It's Merrie Monarch week and all eyes are on Hilo and the hula, but did you know Hawai'i Community College offers the world's only degree in hula?
"I think Merrie Monarch shows the world hula is serious business," said Noe Noe Wong-Wilson, the Hawai'i Lifestyles Halaulani Program Coordinator at Hawai'i Community College. "There's a depth to the study of this art, there's substance to the science of what we call hula. It records our history for the millennia," explained Wong-Wilson. "To acknowledge that in an academic setting is proof to the world that hula is-- along with mahi'ai and lawai'a -- they are the knowledge systems of our people."
The Hawai'i Lifestyles program at HCC in Hilo offers an Associate in Applied Sciences degree in hula, lawai'a [fishing] and mahi'ai [farming].
As of this past fall, students can also get an Associate of Arts degree in hula, which is transferable into the University of Hawaii system at any of their four-year campuses.
Kekuhi Keali'ikanaka'oleoha'ililani is the granddaughter of Edith Kanaka'ole, and daughter of Pualani and Edward Kanahele -- who established the Hawaii Lifestyles program at HCC. The curriculum was created to address the needs of the community.
"What we were skilled enough to do was pull everything from those lifestyles. From mahi'ai-- planting and eating from the 'aina, lawai'a -- the lifestyle of eating from the kai, and hula -- the lifestyle of constant communication and participation with the environment," described Keali'ikanaka'oleoha'ililani, a Hawai'i Lifestyles Associate Professor & Coordinator at HCCand also, Kumu Hula of Halau o Kekuhi.
Educators with the program say they're most excited about providing access to traditional Hawaiian skills in a collegiate setting.
"In the words of Aunty Edith, 'Teach everyone,' because you never know which student is the one that will take it and you don't want to leave -- and for us, just like migration -- you don't want to leave everything on one canoe and something happens to the canoe and there goes everything goes," described Manaiakalani Kalua, a Hawai'i Lifestyles instructor at HCC. "So you know, you kind of spread out the knowledge sets so that in 50 years, there's still people holding on to that knowledge set and in 50 years from that -- it'll still continue."
Instructors say their program also gives students who may not otherwise have stepped into a college environment a chance to feel relevant and succeed, because they recognize practices like planting kalo or mending fishing nets as family activities they've seen before.
"Hula definitely helped me to become the person that I am today. The respect that I have for my culture, my people, the community, Hawaii itself -- it provided me with the foundation to grow," said Mina Viritura, who earned his hula degree last year and will graduate this fall from the University of Hawai'i at Hilo with his Bachelor of Arts in Geography this fall.
Officials say the hula program will be expanding to Kona next semester.