Inspiring a new generation with the Aloha Spirit

Sabra Kauka, Cultural Practitioner and Teacher, Island School – Lihue, Kauai, Hawaii

Feature | Lihue, Kauai, Hawaii | 02 September 2021
With great passion and knowledge, Sabra Kauka is the kumu (teacher) of Hawaiian culture and hulu to new generations at the Island School on Kauai and beyond. She is recognised as one of the most influential Na Wahine Alakai (Women Leaders) in Hawaii. ILO Photos/ Kevin Cassidy
“Aloha ‘Āina, the love of the land and the love of the people, is the basis of our culture. Its in the presence of the breath of life and as human beings. Everyone we know has a spirit, a soul, a sense an energy and so it comes down to that essence of life” Sabra says revealing the core of the Hawaiian culture.

Sabra Kauka is a celebrated native Hawaiian cultural practitioner, ethnobotanist, and teacher of Hawaiian studies at the Island School in Lihue on the island of Kauai. When you meet Sabra, one can immediately feel her commanding, yet welcoming, presence.

“I have the wonderful job of teaching Hawaiian studies, music, culture, arts, and dance from kindergarten through 12th grade every week, and then high school hula. My secret to teaching as long as I have is I teach every other day. How good is that?” Kauka says with an engaging smile.

She is also a Coordinator for the Department of Education, with a focus on public schools, ensuring that she can continue to communicate traditional knowledge, as well as her love for the islands she calls home, to the next generation.

As part of her teaching curriculum, Kauka who is a fourteenth generation native Hawaiian, transfers traditional indigenous skills such as the making of kappa and hula. Kapa is an Hawaiian cloth made from the inner bark of the wauke plant (paper mulberry) which is both physically demanding and time consuming.

“I have been teaching students how to make kapa, which is the bark cloth that you see here, and we grow the plant right outside the door,” Sabra explains as she shows samples of the unique textured cloth and points outside to the plants. “So they've learned how to harvest it, how to clean it, how to prepare it, and how to pound little pieces of it,” she says of her students.

Bamboo stamps with elaborate designs known as Ohe Kapala are inked using natural dyes and stamped on to the kapa, creating various designs and patterns on the bark cloth. Clothing such as blankets known as kapa moe, loincloths called malo worn by men, and the kīhei wrap arounds as well as skirts for women known as pa’u, are clothing that were traditionally worn by native Hawaiians, Sabra states.

In Hawaii, a special cloth called kapa is made from the inner bark of the tree which is stripped, cleaned and pounded to stretch it out. With access to the wauke plant at the Island School, students have learned to harvest, clean, prepare, and produce kapa. ILO Photos/ Kevin Cassidy
In addition to kappa, Sabra also employs other hands-on activities to share with her students, to keep the distinctive Hawaiian culture alive and to inspire the next generation to carry-on traditional practices of the islands. “I always involve some hands-on activities whether it's making rope from coconut husk or making a lei,” she shares.

Prior to her role as a cultural practitioner and teacher of Hawaiian studies, Sabra held many different professions including that of a photojournalist, anthropologist, and environmentalist. She even worked as a Public Information Officer for one of Kauai’s Mayor’s.

Born into a military family meant Sabra had a rich and interesting upbringing overseas. And it was through this experience she recognised the importance of diversity, something which Hawaii has in abundance.

“My dad spent 22 years in the military so we lived all over the world. That has given me a very different perspective. When you live in different places and meet different people, you’re a little more open and accepting of diversity,” Sabra stresses.

As an adult, she went on to marry an air force pilot and continue to move around, but mostly within the U.S. “My husband at the time, joined the Air Force and flew big cargo planes. We moved to different places, such as Nebraska and Alaska, for 14 years. I loved Alaska,” Kauka said fondly.

“My degree is in Anthropology, and I did not want to work in a museum everywhere we moved. So I started writing and telling stories because I’m interested in people.” Telling stories led her to a 17 year career as a photojournalist, including some assignments for National Geographic.

“Those were the days when you really picked up the newspapers and read them, and there was an article that came out on the poor conditions of native Hawaiians,” Sabra notes. “And I said, ‘what happened to everybody?’ because the school that I graduated from was a Hawaiian school, a Kamehameha school, and it prepared us to spin out into the world,” she exclaims assertively.

“I felt the call to come home because of this article,” Kauka declares. This decision that would later lead her to her role as an elder sharing and transferring the rich Hawaiian traditions, customs, and ways of life.

Sabra includes musical instruments in her programme for teaching students about Hawaiian culture. Sabra is playing an ipu heke, produced by joining two gourds, that has a key role in hula by providing rhythm and sound for the dancers. ILO Photos/ Kevin Cassidy
Upon returning to Hawaii, Sabra took on a job working in the Mayor’s office. It was there that she met a group of Hawaiian Studies teachers who would convince her to embark on her current path. “I accepted a job in the Mayor's office here on Kauai as a Public Information Officer. One very cold, rainy day, a group of people came through singing Christmas carols, dancing hula, and having fun,” she recalls.

“I asked them who they were, and they told me they teach Hawaiian Studies. ‘Oh, tell me more about that,’ I said, and then their leaders started to come to my desk every couple of weeks and would bring me something to read. The day after I left the Mayor’s office, I went immediately to work in Hawaiian Studies, and I’ve been here ever since and I just love it,” Sabra says with a bright smile and sparkle in her eyes.

Among the many lessons and teachings she shares with her students, Sabra teaches her students “to feel a responsibility to take care of the land and to keep it beautiful by picking up their trash.”

Caring for both the earth and sea environments are very important to Kauka who says that the amount of plastic pollution coming onto the islands from the North Pacific areas is very concerning. “There's great concern, and awareness here on this island for the health of the land, the sea, and the air,” she says emphatically.

This concern comes from a connection to the land. “We are very blessed on this island to have an abundance of clear cold potable, running water,” says Sabra. “It's not that way everywhere in the world and but we have to take care of it. We have to keep our rivers clean, we have to keep them flowing, we have to keep it available to everyone on the island.”

In speaking about the wide diversity of people and cultures co-existing on Hawaii, Sabra tells us how Hawaii attracts people from all over the Pacific and beyond.

“It's the beauty of the land. Many of my friends have told me that it calls to them. It either calls to you or it bores you. For me, these islands are so beautiful. I love these islands and the special elements that come out of them: the spirit of the islands and the spirit of the people.”