Students build bridges with Native Hawaiian youth on spring break exchange

Native culture and history were the focus of the Spring Break Hawaii Cultural Exchange, held March 12-19 over Yale’s spring break. The Yale Indigenous Performing Arts Program (YIPAP) and the Native American Cultural Center (NACC) worked closely with indigenous leaders and schools to bring 14 members of YIPAP and NACC to the island of Hawaii for workshops, discussions, and site visits. The group included undergraduate and professional students, faculty, and staff.

The exchange was an opportunity to build connections to the Native Hawaiian community by working with youth, said Kapi'olani A. Laronal, assistant director of the NACC. Careful and sensitive planning were hallmarks of the project, she added.

“It’s important in our own communities to do things with good intention and in the right way,” Laronal said. “In Hawaiian, we say things should be done and practiced in a ‘pono’ way — that is, acting with a good heart, to give, to receive, to help and to heal.” 

The program began with a welcome to Hawaii by students from the Kanu o ka 'Aina Charter School. Participants visited Pu'uhonua o Honaunau, a U.S. national historical park on the west coast of the Big Island. Through the 18th century, the site was a place of refuge for Hawaiians who had broken traditional laws or had been defeated in battle, and it is home to ceremonial sites still used today.

Participants also camped near Waimea at Pu'ukhola Heiau. The 18th-century stone temple at this site was constructed by King Kamehameha I prior to his consolidation of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1810. Students studied the historic site and engaged in educational exchanges with Kanu School students and faculty about the ongoing importance of language, history, science, songs, dance, and religion in Hawaiian culture and society. 

Participants traveled to other cultural and historic sites, including the resting place of Henry Opukaha'ia at Kahikolu Church overlooking Napo'opo'o Bay in Kona. Opukaha'ia was a 19th-century Native Hawaiian studentwho studied at the Foreign Missions School in Cornwall, Connecticut, where he died in 1818. In 1992 his descendants began to advocate for his repatriation to Hawaii. Kapi'olani Laronal, of the Native American Cultural Center, is a descendant of Opukaha'ia.

“The connections among Yale, Cornwall, and Hawaii may not seem readily apparent,” said Mary Kathryn Nagle, executive director of YIPAP. “But as contemporary Native individuals working and living at Yale, it is our responsibility to honor them. Almost 200 years ago my great-great grandfather attended the small boarding school for Indian boys in Cornwall. Opukaha'ia attended the same school after spending time at Yale in the care of president Timothy Dwight.

“We cannot truly understand what it means to be indigenous today at Yale if we do not understand the story of how, why, and when the first indigenous students left their homes to ‘be educated’ here,” Nagle said. “This trip was the beginning of a deeper understanding of who our ancestors were, and who we are today."

Students also visited two local Native Hawaiian Language Immersion schools and Kamehameha Schools, where they met with students and staff to share their experiences as indigenous students at Yale.

For student participants in the exchange, community building with younger Native Hawaiians was an important component of the experience. “The trip was filled with so much joy, hospitality, and love — and while the islands are stunning, they are far outmatched by the beauty of the people we met along the way,” said Kodi Alvord ’17.

“I was told that it was enormously influential for Hawaiian students to see other Native students represent diverse indigenous backgrounds at an institution like Yale,” Alvord said. “We had shown them that, even at an institution almost 5,000 miles away and that was never built for them, they could belong to a community that would support them and help them gain the skills and education necessary to help their communities and follow their personal and professional dreams.” 

Sean Massa DIV ’18, an indigenous Hawaiian who grew up in California, said the exchange allowed him to reconnect with his roots. “I recently discovered through archival family history that my family traces back to the Big Island, which is where we spent our week together. Many of our local hosts heard of my Hawaiian descent and told me with warmth and love, ‘Welcome home,’” Massa said.

“At the time I didn’t realize this was more than a greeting — it was an affirmation that resonated to the core of my being and across many generations. In many ways, I was reaffirmed in having a connection to the people, language, land, and my identity as a Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian).”

Much of the planning for the exchange was conducted by Kauanoe Ho'omanawanui, a descendant of Henry Opukaha'ia and a preservationist for the State of Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources.

Laronal noted that as YIPAP, the NACC, and their Hawaiian partners coordinated the trip, they were careful to integrate common protocols and practices used by indigenous communities. “For example, we learned an ‘oli,’ or a chant, as a way to thank our hosts,” she said. “Learning these things allowed us to give back to the Native Hawaiian community in culturally relevant and meaningful ways.”

The exchange also was supported by Yale’s Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity, and Transnational Migration and the Institute of Sacred Music.