Hawaiian scholar from the roots up
WAIMEA — Grounded in strong Waimea roots, Emalani Case branched out across the Pacific the past four and a half years to Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand to earn her PhD in Pacific studies and a teaching fellowship. Earlier this month she returned home as the first Kanu o ka Aina graduate to earn a doctorate degree, and in January will begin teaching Hawaiian and Pacific studies at UH-West Oahu.
Case’s story begins in Waimea, her taproot in Hawaiian culture and language.
“I’ve always had a strong cultural foundation. I grew up dancing hula with Pua (Case) before I ever went to school, so that really set the foundation for me,” she said.
Those strong roots have nourished Case as she has engaged in an odyssey of story, and an exploration of Pacific Islander culture.
“Hula taught me how to see the world as being storied. It doesn’t allow you to step into the world as an unconscious traveler. Every rock, every mountain, every river has a story that is connected to people. It set that foundation for wherever I go in the world. You have to understand story and you have to understand your place within that story. It’s humbling,” she said.
The Hawaiian language has always been at the center of Case’s educational endeavors. Born in 1983, Aha Punanaleo o Waimea — whose original director was her mother, Keomailani Case — opened too late for her to attend. But Case’s Hawaiian language roots were nourished by the burgeoning efforts of Ku and Nalei Kahakalau, founders of Kanu o ka Aina New Century Public Charter School.
“Kanu o ka Aina definitely played a big role in everything that I did. I can’t even express how thankful I am that Aunty Ku was able to show me at a young age that our histories, our stories, truly mattered,” she said. “We could really acknowledge who we are and who our ancestors were at every point of the day and that our education can revolve around that. She truly set me on my path.”
Her love of story led Case to earn a B.A. in English at UH-Hilo.
“I initially went into English because that was where I could really learn about the craft and engage in reading stories from all over the world. I’m a lover of words and language. I wanted to learn about writing and telling stories from different perspectives and languages,” she said.
After completing her B.A., Case continued in English receiving an M.A. in English from U.H. Manoa, interweaving her cultural and academic experiences.
“I took everything I had with the bachelor’s degree and everything that I had growing up in hula, and that’s where I to started to explore literature about Hawaii and the Pacific,” she said.
When Case completed her master’s degree, needing to work and take a break from studies, she began a teaching position.
“I was blessed to be offered an instructor position in the English department at UH-Hilo,” she said. “I taught there for a couple of years and was then offered an amazing assistant professor position in Hawaiian studies. For four years I taught a mix of English and Hawaiian language and Hawaiian studies courses.”
Her roots and varied experiences were pushing her to reach further, which she did by pursuing a PhD in Pacific Studies.
“While I was teaching I was definitely continuing to learn from my students at UH-Hilo. I decided I wanted to go into Pacific studies. It’s interdisciplinary. You can pull from history, from English, from languages, Hawaiian studies and bring that all together,” Case said.
Because Pacific studies is a relatively new field, there were no PhD programs at home. Case found herself reaching across the Pacific seeking the knowledge and wisdom from the southwest corner of the Polynesian Triangle.
“I knew right away that I wanted to come to New Zealand because it has some of the best Pacific studies programs. I looked into the program at Victoria University in Wellington and saw that the director of the program was a woman named Teresia Teaiwa. I had read some of her work and have always loved her scholarship,” she said.
Not only was Case accepted to the program but was given a full scholarship. In June 2012 she began a three-year program.
“I left Hawaii’s summer and moved to the middle of New Zealand’s winter. I quickly learned that Wellington has some of the harshest wind in New Zealand. In the first couple of months I struggled with trying to find my grounding on multiple levels and that was rough,” Case said.
Submitted in July 2015, her PhD thesis, “I Kahiki ke Ola: In Kahiki there is Life, Ancestral Memories and Migrations in the New Pacific,” explores the concept of Kahiki as it encapsulates “our ancestral memories of migration,” she said.
Through her PhD work and a teaching fellowship with a range of Pacific Islander students, Case has explored issues facing many indigenous people.
“Here, I am considered a Pacific Islander not in my homeland. What does that mean? I was able to open up that space for those conversations,” she said.
A grounding in personalized learning — a hallmark of Kanu o ka Aina education — was something Case was able to pass on to students in an art and activism course she taught.
“This class on art and activism was such an emotional one for me and many of my students because we definitely pushed that personal connection. They’re essentially given the opportunity to challenge the way that their people, their families, and their cultures and communities have been represented by outsiders. They’re given the space to voice their opinions about that,” she said.
So what’s next for Case?
“I was offered a position in Hawaiian and Pacific studies at UH-West Oahu. I start there in January,” she said. “While we honor our culture, our histories in Hawaii, we have to also see them in relationship to the rest of the Pacific and build on those ancestral connections. There are so many exciting opportunities, and who knows what we can build there?”