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Pūpū aʻo ʻEwa

When I moved to Hawaiʻi to go to college, I thought I finally found a place where I could fit in.  After years growing up on the East Coast where I stood out because I looked different and my last name “sounded funny”, I thought for sure I would blend in with the crowd on campus. This was not to be the case.  I may have looked “local”, but now people said I talked funny and dressed funny.  I didnʻt understand Pidgin English, and I didnʻt understand why you would put mayo on chili.  It was a long while before I felt comfortable and found my place in Hawaiʻi.

Starting The Leader Project was the chance to bring together both my Hawaiian and Western worlds and lead in a way that values both cultures.  Yet early on, I found myself in unfamiliar territory all over again. Even after living in Hawaiʻi for over twenty-five years, in some ways I felt like a newcomer.

It started with the ʻEwa Project team when we were planning for a community meeting.  As a team, we agreed to introduce ourselves to the community by sharing our relationship to ʻEwa.  It turns out that I was the only one who did not grow up there, or have family that lives there, or work in the area. I realized as I prepared for this meeting how uncomfortable I felt because I really didn’t know where I fit in.

When I find myself “lost”, my first step is usually to hit the books (aka Google) and do some research. I soon came across the song, “Pūpū aʻo ʻEwa,” which honors some of the special places of ʻEwa. As I listened to the melody, I quickly recognized it as the same melody for the song, “Pearly Shells.” It turns out that “Pearly Shells” originated from the older traditional song, “Pūpū aʻo ʻEwa”.

As a young girl I often danced the hula to “Pearly Shells” at parties where my father and his Hawaiian music band played.  This was in Maryland during the 1970s and this song, alongside others like Hanalei Moon and Little Grass Shack, was one of my first introductions to Hawaiʻi.  Looking back on those days, I remember enjoying hula though I did not really understand the meaning of the songs I was dancing or their importance to Hawaiian culture.

It is through Pūpū aʻo ʻEwa that I am learning about ʻEwa and the shark ʻaumakua or guardian, Kaʻahupāhau, who protected Puʻuloa. The song’s repeat, “Alahula Puʻuloa, he alahele na Kaʻahupāhau” is said of a person who goes everywhere, looking, peering, seeing all, or of a person familiar with every nook and cranny of a place. Kaʻahupāhau and the people of ‘Ewa shared the responsibility for constantly watching over each other, a practice that connected the shark and her people.  This resonated with me because I believe that to truly be a part of a community one must care about the people and places of that community.

Now I can introduce myself in ʻEwa by sharing my first connection to this place which began with “pearly shells covering the shore” many years ago. And I can share my more recent discovery of the ancient story of Kaʻahupāhau and its message of deepening our connection.  I donʻt feel so out of place telling my struggles of being an outsider because I know that I am usually not alone in the room.  Many others have their own personal story of not belonging and the difficulty they feel when they are not at home in a place.  

Even as a guest, the community has been willing to invite me into their world by sharing their hopes and dreams for their ʻEwa home. As the song reminds us, “he ʻāina ua kaulana mai nā kūpuna mai”.  This is a celebrated land from our ancestors and it can be a source of learning and growth if we listen and respect those who made their path here long before we arrived.  “Pearly Shells” indeed.

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