comscore Kamehameha program celebrates 50 years of sharing Hawaiian culture with kids | Honolulu Star-Advertiser
Hawaii News | Lee Cataluna

Kamehameha program celebrates 50 years of sharing Hawaiian culture with kids

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    One of the earliest groups of students of the Kamehameha Schools Summer Explorations program visits ʻIolani Palace in 1969.


    Kamehameha Schools, 1969


    Kamehameha Schools, 1969


    A visit to Bishop Museum planetarium in 1969.


    Students attending Kamehameha Schools Summer Explorations program in 1969 visit the Bishop Museum.


    One of the most memorable moments for the over 60,000 children who have attended the Kamehameha Schools Summer Explorations program is making their ipu, a musical instrument, out of a gourd.


    Much of the focus of the Explorations program is aina-based Hawaiian cultural learning.


    Students of the Kamehameha Schools Summer Explorations program learn to paddle a canoe, a lesson that has been part of the program for decades.

Somewhere in your house, you may still have the ipu. Somewhere in your head, you can still recall the songs.

Ei nei, look at us!

Over the last 50 years, tens of thousands of children have attended Kamehameha Schools’ Ho‘omaka‘ika‘i Explorations summer program — more than all the total number of graduates of Kamehameha Schools. The students live for a week in the dorms, spend busy days immersed in Hawaiian culture-based education and take home lessons of identity, self-reliance and team-building. And the ipu.

For some, it’s the first time they’ve been away from home. For many, it’s their first deep connection to their Hawaiian heritage. It becomes a summer they remember all their lives.

“On Sunday check-in, some of the children are crying. The homesickness starts. They don’t want to stay,” said kumu Ke‘ala Kwan, who has served as coordinator for the summer program since the 1980s. “By Friday night at the hoolaulea, they are once again crying, but because they don’t want to leave.”

The children are 10 and 11, in that summer between fifth and sixth grade, between childlike dependence and the beginnings of self-­reliance.

“At this age, there’s the transitional movement into intermediate school,” said Loke Ferguson. “They become empowered to stand on their own when they don’t have their ohana to fall back on.”

In 1965, a Kamehameha teacher named John White was teaching a summer program on Molokai. It occurred to him that some of his students had never been off the island. He took it upon himself to bring them to Oahu, paying for the airfare out-of-pocket and arranging for them to stay at Kamehameha’s dorms. White took the students to see things like the glass elevator at the Ilikai and the escalator at Ala Moana Shopping Center.

Kamehameha Schools is inviting all past and present participants of the Hoʻomakaʻikaʻi Explorations summer program to participate in the Kamehameha statue lei-draping ceremony on June 9, and march in the Kamehameha Day Celebration parade on June 10 — and receive a complimentary commemorative T-shirt (for those marching in the parade). Log in here to RSVP, and for more information on 50 years of Hoʻomakaʻikaʻi.

In 1968, Kamehameha Schools built upon White’s idea, creating the Explorations program but focusing more on Hawaiian culture than taking country kids to see city sights. A total of 1,800 children of Hawaiian ancestry participate each summer — 300 kids a week for six sessions. Children come from Oahu and the neighbor islands, from all over the United States and from different countries to attend. Tuition for every child is $125, which includes airfare, dorm, all meals, T-shirts and supplies. The program is funded through the estate of Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop.

After all these years, the Explorations staff has that confident ease of having seen just about everything and knowing they can handle just about anything.

“We always carry spare-tire slippers,” Kwan said, and it’s clear that’s just the one example of how they take care of the children.

“We could write volumes on homesickness,” Kwan said. “It shows up in different ways. Some are crying and saying, ‘I want to go home!’ Others say they have a sore stomach. Hale Ola, the health center, will call us and say, ‘This child has a case of HS.’”

The staff is well-versed in seeing every child through bouts of this malady, from being “Aunty-Mommy” tucking them in at night to refocusing their attention on the next day’s adventures. A big part of the strategy is to build close bonds between the kids themselves and to encourage them to look out for one another, drawing on Hawaiian cultural values to strengthen their community.

Kanoe Walker, now in sixth grade at Webling Elementary School in Aiea, went through Explorations last summer. “My mother forced me. I didn’t think I’d like it,” she said, grinning. But when she talks about everything she got to do that week, she claims every experience as her “favorite”: Working in the lo‘i — “that was my favorite!” Visiting Mauna ‘Ala Royal Mausoleum — “That was my favorite!” Swimming in the waterfall — “Oh, that was my favorite!”

In years past, mornings were spent in classrooms on the Kapalama campus and afternoons were for field trips. Now, whole days are spent in aina-based learning — in the lo‘i experiencing Hawaiian agricultural practices or in a traditional fish pond studying aquaculture. Generations past may remember making their ipu, the gourd rhythm implement, in a classroom. Now that is done in a stream with the water aiding the process.

“The focus is now for the children to really live in their kupuna’s practices and knowledge,” said Kaleo Kauahi-Daniels, who has served for several years as Hawaiian resource coordinator for the program.

The celebration of the 50th anniversary of this program kicks off next weekend with a paina on campus and will continue throughout the year. Past participants are asked to share their Ho‘omaka‘ika‘i memories and photos (The ipu! The nose flute!) on social media with the hashtags #Expoturns50 and #50yearsofculture.

Reach Lee Cataluna at 529-4315 or

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