Native Hawaiian Culture Overcomes Incarceration

Apr 5, 2017

Credit Sonny Ganaden

About 1,400 Hawai‘i residents are in prison in Arizona. Most are Native Hawaiian. Late last year, an unusual event took place near a privately-run prison. It involved indigenous people and what organizers called an apology ceremony. Lawyer and journalist Sonny Ganaden went to Arizona for the ceremony, and came back with this story for Hawai‘i Public Radio.


A dry wind whistles past the Saguaro Detention Center in Eloy County, Arizona. It’s a private prison, built on the ancestral lands of the Akimel O’odham people, who were relocated decades ago to the Gila River Indian Community in central Arizona.

Credit Sonny Ganaden

“It’s very emotional for us that have been exposed within the facility to the hunger and the yearning for a cultural connection,” says Michael Thompson is a pastor who has been working with Native Hawaiians in Saguaro for a decade. “To be part of their family that is not with them, to deal with the disfunction in their families and community from long distance, to try and lead children over the telephone, to try and connect with ancestral history from a desolate place in the desert. As much as I love this area, it [represents] pain, there’s just pain.”

To confront that pain, Thompson and others put together what they called an apology ceremony, organized because the lands of one indigenous people are being used to imprison those of another. “We had planned to do it on the fairgrounds,” explains Thompson, “but the Gila River Community Preservation Officer, Barnaby Lewis, said it isn’t their way: They like these events to be subdued, private, sacred, and any ceremony is not to be recorded.”

Credit Sonny Ganaden

“Each native peoples has their own cultural protocol,” says Lewis, speaking from the Gila River community’s District 4 community center. “So, this is something new to me, in the manner in which it was conducted.” Though the formal ceremony was private, the celebrations afterward included music and food. During the formal portion of the event, a delegation of four Hawaiian men exchanged greeting and chant in Hawaiian with three members of the tribe, who responded in the Akimel O’odham language.  The two delegations then held an ‘awa ceremony - the traditional sharing of a bowl of the bitter and mildly narcotic drink - brought from the islands specifically for the ceremony.

Jameson Nialoe, a native Hawaiian living in Arizona, helped put on the event with his father, John Naiole. “We had to cook all the food, didn’t buy nothing,” he says. “Just setting it up, going over everything, it was hard work, but good hard work.” He worked with people like William Kahuanui-Paleka, who has an incarceration experience similar to many native Hawaiians held in private prisons, who are moved around the country. “I was in Halawa Correctional Facility in 1997,” remembers Paleka. “In 2003 I was transferred to Oklahoma, and from Oklahoma in 2005, I was transferred to Saguaro.”

Credit Sonny Ganaden

At Saguaro Correctional Center, Paleka met cultural practitioner and pastor Hanalei Colleado, who had come from Maui to minister to native Hawaiians in this community. “I’ve been doing prison ministry for 20 years,” Colleado says. “I know the importance of protocol, and for people walking on land [of indigenous people].” The connection helped Paleka bond with his culture, despite the surroundings. With Colleado’s assistance, Paleka became a practitioner of Ha'a Koa, a type of warrior dance. “It taps into your inner spirit, to remind you to have pride in your culture as a native, as a kanaka maoli.”

This was the first meeting between these two indigenous people to discuss the ties that bind them together under incarceration, a condition in which both native people are over-represented.  Organizers hope it will not be the last such meeting. Near the end of the ceremony, Hanalei Colleado captured some of the pain shared by those separated from loved ones—as he introduced the song “God Bless My Daddy”—made famous by Dennis Pavao.