NACF staff and board members honored the legacy of Deva Leinani Aiko Yamashiro who was one of the recipients of this year’s Washington State Governor’s Arts & Heritage Award. The award ceremony was held on November 14 at the Museum of Glass in Tacoma, Wash. Deva was founder of the Ke Kukui Foundation and dedicated the last 19 years leading her organization and community in preserving and sharing the Hawaiian culture in the Pacific Northwest. Sadly, Deva passed recently, but was represented at the awards ceremony by her family and several members of her Halau. She was a beloved NACF grantee (2010 through 2015) and partner and will always be remembered for her grace and devotion to her students and community.
Lulani Arquette (Pres./ CEO of the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation) was honored to present the Governor’s Heritage Award for Individuals to the late Deva Leinani Aiko Yamashiro’s `ohana (family). Deva was awarded in recognition of her impressive work with regard to sharing and preserving Hawaiian and Polynesian culture within Washington.
Raised in Moanalua Gardens on the island of O`ahu, Deva moved to Vancouver, Wash., in 1998. She loved her new home but worried that most local Native Hawaiian children lacked access to the beautiful culture she had experienced, including her two young boys. At first it was a small commitment when she started her classes as a kumu hula (hula teacher). It wasn’t long before she realized this could not fill the need expressed by her students’ parents. As her vision of a culturally powerful Native Hawaiian community grew, it also became her defining life’s work to grow and share it with the greater community.
Among her many accomplishments she founded and led the Ke Kukui Foundation – a nonprofit that provides classes in the Native Hawaiian language, hula, music lessons, traditional arts and cultural preservation – along with the Hālau Hula (hula school) Kaleinani o ke Kukui (The Beautiful Lei of the Kukui) and the Three Days of Aloha festival. The latter has become an annual event that draws approximately 20,000 participants and attendees from around the world to the Portland/Vancouver metropolitan area. It is considered a premier event with its offerings of specialized Native Hawaiian/Polynesian cultural workshops and trainings, a highly competitive hula competition and other public Native Hawaiian performances.
However, the multitude of cultural wealth Deva so generously bestowed upon the Pacific Northwest can only provide a glimpse into Deva, the person. In spite of such an impressive array of accomplishments, she was a humble, generous and kind person. Asked how she remained so committed a culture bearer, her son, Kaloku Holt, provides a simple answer. “It was for the children.” Indeed, anyone who witnessed her teaching or choreographing student performances quickly understood where the warm and gentle heart of Deva Leinani Aiko Yamashiro resided.
During the awards ceremony Deva’s sons sang and accompanied her former hula students. As these graceful young women danced, they engaged, lifted and transported the audience with a powerful performance. Although we will forever miss Deva’s earthly presence, we find comfort in the knowledge that she left a legacy that will continue through the hundreds of children and thousands of individuals fortunate to have been touched by and entered her circle of grace.
Note: The Washington State Governor’s Arts and Heritage Awards were established in 1966 to recognize individuals and artists for their significant contributions to the creative vitality of Washington State. They are considered one of the highest honors a Washington resident can receive. Since inception of the program 51 years ago, 206 awards have been given. Of these, 153 have been to individuals and organizations as Arts Awards, but only 53 individuals and organizations have been honored with the Governor’s Heritage Award.