Returning Native Hawaiian Youth to Their Traditional Role as Community Caretakers

April 11, 2018
A Native Hawaiian youth uses a poi board to pound kalo into poi, a traditional staple food.

You know a program is succeeding when the participants and their families ask you to expand and offer more. That is the situation the Ma Ka Hana Ka ‘Ike (MKHKI) found itself in a year ago. MKHKI has been working with Native Hawaiian youth in the town of Hāna for 18 years now. Ma Ka Hana Ka ‘Ike means, “In Working, One Learns.” The program teaches students hands-on skills, such as carpentry and agriculture, that improve their understanding of academic subjects and helps them return to the traditional role of youth as caretakers for the community. One of the ways they do this is by pounding kalo (taro)—honored as Hāloa the elder brother of the Hawaiian people—into poi for their families. However, the students wanted to learn more about their traditional role in their own families and in the community.

That is when MKHKI proposed the Hoʽi Iā Hāloa project. Hoʽi Iā Hāloa would utilize intergenerational learning to build efficacy, instill cultural knowledge and skills, and develop leadership capacity in youth. The goal of the project is to give youth confidence as leaders and individuals who have the power to make a difference in the world around them. Hoʽi Iā Hāloa staff explained that the elements of the project came together organically and it is seen as a way for the community to rediscover their traditional path together.

This journey together includes intergenerational learning from cultural practitioners and elders, such as “Uncle” Ed Wendt and “Aunty” Mahealani Wendt. Uncle Ed is a lineal descendent of the kalo farmers of Wailua Nui. Youth help him farm to restore traditional farming patches and irrigation systems that had been overrun by invasive foreign species.

These patches will grow more of the kalo that is pounded into poi, a traditional staple food that is often imported today. The relationship between Native Hawaiians and kalo is evident in this project. The people see Hāloa as their elder sibling that sustains them. The kinship between the people of Hāna and kalo is reflected in the relationships being built on the pounding of poi. Some elders are eating hand-pounded poi for the first time in decades as students begin producing enough to share outside of their families. But this is only one example of how the project is already affecting the community for the better. With 52 out of 80 high school students participating and over 500 family members involved, the positive affect of this project is already being felt.

According to Kauwila Hanchett, MKHKI’s Development Director, youth participants are returning to their culture and traditions in a number of ways and encourage others to do so as well. Men and boys have begun to wear malo, or loincloths, again as they traditionally wore; in one example, a participating student found his great-grandfather’s aged poi board and refurbished it so he could pound poi at home. More students are following his lead, bringing back poi pounding as a daily practice of the household. Youth are arriving at locations where help is needed without being asked, such as the traditional kalo patches. Overall, according to Kauwila, the community has a better view of its youth than before and those youth have more confidence in themselves.

Moving forward, the Hoʽi Iā Hāloa will continue with its current activities, such as weekly poi pounding, poi board carving, and farming with Uncle Ed. However, it will also focus on youth serving as peer mentors as they graduate from school and the program. The hope is to restore participants’ connection to their intuitive sense of knowing and help them on their path.

The MKHKI staff view youth as caretakers of community and keepers of cultural heritage, as opposed to at-risk or in need of help, which they believe is important to their approach. Seeing youth is important, they said: “Don’t see youth as the ones needing help but as the help who can uplift community and care for the community’s most vulnerable citizens.” It seems that is just what the students in Hoʽi Iā Hāloa are doing.