Hidden at the far corner of the University of Hawaii West Oahu campus sits Hale Kuahuoalā, a traditional Hawaiian open-air structure built on a rock wall base and shaded by a thatched roof.
This is where 80-year-old Lynette Kaopuiki Paglinawan, the campus kupuna-in-residence, prefers to hold her lectures.
“Nānā ka maka, hoʻolohe ka pepeiao, paʻa ka waha, hana ka lima,” she said, as a strong breeze rustled the surrounding ti leaves and lifts the fragrance of two ginger garlands around her neck. Observe with your eyes, listen with your ears, close your mouth and reflect, and work with your hands.
It’s an internal alert system of sorts. “That’s the Hawaiian way. You’re able to react and be more helpful,” she said.
Almost a dozen students — some of whom were community members participating without academic credit — leaned forward as they listened.
Aunty Lynette, as she is lovingly called by her students, is introducing the traditional Hawaiian practice of ho‘oponopono, which means to set right or bring about balance, as part of the new UH West Oahu bachelor’s degree concentration in Hawaiian and Indigenous Health and Healing.
She worked for decades as a social work educator at various UH campuses and hasn’t stopped teaching, even since her retirement in 1995. But this time, it feels different. In prior classrooms, Paglinawan felt strained to fit Hawaiian ways into a traditional western academic model.
“Here I don’t have that mold,” she said, smiling. “UH West Oahu picked me up, which opened the doorway to do the teaching where my heart is at.”
Paglinawan’s three-hour weekly course is one of a handful of new elective offerings in the degree program. In other classes, students learn about ancient Hawaiian practices including lomilomi (massage) and lāʻau lapaʻau (herbal medicines).
The intent isn’t to graduate Hawaiian health practitioners.
Instead, the program aims to produce health professionals that are attuned to traditional Hawaiian ways of healing to work more effectively in Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander and other underserved communities.
“You’re going to encounter a lot of challenges that have to do with life and death,” Paglinawan told the group. “If you’re going into the health field, there will be emergencies and crises, with no time to react. You have to be able to react immediately.”
Kauʻi Baumhofer, an assistant professor of indigenous health sciences, helped to design the program’s curriculum. She said she hasn’t seen anything like it elsewhere in the U.S., but it draws inspiration from similar programs in New Zealand, Australia and Canada.
“This is absolutely not a degree in traditional Hawaiian healing. That is not our place nor is it our responsibility and intention,” Baumhofer said.
“Our hope is that our graduates will go into health careers, and have a grounding in what it means to be healthy and well from a Native Hawaiian perspective. If one of their patients comes to them and says, ‘I take noni (a Polynesian fruit) for my diabetes,’ they won’t freak out and say not to.”
The degree includes required coursework in public health, ethics, health care policy and professional planning.
Students may continue their studies at the graduate level by pursuing a master’s degree in public health with a concentration in Native Hawaiian and Indigenous Health at University of Hawaii’s Manoa campus.
Paglinawan recounted how ho‘oponopono was resurrected in the 1960s and documented in “Nana I Ke Kumu,” a book that captures years of study at the former Queen Liliuokalani Children’s Center, a child welfare agency where Paglinawan once worked.
“This is the encyclopedia of mental health concepts that can arm the person in counseling or therapy to learn about where the person is coming from, and what they might be able to do to help them,” Paglinawan said.
It’s required reading for her class.
Ho’oponopono is considered a form of therapy and is often used to resolve disputes among families.
Paglinawan studied it under the tutelage of noted Hawaiian scholar Mary Kawena Pukui, who co-authored the book with E.W. Haertig, the Queen Liliuokalani Children’s Center’s psychiatric consultant.
Western training wasn’t always enough to prepare her for some of the issues faced by her patients. One of her patients was a mother who had been a patient at the psychiatric clinic at The Queen’s Health Systems.
“She had episodes of break downs three times in the past, and so they felt with the amount of medication she was taking to help depress her anxiety and depression, they needed to help her learn how to be a better parent,” she recalled.
Ultimately, she took the woman to consult with Pukui, who helped her interpret a nightmare, while Paglinawan helped her identify the “buttons” her children pushed to take the mother “off-balance.”
The traditional practice is still useful in modern day medicine and Paglinawan hopes students will go on to become culturally competent health care workers.
Jarlyza Mareko, 22, signed up for the course to learn more about how cultural healing can be incorporated in today’s clinical settings. The psychology major was born and raised on Oahu and has Samoan heritage.
“Ho‘oponopono class has really opened my mind and reminded me that I should refocus my passion and purpose in psychology,” Mareko said. “I want to focus on integrating Pasifika practices into the field. My career goals have never been clearer to me until now.”
Paglinawan assured her the course will come in handy as she embarks on her career.
“If you approach with aloha, they respond with aloha,” she said. “Patients appreciate you more.”
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