Hawaii Dean Works at Preserving Hawaiian Culture

Maenette K.P. Ah Nee-Benham is the inaugural dean of the Hawai‘inuiākea School of Hawaiian Knowledge at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa.Maenette K.P. Ah Nee-Benham is the inaugural dean of the Hawai‘inuiākea School of Hawaiian Knowledge at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa.The word kuleana is a Hawaiian word for responsibility, which Native Hawaiians feel toward their culture, the environment and each other. For Maenette K.P. Ah Nee-Benham, inaugural dean of the Hawai‘inuiākea School of Hawaiian Knowledge at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa (UHM), a strong sense of responsibility is what is driving her and her team as they work to not only preserve Hawaiian culture in the 21st century, but to also establish the Hawaiian nation as a pillar in higher education.

One of the great tragedies of Hawaiian colonization was the intentional undermining of indigenous education. Prior to colonization, natives communicated through oral traditions, but they were quick to embrace the written word when Christian missionaries introduced it in the 1820s. The first public education system was established by King Kamehameha III in 1840 and, at its apex, Hawaiian literacy was as high as 75 percent. But as the movement toward American annexation grew, occupiers viewed this as a threat. So, in 1896, an English-only law was imposed, banning the Hawaiian language from being taught in all schools. Native Hawaiians have struggled to recover ever since.

Educators and students have been at the forefront of the Hawaiian renaissance movement since its beginnings in the early 1970s. They’ve been able to keep the language and culture alive with the support of community leaders, elders and political allies. Most of the 20th century education battles fought and won occurred at the K-12 level, but progress in higher education has been much slower, notes Benham.

Today, Native Hawaiian enrollment in the University of Hawaiʻi system is roughly 15,000. At the flagship campus, UHM, Native Hawaiians are represented at levels comparable to their presence in the state population. But student retention remains an issue and the Native Hawaiian presence among faculty and staff remains well below parity.

“We have moved a distance, but we certainly are not there yet as a Hawaiian nation,” Benham says. “We’re still working to recover a lot that has been taken away.”

While her vision includes reclaiming traditional knowledge, Benham and her team are also looking forward.

“I want a 21st century Hawaiian nation,” she says, explaining that she envisions a nation that blends the best of the past with leading-edge experiences and skills of the digital age.

School’s influence grows

When the Hawai‘inuiākea (pronounced Hawaee-newi-akehya) School of Hawaiian Knowledge opened in 2007, it was the first new college at UHM in 25 years. It is the only college at a major U.S. research university dedicated to the instruction, research and advancement of indigenous knowledge.

Although the first Hawaiian language course taught at the university appeared in 1922, it wasn’t until 1985 that bachelor’s degree programs in Hawaiian language and Hawaiian studies achieved permanent status. Both programs are now part of the new college, which also includes a cultural garden and a Native Hawaiian student services program.

Within six years, the School of Hawaiian Knowledge’s influence has been felt throughout the UH system and in communities across the Hawaiian Islands, as well as among indigenous scholars around the globe. Native Hawaiian faculty numbers are rising throughout the UH system while a task force formed in 2011 to identify strategies for advancing Hawaiian scholarship at UHM delivered its first report in Feb. 2012. Benham — a Native Hawaiian who returned home from Michigan State University in 2008 — is no longer UHM’s only Native Hawaiian dean. A few of the other UHM colleges have even created Native Hawaiian diversity councils, and the new Ed.D. program has enrolled an inaugural cohort that is nearly 50 percent Native Hawaiian.

Dr. Donald Young, dean of the UHM College of Education, is reluctant to credit Hawai‘inuiākea for these developments. Efforts to advance Native Hawaiian education existed before the college opened, but he says those were never followed through. “The new college has brought focus and a focal point to Native Hawaiian issues,” he says. “It has created a visibility and a focus for everything from discussions to professional development [and] curriculum development.”

Dr. Francisco Guajardo, an associate professor of educational leadership at the University of Texas Pan-American, is a longtime Benham collaborator. He says what is going on at UHM is a critical part of nation-building that is “informed through research, advocacy, good teaching, and service.”

Guajardo says he has observed Benham and her team in various settings, including at the World Indigenous Peoples Conference on Education. “It is something to behold how Native Hawaiians are such leaders in the world indigenous movement,” he says. “This college has helped Hawaiians really up their game.”

Engaging community

Kapena Shim recently graduated from UHM with a master’s in library science. He now works as an academic librarian at Windward Community College. He says that while many academic librarians shun the idea of community engagement, he considers it a privilege.

“Librarians have a real obligation to help students find and share their stories,” he says. “It really is about empowerment.”

Ileana Ruelas and Nālani Balutski work in the college’s Native Hawaiian student services department. The UHM alumnae are not only using social science research to develop “indigenized” retention programs that work for their students, but they’re also making sure graduates are prepared to use education as a lever for change.

“We’re trying to create activists, critical-thinking students who [question] the role of race and ethnicities on structures of oppression,” says Balutski. “We’re very intentional about that approach.”

Benham believes strongly in the power of collective leadership. It’s why she convened a group of community-based organizations six years ago to explore how they might collaborate around their shared mission of increasing educational attainment. One result is the Makua series, a year-long exploration into genealogy, designed for families in the Wai’anae region of O’ahu. Now in its second session, and renamed Ohana, the series is coordinated by the college in cooperation with three nonprofits: INPEACE, MA‘O Organic Farms and Kamehameha Schools.

“Navigating the university system is not a part of everybody’s family experience,” says Kanoe Nāone, a UHM alumnae and chief executive of INPEACE. “The aspiration is there, but the actual follow-through is [for many] a big, scary process.”

The partnership with Hawai‘inuiakea is giving INPEACE families safe exposure to the university. It is also helping Nāone build relationships with other thought leaders in the community, which is yielding other projects. She views such collaboration as a welcome step toward increasing degree attainment among Native Hawaiians.

Kamuela Enos agrees. As director of social enterprise at MA’O Organic Farms, he uses traditional Hawaiian knowledge to teach K-12 students sustainable farming practices. His students, many of whom live in abject poverty, also learn to use 21st century marketing strategies to bring the farms’ yield to market — all while earning both a salary and college credit.

Dr. Matt Militello co-leads the educational leadership doctoral program at North Carolina State University. Once a student of Benham’s, he has collaborated with her on various projects for more than a decade and sees Hawai‘inuiakea as what might be a model for all of higher education, but especially for the revitalization of indigenous cultures and communities.

“I find it fascinating how [many institutions] are still struggling to live their mission of social justice,” he says.

With Hawai‘inuiakea in place, Militello says UH is no longer hiding from the historic injustices done to Hawaiians, or from the lingering inequities in the UH system.

“So they’re able to say, ‘This is who we are, this is who we want to be,’ and they have very specific pedagogies for how to get there,” Militello says. “It is one of few places I’ve been in that actually lives its mission. They don’t just say ‘This is what we’ll do.’ They actually do it.”