GRIC Culture Teachers Visit Hawaiian Immersion Schools



[Front Row: Sharon Shelde. Middle Row: Alta Hymer, Francine Sanchez, Alicia Suchta, Pau Gomes (Immersion School), Jo'Lin Colburn (Hawaiian Presenter), Eugenia Apkaw, Paul Kepka (Immersion School). Back Row: Ann McCommas, (AIM Seminars) Arlene Hughes, Leonardine Enos, Gwen Paul. Not Pictured: Francisco Osife]

Sacaton, Arizona -- The Immersion Schools of Hawai`i mirror the rebirth of cultural programs here, in Arizona. The stories that have marked the poignant history of the Southwest have also left Native cultures reeling from the after effects, where people are still suffering, still living in economical and emotional depression, still grieving the loss of their ancestry. In this magnitude of emotions cultures have been completely cut off, silenced and numbed to their archaic traditions.

When a Nation loses their identity, when the soul of their tribe is damaged, the healing process will naturally occur. But it takes time before the rebuilding of a Nation can begin.

The essence of a land and it's People are constant. As a Tribe rebuilds, grieves, and then heals, then they can more easily remember and find respect and value for the ways of the past. And the old ways then become the new rituals. As a Nation’s dynasty rises from the ashes it evolves past the present and into the miracle of being reborn.

AIM (Attitude, Insight & Motivation) Seminars has been designing and facilitating seminars, retreats, and conferences for Native Americans since 1980. In April, of this year, the Educational Department of Gila River Indian Community sent nine of their cultural teachers to O‘ahu, Hawai`i with AIM Seminars for an exchange of traditions with Native Hawaiians.

The success of the Immersion Schools in Hawai`i prompted AIM Seminar's to integrate the cultural development of Southwestern Tribes to the work being done by Hawaiian Natives. Public Hawaiian-language immersion pre-schools, called Punana Leo (language nest) were first opened illegally, in 1984, in Kekaha, Kauai. From 1896 until 1986 teaching of the Hawaiian language was outlawed.



The Pūnana Leo curriculum was modeled after the 19th century Hawaiian-language schools, and the Kohanga reo Māori language kindergartens in New Zealand. Native Hawaiians have successfully launched and developed the Pūnana Leo project. Pūnana Leo is recognized as the first indigenous language immersion preschool project in the United States. The revitalization of the Hawaiian language has created 11 Pūnana Leo preschools on five of the Hawaiian islands: Hawai‘i, Maui, Moloka‘i, O‘ahu and Kaua‘i.

Joyce Hughes was hired in 2007 to coordinate the Culture Teachers at GRIC. She worked with AIM Seminars to put together a motivational program for GRIC’s traditional teachers.

GRIC is the evolution of two tribes, the Akimel O’odham (Pima) and the Pee-Posh (Maricopa), banded together to fight off their enemies in the late 1800s. The two groups have their own traditions. The tribe works to preserve these traditions. As well as the blended customs created from over a century of co-existence.

[Right: Hawaiian immersion instructors present to GRIC members.]

Ann McCommas, the Founder of AIM Seminars, works directly with the Tribal Leaders that attend her seminars. She commented, “In addition to the Hawaiian Natives we meet and the sacred sites we see, our seminar is designed with time for self care, quiet reflection, journaling, talking circles, and creative visualization exercises. The women and men who attend lead busy lives with multiple responsibilities, so my joy comes from assisting them in discovering the "Huna within" the gifts and strengths that are uniquely their own.”

Sharon Shelde, a Cultural Teacher for children in kindergarten through eighth grade at Gila Crossing CommUnity School, in Laveen, Arizona; attended the Hidden Hawaii Training. Shelde said, “Seeing the places we toured and to hear about the Hawaiians, their ways of life, their Royalty places, their plants that they are losing just as we are here too, I learned about a far away people which were not to different from us in some ways.”

The Immersion Schools of Hawai`i have taught more than 10,000 Native Hawaiians to speak their language fluently. On the west side of O'ahu is the Kamaile Elementary Immersion School. Students at Kamaile are taught their Native tongue, dances, culture and traditions.

Shelde said, “I felt it was very interesting how they worked their program, they found different ways to teach the language and their old way of life, their traditions.”

“I plan to correspond with the school we visited and exchange ideas on how to encourage learning the language of our tribes. I would like very much to start a pen pal program between our schools.”

Jo`Lin Kaleonahenaheokalani Colburn, a Native Hawaiian who works with AIM Seminars, said, “I believe the greatest message that was given to the visitors was the fact that aloha (love) is the essence of their program. A total well-being of the keiki (children) is their primary goal. Programs have been specifically tailored to the needs of their ever changing community. Many of the keiki are homeless in their district so enrollment constantly fluctuates during the year. They have created programs where parents come to have small meals and do homework with their children in the early mornings or in the early evenings so their school often functions from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.”



[Left: GRIC members enjoy some of the hidden treasures of Hawaii]

Joyce Hughes, the GRIC Cultural Coordinator, said “I would say that the one difference at Kamaile is the Core Values Award. I feel this program is remarkable for students and parents because it helps continue to build character as well as inspire to learn and receive a tangible reward which helps them out immensely.

I like the fact that students and parents can come to the school and are given the freedom to do many other things at the school besides learn. They can bathe, wash clothing, as they learn about who they are as Hawaiian people.”

Hughes said, “We are very much the same. But I learned that we, teachers, community members, tribal leaders and I, need to seriously look at what we have at home. A good example is Jo’Lin’s story about the rocks. If you saw the rocks or boulders you would think that they are just rocks. Some rocks and boulders do have a special meaning and purpose. I see it here at home, that we do not appreciate our own rocks even though they have a special purpose and meaning. We need to educate about these things and not let outsiders buy or take that from us. We must teach and re-teach that these types of topics are important. We must include all of who we are, what we are about, along with the language. All culture teachers will tell you that culture and language go together. This example proved it.”

The GRIC representatives also visited many other historical places on the Island. They were guided through Waimea Valley by Hawaiian Kupunas (Elders) who shared the importance and the role this valley played in Hawaiian history. They were able to see indigenous plants and vegetation, some hundreds of years old.

Eugenia Apkaw is a Cultural Teacher at Ira H. Hayes High School in Bapchule, Arizona. She has 28 students in her program.

Apkaw said, “Wild spinach grows here when there is a lot of rain. I take the students around the building where it grows. We have five different varieties. Two are extinct now. I teach the students the different types and when they will grow.”

They visited the Kukaniloko Birthstones State Monument, in Wahiawa, O`ahu. When visiting the Monument Colburn taught, “Kukaniloko is the most significant cultural site on O`ahu and in Hawai`i. It is recognized as the birthing site of highest ranking children. One's birth at Kukaniloko legitimizes their high ranking and established their right to be leaders and Chiefs of society. Kukaniloko is celebrated in recorded traditions of the Chiefly lines of O`ahu.”

Jo`Lin Colburn works with AIM Seminars and is one of the Cultural Monitors for the State of Hawai`i. She is a Native Hawaiian artist, performer, published writer, storyteller, and co-creator of Sisters in Spirit, a group blending Native Hawaiian and Native American traditions, Culture and Spirituality.

The trip included a visit with other Kupunas at the Traditional Hawaiian Healing Center. Here they received an introduction to La`au Lapa`au (Hawaiian healing plants). They also visited the Polynesian Cultural Center, and the sacred Hawaiian site of Whaiawa, The Sacred Uplands, where the Highest Chiefs were born.

Hughes stated, “We must learn how to protect what little we still have. I feel we must become selfish for our own good in regards to what belongs to GRIC, the land, culture, language, and traditions. We must instill and help our students learn the pride and value that belong to the Akimel O’Odham and Pee Posh.”

Shelde said, “I am teaching the language, traditions, and the old way of life and the history of the Akimal O’otham. I know things will never really change back to the old ways but I want the children to know their history and where their beginnings are.”

Jo’Lin reminds us, “Ohana is the Hawaiian word for family and the education provided at Kamaile Immersion School extends into the Ohana in order to strengthen and establish foundation for our Hawaiian Nation through Aloha.”

Ann McCommas will be leading additional trainings to Hawai'i this Fall and facilitating Stress Management classes for Tripler Army Medical Center on O’ahu.

McCommas said, "I've been blessed to visit the beautiful Hawaiian Islands. I love sharing the authentic Hawaiian Culture, the Hidden Hawaii that tourists never see.

Bringing the two groups together, in a multi-cultural setting has been fascinating. In exploring both their similarities and differences, participants have been able to more clearly define who they are individually. Participants can then integrate what they have learned into their personal and professional lives. This strengthens each individual and the cultures."

Native Hawaiians’ political and social struggle for their culture has lasted for more than a century in Hawai`i. These battles resulted in the Hawaiian language being recognized as the official language of Hawai`i in 1978. The rebirthing of their People and culture continues as each keiki is taught their traditions. And as one more Native Hawaiians remember and practice their customs.

For additional information on AIM (Attitude, Insight, Motivation) Seminars contact Ann McCommas at (480) 730-0165, This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or

You are here: