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People performing hula
More than 350 dancers featured in ceremony. The Kūkūʻena cohort is made up of UH employees and alumni. (Photo credit: Naiʻa Odachi)

Every April, the town of Hilo on Hawaiʻi Island buzzes with excitement as ʻōlapa hula (dancers) from near and far gather to participate in the world-renowned Merrie Monarch Hula Festival. For the past 16 years, before competition begins, the festival’s opening ceremony has served as a cherished space for faculty and staff from the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo and Hawaiʻi Community College to share mele, or songs, and engage in traditional protocol.

People in hula attire
Kukuena 2008: Inaugural Kūkūʻena cohort in 2008, Professor Taupouri Tangarō (center)

The hula cohort is known as Kūkūʻena, formed in 2008 by Hawaiʻi CC Professor Taupōuri Tangarō, who is also the director of Hawaiian culture and protocols and a kumu hula. Tangarō created the cohort alongside Gail Makuakāne-Lundin, former director of the UH Hilo Kīpuka Native Hawaiian Student Center and Hawaiʻi Papa O Ke Ao. Their hope was to transport employees beyond simply learning hula steps, aiming to deepen participants’ understanding of ʻike Hawaiʻi, or Hawaiian ways of knowing in an effort to uplift UH as a leader in Indigenous education.

“For us, academia is a temple. It’s a place where people come that are committed and they get transformed,” said Tangarō. “The whole system of academia is designed to transform the student and their communities.”

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Takabayashi performing
Misaki Takabayashi. Credit: Maria Andaya/UH Hilo Kīpuka Native Hawaiian Student Center

On March 31, more than 350 dancers from Hawaiʻi CC hālau Unukupukupu, which includes the Kūkūʻena cohort, graced Merrie Monarch’s opening ceremony inside Hilo’s Civic Auditorium. They shared both hula kahiko (ancient) and ʻauana (modern) mele. Among the dancers were Hawaiʻi CC interim Chancellor Susan Kazama and Kapiʻolani CC Chancellor Misaki Takabayashi.

Takabayashi previously taught marine science and conducted coral reef molecular ecology research at UH Hilo. With roots tracing back to Australia and Japan, the chancellor shares her profound journey with Kūkūʻena since its inception. “That whole experience helped define who I am and how I think today,” said Takabayashi. “It really did define what kind of educator I am.”

Inspired by her involvement with Kūkūʻena, Takabayashi created the Kūʻula marine science cohort during her time at UH Hilo, co-teaching with Native Hawaiian scientists and cultural practitioners to challenge students to merge western science with ʻike Hawaiʻi.

This year’s ceremony also marked a first for Kazama, who had never attended the Merrie Monarch Festival or danced hula prior to joining Kūkūʻena. She discovered a special connection to hula kahiko and particularly enjoyed learning chants about the Hawaiian fire goddess Pele.

Kazama credits Kūkūʻena with reshaping her views on Hawaiʻi’s history, culture and an overall approach to leadership.

More on Kūkūʻena

Named after an elder sister of Pele renowned for her caretaking and guidance, the cohort is shaped around embodying those same values as they bridge campuses and institutions through hula and Hawaiian cultural practice. The cohort’s foundational vision is to foster success for Native Hawaiian students and all students alike while strengthening community relations.

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