Sharing Hawaiian Knowledge through Story

Volume 22, No. 2 - Winter 2010
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“Leadership and grace are very similar.”

To describe her philosophy, Dr. Maenette Kape’ahiokalani Padeken Ah Nee-Benham tells the story of Queen Emma Kaleleonalani’s journey to Mauna Kea. That mountain is the highest in the Hawaiian Islands and is a very sacred place for Native Hawaiians. After losing the 1874 election, Queen Emma traveled to Mauna Kea and immersed herself in the mountain lake, Waiau, the sacred regenerative waters linked to the ancestral god, Wakea (Sky Father).

This story speaks to her, says Benham, because “it is through preserving and passing down of our ‘living’ narratives from one generation to the next that we find our ‘genius.’” She adds that narratives nurture “genius” and help us do the work we need to do.

Benham is the only Native Hawaiian senior administrator at the University of Hawai’i at Mãnoa. She is also the inaugural dean of the Hawai’inuiãkea School of Hawaiian Knowledge (HSHK), which was established in 2007.

Currently, HSHK has two academic units, both of which offer bachelor’s and master’s degrees. About 200 students are majoring in Hawaiian Language, and about 400 take its classes as electives. About 200 students also major in Hawaiian Studies, and another 1,600 take classes within the program to fulfill general requirements at the university.

The school also includes Native Hawaiian Student Services—which serves not only HSHK students but all Native Hawaiian students on cam-pus—and Ka Papa Lo’i ‘O Kanewai

Cultural Gardens. The gardens host native trees and shrubs, offering people refuge from the city as well as opportunities to learn more about native plants.

Last summer, I was a visiting guest lecturer at the University of Hawai’i at Mãnoa, which gave me the opportunity to better understand how other Indigenous educators were implementing Indigenous knowledge perspectives. Benham told me her own journey began with a move to Michigan in 1992 after she completed her doctoral degree at the University of Hawai’i at Mãnoa. From there, she worked at Michigan State University and with many Native American communities and tribal college leaders for over 16 years. Her work with tribal college leaders has played a key role in her implementing an Indigenous philosophy as an administrator and leader today.

As the storyteller and evaluator working with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s Native American Higher Education Initiative (NAHEI), Benham worked with Dr. Wayne Stein, Dr. Henrietta Mann, and many other stellar scholars. She says editing the book about that (The Renaissance of American Indian Higher Education: Capturing the Dream) helped her to learn how to lead collectively and respectfully, how to listen to the essence of story and use these lessons to rewrite institutional stories, and how to be persistent and gracious.

Now, as its first dean, Benham has set the School of Hawaiian Knowledge on a course for success. She has developed faculty, programs, and program evaluation processes. She has also helped the school’s extramural funding grow from zero to almost $3 million in contracts and grants and increased the number of community engagement activities. And while her recruitment efforts have just begun, she’s already seen success in the number of Native Hawaiian students staying in school.

Drawing on her experience and Indigenous wisdom, she knows that building relationships is the foundation for the school’s success. “In order for Hawai’inuiãkea to succeed in its mission of perpetuating and revitalizing Indigenous knowledge, the school must build relationships across campus, within the community, and overseas,” she says. “This means creating and sustaining productive pathways and relationships.”

In our discussion, Benham focused on her Indigenous philosophy of responsibility and leadership, which she referred to as “living into grace.” “Leadership and grace are very similar,” she says. First, to live in grace, one must begin with purpose and kuleana (responsibility.) To act in grace requires collective leadership. And lastly, to transform in grace requires vision and voice.

“Living in grace is total surrender, total acceptance of the gifts, and acceptance of the responsibilities of those gifts that have been given to us,” she says.

For Benham, living in grace means understanding how her ancestors’ stories have shaped how she knows her purpose, mana (power), and responsibility. An Indigenous philosophy for success in postsecondary education also means living into grace and carrying the teachings of our ancestors. Not only that but we must be in service, she says, and “listen to people’s unique and collective vision as they contribute to the success of our schools everyday.”


SOURCE OF STRENGTH. Maenette Benham says she gets her strength from her ohana, aina, and culture. She is pictured with her husband, Robert, and their two children, Kiana and Ka’imi.

To act in grace requires collective leadership. Since 2002, Benham has worked with many Native communities and Native leaders to better understand the dynamic process of collective leadership. She has done this through her work with NAHEI as well as through “In Our Mother’s Voice.” That program, also funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, helps Indigenous school leaders share best practices regarding learning and teaching within Indigenous communities.

Benham uses five principles to define collective leadership. First, it must be place-based and honor local cultures. Second, it includes building capacity at the individual, collective, and organizational level. Collective leadership also emphasizes the importance of learning, understanding, and enacting democratic principles, and it requires building relationships within a network of partnerships. And last, it entails a mature organizational infrastructure that ensures sustainability.

To transform in grace requires envisioning and creating a learning place of strength. Benham explains that in this place, Indigenous wisdom embodied in the mo’olelo (stories) is valued. Kanaka Maoli knowledge systems sit side-by-side with contemporary

Western knowledge systems. For example, the school is trying to develop a curriculum that brings together Native Hawaiian knowledge with Western science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) knowledge regarding land and ocean challenges.

When we met, Benham talked about the importance of who we are as Indigenous peoples and how our connection to the land will always be our foundation. That’s why she related the story about Queen Emma: “We are humanly connected to the land, kanaka ‘aina,” she says, “and the way in which we learn about the ‘aina, the land, is through the mo’olelo, through our stories and through our language.”

Benham is not only an administrator and educator but also a mother, wife, sister, daughter, cousin, and an auntie. She reminded me that the strength you get from ohana (family), from the ‘aina (land), and from the culture helps one to be a good administrator, leader, and educator.

Lisa Sterling (Nlkapamux Nation) has a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology. She is an assistant professor at Simon Fraser University and served as special advisor/director of Native Affairs to the academic vice president.

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