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  • One of my friends, middle school teacher, Pua Case, invited me to sit in on a classroom lecture at the HOEA gallery (Hawaiian Ohana for Education in the Arts) here in Waimea, Island of Hawai'i. The room of 7th and 8th graders had come to see a gallery show of Hawaiian artists. The art ranged from heartfelt amateur to master artisans. Pua told me how important it was for the students to see local artists at all levels – Hawaiian artists. Too often the local youth felt left behind in their own homeland and needed to see the accomplishments of their people.

    Here I was back in school again. The bad boy hiding out in the back of the classroom waiting for the bell to ring. I was ready to go after about ten minutes but stayed out of respect for my friend’s kind invitation. After some classroom exercises, Pua invited Hawaiian master artisan, Dean Ka'ahanui, to speak to the students.

    Dean was not a great speaker, or so I thought at first. His words came with a quietness that suggested one who didn’t speak often and wasn’t use to speaking in public. The students all sat as his feet as he explained his art to them. I stood in the back of the room with the teachers and listened.

    Dean is a master carver. Give him a shell, a bone, some reeds, a piece of wood and he’ll give you back a work of art. When he was a teenager he told his parents that he wanted to learn the ancient ways of carving and weaving. After some discussion with family and friends it was decided that he should go to Tahiti and study with a master artisan. Dean left the Big Island and traveled across the ocean to study. When he arrived in Tahiti the old master gave him a flute. Dean thought, “What does this have to do with learning how to carve?” The old man played him a song from the Marquesas Islands, home of the original Polynesians, then told him, “Learn to play this song of your ancestors, then come back to me when you are ready to learn more.”

    Dean practiced and practiced. He was terrible at first, but gradually got better. He spent all his time learning the instrument and the song his teacher had shown him. When he felt confident enough in his playing ability, he returned to the old man and played the Marquesas tune. His teacher smiled, took the flute from him and gave him a different flute with a higher pitch. “Now I will play a song from my home, Tahiti. Learn this song then come back when you are ready to learn more.”

    He learned to play the new song much faster as his skills had improved greatly with the first flute. Returning to the old man he played the Tahitian song. Again the old man smiled, took the flute from him, and gave him another. “This flute I have made as my gift to you. It is yours to keep. Go now and compose your own song. One that tells me of your heart and your love for your home. Come back when you are ready to learn more.”

    Dean spent many days composing a song that had meaning to him and spoke of his love for the rolling green hills of Waimea. When he played the song for his teacher the old man smiled and said, “Good. You have shown that you have discipline and heart, and that is what you must have to learn. I will teach you all I know. This is my gift to you. I will give you all that I have and hope that you pass my wisdom on to others.”

    For over a decade Dean studied with his teacher. He learned how to carve wood and bone, weave reads and coconut fiber, and etch beautiful designs on to the delicate surfaces of sea and turtle shells. One day his teacher approached him and simply said, “It is time for you to go home.”

    Now Dean is home. He rises before dawn to watch the sunrise. After breakfast he carves doing what he calls ‘the heavy work’. He takes a break for lunch and spends his afternoons doing the ‘beautiful work’, the intricate carvings and the polishing of shells. He puts his work aside in the late afternoon to watch the sun sink below the ocean’s horizon. In this way he communes with nature and God, which to him are the same. With the final rays of the sun he prays to God and gives thanks for the beauty in his life and all he has learned.

    The once chatty students sat silent and mesmerized. His simple story touched us all. He looked down at all the children and spoke to them in a soft and pleading manner, “Look around you when you go home. Look at your family. Talk to your elders. Your grandpa, your grandma. Your uncles and aunties. They have ancient wisdom for you, and you’ll miss them when they’re gone. This life is short. Cherish it. Take every moment into your heart, always with aloha for those around you.”

    I found myself tearing up. His simple words struck me as if they were a revelation. I noticed several of the teachers wiping their eyes, and all the students were quiet and still with respect and awe. He finished his talk with this invitation, “You might see me around town at the Farmer’s Market sometime. I don’t talk much. I might be sitting there weaving or carving, minding my own business, but don’t be afraid to come up to me and say aloha. I am here for all of you. And if you want to learn any of this wisdom that was given to me, it would be my gift to share it with you.”
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