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On Teaching Captain Cook

Updated: Feb 5

By Kumu Leilani Portillo

We are treated to Kumu Leilani’s Hip Hop as Literature class where she engages haumāna to critically think about how perspective plays a dominant role in moʻolelo.


I am, at my core, a poet and so I began this project with a poem I wrote. It reflected me and my haumāna’s experiences teaching/learning about the death of Captain Cook that took place in my grade 11 English Language Arts (ELA) classroom in Spring 2023. This poem was inspired by current Hawaiʻi poet laureate, Brandy Nālani McDougall’s, poem “On Cooking Captain Cook,” which I taught in conjunction with Samuel Mānaiakalani Kamakau’s article “The Death of Captain Cook, Also Known as Lono” in Ke Kumu Aupuni, “1779” by Hou! Kanaka (a Hip Hop song), and Drunk History’s “Hawaiian King Kalaniʻōpuʻu Meets Captain Cook (feat. Ken Marino).” The overall unit was titled Hip Hop as Literature

Hip Hop as Activism

I am an avid listener and fan of Hip Hop and have always been fascinated by how people use Hip Hop as a form of storytelling. Hip Hop can be used in the classroom and allows haumāna to explore their identity, interests, and passions. Thus, one of my many curiosities include, How can Hip Hop open up haumāna’s perspectives on storytelling, other people’s lives and culture, the definition of literature, and the ways that people can use Hip Hop as a form of testimony and witness? This brief will focus on my reflections from a unit that I have iterated over a few years and taught to my grade 11 class during Spring of 2023. What follows is a condensed account of this unit, my thoughts about it based on observations and haumāna inputs, and next steps.

"How can Hip Hop open up haumāna’s perspectives on storytelling, other people’s lives and culture, the definition of literature, and the ways that people can use Hip Hop as a form of testimony and witness?"

I use my Hip Hop as Literature unit to introduce haumāna to global issues and perspectives while still being able to connect to Hawaiʻi issues. Songs that I focus on come from all over the world. There is music by Aboriginal Australians, Wari (indigenous group in Peru), Mexica (indigenous group in Mexico), Anishinaabe, kanaka ʻŌiwi, African American, and even diasporic Sāmoan artists living in Aotearoa. These songs and artists provide necessary historical and cultural information for haumāna to become global citizens and make connections to other indigenous people around the world. Within this unit, I focus on literary, analytical, and research skills where haumāna analyze lyrics of specific songs and then conduct research to provide themselves with more context as to why different people are using Hip Hop as testimony.

There are two class periods where I introduce haumāna to kanaka ʻŌiwi artists and their music. I first broaden the scope by introducing the Pacific region including Aboriginal Australian and diasporic Sāmoans in Australia and Aotearoa with two kanaka ʻŌiwi artists (Punahele from Mākaha, Oʻahu and Homework Simpson from Hilo, Hawaiʻi). These two kanaka ʻŌiwi artists provide a segue into the lesson that focuses on one song, one artist, and one story. 

Capped and Cooked

In February of 1779, Captain Cook arrived back in Hawaiʻi shortly after his warm welcome weeks prior. However, the events that ended up unfolding during this trip ended in his death. Since then, this story has been told, retold, manipulated, and changed to fit different people’s narrative and stereotypes of kanaka ʻŌiwi. This was the emphasis of the lesson: Audience. Credibility. Purpose. Source. Agency. 

As I continue to grow as an educator, I am always thinking about ways our stories have been told by outsiders. I often think of ways I can mitigate the dominant narrative that kanaka ʻŌiwi and our oral histories are not as equal as written works by white people about us. And although I was not born and raised in Hawaiʻi, I often think about the stories I wish I learned while growing up, what my friends wish they learned, and what I want my child to learn. 

Through this lesson, I provide haumāna an opportunity to “de-center dominant or toxic narratives that marginalize ʻŌiwi people by composing their own narratives (M5)” (Hālau Kupukupu, 2020). Throughout the lesson, we also discuss the stories that are often told about kanaka ʻŌiwi and Captain Cook while looking at three kanaka ʻŌiwi’s perspectives. I am trying to shift haumana’s view from being a passive agent in our history to an active agent in telling and making history. 

Instructional Strategies

The sources I assigned in this unit varied in genre. I asked students to listen and annotate the Hip Hop song “1779” by Hou! Kanaka. I then split the class into three different groups where they were responsible for reading/watching and analyzing a secondary source. I challenged my ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi haumāna to read the Kamakau text that had ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi with English translation. And they rose to the occasion. I mixed the other two groups and tried to put haumāna who were interested in poetry in the group analyzing McDougall’s poem and placed more mature haumāna in the group watching the Drunk History video. Their homework (on top of listening and annotating “1779”) was to read/watch their secondary text and analyze both texts submitting a discussion post and questions. In class, I employed a guided discussion format where students conversed about the relationship between the assigned readings and video. 

Throughout this discussion learners were able to share and express their own perspectives while “respectfully engaging in authentic issues of importance to our lāhui and world in order to establish their personal convictions as an advocate for social justice (N3)” (Hālau Kupukupu, 2020). While this lesson wasn’t directly tied to a social justice issue, it is still intimately connected because social justice is about storytelling. It is about whose story is able to get told, who controls the narrative, who has the power to rewrite theirs. I hoped this lesson allowed haumāna to see the power of their kūpuna’s stories and to see power in contemporary artists’ retelling/rewriting of our stories. 

As we came back as a large group to discuss haumāna questions, I bared witness to their brilliance. Haumāna were asking and discussing questions with little to no intervention on my part. Haumāna asked questions such as, “Will different readers value different versions of a story depending on who tells it? “Will kanaka ʻŌiwi value McDougall, Hou! Kanaka, and Kamakau’s versions while others value those that McDougall talks about?” Or “What about language? Why were some things translated the way they were? Why did Kamakau write the way he did? Why did he keep calling Captain Cook Lono even after explaining to others that he was not Lono?” I believe these types of questions were enabled by the culture of the classroom designed to facilitate relationships.

By building a solid pilina with my haumāna, I was able to provide a “nurturing and inclusive school setting where a strong ancestral foundation in culture and language is the norm (K2)” and “promote flexible, adaptable, and collaborative learning (K7)” (Hālau Kupukupu, 2020). I setup my desks in a circle to reflect an indigenous representation of connecting and talking story. I want everyone to be able to see each other so that we have a sense of community in the classroom.

Providing haumāna with a variety of texts by kanaka ʻŌiwi allows them to connect more to each other and their learning. We can teach specific skills by providing content that is relevant to haumāna culture and identity. My classroom is ever changing and can depend on several factors: the number of haumāna who did the homework, the questions they have in their homework, talk story sessions before the bell rings, or informal check-ins in the beginning of classes. While I don’t fully surrender control in my classroom, I like to strengthen haumāna’s “voice and choice by [them] understanding that there is kuleana in learning–accessing, collecting, and creating ʻike (N1)” (Hālau Kupukupu, 2020). 

ʻAʻole i Pau

After teaching a college course, followed by three iterations of Hip Hop as Literature, I am inspired to develop a semester (or even a year) long course at Kamehameha Schools Hawaiʻi that focuses solely on Hip Hop. The first iteration of this unit felt rushed and analysis-heavy but from informal interviews with students at the end of the year and in the beginning of the next, many mentioned that this unit was their favorite. They appreciated the relevancy and agency they had throughout the unit because they had fun creating different projects such as lyric videos, lip syncing videos, and playlist projects. The second iteration for my juniors changed heavily where, along with analysis, I had students look at different sources to help provide context for certain songs about different peoples. I was able to have a robust conversation for “1779” because of the added texts and more structured discussion. 

What I would consider a third iteration of this unit is when I taught this to seniors in Spring 2023. I had former students who experienced the first time I taught Hip Hop as Literature at the high school level. Because of this, I changed the unit to give more student agency on researching and creating their final project. One thing I noticed was how disengaged a group of boys were in one of my periods before I started this unit. However, once I introduced the Hip Hop unit, these boys went above and beyond for this project. Four of them decided to be a group where they chose an element to do. Their project was a music video where one person made the beat and rapped, another did a breakdance routine, another student was in charge of the fashion that everyone wore, and the last student who recorded the video made a graffiti tag using paint pens and canvas that represented their group the G Zzz. 

Next Steps

As I think about future iterations, one major change I will make is to utilize all of quarter 4 for this unit. My hope is to cover the origins more in depth and bring in additional Black American/African American artists to provide students with a thorough understanding of this genre before moving into other communities around the world. I want students to have a solid foundation and understanding of Hip Hop to gain an appreciation for the groundwork that Black people have done for the genre. Eventually, if I am able too, I would love to have a course dedicated to Hip Hop where students organize a community event that involves each element of Hip Hop where students facilitate different workshops for the kula and community. 

Other ways I want to improve this unit is to include more LGBTQ+ or queer representation. I have one artist that I used the first time but did not use the second time around because I am not prepared enough to have these conversations with students yet. I will not give up on having this representation, but I know that I need to be careful when talking about certain issues in my classroom. I also noticed that I have a lack of non-cis men in this unit because of the misogynistic history of Hip Hop. What has been cool to see is when students do research on this and help me improve my units. 

Overall, I am looking forward to the different iterations of this unit and to see how I can involve more ʻohana and community throughout this process. Hip Hop is a worldwide popular genre for a reason and a lot of youth, especially kanaka ʻŌiwi, listen to Hip Hop. Coming from diasporic West African oral storytelling, it is no surprise that kanaka ʻŌiwi have utilized this in their lives over the last few decades.


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