Traditional Hawaiian kīhei adorn SOEST graduates

In traditional ʻūniki (graduation ceremonies for ancient arts), haumāna (students) who have acquired sufficient skill and knowledge to advance to the next level of their training are presented with kīhei, by their kumu (teachers). Kīhei are traditional Hawaiian garments worn during ceremony and protocol, often adorned with symbols representing the expertise of the wearer as documented by Dorothy Barrere and others in Hula: historical perspectives.

To celebrate the achievements of the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology (SOEST) Maile Mentoring Bridge program graduates, students and mentors designed and created kīhei for the students to wear during their Spring 2018 Graduation Ceremony. Rosie Alegado, assistant professor in the SOEST’s Department of Oceanography and University of Hawai‘i Sea Grant College Program (Hawai‘i Sea Grant) invited traditional ʻohe kāpala practitioners from Honaunau, Hawaiʻi, Uncle George Place and Chantal Chung (Hawai‘i Sea Grant), for the first SOEST Hana Noʻeau Workshop in May 2018.

“The SOEST Maile Mentoring Bridge program seeks to create nurturing spaces for kamaʻāina (local) students pursuing geoscience degrees at UH Mānoa,” said Alegado. “A critical component in our students’ educational journey is contextualizing their science in the framework of our host culture.”

Uncle George and Chantal taught the Maile students how to design and carve symbols representing their science and academic journey on traditional bamboo stamps (ʻohe kāpala). These unique ʻohe kāpala bearing traditional Polynesian artistic elements were then stamped on kīhei made of undyed muslin, reminiscent of kapa (paper mulberry cloth). Students were also instructed on the significance of caring for and wearing kīhei.

“This was my first experience making kīhei, and I was very humbled to be a part of Uncle George and Chantal’s workshop,” said Kammie Tavares, graduate of the SOEST Global Environmental Sciences bachelor’s degree program. “It was very special that my own hands created the tool of my kīhei pattern. I was very proud to wear my kīhei on graduation day because more of my story was told in wearing the kīhei and in its design. Many people complimented me on the kīhei and asked about it, so I was also able to share about kīhei and its significance in Hawaiian culture.”

Each kīhei tells the story of that student’s path in the geosciences as each student adorned their kīhei with images that symbolized the entwining of their pathway through their geoscience degree and carvings that represented their chosen field of study.

“During the kīhei workshop, we got to connect with our Maile ohana—to hear what everyone has accomplished this semester, hear about those who are graduating, and discuss our summer plans,” said Veronica Gibson, GES alumnae, Maile mentor and recent graduate of the Botany Master’s program. “It was a time to realize the connections between all of our research that is not often realized when working independently. It was great to make this connection not only across disciplines, but also across educational levels and occupations from freshman to senior undergraduates, to graduate students, professors, administrators, and cultural practitioners. It really created a sense of home and community in the Maile program.”

“There are so many concepts and traditions that can only be truly understood and appreciated through experience,” said Chantal Chung. “Otherwise it is just an abstract distant concept that can be perceived as frivolous and unimportant. Hands in motion create hearts and minds in motion.”

Additionally, Uncle George designed and made a stamp that incorporated elements of ocean, earth and atmosphere to represent SOEST and was used to create kīhei for SOEST dean Brian Taylor and associate dean Chip Fletcher.

Upon receiving the kīhei, Taylor said, “This is a very special gift, that I will wear with pride knowing the skill, care and tradition with which it was made.”

This workshop was made possible by grants from the UH Mānoa Student Equity, Excellence and Diversity Program and the National Science Foundation (Hālau Ola Honua), support from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, Office of STEM Education and the SOEST Dean’s Office.