How Hula Dancing Came to Arizona Prisons

April 8, 2013

Lillian Harwood with her husband, Delbert Wakinekona | Photo by Marco Garcia for Hyphen

Lillian Harwood is a minister and longtime Hawaiian sovereignty and social justice activist, as well as the wife of Delbert Wakinekona, whose dramatic
life story was explored in our piece
on Hawaiian prisoners in Arizona
, in Issue 26.

Along with her hanai
[adopted] sister LouAnn Tampos, Tampos's husband Edwin, and a hula teacher,
Harwood was the first to bring Native Hawaiian programs and rituals, like the
New Year celebrations (Makahiki), to Arizona prisons. She talks to Hyphen about how those island-centric
practices translated in the harsh deserts of the mainland Southwest.

Hyphen: How did you
and the others come up with the idea for the program?

Harwood: Once meeting the pa'ahao [inmates], I simply asked, "What can I do to serve
you?" They all came up with different ideas, and I just organized the
ideas into a curriculum.

What initially
inspired you to go to Arizona?

When the original warden, Warden Luna, approached me, it
was a matter of curiosity…he wanted someone to "share cultural information
[with] some men from Hawaii that are incarcerated in Florence, Arizona."
Once I saw how many of my people were separated from ohana [family] and homeland, my curiosity was quickly turned into a

Were most of the inmates already familiar with Hawaiian cultural practices?

The majority were oblivious to their culture. Many of their
parents were not raised in a cultural surrounding because it was forbidden. Our
language, customs were all taboo as late as the early 1980s, when a renaissance
began to rear its head. At this time many were becoming strong in the
historical facts of the illegal occupation of the U.S. in Hawaii and with that
the quest for more information from kupuna
[the elders] before they expired was full-on.

How long did it take to start up the program, and what kind of planning was involved?

It took about three additional meetings with the men to organize groups and sort out leaders who would continue to encourage the men to stay on-point each week.

Why do you think the original
prison warden, Warden Luna, was more supportive of the program than later

Warden Luna was of Hispanic heritage and understood that the
elimination of a culture caused confusion and disillusionment, [and loss] of a
sense of belonging. The inclusion of programs for identity would bring [the
men's] self-worth to a higher level and increase the possibilities for success
upon re-entry to mainstream society. He believed that one must first know where
they came from before they could know where they were able to go.

What were some of the
limitations of the program?

While under the guidance of Warden Frank Luna, there was
little to no limitation outside of the normal protocol for prison safety. But
once the men were transferred to Saguaro [Correctional Facility] under Warden Thomas and Assistant
Warden Gregio, the only participants of the program were those who signed up
for "Hawaiian Religion." Hawaiians do not have a
"religion," but a "way of life." In order to study and
participate in Hawaiian culture, the inmate had to sign up in this group, but
if you were a Catholic, Baptist, Muslim, or Buddhist, you could not attend
services performed on their sacred day. 

You spoke earlier
about the prison administration at Saguaro being not-so-supportive. How so? 

Federal government subsidizes the state government that pays
the contract [for the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the private prison company that operates Saguaro Correctional Facility]. So to whom would CCA be loyal to: the men incarcerated, or the one who writes the
paychecks? CCA would welcome any means to keep the inmates peaceful, but the Department
of Public Safety wanted the cash cow to remain a source of income for the
"fake" state, thus CCA follows the mandated orders of the Hawaii
Department of Public Safety.

So it benefits the
Department of Public Safety to keep more people locked up?

In my opinion, yes.

How were the Hawaiian
cultural classes incompatible with that?

We taught values as were taught by our
ancestors, identity, through genealogy to know your roots, where you come from,
in order to know where you can go, and comprehension of illegal occupation of [Hawaii].
The programs taught now, language, dance and…performing during the elected
holiday celebrations, keep [the men's] minds ignorant of the imbalance and
injustice of their sentencing. These inmates were tried and sentenced by a
foreign government, then against their will, kidnapped and held prisoner in a
foreign country...a war crime by all standards of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

did prisons look like in Hawaii before the U.S. entered the picture?

We had no penal system but we did have the
pu'uhonua, a place where anyone who
committed an offense would go to become pono:
in balance between God and self; aina
[land/community] and self; and man and self. While in the pu'uhonua, the "spiritual self" searched for the righteous
path to correct the error. Once done, the person would face the community and
inflict just punishment upon himself. The community would then decide if the
punishment was righteous or not...this is called ho'oponopono.  The crime never went unattended or was unfair to
either party. Ho'oponopono is a very
deep, profound practice and often quite lengthy.

now you and others are working to make a contemporary pu'uhonua in Hawaii, that could replace imprisonment in some cases.
How did that start, and what's happening with it right now?

The pu'uhonua that we envision is a land
that will provide for those who are willing to labor with love (malama aina) and care for it so that it
will care for us. For those who are coming out of prison, who have no finances,
job skills, goals, support system, preparation for mainstream society, and no
guidance, this place would give them housing, food, education in social graces,
work ethics, ho'oponopono [cultural
way of finding forgiveness], and closure for past indiscretions.

Along with other cultural practices of
healing the mind, body, and spirit, ho'oponopono
will welcome the family members, community and anyone who the pa'ahao may have offended to come into
the circle and find closure. We would provide housing while counseling the pa'ahao and family members.

Having pa'ahao
and ohana working together in the
taro patches, gardens, or elsewhere on the farm, feeling the warmth of the sun,
cooling the brow with tropical breezes, in conversation or meditation, we
believe that when the body is physically active, [the] mind is peacefully
processing, [and] the spirit begins to heal.

Working [as a nonprofit], we would
exchange lodging for labor and utilize grants and [sell produce grown on the
farm] as additional means of financial support. After a prescribed period of
time, when the individual realizes what skills they would like to embrace,
[such as] a plumber, or electrician, or carpenter, we would assign them to an
apprentice program for a more structured format.

I know from my personal journey that these
pa'ahao are broken. This
misunderstanding or hidden expectation that just because you are free of prison
[you] should be able to immediately adjust to what the outsider considers
'normal' behavior is the most common frustration for both parties and cause for
abusive behavior...physical, sociological, or chemical, leading to the large
numbers of recidivism.

Going back to
Arizona, did you ever hear from the men who were in the program, once they left

Yes I have kept in touch with several.  One who wanted to mentor children is now
living in Northern California and working with a Samoan community church.
Another is here in Hawaii and wanted to attend culinary school, and he is the
sous chef for a very popular restaurant.

hopes do you have for the men who are still in prison?

I hope that changes in policy can be made to cap the minimum
sentencing for parole to no more than 20 years. 
Right now, if sentenced at age 25, the minimum before applying for
parole is 50 years. The inmate would be 75 before eligible [for parole], and if
paroled, they would not qualify for Social Security and financial and medical
assistance, nor would they be able to work…so what good would a parole do?

What are your
favorite memories from the project?

The excitement the men showed each week as they perfected
their chants, hula, and music. The fun and laughter as they discussed the menu
for a ho'olaulea [celebration].

you hula?

I was a student of Puanani Alama's Hula
Halau back in the day. She was one of the top hula instructors and played parts
in many of the early tropical movies made here in the late '40s and up through
the '60s. I still dance on occasion…just for snickers and grins.