Kikaha also has been exploring his heritage, understands its barriers and works and studies to obliterate them. That’s what had him back in the South Pacific this January, 2,700 south of his Hawaiian home, among the archipelago of French Polynesia that include Tahiti in the Society Islands, the Tuamotu Archipelago and the Marquesas Islands.
The Huskies’ Student-Athlete Academic Services staff gave Petersen a heads-up upon the coach’s arrival in December that Kikaha had been accepted last July as the only intercollegiate athlete among 17 students — three graduate students and 14 undergrads — in a UW program for additional study in French Polynesia. That was just after Kikaha, who changed his name from Jamora before last season to honor his mother’s side of his family, had returned from an amazing trip with Professor Holly Barker and 10 other Huskies student-athletes studying Tahitian culture and colonization.
“We had done research projects, had gained indigenous knowledge on the different forms of French colonialism that has affected their lives there, learned the language – all these things to prepare to go there,” Kikaha said of preparing for his return to French Polynesia. “Then we went into the communities to see first-hand how different languages used create a power structure in society there. We went into each community and lived like they did, lived off the ocean and the land. We learned their sustainability tactics.
“Then we’d go into a classroom setting there and analyze what we were seeing – what we were living—and compare it to what the researchers we had been studying had written.”
Kikaha will walk in UW’s commencement ceremonies in June but will continue to take credits this fall as he plays a fifth, redshirt season for the Huskies. He and his 16 colleagues used comparative analysis to judge the communication and knowledge systems in the reality of living under modern French colonization. French Polynesia and its 270,000 residents rely upon France for its systems of justice, finance, education, security and defense, as well as for much of its infrastructure.
The students stayed with host families on each of the islands they visited. In Tahiti, Kikaha was reunited with in the town of Puna’auia on the island’s west coast with Andrew and Andrea Lependu. They had shared their beachfront home and their five children who ranged from eight to 14 years old with Kikaha and the 10 other Huskies in Hau’oli first trip there last summer. As I wrote last summer, the natives came to adore the Dawgs. During his return trip Kikaha said he saw Huskies purple and gold all over the islands, kids and adults wearing the UW gear the players had handed out last summer.
“I left a lot more of it behind this time, too,” he said, chuckling.
A “SPIRITUAL AWAKENING”
Kikaha has been dismayed during his two trips to French Polynesia and his studies to learn that reliance there upon France has come at a steep cost. He’s seen the erosion of traditional Pacific Islander customs and culture, as well as environmental destruction. The latter is after decades of nuclear testing – almost 200 atomic explosions in all — by the French in Tahiti and its neighboring islands in the South Pacific.
“I learned a lot about the culture — and about myself. I had to represent myself, my language, my culture alone, autonomously, in this special place so far removed from my everyday life. This was a huge, defining experience for me. It made be happy, fulfilled to be around these people who let me into their world.”
Kikaha has seen French Polynesian culture struggling to stay alive amid school and government requirements that are almost entirely French, even though a 2007 census showed 87 percent of French Polynesia’s population was born there on its islands. He feels this culture – his culture – is being exploited, and he seeks to find an end to it. He says after his football days are done he wants to make a difference in restoring those customs and cultures of Pacific Islanders, in French Polynesia, in his native Hawai’i and throughout the Pacific Ocean region.
Not the stuff of your everyday, 13-sack defensive end in major college football, eh?
His favorite time of his January into March in French Polynesia came when he found himself as the only English speaker among approximately 80 elders meeting in the center of the sacred Maroto Valley between dormant volcanoes in the center of Tahiti. He had befriended an older woman during the trip, and she invited him to Maroto to hear the elders give speeches, songs and dances on their native culture. He went for the 20th-anniversary celebration of natives finding and then restoring ancient remains of the Polynesians that lived in the valley centuries ago.
Alone as the only UW student and person under 40 years old there in the middle of the lush Marato, Kikaha was awed hearing their tales in French and Islander dialects, and the descriptions of the native artifacts the French had forced the Polynesians to mostly destroy because the rulers deemed them Pagan and worthless to the colony. It was the essence of what Rothschild’s course had hoped the UW students could experience on the trip, and Kikaha was the only one there.
“It was amazing. Amazing!” Kikaha said Tuesday, sounding as excited as he was that December night in the locker room in San Francisco telling me about his trip.
“I learned a lot about the culture — and about myself. I had to represent myself, my language, my culture alone, autonomously, in this special place so far removed from my everyday life. This was a huge, defining experience for me. It made be happy, fulfilled to be around these people who let me into their world.
“It was an inner, spiritual awakening for me.”
Hey, thanks Coach!
Kikaha’s awakening following Petersen’s blessing is one, early benefit of the coach’s arrival at UW. It’s one not easily seen so far behind the scenes, or anywhere in the big-money, win-loss dominated world of college football.
It’s also a payoff that will last far beyond the coach’s first season – and Kikaha’s last – with the Huskies, well into a curious and proud, young man’s life beyond football.