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‘Community of Hei’ workshops teach an ancient Hawaiian tradition

The ancient Hawaiian method of communicating and recounting stories by creating string figures, known as hei, was the focus of a series of workshops during the spring 2018 semester at Hawai‘i Community College and the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo. 

“In the Hawaiian language, the word hei means to net, ensnare, entangle — and furthermore to be adept and absorb knowledge or a skill,” said Rebecca Jacobs, an English instructor at Hawai'i CC, who helped lead the workshops. “Hei is also the term for a string figure.”

The purpose of the workshops was to share this form of indigenous knowledge with the campuses and the wider community; to help preserve the tradition; and to promote indigenous health and wellness. Attendees of the workshops learned traditional Hawaiian chants, the mythology behind the chants, and the hei string figures that accompany them.

“What distinguishes the hei from a children's string figure game is the purpose and the ka'ao (historical event and story) of the mele (chant),” said Jacobs. “Without the story and words there is no intentionality; the history is not there. This use of a string to record history can in some ways be paralleled with the physical process of writing a story. With each twist of the hei, a piece of the story is relived. Every detail of the story is necessary to include in order to create the final ki‘i (image). ”

The Community of Hei workshops are the most recent example of hei being incorporated at the Hawai‘i CC and UH Hilo campuses. During the past several years, hei have been used in English, Hawai’i Life Styles, Geography, Philosophy and Anthropology classes at Hawai‘i CC. 

Based on this experience, Yolisa Duley, Ph.D., assistant professor of Sociology at UH Hilo proposed the Community of Hei workshops, which were a collaboration of Hawai‘i CC and UH Hilo.

Students and faculty presented the Community of Hei project at the Hawaii Sociological Association Conference on February 25, 2018 that included attendees from UH Mānoa, Hawai‘i CC, UH Hilo, George Washington University, and other academic institutions across the country. After the event, one of the student presenters wrote about their experience at the conference:

“Words can’t explain the feelings…running through me at full speed,” wrote one student participant. “Driving away I broke down in tears of happiness and new beginnings for me. It was truly one of the best experiences I’ve had in a long time. I am very humbled by yesterday’s experience and the opportunity to reconnect myself to my genealogy …”

“The hei is a representation of the connection to one's mother as through an umbilical chord,” added Jacobs. “This connection therefore also connects the person holding the hei to his or her genealogy and ancestral memory; it is a connection of what was, what is, and what may be. This concept grounds learners in their potentiality to be successful in academia and in their futures.”

This is an approved activity of the Mōkaulele Program, Office of the Chancellors University of Hawai‘i Hilo and Hawai‘i Community College. This is a collaborative project between the UH Hilo Office of the Chancellor Mokaulele Project, the Hawai‘i Community College Office of the Chancellor, Hawai‘i CommunityCollege Hawaiian Lifestyles Program, the UH Hilo Suicide Prevention Committee, UH Hilo Sociology Department, University of Hawai‘i at Hilo Student Association and Kīpuka Native Hawaiian Student Center in our endeavor to implement Hawai‘i Papa O Ke Ao, the system-wide plan for the University of Hawai‘i to become a model indigenous serving institution.