Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’”
It’s something Sui-lan Hookano likely asks herself every day as she walks through the doors of Enumclaw High School as its cultural programs manager.
Most recently, she’s been working tirelessly with leadership students to put on a highly diverse MLK Day Assembly.
“I think that MLK Day in itself represents the ability for your stories to be told,” she said in a quick interview, where she managed to find some time to sit down. “Martin Luther King Jr. said he had a dream, and his story is constantly being told. And we celebrate this day in regard to his story.”
And while she gathered several students together, all from different backgrounds, heritages, and walks of life to tell their stories to their peers during the Friday assembly, Hookano herself was the keynote speaker, something she said she wasn’t the most comfortable with — she would have preferred her students to get the spotlight.
But her story, which begins long before she was born in Germany to her Hawaiian parents, is crucial to understanding the work she does for Enumclaw students.
Before she was hired three years ago, the school district realized it was underserving its Native American students.
It’s a pattern that can be found all over the nation, but its something Superintendent Mike Nelson was adamant in changing on a local level.
“Native youth face some of the lowest high school graduation rates, and even fewer enroll in and graduate from college,” Nelson wrote in an email interview. “On average, less than 50 percent of Native students graduate from high school each year in the seven states with the highest percentage of American Indian and Alaska Native students.”
In 2014, only 60 percent of students who identified as Native American or indigenous graduated from EHS, even though they make up only slightly more than 1 percent of the school population from year to year.
Then the district hired Hookano in 2015, and through their combined efforts, brought many changes to the district: they implemented cultural training for staff; adopted more historically accurate and culturally-focused curriculum about Native Americans for students; became the third school district in the state to celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day (as opposed to Columbus Day); and starts district events by acknowledging the First Peoples of the land they’re guests on.
The effects were immediate.
By the end of the 2014-2015 school year, 93 percent of EHS Native students graduated.
The number dropped to 83 percent at the end of the following school year, but in 2016-2017, 100 percent of all Native students graduated, according to Nelson. It happened again at the end of the 2017-2018 year, and 50 percent of those Native students went on to college, as opposed to the national average of 33 percent.
This success, said Joseph Martin, who is the Muckleshoot Tribe’s tribal education officer, comes from both Hookano’s character and history. It’s a Muckleshoot Tribe grant that gives the Enumclaw School District the ability to make these changes, from paying the majority of Hookano’s salary to training for district staff and programs for its Native students, including field trips, summer cultural camps, after-school tutoring, meal and supply assistance, and much more.
“Sui-lan is a phenomenal individual… She would do anything that it took to advocate for the success of all of our Native students,” he said in a phone interview, noting that his own 10th grade son benefits from her work. “I’ve met a lot of educational leaders in my career in Indian education… Sui-lan is one of the best I’ve ever worked with.
But Hookano makes it clear she believes she only gives her students the space to succeed, and their growing success should be attributed to their hard work and dedication.
“Being able to feel valued and being able to stand in pride of who they are has allowed them to their voice,” Hookano said. “The ability for them to be proud of who they are and tell their stories helps them want to achieve their goals, for themselves and their community.”
Hookano knows the importance of embracing your cultural identity, because as a child, she knew the pain of cultural erasure and the impossible social standards of bi-culturalism.
“For kanaka oiwi, we are still in an occupied territory,” she said, using her native language’s word for her people. “The kanaka in Hawaii, we’re still a minority in our own origins, and not recognized. The tourism, the commercialization, the commodity of Hawaii is in effect to the people today.”
Hookano was born in Germany to a Native Hawaiian father, a military officer, and a mother who was Puerto Rican, Taino Indian, and African-French, but was also eighth-generation Hawaiian.
“All she knew was Hawaiian,” Hookano said.
Although they visited Hawaii on vacations and the like, they didn’t move back to their homeland until Hookano was middle school-aged.
“I need people to understand, my parents, they were so thrilled to finally get back home,” she said. “But home was very different for me at that age.”
Middle school is already a tough time to be a child, but Hookano also had to balance the cultural expectations that were placed on her not just by the white residents of Hawaii, but her Native community as well.
“I wasn’t accepted by the local young girls and boys during that time. . And I wasn’t accepted in the Asian or Caucasian communities because I visually looked like a local girl,” Hookano said. “Finally I was in a place where I looked like the people. All the other times, I didn’t look like anyone else. But finally I’m in a place where I look like the people and I’m not accepted by them, because I don’t talk or dress or have that demeanor they have.”
Even the Hawaiian government denied her and her family their heritage.
When they moved back to Hawaii, her father applied to be leased back his ancestral land under the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act of 1920. It was an arduous process, but he eventually succeeded — three months after he died.
“So what ended up happening was, we as his heirs and descendants, we went to apply for his land. But we were denied, because we were only 47 percent Hawaiian,” Hookano recalled, tears in her eyes. “Hawaii still has a blood quantum of 50 percent. So after centuries of my family waiting to get our land, we were only denied because my father died.
“Those are the type of things that are still occurring in communities, the erasure of us,” Hookano continued. “That land goes back to the state and the state leases that land to a corporation or a company and that money doesn’t go back to the Hawaiian people.”
All these experiences were traumatic for her, she continued, and she begged her mother to send her away from Hawaii.
“It made me reject my Hawaiian culture at first. And for a long time, I didn’t want to have anything to do with it,” she said.
Her turning point, she said, was realizing she would never feel like a whole person if she didn’t embrace her Native Hawaiian culture.
“I’m 100 percent everything that I am. And when you’re bi-racial, we have to be 100 percent everything that we are. And we have to embrace every part of that,” Hookano said. “Until I brought that piece back into my spirit, I wasn’t whole. I wasn’t complete.”
So she dove into her culture headfirst — she learned Native Hawaiian and started teaching cultural programs at the University of Hawaii. When she had an opportunity to get both her Masters and Ph.D. in cultural communication at the University of Washington, she jumped at the chance.
“But that didn’t work out. I don’t think it was supposed to work out,” she said.
From there, she worked with the Green River College in their outreach department until a friend of hers spied a job opening for a culture program manager at EHS.
At first, she wasn’t sure Enumclaw was where she wanted to be. But in her interview with former Director of Curriculum Terry Parker, he said, “We really need someone who can help us.”
Hookano was sold.
“The community in Enumclaw has been very welcoming in understanding that they don’t know certain things, but they’re willing to ask others for help,” she said. “I think that’s what’s kept me here.”
In addition to the numerous cultural and educational changes made in the school and district, Hookano also makes sure she takes EHS’s Native students out to Native Success Summits and other Native events, “providing space to see other Native people who are successful” she said. “Sometimes we need to see ourselves in what we want to believe we can achieve.
She’s also working on developing curriculum language that would allow Native students to earn school credit outside the classroom though cultural activities.
“That’s a large goal, and we’re working with the state and school system here to look at valuing alternative learning pathways — cultural pathways, indigenous pathways — and incorporating those credits into school for our kids,” she said.
She used the annual Canoe Journey as an example. The event started in 1989 as an attempt to revive significant cultural experiences for tribes in the Pacific Northwest Coast area. The journey can be as short as 50 miles, or as long as 300. This summer, tribes expect to paddle from all over the state to Lummi, WA, just west of Bellingham, to celebrate with the Lummi Tribe.
Hookano believes students that who participate in this rigorous event should be able to receive physical health, science, and history credits to count toward graduation.
She also hopes that various other cultural events and experiences can count toward CTE (career-technical) credits, or credits students can earn for school because they learn practical skills elsewhere.
“We have woodshop. A student who is working for a carpenter or working for a framing shop in Enumclaw, and they’re taking carpentry here, is that aligned for a CTE credit? Yes, it is,” she said. “But if a student is doing traditional carving with a master carver, not a teacher but someone who is a master carver in indigenous communities, and he’s taking a carpentry class, is that not just as valuable as a credit?”
Joseph Martin said he was excited to see these opportunities being developed for Native EHS students, especially when it comes to linking educational credits and learning the Muckleshoot language, known as Twulshootseed.
“Heritage language is the cornerstone to identity,” he said. “We want all of our Muckleshoot Tribe members to have a comprehensive education in the Muckleshoot language.”
In the meantime, Hookano herself continues to improve her education, taking a tribal governance class at The Evergreen State College, so she can pass down everything she learns onto her students.
“Being in Enumclaw has allowed me to continue to grow with myself,” she said. “When you’re able to walk in your authentic self and tell your story, you give others the ability to find their authentic self and tell their story.”