Indigenous educators at Native American Community Academy in Albuquerque, New Mexico are (once again) taking education to the next level. In a recent cultural exchange trip, teachers ushered in the excitement that comes from the cross-pollination of Native youth from different tribes, languages and homelands. NACA seniors didn’t know what to expect when they boarded the plane for Hawaii. All they knew was they weren’t going for tourism or to stay in corporate hotels on sacred shorelines; they were going to learn about decolonization and cultural revitalization.
The journey was named for one Hawaiian concept and one Navajo concept, according to Kalika Davis, Ojibwe/Diné chaperon and NACA community member. “We really wanted to connect with the spirit of Aloha—meaning compassion, truth and respect—and with K’é, our kinship. Not only within our own families and clans where we are from in the Southwest, but also unifying our larger indigenous networks.”
By introducing New Mexican youth to their Hawaiian counterparts, educators made lasting impressions. “Being here made me realize that even though we are thousands of miles away from each other, we have similar cultural ways and similar problems within our communities around culture loss,” said 18-year-old Albert Red (Diné, Omaha and Southern Ute). “This trip inspired me to come home and learn my culture, learn my stories, to be able to spread that to the youth.”
The jam-packed trip carried youth from ancient fish ponds, to Waiakea High School, to operas in the Hawaiian language, to Mauna Kea camps, to elders who taught them Hawaiian culinary arts, and more.
“The reason it is so strategic to connect with Hawaiian indigenous people is because they are so close to taking back their culture and taking back their land,” said Henry Jake Foreman, teacher of Global Indigenous Praxis at NACA. “Every win that Hawaii has—culturally, spiritually, economically, environmentally—is a win for all Indigenous Peoples. What better way to get kids interested in indigenous culture, thought, identity and this indigenous renaissance than taking them to Hawaii?”
An important aspect of the trip involved a visit to Waiakea High School, a cultural immersion school, where students could connect with Indigenous Peoples of their own age. “A lot of the kids here know their songs and a lot of words in Hawaiian. They are really trying to keep it alive,” said Aiyana Sandia, 18, of Jemez Pueblo. “I want to bring this back to my tribe so future generations won’t lose our traditions.”
The strength of cultural revitalization efforts in Hawaii set a high standard for these newly graduated seniors. “One student did a story on the goddess Pele and how she came to be a volcano,” said Danzel Edaakie, 18, of Zuni and Jicarilla Apache tribes. “I want to be able to go back to my community and learn the stories and songs and dances so I can teach my sisters and be able to share it.”
For Davis, one of the most important reasons for going was learning how to protect sacred sites. “We went to the foothills of Mauna Kea,” Davis said. “We got to lay down corn pollen and talk about all the indigenous movements that are taking place. What excites and inspires me is how they [Mauna Kea Protectors] really have used Aloha—the spirit of love and non-violence—to pray and push this movement of protecting sacred places forward. There are many sacred places in New Mexico too. They’ve done it so lovingly and I can really learn a lot from that.”
The journey was not a one-way transmission, however. NACA students reportedly drew people to them wherever they went. “In Hawaii, they’re really interested in Native people, but they don’t get much information about them other than old Western movies and whatever is in the media,” Foreman said. By learning about indigenous struggles on the mainland, Native Hawaiian students gained insight into their similarities and differences.
The journey was not only a lesson in indigenous cultural diversity, but also a lesson in creative entrepreneurship. “We fundraised using an alternative approach: selling our own products, entering business competitions, putting on cultural events. We want to show a blueprint for how to fundraise in a sustainable, conscious, indigenous way. That’s not the status quo strategy of selling candy and food,” Foreman said. To further this lesson, students also met with Native Hawaiian entrepreneurs who are finding a way to reduce poverty in a sustainable manner.
For Foreman, education is not just a job, it is his way of being a good ancestor: “I got passionate about becoming an educator for Native youth after the death of my father. I realized that I wasn’t the only one who grew up with an alcoholic father. I wasn’t the only one who grew up with an identity issue. After his death, I realized the importance of being a good kuya [uncle], being a good living model for these youth. To show that there’s people that care about them. To show them that there is a healthy way to live and a different way to live and reconnect back to our culture.”