure reflects one of the core characteristics of this effort—the connecting of complementary elements to make a whole. Keiki’s partner in the effort, Susie Osborne sees herself as the more linear thinker of the two—“Keiki is legally blind and deaf,” she says, “but he is the visionary.”

From the outside, however, the two leaders appear equally passionate and committed—equally focused on the vision of a more sustainable Hawaii that flows from the cultural values and traditions of the place and its people. Their major effort right now is building a charter school on the site of Pu’ala’a, an ancient Hawaiian village—and dealing with the plethora of regulations they must address to open a school and cultural center on a protected site.

Hawaii means “the breath on which spirit resides.” Keiki asks, “What does that mean to you?” I answer that it would mean to me that we have to be attentive to the sacredness of all things. He goes on to tell me his story because in Hawaii there is a tradition of “talking story” to achieve understanding.

In the story that Keiki tells, about ten years ago he was working with a group of adjudicated youth in a park adjacent to the area on which the school will be sited. The young people noticed police vans parked by the side of the road and urged Keiki to go see what was going on. Keiki obliged and found that the police were removing human bones from the area as a part of a possible homicide investigation. Keiki was immediately concerned because to remove bones from where they are buried is a serious desecration. “Not even kings would be allowed to do this, yeah?” Protecting ancestral bones from such desecration is part of the concept of taking “rightful care” of the things around you.

This can be a very difficult endeavor in Hawaii, where the destruction of local resources and violation of cultural norms as a result of colonization and subsequent over-development has a long history. Native Hawaiians, now a small portion of the population, have been marginalized economically and, in many ways, socially as well. One way in which we can see this destruction, violation and marginalization in action, Keiki points out, is by looking at the schools. In the schools there is a program called the Comprehensive Student Alienation Program (CSAP), which is almost entirely populated by native Hawaiians—young people, Keiki asserts, who have different learning styles than is attended to in classroom-based learning.

The irony of all these native Hawaiians being segregated in this way does not escape Keiki who has spent much of his adult life working with young people. “If you think about it,” he observes, “it’s kind of ironic: a program that’s designed to alienate students…comprehensively, yeah?”

“It is a special oxymoron for us,” he says, “because Hawaii is so all embracing and inclusive. In this area alone we are a very mixed group with different cultures, classes and styles—but there are universal values that we must all hold together to make it work.”
“If people don’t feel included they feel excluded” he explains, “and then they get fractious ways of thinking, yeah? This is not good when we are talking about creating a society of civic-minded people.”

Back to Keiki’s story and the land that he was repeatedly and irresistibly drawn to: further exploration of the overgrown area revealed that not only was it the site of an authentic, ancient Hawaiian village, Keiki’s family had actually lived in this village. And that the bones originally discovered were of a pu’huonua—a wise elder to whom one could turn for
sanctuary and redemption.

This word, pu’huonua can apply to a person “like your grandmother who could save you from punishment” or a place. “In the olden days,” Keiki explains, “when you broke a law, it might be punishable by death, so if you made it to one of these places, a pu’uhonua, you could make restitution, redeem yourself and return to the community.” In this way ties that were broken were mended and those who fell out of community could make their way back in through making valued contributions to the community.

Keiki describes their shared vision for the whole project, including the school, as creating a pu’uhonua—a place of safety or sanctuary. The theme of sanctuary and redemption is extended to the families of students working on the site as well as to the work-release prisoners from a nearby minimum security facility.

But, getting back to the putting together of complementary things, this emphasis on ancient values is augmented by a contemporary curriculum for the students who are at the site. Using what Osborne calls “non-intrusive techniques to stabilize the 40-acre village,” students and community volunteers engage in hands-on mapping of the site using archeological, anthropological, botanical, and environmental science.” The knowledge gained through these endeavors can be at the university level but the learning is all grounded in the experiential. Students and others are engaged in “bringing the village back to life, particularly exploring economic development and cultural opportunities. In the process, Native Hawaiian students are learning their own cultural protocols, including the proper way of being at the village,” she notes. This includes the development of a sense of themselves as “hosts” responsible for the “rightful care” of their place.

“Our aspiration is for the youth to know who they are and from whence they came,” adds Keiki, whose first name, Keikialoha, means “beloved child.” He adds, “If the youth can know that they’re the hosts, they can begin acting like hosts, instead of being labeled and inhibited, and they can make things better for the community, yeah?”

“Rather than continue the ‘aspirin approach’ of working with CSAP students one or two days a week for a few hours,” Keiki explains, “we decided to work with the community to provide a more continuous experience outside of the formal public school structure.”

Nevertheless, Kekepi and Osborne are working feverishly to open the Kua O Ka La public charter school for grades six through eight by August of 2002. “We want to be a model school,” Osborne says. “Our curriculum is culturally-driven and technologically rigorous so our kids can walk in both worlds comfortably.”

Already a founding member of Na Lei Nauao, a statewide alliance of 12 Native Hawaiian public charter schools, Ho’oulu Lahui is currently investigating options for international collaboration and cultural exchanges with similar school-based programs in the Pacific region and the Caribbean.

“It’s so difficult being a nonprofit, there are so many challenges; people talk of burnout factors, the high turnover rate for staff and executive directors,” Osborne admits. “But for us, this not just a job, it’s a life’s work, a place to invest our passion.”
“People ask me, ‘when you going to retire?’ Retire,” Keiki laughs. “In this work it’s ‘when I get this done, what’s next then,’ yeah?”