Q&A: Kumu Earl Kawa‘a Teaches More Than Just Woodworking Classes
The revered kumu has taught poi board and stone classes to more than 5,000 students.
Photos: Courtesy of Keiki O Ka ‘Āina
For nearly a decade, Earl Kawa‘a has carried on the Hawaiian tradition of making handcarved poi boards and stone poi pounders, in partnership with nonprofit Keiki O Ka ‘Āina. Kawa‘a, 73, grew up on Moloka‘i during a time when almost every family he knew had a poi board and pounder.
A Hawaiian resource specialist at Kamehameha Schools, Kawa‘a, who is called Uncle Earl or kumu by many of his more than 5,000 students, hopes to continue offering these board and stone classes so generations of families understand the significance of the tradition. We sat down with him to learn more about his background, his experiences and his teachings.
HONOLULU Magazine: Why did you start teaching the board and stone classes?
Earl Kawa‘a: Every family on the east end of Moloka‘i had a minimum of two boards and maybe five or seven stones in every home. It was normal for every family to pound poi. We pounded about 150 pounds a week. We ate poi maybe two to three meals a day—fish and poi. Poi and salt. Poi and poi. Poi was always, always present.
In 2006, a co-worker asked me to go back to Moloka‘i to teach poi pounding. I was ecstatic because I was going to teach at the school that I went to. But all I could find on Moloka‘i for that event were two boards and one stone. I took 15 boards and stones from O‘ahu to teach the class. I was heartbroken. I was so distraught by it that it bothered me for years.
In 2010, there was a TEDx talk, and at that point, I coined the phrase, “a board and stone in every home.” That came about because I was traumatized by what I had called the end of Hawaiian cultural practice. It had to be revived.
HM: How many people sign up for your classes?
EK: I do a two-hour orientation. I say, “None of you are in the class. You have to hear what the requirements are and then decide.” There are over 400 families who attend my orientation classes, but not all of them stay.
I say, “My job tonight is to weed out. But I’m not going to weed you out; you’re going to decide whether you can handle the rigor.” It’s a high level. It requires discipline. It requires commitment.
When we start the class, we may have about 120 families. After nine weeks, we probably end up with about 50 to 60 families who finish.
HM: What is your approach to teaching?
EK: Ask me a question, and rather than answering your question, I’ll tell you a story. You then will find your answer through that story.
I’m a teacher, but my degree is in counseling and social work. I am schooled in both worlds. I’m schooled in the professional and schooled in Hawaiian culture. I’m able to walk on both sides of the line comfortably. But my baseline is my culture.
The teaching is not a shop class. My classes are highly structured. I am more interested in the higher level of learning. They have to learn the strokes in Hawaiian. They have to learn the grains of the colors. It’s about reviving the culture.
It’s also another way of strengthening families. Family strengthening and leadership are a natural part of my output.
Whatever concept I talk about, there is a driving principle. It’s not about what I think, it’s what I know and what’s handed down to me. My opinions don’t count. It’s ancestral knowledge that counts, and I’m the keeper of that knowledge and the teacher of that knowledge.
When they take the class, they realize that what they are learning, they cannot find elsewhere. I repeat again and again because it is only through me that you can get the information. I don’t hand out papers. If you hand it to me on paper, I’ll read it tonight and talk to my friends in class.
HM: So, family values are an important part of your classes?
EK: There is a great need for family togetherness. As wonderful a job as they are doing with their families, they find out there is more to learn when they take the class. I talk about the importance of education, and where education fits in the spectrum of Hawaiian culture.
The children just absolutely love it. The two youngest were 6 years old. I say to the families, “Every child in the class is your child.”
A dad says, “When I began this class, I wasn’t sure if I could handle this class. Long story short, I’m glad I did. I’m a better father, and my son likes being with me.” A woman said (about her husband), “I fell in love with him all over again.” Those stories are repeated again and again and again.
There’s no question that for those who finished, the board and stone has changed their lives.
HM: What do you do in your spare time? Or a better question may be, do you have spare time?
EK: No, I don’t have spare time. I go to bed regularly at about 2 a.m. In the board and stone class, the first requirement is to write a protocol (a pule about why you’re taking the class). If there [are] 100 families, it’s 200 readings. I read it and go over it. It doesn’t end.
I am where I am because of my wife. I like writing poetry. I also write songs. I’ve lived a long life. I’ve had a lot of experiences.
For more information on the board and stone classes, visit koka.org or call 843-2502.