Talk Story with Sabra Kauka

Celebrated as one of the most influential Na Wahine Alakai (Women Leaders) of Kauai, Sabra Kauka shares her passion for Hawaiian culture by educating keiki and kupuna. The 72-year-old native practitioner serves as kumu of Hawaiian studies and hula at Island School and as the coordinator of Hawaiian Studies on Kauai for the Department of Education. As team member of the Kulia i Ka Nuu Project at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and Kumu Kapa on Kauai, she has taught hundreds of students.

Kauka is founding member and past-president of grassroots nonprofit, Na Pali Coast Ohana, dedicated to preserving natural and cultural resources of the Napali Coast State Park. Her work at the ancient Hawaiian village, Nualolo Kai, is considered one of the most successful curator programs in Hawaii. She still serves on the Garden Island Resource Conservation and Development board to restore cultural sites for future generations.

She has also been a journalist, historian, environmentalist, anthropologist, political public information officer, dedicated activist and grandmother. The Lihue resident continues her work to benefit the island community and beyond.

Please tell us about your diverse background.

I was public information officer for JoAnn Yukimura during her first term as mayor. Prior to that I had a career in journalism for the better part of 20 years. My former husband was in the Air Force, so we moved every few years. My degree was in anthropology, but I didn’t want to work particularly in museums. So I began to write. Then I found I could make almost twice as much money with a photograph than with the writing. But you really do need both, so I started getting assignments.

How did journalism lead you on a path to become a cultural leader?

I’m originally from Hawaii and went to school in Oregon for two years. I came back to Hawaii and finished at University of Hawaii in Manoa in anthropology. I always had an interest in people, so to me it’s kind of natural. I always like a good story and enjoy telling stories. I started publishing in Omaha, Nebraska, and lived in Alaska for 14 years. One of my professors at University of Alaska, Fairbanks, where I did post-graduate work in journalism, said “Write about what you know, what’s around you, what you’re doing.” My children were young at the time, and one of the first stories I published was for a children’s publication.

I started sending out query letters to National Geographic, Time, Life and all these cool magazines and getting assignments in Alaska — a Hawaiian girl in Alaska. In 1983, there was a Native Hawaiian studies federal commission report that came out about the poor state of Native Hawaiians in Hawaii. I wondered what happened to everybody.

When the last Kamehameha passed, she set aside her entire estate, which is considerable, to the benefit of educating Hawaiian children. I’m a beneficiary of that estate. Though at the time, I probably didn’t appreciate it as much as I do now, because it was a lot of work. I was at school at Kamehameha and was a boarding student for two years. … I’m really grateful for the education I received there and for the mentors I’ve had over my life. Now it’s important to me to mentor the next generation.

What projects are you working on right now?

One of the projects I have going on right now is at Island School. A graduate of the school, Will Lydgate, has Steelgrass Farm in Wailua, and he’s growing chocolate, among other things. We’re designing a logo for his chocolate with kapa designs. He brought his team to my school where I grow the plants I need to make kapa. They harvested the kapa, cleaned it off the stick and pounded it on a stone. The second time, they pounded it on wood, then put a watermark on it, which is unique to Hawaiian kapa. Last night I let it dry, today we’ll go back, make the dyes and bamboo stamp it.

This is all a result of an Associated Press article that came out in the newspaper in Alaska on the poor conditions of Native Hawaiians in Hawaii. That brought me to my passion to return home, to be of service to the community through Hawaiian culture and the arts.

How has your experience with teaching impacted you as an educator?

After Hurricane Iniki, Island School had moved their campus. They’ve been around for 40 years now. It started in those little buildings in Kealia. Right before the hurricane, they moved to that property near Kauai Community College on the Puhi campus. All these donated buildings started coming into the campus, and during Iniki the roofs flew off. When they started there, they wanted someone to come in and teach Hawaiian studies. I’ve been there ever since, over 20 years now.

I had been teaching Hawaiian studies in public schools through the Hawaiian Studies Kumu Program and enjoying that. I taught first at Kalaheo, then Koloa School. Then Island School picked me up, and I continued to teach for a year at both public and private. It became too much, so I concentrated just on Island School. But there was an opportunity again to work for public school, both part-time jobs with some flexibility in the schedule. All my grandsons go to public school, so I wanted to save some time to contribute to public school as well.

What kinds of programs are you doing with the students?

Two weeks ago, the Hokulea came to Kauai. I went Sunday, spent the whole day there, had a wonderful time, did our protocol, greeted the canoe. Then I went down on Monday, because both Kilauea and Island School were going to tour Hokulea. I have a team of educators who focus on marine education; Captain Steve Soltysik is one of them. We started teaming up over 20 years ago when I was teaching at Koloa, and I wanted to find a way to tell the story of Hokulea.

Steve and I started hashing out ideas and before I know it, here he comes with all these pieces of canoe. We decided to concentrate on fourth-grade classes, so every child on Kauai in fourth-grade would make a little canoe they could sail. We’ve been doing this for 20 years now. We outgrew his carport, so we found partners with KCCC, the jail and wood shop. We found partners with Home Depot, and they give us all their old wood. Steve fills up the back of his truck, takes it to the prison, and they cut it.

This year there are 37 fourth-grade classes on Kauai, and we’re going to do a quick lesson on navigation and building the little canoe. I’m thrilled at the opportunities to educate our youngsters on Kauai with hands-on lessons.

It sounds like you are staying busy. What else are you doing?

Monday I’ll be at Kilauea with fifth- and sixth-grade classes. We’re going to release petrels at Kilauea National Wildlife Refuge. Last year they started bringing them down from their mountain burrows, because the wild cats are going up there now and attacking them. So they have a predator-free area at Kilauea at a place called Nihoku, and the fence is amazing. It goes around and up high enough so the cats, the rats, the mice can’t get in there. This offers them a measure of protection.

How else do you share your passion for educating keiki?

What’s key is having a teacher at each school who is passionate about conservation, about nature, about Hawaiian culture, sailing, the winds, taking care of the earth. You’ve got to find that person in there who’s willing to do the extra work. With some of the schools, it’s a matter of funding with the bus.

I was at a strategic planning conference in Honolulu, when the Hokulea returned a few months ago to Hawaii after its worldwide sail. The Polynesian Voyaging Society convened on voyaging into the future. What are we going to do for the next few years to continue teaching our children about caring for the Earth? We realized in order to get our students to the Hokulea when it is here, they need bus money.

Someone donated bus money, because on Tuesday I’m taking Island School to Kamalani Playground Bridge to bless and release the shearwaters.

On Wednesday, I’m combining both the Hawaiian studies kupuna, the elders, and a fourth- and fifth-grade class from Kanuikapono Public Charter School in Anahola to bless and release the shearwaters. I’m so excited about that, because Kanuikapono needed bus money.

That means I’ve got 32 students from Anahola and the Hawaiian studies kupuna. It’s the first time that my Hawaiian studies kupuna will have a chance to see this bird release too. I’m so thrilled to be a part of it.

What other important things do you teach your students about the island?

I have a Hawaiian garden right adjacent from my classroom, and I have one of the most beautiful classrooms ever. I think it’s about seven or eight years old now, and part of the funding was provided by the Frear Foundation. My classroom is right next to the reservoir, so I have all these beautiful native birds that come in and nest there. The heron comes in and stands still waiting for a good meal. The nene come in.

The kolea (Pacific golden plover) are here. Thank goodness, they were a little late this year, I was concerned about them. They usually come back by the end of August, but I didn’t see them until September this year. It’s so fun to watch them. As they come in they’re so skinny, because they just migrated. Every year I do a unit on the native birds, so they understand the significance of them, what they tell us, what we can learn from them, and their importance to the ecosystem.

What is one of your most important achievements?

At this stage in my life, it’s really important to me to make sure the next generation is in place to continue leading these projects. I served as president of Na Pali Coast Ohana for years. So Na Pali Coast Ohana has been a project of interest and passion for 25 years. Before Hurricane Iniki, we took our first re-interment of ancestral remains back to the ancient village site where they came from. To be included in that small boatload of people who went in was really in retrospect a life-changing moment. I had no idea the impact such a simple trip would make on me, my life, my direction, my contributions to the island, to the community.

When we first went in you could hardly see six feet in front of you; there were so many weeds and it was so overgrown. But through the weeds you could see all these beautiful stone structures, graves and a well. So we took these remains back, and I have to acknowledge Hui Malama. Their number one mission included NAGPRA (Native American Graves Repatriation And Protection Act), federal legislation that any university or museum receiving federal funds returns remains of native peoples to their place of origin. The first remains started coming home to Kauai in 1992 with Iniki. We took them back to Na Pali Coast.

What inspired you to preserve this area and start the Na Pali Coast Ohana?

On that trip somebody said, gee this place is so beautiful somebody should really take care of it. They looked at me, and I said don’t look at me, I got to make a living. But over the years, we’ve gone in on work trips for 22 years. It took us a couple years to form our nonprofit, Na Pali Coast Ohana, and our first president was a doctor from Hanapepe for a couple of terms, then he passed away. I was his vice president, so I stepped up.

Over the years we go in for five days at a time on our work trips. It takes a day to get in, a day to set up, and a day to crash everything and come out. We have three days solid where we just work, cleaning, clearing, pulling weeds and things. I love doing botany work and got a grant from Hawaii Tourism Authority to put in a botanical demonstration garden.

How did you develop the native garden at the ancient Hawaiian village, Nualolo Kai?

I partnered with Dr. David Burney at the National Tropical Botanical Garden, and we came up with a plan. We had funding from HDA to fly in fencing and the cowboys on Kauai who know how to do fencing. We had a university class and Island School seniors who put up that fencing in one day.

The next day the helicopters brought the plants in that Dr. Burney knew grew there, because they had studied the soil samples. We’re pretty sure we know what used to grow there before the goats came in and ate everything. Once we put that fence up and brought the plants in, it was just amazing. There is freshwater there in a well, and we set up a system. Our volunteers keep stuff running and get it going, fill up the water tank and put the drip line in, so the plants have enough to start. Once their roots go down, they hit that groundwater and boom.

Where else has your work taken you?

This summer I took the team to the World Indigenous Peoples Conference on education in Toronto. It was fun with 3,500 people dedicated to indigenous education around the world. We’re all sharing our stories. So we took our canoe lessons we do here, and we took the small compass maps. In Hawaii we put the Hawaiian words for north, south, east, west, but we didn’t want to do that to all these other nations. We had a dozen of these that we gave out to them. The Aborigines from Australia took one, Northwest Indians took one, and they all came up with the names in their language of the cardinal directions. We were so happy.

What amazed me were the stories they shared. The Aborigines don’t have waterfalls, streams, rivers like we do. They get their water from roots of plants. They have to move around a large area, because it doesn’t take too long before you deplete so many roots. It’s amazing where they live, and at some point I want to go to Australia. They are hosting the next World Indigenous Peoples Conference on Education. I want time for all these fascinating opportunities.

What message would you like to share with the community?

Share love for one another. It’s just so important to continue the message of Malama Honua to take care of the earth, to take care of our island, to take care of our water, to take care of our resources. The native plants that grow here are very important to this ecosystem. In that light I also congratulate Hui Malama Huleia, another organization I serve on their board, and Garden Island RC&D, been on their board for many years, they umbrella many of my grants for kupuna.

What are your plans for the future?

Throughout the course of my life, I’ve just had some wonderful people who have shown me a beautiful path, who have set me on my path and helped me along the way. At this stage in my life, it’s very important for me to do the same for youngsters today. I’ve got family, so many good friends, it’s really wonderful. I’ve got challenging, interesting, exciting work. I feel really blessed.

  1. Melanie Brown September 13, 2019 1:50 pm Reply

    I just want to say, “Hi,” to Sabra. I visited the Wisdom Weavers website because I met Larry Merculief last night and wanted to learn more about his work with the elders and I saw Sabra’s profile.
    Sabra, if you see this, I am Emily Ivanoff Brown’s granddaughter and I remember meeting you a couple of times when you were traveling with my grandmother through Anchorage and came to my parents’ home.
    I am so happy to see that you are doing such profoundly beautiful work.
    Melanie Brown

    1. Jim Simmen August 21, 2020 3:25 am Reply

      I am trying to contact you about a trip you took to McNeil River in Alaska.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


By participating in online discussions you acknowledge that you have agreed to the TERMS OF SERVICE. An insightful discussion of ideas and viewpoints is encouraged, but comments must be civil and in good taste, with no personal attacks. If your comments are inappropriate, you may be banned from posting. To report comments that you believe do not follow our guidelines, send us an email.