Aloha is Actually Terrifying

Aloha. Kokua. Malama. Pono. Ohana.

According to the sacred holy and untouchable image of Hawaiian culture that exists in the popular imagination both on island and around the world, native Hawaiians are healthy, ruddily righteous people. They honor their ancestors, protect their young, cultivate their taro. They respect the land and care for the poor. They remember their past but face the future with hopeful optimism. They are stewards of the land, spiritual conductors of otherworldly light, and grounded in the earthly reality of the soil. They are gentle giants, like Braddah Iz and his high pitched giggle and teensy Ukulele. They are carefree and generous surfers and dancers, quick to laugh, devout at church, comfortable on the back porch with kids tumbling all around.

It's a lovely image-- it appeals: the generous underdog, the happy Native.

This isn't just a set of images you see in pastel in-flight magazines. Of course the tourism industry benefits from this story. Come and see graceful Hawaiian dancers, gentle-humored Hawaiian youths! Partake of the pristine sea-food, hike the spiritually cleansing waterfalls, have white-clad priests with ukuleles and black kukui-nut leis marry you on the beach!

Local people believe this story, too. Buss up trucks are tattooed with stickers chastising fellow drivers to "Aloha! Malama Pono! Malama i ka Aina! Kokua i ke Kai!"Hawaiian descendants believe in this dreamy otherworld that still thrums in their blood, sings from guitar strings, thuds from ipu. Anti-drug and healthy life slogans chastise people for abandoning their ancestral goodness; churches and schools call for a return to old Hawaiian values as an antidote for the toxins of modern society.

It's a story people tell each other: "We are Hawaiian; we strive to be pono. We are Hawaiian; we nurture out families."

But, like Stephanie Coontz says about the 50s in America, I feel that this is a mirage: a chemical dream resulting from a drowsy combination of terrible oppression and loss, and Visitor's Bureau spin. This vision of the moral, gentle native is dear to people, but it is not an honest reflection of what the culture is, or what it has ever been. Certainly there are individually gentle, spiritual, and generous people, but as the culture is performed through education, other values, much less monetizable, are far more dominant.

I work at a school where our mission states that we will uphold Hawaiian cultural values and practices, and these are generally agreed to be such nurturing and benign cultural values as love, respect, humility, care, righteousness... At the first school orientation, that is what we were told: we treasure the children like we treasure leis and flowers, and teach them correct Hawaiian values as we nurture prescious Taro. I found that nurturing imagery wonderfully reassuring for my own kids. Imagine, a school where the children are nurtured, guided, cultivated in a garden of cultural gentleness, love and richness. Imagine!

My disillusionment began at a professional development meeting, where a visiting lecturer talked about indigenous education. He drew a line down the whiteboard with "indigenous learning" on one side, and "western education" on the other.

Under the "western" column, there was a terrifying cascade: discipline, punishment, tests, standards, classrooms, groups, obedience, book-work, hands-off, bubble sheets, single-age classroom. On the "indigenous" side was a veritable gurgling brook of goodness. Family based learning, hands on, real-life skills, individual time frames, supportive setting, intergenerational, natural consequences.

The group nodded sagely. Yes, yes, that's us.

I looked around incredulously. Really?  First of all, what does that mean? Which Western style of education? Italian? Dutch? But not Japanese? American? From what period in time? Which indigenous people? The presenter was part Australian Aborigine, and in the room there were people with all kinds of ancestry that can be called "indigenous": Hawaiian, Niihauan, Ilocano, Okinawan and Canadian First Nations. And at what point in time are we freezing the frame and saying-- THERE! That's it, the sweet spot in indigenous education! Post literacy? Post Christianity? Pre-statehood? Pre-smallpox? Pre- Captain Cook?

So then if we're assuming that we're talking about Hawaiian cultural education, and especially a "pure" un-westernized cultural moment, then are we describing how we imagine pre-contact Hawaiian education existed? As if, before Western influences, Hawaiian lived in dream time, without conflict or pain, nurturing their children in gentleness, living clean lives from the land, dying surrounded my grandchildren.

The problem with that is, we have a VERY clear description of pre-contact Hawaiian education, as it existed in the halaus, or schools of traditional skills. Best of all, those halaus STILL EXIST. Those traditions HAVE been carried on through the decades. And guess what.

Halaus:  rigid structure, rigid schedule, brutal punishment, isolation from family, groups, homogenized learning environment. Not warm and fuzzy. Brutal, efficient, cruel. Also, effective but. Not nice. Family groups: also not nice. In a word: infanticide. These systems WERE effective. They ensured group survival. But there was a lot of blood and brutality. Entire martial classes. Group executions. Rigid and sometimes arbitrary-seeming taboos enforced with executions, like the famous example of the chief's shadow. If it touched you, you were put to death.

This is not Aloha, Malama, Kokua. This is Ikaika, Ku, Lua, Koa.  These are the real Hawaiian values, not emasculated by tourism and nostalgia.

The "indigenous learning column" is a complete fairy tale-- a bizarre soothing dream Hawaiian educators tell themselves about their warm fuzziness when the real cultural story is all hard edges and sharp corners. Perfectly respectable sharp corners. Excellently sharp.

The Hawaiian educational culture, as it actually exists, not as it is imagined by gurgling professional development speakers, is characterized by huki i ka pepeiau, Pull the ear. Give lickins, give cracks, sit down, shut up, and respect your elders.

This is the actual culture of Hawaiian education. Not the fluffy Aloha Kekahi i Kekahi (love one another) stuff, but Pane you waha (shut your mouth).

My 5 year old's first day of kindergarten at this Hawaiian immersion school illustrates the actual cultural values of the school pretty clearly. When we got home, I asked her what she learned. Did she learn Ke'olu'olu (please) or Mahalo (thank you) or A Hui Hou (See you later)?

Nope. The first day of kindergarten, she came home with two phrases completely mastered:

Noho i lalo, e hamau kou waha.

Sit down and shut up.

So what? The Hawaiian education system needs to examine the Hawaiian culture  AS IT ACTUALLY IS, not what Aloha Airlines told us it was. Look at the way your Auntie gave you lickins, the way you tell your kid to "Mai Niele!" (stop asking questions), the way teachers of all sorts say "Nana ka make, ho'olohe ka pepeiao, pa'a ka waha" (open your eyes, open your ears, and shut your mouth.)

That's Hawaiian education.

It's not warm and fuzzy; it is what it is, and it works for itself. But educators who embrace Hawaiian culture need to be better at accepting what that culture actually is, and what it definitely is NOT.


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