Jubilation Fellow Rayann Kalei'okalani Harumi Onzuka

Rayann Kalei’okalani Harumi Onzuka

Seattle WA
Fellowship: 2017

“We’re loud, we’re open, we’re happy, and we’re proud,” says Rayann of her hula classes. “Every day teaching is another personal experience in my cultural journey. I’ve learned so much about the types of conversations we can have with children of all ages — about culture, equality, and connection.”

Rayann uses hula as a tool: to make students feel like winners, and to build community. “As a shy, quiet six year-old on the island of O’ahu, I found my strengthened, emboldened self in the motions, in the beats, in the chants and mele,” she says. Born and raised on the island, she moved to Seattle in 2009, where she teaches hula and Tahitian dance in schools, and with groups dedicated to serving marginalized communities of color. She’s also the founder of Huraiti Mana, an intergenerational Polynesian dance troupe. “The best part of teaching is to see someone get up and do something they’ve never done before,” says Rayann.

Teaching philosophy:
“Encourage and empower. Culture is about how we as a people interact. How we teach each other, how we listen to each other, and how we learn from each other. As a Polynesian teaching artist, I consider myself a ha’api’i, which is the Tahitian word for both ‘to teach’ and ‘to learn.’ I want to provide students the opportunity to lead in their own ways, to see that they are leaders, and can practice, learn, and teach in ways they hadn’t before realized. And I learn from them more about myself, my culture, and my journey. I share stories about myself so that others feel welcome to share their stories. Reciprocation is an innate practice within indigenous Polynesian cultures, and this practice lives in my teaching.” 

How do you produce a vibrant learning environment? 
“I create a place like home. Like the islands that enveloped me, cared for me, and taught me, I fill the air with chanting, with my ‘ipu hallowed gourd drum beats, with songs and stories, and laughter, laughter, laughter. I laugh at myself, and we laugh together. And by this, I hope to share the heart of my culture in the ways I lived and learned it. Recently, as I wrote ‘Ōlelo Hawai’i, the native language, on the board, a student asked, ‘When you write in Hawaiian, does it remind you of home?’ Her question reminds me of home in a way that brings me to tears. Being with the students reminds me of home. Singing with them. Speaking with them.”

How do you foster youth leadership?
“Each student takes a turn as class alaka’i, or leader. Youth fly in the door and even before the last shoe is off, they say, ‘Who’s going to be alaka’i today?’ They boldly take the role, face the natural challenges of being a leader, and learn how to encourage their peers. As soon as the ‘ipu hits the floor, our alaka’i shakes off any shame and grows a quiet seriousness, a humble determination that I see only in hula dancers. It is mana. Our spiritual power. And the mana can be felt throughout the room. Students show respect for each other. And they carry it with them wherever else they may go.” 

How have you evolved as a teacher?
“I am strengthened. I am more deeply connected to myself, my land, and my people. I am reminded to continue with my indigeneity outside of the land of which I am indigenous. I have learned that I am a teaching artist, and that I have a valid, true, and pono or righteous belonging toward my art, my culture, and my trade. My students have taught me this, in asking questions and reaching for each others’ thoughts. Once, as I spoke with my elder sister about my nervousness and fear of carrying a weight of cultural creativity and evolution, my 4-year-old niece, sitting beside me looked up and said, ‘But Auntie, your stories are always good. You taught me about Maui and the Queen, and we sing songs. They’ll love your stories.’ I have realized my kuleana, my responsibility, toward my community and my art.” 

What is an example of a good day teaching kids?
“Just the other day, alaka’i helped me pass out the ‘uli’uli, or feathered gourd rattles. Usually during this time, students are all just talking story, fidgeting, playing around. But as soon as most had their implements, someone yelled out, “Let’s do it!” and they all began singing in ‘Ōlelo Hawai’i, the song of He’eia. All their rattles moved in unison, their arms stretched out, smiles wide, their voices were strong and confident. After just a few classes, it felt like they’d been dancing together for years. They sang the entire verse and kept going until everyone had a chance to join in. I joined in too, and we moved together in a way we never had before. Those are the best days.” 

Links: Haraiti Mana Dance Troupe
video of an elementary school hula class
video of teaching artists Rayann and Meredith interviewed by Arts Corps

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