Saturday night, we attended the tenth end-of-season pa’ina (dinner or feast) for the Cornell Sustainability Semester in Waimea. This was the program that our younger daughter, Trinity, attended three years ago. (It’s a fantastic program which you can read about here.) We weren’t able to travel out to Hawai’i the semester she attended, so it was a happy coincidence that the three of us were planning to be on the Big Island the same week that the Pa’ina was occurring and we gladly accepted the invitation to attend.
The pa’ina was held at Wai’aka House, where the students live with the program director and her assistants for the semester. It is located in Waimea in the Kohala region, which is the oldest part of the island. Kohala volcano has been extinct for a long time, and, while still mountainous, has eroded into grasslands that have been used for cattle ranching in recent times. From Wai’aka House, one can look across to the astronomical observatory on the also-extinct but still almost 14,000 foot Mauna Kea.
We have been reaping the benefits of the program by travelling with Trinity, who has been able to suggest favorite places to visit and can tell us about some of the geology, plants, animals, and cultural sites we have encountered. It was especially nice to be able to go with her to visit her home while on the Island, where we were warmly welcomed as part of the ‘ohana, which is usually translated as family, but which encompasses not only blood relatives but also those with whom you share your life.
Trinity knew a number of the people there, including the program director, whom they addressed as Kumu, which means teacher, and her daughter, one of the program assistants who had been a fellow student the year she attended, and several of the aunties and uncles who had assisted with cultural studies and other topics, and the director of her internship, Wilds. We also spent a lot of time talking to people we hadn’t met before, who were very warm and interested in sharing experiences with each other.
The students prepare the food, which included many traditional dishes, such as kalua pig and poi – we later saw a video of some of the preparations; my favorite dish was the salmon lau lau, in which salmon is wrapped in luau leaves (which you eat with the salmon) and ti leaves (which serve as a wrapper) and steamed.
After we had eaten, there was a traditional ceremony where one of the aunties and the kumu hula (master hula teacher) chanted and invested each member of this year’s program with a kihei, which is a rectangle of cloth that each person had decorated with symbols meaningful to them, draping it around their torso and tying it over their shoulder. Then, each person explained their design and the students also told a bit about their internships.
The moving climax and conclusion to the evening was a hula that the group presented on the lawn near the big side porch, wearing their kihei and head, neck, and ankle leis that they had made themselves. The whole group did the oli (opening chant) and then did traditional hula with the kumu hula chanting and accompanied by an ipu (gourd drum). Then, the students and assistants thanked Kumu for her love, leadership, and general awesomeness for the semester and presented her with flower and woven ti leave leis. They concluded with a thank you chant, in which Trinity and many of the guests joined. It was touching to hear Trinity sing a chant in Hawaiian that she learned three years ago.
I was so happy to see Trinity return to a place and to people who were so important to her. Trinity’s major was designed to be very broad and her concentration within it was discontinued after her sophomore year. It was the Sustainability Semester, her internship, and the discovery that she enjoyed eradicating invasive species and nurturing native ones that gave her a new focus, leading to her internship with Cornell Plantations and her upcoming master’s program in conservation biology. We will always be thankful to Hawai’i, Kumu, Wilds, and Cornell’s Sustainability Semester for helping her find her passion.