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Going Old-school

The on-campus Puuhonua

a person standing in a straw hut
ABOVE: Kalaheo High School vice principal Tara Gumapac stands at entrance of Hale Kaleienaokealoha, the traditional Hawaiian hale (house) built on the school's campus in Kailua, Oahu—the first permitted hale on a public school campus in the state.


You can't miss it as you pass Kalaheo High School on the north end of Kailua's Kawainui Marsh: a hale halawai, or Hawaiian meetinghouse. It might be the only full-size traditional Hawaiian structure on a public school campus in the state. The hale is a puuhonua, or "place of refuge," for students who need a quiet break—that is, when it isn't being used for teaching hula or other subjects.  

The driving force behind the project is Tara Keanuenue Gumapac, who was an art teacher when it began and is now Kalaheo's vice principal. Though Island-born and raised, Gumapac learned some Hawaiian culture from her family, she says, but not enough. As an educator, she seeks to integrate Hawaiian culture into the life of every student, Native or not.

The project began early in the Covid pandemic; Gumapac was supposed to teach hula but had no suitable outdoor space, and indoors was a nonstarter. With the support of then-vice principal Resha Ramolete, another hula-dancing educator, Gumapac gathered support, raised money and secured the approvals and permits to do something no public school had done before.  

Virtually every student and staff member helped, from carrying stones donated from nearby Kapaa Quarry to debarking and lashing logs gifted from Paepae o Heeia, a nonprofit that cares for nearby Heeia fishpond. Marines from Kaneohe MCBH pitched in (many Kalaheo students are from service families). A GoFundMe campaign raised more than $6,000. Keahi Piiohia, a specialist in traditional Hawaiian construction with Paepae o Heeia, provided the manao (knowledge) to build the structure. 

a close-up of a hand holding a string


The hale's name, Kaleilenaokealoha, "means 'the yellowing lei of love,'" Gumapac says. "It represents the community that came together in aloha to build the hale. Yellow refers to the moo Hauwahine, the lizard-woman deity who protects Kawainui." 

Completed in April 2023 after two years of work, the hale might have an impact far beyond Hawaii. "In April we will go to the National Arts Education Association annual conference in Minneapolis to show others what is possible," Gumapac says. "A friend of mine, a Lakota Indian who also teaches art, has already been inquiring how she can integrate her culture into academics. That makes me happy." 

Student Mahina Palea, now 18, was part of the project from start to finish. "There aren't many Hawaiian kids and few options for us to practice our culture at school. To actually go to Paepae o Heeia, carry each log out from the knee-deep mud and learn the different lashing techniques all made me grow a greater appreciation for my culture," says the 2023 grad, who's danced hula since age three. "This is something not many Hawaiians nowadays have the chance to experience. It gave me confidence as a Hawaiian that I am good enough and lit a fire in me to learn more."


Story By Peter Rosegg

Photos By IJfke Ridgley

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