(c) Copyright 2003 - 2004, Kenneth R. Conklin, Ph.D. All rights reserved

What follows is a discussion of some specific issues related to theories of a "deep culture" passed from generation to generation of ethnic Hawaiians by means of both genetics and enculturation. A theory of Hawaiian epistemology put forward by Manulani Aluli Meyer is briefly described, because it was created with a view toward justifying a need for racial separatism in education and racial control of the political power structure including the public school system. For a more wide-ranging, general explanation of the theory of indigenous intellectual property rights, and how that theory is (mis)applied in Hawai'i, see
Indigenous Intellectual Property Rights -- The General Theory, and Why It Does Not Apply in Hawai’i

Part of a claim to be indigenous includes a claim that the group has greater rights than the individual. The theory is that all persons sharing the same ancestry as members of an indigenous group have certain tribal rights and responsibilities carried through their veins in their blood. Those rights and responsibilibilities are both political and spiritual. They include carrying the weight as well as the wisdom of all previous and future generations. When an indigenous person speaks about sacred matters, his ancestors from thousands of generations are listening, providing guidance, and passing judgment; and his words have an effect on thousands of future generations.

Along with the concept of group rights and responsibilities is the concept of a “deep culture.” It is believed that the accumulated tribal knowledge and wisdom of all previous generations is carried through the blood, so that even if someone has only a small percentage of blood quantum from a particular tribe, he nevertheless has a full measure of the tribal heritage. Part of that heritage is a set of values for living, and a set of ways of learning and knowing. Part of that heritage is a set of cultural symbols, stories, and myths.

Hawaiian sovereignty activists would like to believe that ethnic Hawaiians are an indigenous people. They often deliberately choose to participate in certain activities which are not customary for those individuals, hoping to recover the indigeneity of a long-distant past when those activities were spontaneous parts of daily life. Sovereignty activists invent and assert differences between ethnic Hawaiians and others, for the political purpose of claiming special “indigenous rights” and the political power those rights might convey.

By contrast with other truly indigenous people, it is clear that ethnic Hawaiians are not truly indigenous. Some of them would like to be. Some of them try hard. But they simply do not qualify. See:

Earlier it was stated that “deep culture” or heritage includes a set of values for living, a set of ways of learning and knowing, and a set of cultural symbols, stories, and myths.

If there is indeed a “deep culture” for ethnic Hawaiians, its set of values would perhaps be best described in the book by George Kanahele entitled “Ku Kanaka.” This webpage will not attempt to summarize that book or that set of values. But Mr. Kanahele himself stated in his book that modern Hawaiians have grown away from those values, to such an extent that the values no longer describe the people. Of course, the people might try to recapture the values. But then the values would be artificially adopted rather than spontaneously acquired through upbringing.

If there is indeed a “deep culture” for ethnic Hawaiians, its set of ways of learning and knowing has been very poorly defined until recently. An ethnic Hawaiian Ed.D. candidate at Harvard completed her doctoral dissertation circa 2000, and claims to have discovered (or begun to discover) the Native Hawaiian ways of learning, knowing, and explaining. Manulani Aluli Meyer used an “indigenous” way of interviewing kupuna (elderly and highly respected Hawaiians) to find out from them how ethnic Hawaiians think. These ways of thinking are claimed to be radically different from the ways “Westerners” think. Accordingly, Professor Meyer claims that ethnic Hawaiian children need special forms of teaching and classroom management because the blood flowing through their brains and their na’au (gut or heart) makes them have an innately different learning style. Thus spiritual and epistemological claims are used to assert a political right to racial separatism in the educational system. And indeed, Professor Meyer’s work has been cited by the authors of legislation to establish an apartheid “native” public education system. See:

Professor Meyer published a very lengthy article describing her findings: “OUR OWN LIBERATION: REFLECTIONS ON HAWAIIAN EPISTEMOLOGY” The Contemporary Pacific 13.1 (2001) 124-148. Her article is available on the internet, but only by special subscription, at

Lengthy excerpts are provided at the end of this section of this webpage so that readers can get the flavor of what she says. A more thorough exploration of Dr. Meyer’s theory of Hawaiian epistemology and its implications for education can be found at the following webpage:

Here is the abstract Dr. Meyer wrote as a summary of her article:

Abstract: As the Hawaiian political and cultural movement continues to grow, issues of representation, power, and control are being critiqued--now by Hawaiian minds. In this essay I look at the fundamentals of Hawaiian epistemology and begin to link them with the educational reform now underway in Hawai'i. With the guidance of twenty mentors, I outline seven epistemological categories that begin to solidify a distinct way in which to view teaching, learning, intellect, and rigor. These categories, now struggling to be useful in the Hawaiian Charter School movement, will inevitably also serve as a way to critique the current colonial system in Hawaiian language immersion, spotlight the oppression embedded in well-meant content and performance standards, and highlight the hidden curriculum of assimilation and the acultural assumptions in pedagogy that exist in Hawai'i's colonial schools. This outline of a Hawaiian philosophy of knowledge expands, invigorates, and redefines ideas of empiricism, intellectual rigor, and knowledge priorities--all through Hawaiian ontological lenses. Like any definition of culture put forth by indigenous practitioners and scholars, it pushes the envelope of what it means to think, exist, and struggle as a nonmainstream "other," and as it details the liberation found in identity, it must also, inevitably, outline the systems that deter its full blossoming.

If there is indeed a “deep culture” for ethnic Hawaiians, its set of cultural symbols, stories, and myths would certainly include akua symbols (carved wooden images of the gods, and drawings or paintings of such images or of ancient petroglyph images of the gods. Occasionally an artist with no Hawaiian ancestry will create such carvings or drawings, and will be told it is inappropriate to do so. However, artists who have Hawaiian ancestry are never criticized for making such images, even though they may be criticized for their lack of artistic skill.

The question arises whether ethnic Hawaiians have a legal or moral right to allow or prohibit certain artistic or literary expressions. Can ethnic Hawaiians as a racial group somehow legally prohibit non-Hawaiian artists from carving or drawing an akua image? Even if people of no native ancestry cannot be prevented from creating literary or artistic works based on Hawaiian culture, perhaps the “real” Hawaiians can have a trademark so that purchasers can choose to spend their money on “genuine” Hawaiian products. Some sort of Hawaiian institution would be authorized to license the trademark to “native practitioners.” Such a trademark would allow ethnic Hawaiians to exercise racial control over a portion of the lucrative tourist market. Tourists who want a genuine, authentic Native Hawaiian work of art could look for the trademark and might be willing to pay substantially higher prices for such “authentic” items.

The problem is that some of the core parts of the “deep culture” cannot be trademarked or otherwise racially restricted. Or can they? That was the topic of the Native Hawaiian Intellectual Propertry Rights Conference, October 3-5, 2003, at the Waikiki Beach Mariott Resort. The conference was organized by 'Ilio'ulaokalani. 150 participants each paid a fee of $300.00 (includes a T-shirt). The program included several professors and attorneys discussing such topics as how to use U.S. laws to protect cultural knowledge, cultural expressions, and biodiversity, and how to prevent “bioprospecting” (presumably that includes scientists collecting blood samples or DNA in order to map the biological and molecular characteristics of Hawaiian geneology). The complete program schedule can be seen at:

In July of 2003 a big controversy exploded when it became known that a movie about the life of Kamehameha the Great is being created. The role of Kamehameha will be played by Dwayne Johnson, also known as “The Rock.” The problem is that although he is very strong and sexy and handsome, he has no Hawaiian ancestry (he is half Samoan and half African-American). And the movie producer has no Hawaiian blood. And the writer has no Hawaiian blood. So the Hawaiian activists launched bitter attacks against the movie, saying it should be cancelled until the writers, producers, and stars are all ethnically Hawaiian, and until the Center for Hawaiian Studies can make sure the script is politically correct. It seems possible -- even likely -- that the conference on intellectual property rights was organized in response to the announcement of this movie.

Here are excerpts from three newspaper articles about this controversy:


Honolulu Star-Bulletin, July 4, 2002, excerpts

According to the writer of "Kamehameha," starring Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, the upcoming film production is a train already on the tracks. But at least one Hawaiiana scholar is already working to derail it.

Lilikala Kame'eleihiwa, director of the Gladys K. 'Ainoa Brandt Center for Hawaiian Studies at the University of Hawaii, met with screenwriter Greg Poirier two weeks ago to discuss the project, and this week emailed him a response that was then distributed over the UH email network.

Poirier contacted Kame'eleihiwa after receiving the email, which read, "I must ask that you NOT continue with the project. Please stop writing today," wrote Kame'eleihiwa. "What you are doing will result in hewa" -- the Hawaiian word for mistake or error.

"For Hawaiians it is not acceptable that Hollywood should be allowed to misrepresent the history of our ancestors in any way. Nor do we want Hollywood's warped sense of 'Hawaiiana' portrayed to the world.

"The story of Kamehameha should wait for a culturally knowledgeable Hawaiian to write the screen play, for a Hawaiian movie company to make the film, and for a Hawaiian descendant of Kamehameha to play the role," continued Kame'eleihiwa ... "you don't believe Hawaiians should have the final say over the telling of our history. You think you have the right to make money off of us, off of our culture and those things we hold sacred. You do not have this right. The saga of Kamehameha is Hawaiian intellectual property, guaranteed by the United Nations, and if you have any respect for Hawaiians you will stop your project now."

Those who believe that if Poirier stops writing the movie will not be made are mistaken, the screenwriter told the Star-Bulletin. There is no copyright on historical fact. Although Poirier said he can understand Hawaiian concerns, "all I can do to assuage them is continue researching and being as faithful as I can be, given the limits of a screenplay," said Poirier. "I've gotten many positive responses from the Hawaiian community as well, by the way. If I leave, I'll just be replaced by someone who may not care as much about historical accuracy or cultural sensitivity as I am.

"This movie is being made; that's the bottom line. If some people don't agree with certain aspects of it, I respect that and understand their point of view, and they'll do what they feel they have to do. "But thinking that by complaining that Kamehameha's story won't be told is unrealistic. If any historical figure is in the public domain, (Kamehameha) is it."



The Honolulu Weekly, July 10, 2002, parody of Kamehameha movie screenplay by Anne Keala Kelly. Excerpts.

Haolewood: The Last Epidemic -- A screenplay

SLOW FADE — SOUNDS of birds and the hum of distant traffic.

KEALA (voiceover) There’s an old story about a kid trapped in a room full of shit. When they open the door he’s happily digging around and laughing. They ask him what he’s doing and he says, "With all this shit I figure there’s gotta be a pony in here somewhere." Well, I can relate. I figure, The Rock playing King Kamehameha … there’s a comedy in here somewhere. I just have to dig around a bit.

THE ROCK Yeah, I like the idea of playing a real King ... as you know, I was the Scorpion King, but I’m sensitive to the racial and cultural issues in Hawai‘i. I wouldn’t want to offend anybody.

HAOLE SCREENWRITER #1 Okay, Rock, I know you’re not Hawaiian, but the way I see it you’re Samoan and African and that’s close enough. All of us — even a white guy like me — are descended from Africans at some point, and Samoa’s another Pacific island chain just like Hawai‘i. Hey, you know, I heard that your people are the master race of Polynesia and Hawaiians aren’t technically a race of people anyway. And with your wrestling prowess and experience as the Scorpion King, this picture could very well have Academy Award written all over it.

THE ROCK Uh, please don’t flatter me. I already have a wife.

Producer #14 laughs like a hyena. Haole Screenwriter #1 and The Rock look at him, frightened by the sound.

HAOLE SCREENWRITER #1 I’m not saying this to flatter you. I worked with Ving Rhames — I know how to write for people of color. You saw the awards last year. The African Americans took it. You’re a shoo-in — you have Polynesia and Africa covered. They’ll eat you up.


KEALA sits down on the sofa. KEALA (voiceover) When "The Rock" announced his intentions to play King Kamehameha in an upcoming Sony production being written by Greg Poirier, I had to sit down for the news. The plague, the final solution to the Hawaiian problem, had arrived in the form of a haole screenwriter from Maui and a Samoan/African wrestler from Kalihi. Go figure.

KEALA (voiceover cont.) I’m a writer and a filmmaker working on stories, articles and films that feature Hawaiians as subjects, not objects or trivialized cartoon characters. I am Hawaiian and haole, and, having spent most of my life in Los Angeles and gone through film school there, I can say that often I feel like I’m walking in two worlds: haole and Hawaiian, filmmaker and Hawaiian filmmaker —but wait, that’s four worlds. Anyway, anyone who’s ever made a film — large or small, good or bad — knows that it’s a struggle with elements most people don’t think about. There’s the script and everything that goes into it. Then there’s the money, and no one ever wants to part with that. And the "lucky" ones have the Hollywood machine backing the project. Sometimes they get it right, and you have a piece of filmmaking that changes your life, like Schindler’s List or Malcolm X. And other times you end up with a tired, deeply disturbing treatment of native people like Windtalkers, a story about how a white guy saved an Indian during WWII. That’s rich, white people saving Indians. And of course, in return the Indians helped save the great white American way with their mother tongue. Does it get anymore psychologically fucked up than that?


Considering the coming pestilence, knowing none of us Hawaiians is inoculated against the new colonial madness that will soon be upon us, I think about the other planned film about Kamehameha from North Shore Pictures Entertainment that will compete with the giant Sony Pictures film, and it occurs to me that two American companies are going to fight over the last piece of Hawai‘i that is not yet occupied by America: the Hawaiian identity and all the stories and legends associated with it. Then I think about Lilo & Stitch. Pukui & Ebert’s definition of the word "lilo" reads: to accrue, be lost, pass into the possession of, be gone ... purchased, taken; or as poet Ku‘ualoha Hoomanawanui says, "It means to pass into the possession of the government." Although it’s been pointed out that no Hawaiian person would ever name their child something with such negative connotations (because to a real Hawaiian, to do so would invoke some real-life consequences), it does sort of make sense that two haole filmmakers would use that word for the name of a female Hawaiian cartoon character. And let’s not leave out that the new Bruce Willis film shooting on O‘ahu has chosen Ali‘iölani Hale to double as a Nigerian presidential palace. It’s rumored that the statue of Kamehameha will stand in for a West African king, although the production company denies it. Those few of us who actually work in this medium know that despite the fact that we are outnumbered by every other ethnicity and overwhelmed by odds that are steep even for white men in the industry, we still have the kuleana of culture. That is something the Hollywood machine is not accountable to. Things are scary these days: It’s like the illegal overthrow, only now we have to contend with the overthrow of our identity.

Haunani-Kay Trask, Professor of Hawaiian Studies, UH Mänoa

"Hawaiian leaders should say it’s wrong, so our people know what the position is. This sort of film reveals the predatory nature of Hollywood. We can’t support it by participating in it. Really, the larger question is about the prostitution of Hawaiian culture. If we extend that to film, we are the people whose culture is used to make money. Any argument that rationalizes helping them do this film only facilitates the other side. Just because they are going through with it doesn’t mean you collaborate. The Rock is a very good-looking man, but that’s not the point. It’s a representation issue. He’s not Hawaiian."

Lilikala Kame‘eleihiwa, Director of the Center for Hawaiian Studies, UH Mänoa

"I don’t want bad relations between Samoans and Hawaiians, and I would like to ask Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson to withdraw from doing this role. [Screenwriter] Greg Poirier contacted me about consulting on historical aspects of his script, and I agreed to meet. He paid me, but it was for a two-hour consultation. He’s made a lot of headway with that consultation, using it as a stamp of approval. But I told him he is going to have challenges because King Kamehameha is a sacred chief and the intellectual property of the Hawaiian people, and that Hawaiians are outraged that a Samoan is going to play him. Polynesians are not all the same: Are the French and Russians the same? Greg was honest when we met. He said that after he writes the script it will go to the studio and they will do what they want, and he won’t be surprised if they change it. I suggested that they may want to get elders from the Samoan community to ask descendants of Kamehameha for permission to tell this story and Greg’s response was, ‘What if they say no?’ I don’t think Hollywood has the right to make this movie. Hawaiians should tell this story."

Ku‘ualoha Hoomanawanui, Poet, Instructor of Hawaiian Literature and Graduate Student, UH Mänoa

"When I read that The Rock is going to play this role, I flipped. I had just returned from New Zealand where I had conversations with Maori about who has it worse in media, us or them. And coming on the heels of Lilo & Stitch? Now that’s a horrifying film. Lilo is a violent, lazy girl who lies and then hits a haole kid within the first five minutes of the story. We want to believe that America is the land of equal opportunity, but what it really means is that everything is for the taking. If Sony is going to do this film they should admit that they just want to make money, which is no different than hotels in Waikïkï. The Rock should know better. How can the Samoan community support this film?"

Paul Kealoha Blake, President of East Bay Media Center, Berkeley, Calif.

"For me there are two issues. One is the exploitation of Hawaiian culture, and the other one is that you have a multimillion-dollar production coming into town, and they will hire a Hawaiian grip and a couple of Hawaiian extras, call it a day, and then hire people from Hollywood. I’ve seen it in the Native American community. These companies exploit the themes and environments that are Hawaiian and leave the Hawaiians with nothing. I think this is one element of a lot of different things that are happening. It’s as though the lawsuits have made it perfectly OK to do this. The mass media are a nebulous state; they have such a voracious appetite. It would be easy for the general public to say, ‘What’s the big deal? It’s just a story.’"

Jon Osorio, Associate Professor of Hawaiian Studies, UH Mänoa

"What concerns me is that there is no way in the world they are going to present the story in ways that are meaningful to Hawaiians. The screenwriter said it will be the Hawaiian Braveheart. Our story is nothing like that. It isn’t even close. The damage may be in whether or not this film will affect the way we see our own culture. We need to make our stories, and, until we do that, we are going to be victimized by Hollywood, which is no different than any other global industry. I’d like to see people talk about the creation of a Native Hawaiian film company. Maybe this film will convince people that we have to come together and do this."

Noenoe Silva, Assistant Professor of Political Science, UH Mänoa

"My worry is that one of the most important stories to our people is being done by individuals who only have shallow understanding. The screenwriter is from Maui, but his mind is not Hawaiian. And when a studio gets a hold of the script, they will know even less. Kamehameha uniting the islands was not about fear of American or English onslaught; Hawaiians were working out their own stuff in their world. Already, the screenplay gives the outside world all the power, and our story is suddenly not our story. The impact of this links up with all the other problems we have. Our history is taught through foreign eyes, and we and our children are forced to confront the lack of knowledge as if it is truth."


Kamehameha’s army charges one last time up the Pali.

CU: A weary, but determined Kamehameha, his hands and arms stained by the colors of battle, looks upon the last of the O‘ahu warriors. He takes in a chest full of air and shouts, "I MUA!" then proceeds with his army, forcing the warriors over the cliff. He walks slowly to the edge and casts his eyes down upon a victory that feels so hollow now, and in that moment he glimpses his future, the future of all Hawaiians, and knows he will again have to ready himself for battle.

JOHN YOUNG [played by Brad Pitt], wipes the sweat from his brow and climbs up to where Kamehameha is standing. Young puts his hand on his shoulder.

CUT TO: END TITLES OVER crimson sun setting on the Ko‘olau. The dusky color silhouettes the mountain range and the word HAOLEWOOD appears on the ridges.



The Honolulu Advertiser, July 26, 2002 letter to editor, excerpts

Hawaiians, Samoans one people

Recent remarks by Haunani Kay-Trask, Lilikala Kame'eleihiwa and some of their colleagues about Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson playing King Kamehameha are not worth honoring with a reply.

Trask and Kame'eleihiwa can proclaim whatever they want, but scientific and cultural evidence indicates that my Hawaiian cousins came from Samoa, where they were created from "papa," literally and ironically translated as "the rock," by Tagaloa, our native Atua.

I would like to point out as evidence findings from the Lapita pottery, the cultural heritage of King Kamehameha in Kohala, the legends of Pa'ao and Pili, and early settlement at places like 'Upolu Point in Ka'u on the island of Hawai'i, or Savai'i as we call it.

I do not claim to be Hawaiian, nor do I wish to become one. I am Samoan and very proud and comfortable with it. But I am disappointed that Trask and a relatively young generation of Hawaiian scholars are manipulating our common Polynesian ancestral heritage in an effort to advance their own collective political cause.

I am of the opinion that all of us, be it Samoan, Hawaiian, Maori or Tahitian, have a moral obligation to teach our young people the truth about our common ancestral heritage. Our heritage is the one thread that has held us together as a people.

If Hawaiian leaders could summon the courage to re-examine the evidence and learn more about the facts, young people might not have to resort to "self-proclamation" in order to carve a new identity for themselves. Because strong "self-evidence" indicates Samoans, Hawaiians, Maoris and their Polynesian cousins are one people.

Aumugaolo Ropeti Ale
Samoan matai and UH graduate
Toamua, Independent State of Samoa


Earlier in this webpage it was mentioned that Professor Manulani Aluli Meyer published a very lengthy article describing her Ed.D. dissertation findings about Hawaiian epistemology. The article was: “OUR OWN LIBERATION: REFLECTIONS ON HAWAIIAN EPISTEMOLOGY” The Contemporary Pacific 13.1 (2001) 124-148. Her article is available on the internet, but only by special subscription, at

Below are excerpts from that article. A more thorough exploration of Dr. Meyer’s theory of Hawaiian epistemology and its implications for education can be found at the following webpage:


** The remainder of this webpage consists of excerpts from Dr. Meyer’s article in “The Contemporary Pacific” journal:**

But will it also be thought strange that education and knowledge of the world have enabled us to perceive that as a race we have some special mental and physical requirements not shared by the other races which have come among us? (Queen Lili'uokalani, 1898)

The truth is, Hawaiians were never like the people who colonized us. If we wish to understand what is unique and special about who we are as cultural people, we will see that our building blocks of understanding, our epistemology, and thus our empirical relationship to experience is fundamentally different. 3 We simply see, hear, feel, taste, and smell the world differently. As I shall show in this essay, these differences are neither subtle nor imaginary, but large and enduring. It continues to amaze me that we have survived the carbon monocultural poisoning of our back-seat schooling vehicle.

Enter the discussion of epistemology. It is not a new discussion but because of the political times it has become the hotbed of academic discourse. It is the sword against anthropological arrogance and the shield against philosophical universalisms. How one knows, indeed, what one prioritizes with regard to this knowing, ends up being the stuffing of identity, the truth that links us to our distinct cosmologies, and the essence of who we are as Oceanic people. It is a discussion of place and genealogy. It is a way to navigate the shores of what is worth knowing and it is particularly important as we enter the new millennium where information will no longer be synonymous with knowledge, but rather how that information helps us maintain our sense of community in the daily chaos of access and information overload.

Hawaiian epistemology is a long-term idea that is both ancient and modern, central and marginalized. It is a distinct feature of our culture that cannot easily be distinguished from the fabric it is sewn into. It shifts, it is metamorphosed, it is changed by time and influence. It is constant.

Epistemological Theme 1: Spirituality and Knowledge
The Cultural Contexts of Knowledge

Most of the Hawaiian educators I listened to spoke of where their inspiration of knowing something flowed from. This theme of spirituality was, by far, the largest of all seven categories. Inevitably, every mentor spoke of and lingered in this arena of how knowledge is affected, drawn from, and shaped by spiritual forces. These forces include environment, family members long passed, God, the many gods, and 'aumakua (ancestors).

"The domains of experience (body-centric) are conditioned by our relationship with gods. The spirituality and conduct between gods and humans is part of knowledge" (Rubellite Kawena Johnson, 11 April 1997). This theme culls from rich and varied examples to substantiate spirituality as a "domain of experience" that validates and strengthens a cultural understanding of how we know and experience the world. Knowledge, for some mentors, became a sinew that ran throughout the ages, an extension of what is respected and what is practiced. It has an origin, and history helps direct its future. Most spoke of themselves as links in this chain of cultural continuity.

It extends all the way back to the beginning, so we remain connected. All the way back, and those spiritual forces are still with us! (Kekuni Blaisdell, 3 February 1997)

This knowledge-belief structure cannot possibly have a specific answer to how one approaches technology, for instance, but it sets the tone for how one handles technological influence and places it within a structure of values, priorities, and spiritual beliefs.

Epistemological Theme 2: That Which Feeds

'Aina as origin, 'aina as mother, 'aina as inspiration. In this essay, 'aina refers to the environment. How this shapes how one experiences the world is an important lens through which to view cultural epistemology. It was the place of birth ('aina hanau) where all mentors began their descriptions of who they were, and how it shaped their differences and values. It is where each one grew up that most shaped their worldview.

Here it is again, the connection land has with spiritual and religious structure. The specificity of such deities teaches us how to behave, how to enter the ocean, what to notice. This fact points, again, to epistemological origins tied to cosmology and ontological realities shaped by environment. It leads now into a discussion of expanding empiricism, the third epistemological thread.

Epistemology Theme 3: Cultural Nature of the Senses

Because of the fluid nature of each of the themes, this one in particular connected and ran throughout spirituality, place, and morality. It became evident from the discussions with the Hawaiian educators that senses are developed by culture.

Breathing into a chosen student's mouth is one way knowledge was given and is a metaphor for how Hawaiians engage in knowledge maintenance. It is deeply embedded in other, in elder, in spirit. It is linked with how Hawaiians view teachers, words, timing, and experience. This point will be further developed in the sixth epistemological theme--words and knowledge.

The linking of experience with awareness is active. For example, surfing affects our knowledge about the ocean, and dreams affect our relationship to reality. The honor we hold for our kumu, our teachers, affects how we listen. If paying attention also invokes the god Lono, how does this affect our choice of what to share and when? While the genesis of Hawaiian knowledge is based on experience, and experience is grounded in our sensory rapport, how then do these senses themselves shape our knowing? "Everything is alive! You see that reflection of the sun? That's alive! It's saying something, it's sending a message! And we need to be able to receive and process that message and think and act accordingly" (Kekuni Blaisdell, 3 February 1997).

Epistemology Theme 4: Relationship And Knowledge

Relationship as the "cornerstone of Hawaiian experience which shaped knowledge" is also a key component for all Hawaiian educators. They acknowledged the idea that relationships mattered in profound ways. Relationships or interdependence offered Hawaiians opportunities to practice reciprocity, exhibit balance, develop harmony with land, and generosity with others. Mentors described the vital force of relationship in myriad forms and with clear vocabulary and imagery.

Here it is again, this continuum with our 'ohana, except in this theme, the focus is now on "other" and how maintenance of relationships takes conscious and deliberate thought and action. Knowledge is the by-product of dialogue, or of something exchanged with others. Knowledge, for some mentors, is a gift that occurs when one is in balance with another.

Having good rapport and listening to one's elders is not new and revelatory. It is how that rapport is sustained and the extent of its importance that is unique to Hawaiians. The fact that every educator spoke in relationship terms highlights the importance of knowledge that is shaped by such a priority. It is evident when discussions turned to issues of validation, responsibility, and humility that morality, again, crafted relationship.

The idea of "function" was important to many mentors. In this way, all facets of the environment and every relationship became potential sites of function. Of course, this too is shaped by morality, by history, by genealogy, and by one's belief in continuity.

Mentors spoke about naming children, knowing the environment, and understanding why places were named certain ways. They spoke in terms of function and purpose and did not separate intelligence from practice.

Utilitarian expectations extend culture and strengthen family. The belief that meaning is tied to learning was not something hidden or subtle for the twenty Hawaiian mentors. It is a pivotal hope for the why, how, where, and what of lessons, understanding, and the creation of a meaningful life.

Epistemology Theme 6: Words and Knowledge

Here, hermeneutics helps to explain why it matters that the knowing who is talking and how what's being said gets incorporated into what is learned, or if it gets taught at all. And so, context plays another role when words, "dares," and lessons are shared. And of course, context is culturally situated.

Epistemology Theme 7: The Body-Mind Question
The Illusion of Separation

The separation of mind from body is not found in a Hawaiian worldview. Intelligence, for these twenty Hawaiian educators, was not separate from feeling. Indeed, intelligence is found in the core of our body system--in our viscera, the na'au. For mentors it is the feeling of something that constitutes part of knowing something.

The idea of "comfort" is part of this discussion of intelligence, as if knowing something had to be embedded in feeling that it was okay. This is where mentors spoke in graphic and simple terms. If it did not feel right, it was not proper to proceed, or that knowledge was something to cast aside. Thus extends the discussion of how culture shapes sensory cues and how these cues shape how mentors develop rapport within their world.

The question then arises: Why the stomach? Why not the brain? Why is intelligence housed in the viscera of a body system? These questions were approached and answered by some mentors in profound ways. The merging together of "head and heart," the dual system of knowing is akin to acknowledging that information and conscious practice are fundamental to common sense. Understanding how viscera connects to intelligence perhaps brings us back to "the cosmic center point" of how and when knowledge is experienced. It is a clear plain from which to view the many ways people judge intelligence, understanding, and knowledge.

This discussion of na'au and na'auao is an intimate look into core Hawaiian beliefs that strongly identify with the idea of embodied knowing. It is "knowing" that is not divorced from awareness, from body, from spirit, from place. These descriptors personify what was most obvious to the mentors with regard to epistemology. Na'au and na'auao are complex ontological descriptors that fuse with all other epistemological themes and threads. They highlight the idea that cultural views of where intelligence is "housed" are also part of how intelligence is received. These emic terms reflect the spiritual, relationary, utilitarian, and moral pathways knowledge takes to get to a Hawaiian psyche.

So here we are. We have stepped from the schooling vehicle that dismisses the idea that empiricism is culturally defined. We are walking toward the ocean again. How intelligence is viewed and respected can eventually return into our own minds as Native Hawaiians. Will we now develop a standardizing philosophy or step beyond the potential neocolonial trap of "universalism"? It has still to be seen. There are signs of the struggle everywhere in our Hawaiian communities. We are beginning to understand that Hawaiian education is not something in relation to a western norm, but something we must define in relation to our own understanding of ourselves, our past, and our potential. It is something more organic, more real, more tied to place. It is something that the Hawai'i Island Native Hawaiian Education Council members saw one unforgettable afternoon, almost without effort: "Native Hawaiian Education is more often experienced as community-based projects that are culturally driven" (Hawai'i Island Council Report to the Native Hawaiian Education Council, August 1997).

There it is. How do we educate our youth for the challenges of the next millennium? We surround them with our community, we give them meaningful experiences that highlight their ability to be responsible, intelligent, and kind. We watch for their gifts, we shape assessment to reflect mastery that is accomplished in real time, not false. We laugh more, plant everything, and harvest the hope of aloha. We help each other, we listen more, we trust in one another again. We find our Hawaiian essence reflected in both process and product of our efforts. That is Hawaiian education, and understanding our Hawaiian epistemology is our foundation, our kumupa'a. So, let it be said and let it be known: We have what we need. We are who we need.


One example of a claim to collective racial ownership of a concept is "Polynesian" voyaging. Hokule'a was created in 1975 primarily for the purpose of reasserting ethnic pride. But the project was conceived and headed by a haole; and numerous haoles also participated in designing the canoe, constructing it, and serving as crew mwmbers. The result was ethnic Hawaiian prejudice and racial hate-crimes against the haoles, to the extent that the head of the Polynesian Voyaging Society (a haole) resigned, along with the master Micronesian navigator who had trained a Hawaiian navigator. Several Hawaiian crew members endangered the entire crew by refusing to perform their assigned responsibilities on the open ocean. The second voyage was racially exclusionary, with none of the original leaders or crew being asked for advice or participation; the canoe capsized and a life was lost. Clearly, the ethnic Hawaiian activists felt then, as they feel now thirty years later, that ethnic Hawaiians must be the leaders of the organization, the captain and the steersman, and a majority of the crew. After all, it would be hard to claim that Polynesian voyaging is truly Polynesian unless Polynesians are in charge. One might say it's a matter of enforcing informal indigenous copyright over the concept of “Polynesian voyaging.” Furthermore, there's the issue of authenticity of design, materials, and ceremony. In what sense can a canoe made of modern materials be called "Polynesian"? And how can modern people "remember" ancient ceremonies or designs which have been forgotten for centuries? The claim to authenticity is based a belief in a collective racial memory of a deep culture which is carried in the genes even when someone has only “one drop” of native blood. For details, see:


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Email: ken_conklin@yahoo.com