Backstage at the Missoula Children’s Theater, Ka’aumoana Ahina sings a traditional Hawaiian prayer surrounded by Pacific Islander dancers. More likely than not, holding hands in a circle will become a pre-show tradition.
“I wish you folks a wonderful show,” Ahina says when he finishes singing. “Mahalo for everyone, for being a part of this ohana and this circle, and for your hard work and your time spent to make this possible.” He looks around the room. “Now, it’s time for us to share our aloha and share our culture, each and every one of us.”
It’s the night of the University of Montana Pacific Islanders Club’s first annual Luau, April 14. “A Journey to the Pacific” is an event members of the club have been planning all year. The Luau features traditional dance from the Pacific Islands, performed by members of the club, as well as guests from Halau Ka Waikahe Lani Mālie, a hula school based in Kalispell, Montana.
The Pacific Islanders Club is still relatively new at the University of Montana, but it is a powerhouse. The club meets every Sunday from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. to practice hula dance and performs at the UC International Festival. Pacific Islanders partnered up with the Black Student Union, the Native American
Center and the Mansfield Library for a number of events. It was voted ASUM Student Group of the Year in 2017, its first semester as a recognized student group. Ahina is the man behind it all.
Ahina is a non-traditional student at UM. When he first moved to Montana, he realized he missed the diversity of his home in Hawaii. One day, at the Adams Center gym, Ahina approached Jolyn Tausa and asked her if she was from the Pacific Islands (Tausa is Samoan, but was raised in Hawaii), and suggested the two of them start a group for friends to meet and share their Pacific culture. That was almost two years ago.
“At first, it just started as a thing to find commonalities with each other and find oth- ers just like us on campus. And it was just to hang out and eat,” Tausa, a junior and the vice president of the club, said. “That’s what we do in our culture, we have fellowship around food.”
Tausa and Ahina started to gather a group of people together, meeting for meals at the Food Zoo. But, it quickly became more.
Ahina suggested cooking meals they missed most from home and inviting friends to be a part not only of their meals but of their style of living, too.
“We became more interested in creating this circle of family,” Ahina said. “And it just overwhelmingly blew up.”
“I started to realize, do I get homesick?” he asked. “Or do I start to create a family here?”
The progression from gathering for meals to practicing hula was pretty fast. Ahina and another member of the group, Nā Kuma ‘Au- kai La’a, are Kuma Hula, or hula masters.
Tausa says Ahina and La’a offered to start teaching classes every Sunday for free. She says the classes are open to everyone, not just students. Classes are held in the ballroom on the third floor of the University Center.
Before he moved to Missoula, Ahina taught at his own hula school in Hawaii for 12 years as a Kuma Hula. Not just anyone can be a Kuma Hula, according to Ahina.
“You need to be selected. You need to be asked,” Ahina said. “You need to be chosen to be a Kuma Hula and to teach the sacred dance and the sacred language of the Hawaiian people. I had that blessing of many people to be able to put together a style, a teaching. It was definitely a blessing.”
The group planned to have an authentic islander meal before the dance performances to continue the tradition of gathering around food. Some of the club’s family members flew all the way up from Hawaii to help prepare the event. The club calls them the “Dream Team.”
April-Sue Kahuhu is a member of the Dream Team and a mother of one of the club members. She’s the woman in charge of desserts. She points some of them out; there are tea cookies, banana bread and a coconut pudding called Haupia.
“I did this in my hotel room,” she says, gesturing to the table full of desserts.
The Dream Team is just another example of a phrase repeated throughout the entire night: sharing aloha.
Some members explain that it’s genuine kindness, it’s genuine love; it's making sure everyone is part of a home. Ahina explains the actual translation of the word; “Alo” means life, “Ha” means breath.
“So together, you’re giving someone that breath of life,” Ahina said. “Those two elements put together means more to an indi- vidual when you can give them your breath of life. And so ‘aloha’ truly is not just a greeting, it’s a way of life. And when we bring people into our circle, and we draw people into what we’re doing, what we’re doing is we’re bringing people into our life.”