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‘Shoulder-to-shoulder’: Hawaiians visit area tribal colleges so both groups can learn from one another (W/ VIDEO)

Taupouri Tangaro, a professor at Hawaii Community College, beats the drum as a group of Hawaiians performs traditional dances on Wednesday at Leech Lake Tribal College. Eighteen representatives from the University of Hawaii system are in the area this week visiting tribal colleges at Leech Lake, Red Lake and White Earth. (Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer)2 / 2

CASS LAKE -- As a group of visiting Hawaiians took center stage to present a selection of their traditional dances, they did so to honor the ancestors of those representing and attending Leech Lake Tribal College.

“Our chant will … ask permission of your nature, your ancient people, to accept us, to introduce us into your space,” said Taupouri Tangaro, a professor at Hawaii Community College in Hilo, Hawaii.  “We’ve come this far, will you let us come in a little further and welcome us, we have something to share.”

Tangaro, the director of the hula (dance) program at the college, was among 18 Hawaiians in the area this week visiting tribal colleges. Having visited the colleges in Red Lake and White Earth earlier, the group visited Leech Lake Tribal College on Wednesday.

Tangaro said the University of Hawaii system, with its 10 campuses, is a state-run institution that is experiencing a “gap” between the success of native Hawaiians and other student groups.

“The indigenous framework should not only work within the indigenous programs, it should be the framework of the entire university system,” he said, explaining that the state Legislature there is now holding the university system accountable as it undergoes an indigenizing process to address the gap.

One example of the difference, he said, is Leech Lake Tribal College’s family friendly atmosphere, where children are welcomed on campus.

“The idea of building family friendly campuses is foreign to the university system in Hawaii, but we know that that’s one of those obstacles that keep our Hawaiians from succeeding because we don’t separate ourselves from our families,” Tangaro said. “... They can be a senior but they’ll decide to stay home to help with their grandfather ... There’s no such thing as hiring a nurse -- it is our honor.”

The Hawaiians’ visit was equally beneficial for the Leech Lake Tribal College, which continues to become more global. Bill Blackwell, LLTC’s director of institutional advancement, said LLTC and the Hawaiian contingency would be discussing the possibility of articulation agreements, which could lead to future student and faculty exchanges.

“One of the biggest things for us as a tribal college (is) we want to really expose student to the world,” Blackwell said. “A lot of them have not traveled too far out of this area or Minnesota, so exchanges like this open up the similarities and also the differences the two cultures have.”

Several of those similarities were evident on Wednesday, as both groups came bonded over language, dance and food. Before partaking in a lunchtime feast, Nyleta Belgrade, the Ojibwe language coordinator at LLTC, schooled the visitors with some introductory Ojibwe lessons.

“I’m really happy to see you guys here. We really admire native Hawaiians for the work that you’ve done with your language and really look to you guys in doing that work here, for our language,” she said.

Tangaro acknowledged that in the 1980s, there were only 2,000 native language speakers and now 20 years later, there are 20,000, but said the Hawaiians likewise look to Leech Lake.

“We know your struggle, we can relate to some of them, but please don’t hold us too high in your estimations. We’re shoulder-to-shoulder in many things,” he said. “We’re not ahead of you, nor are we behind you. … We’re in it together.”