By Sarah Elisabeth Sawyer (Choctaw Nation), Artist in Business Leadership Fellow 2015


Founded in 2001, the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement (CNHA) is a statewide and national network of well over 100 Native Hawaiian organizations. Their mission is to enhance the well being of Hawai’i through the cultural, economic, political and community development of Native Hawaiians.



When Cassandra Ohelo (Native Hawaiian) submitted the grant application for the First Peoples Fund Indigenous Arts Ecology (IAE) program, she knew the plans were ambitious. As capacity development manager of the CNHA, Cassandra views her community at a macro level. She dissects it, examining the pieces and putting them together.

“The ideas I wrote into the grant proposal were ambitious, but people are doing them,” Cassandra says. “It was just a matter of me observing. CNHA has such a large network of artists, and it was a matter of asking, ‘How do we prepare for this work, what does it look like?’”

At that macro level, the work looks like the CNHA’s nine policy caucus subject areas:

   • Arts & Culture

   • Blue Continent Pacific Region

   • Economic Development & Small Business

   • Education

   • Sovereignty & Civic Engagement

   • Healthcare

   • Homestead Trust Lands

   • Housing & Homelessness

   • Next Generation

These nine areas were at the center of conversations during CNHA’s Annual Native Hawaiian Convention in 2017. Artists and culture bearers were also asked to share their ideas and needs within the scope of CNHA’s caucus of Arts and Culture. Community members and leaders shared with CNHA the desire to bring more resources to artists.

Duncan Seto .JPG

Bringing more resources to artists became an even more compelling strategy for CHNA’s mission of ‘enhancing the wellbeing of Hawai’i after attending FPF’s Indigenous Arts Ecology Grantee Convening early this year. Advisor for CHNA’s Indigenous Arts Ecology grant and  2016 Community Spirit Award Honoree, Duncan Ka’ohu Seto (Native Hawaiian) has led many of FPF’s Native Artist Professional Development trainings, but the IAE Convening pulled together the pieces for him.

“Even Ka’ohu was taken aback,” Cassandra says. “To sit in the room and listen to Jeremy Staab [Santee Sioux and FPF’s program manager] break down how First Peoples Fund and Native artists have gotten this far was exciting for him.”

CNHA also brought two artists to the IAE convening — husband and wife Shane and Cheryl Pukahi (Native Hawaiians) — who are lauhala weavers.

“I believe the convening generated the momentum within them,” Cassandra says, “not just for their own art practice or business but to stir the momentum within our community back home.”

“I believe the convening generated them momentum within them [the artists], not just for their own art practice or business, but to stir the momentum within our community back home.”
— Cassandra Ohelo (Native Hawaiian)

Reviewing her ambitious IAE plans and absorbing input from the artists, Cassandra is turning her attention to creating a directory for lauhala weavers like Shane and Cheryl. She also envisions building a marketplace specifically for artists at the CNHA Annual Native Hawaiian Convention, inspired by the Heard market model she experienced at the IAE Convening.

“Being able to identify everyone’s role in this process made it easier for us to imagine how to bring this to fruition, not only for each artist but for the community as a whole,” Cassandra says.

Becoming Part of the FPF Family

Before becoming IAE grantees, CNHA connected to members of the FPF family in community meetings in Hawai’i.

“Our Arts and Culture board chair is Maile Meyer, who is the founder of Na Mea Hawai’i, a Native Hawaiian bookstore,” Cassandra says. “Through her as a contact and through inviting arts and culture community members and leaders, we created a table for them to generate their ideas and discuss policy priorities. That’s how CNHA was able to get involved with people like Vicky Holt Takamine and Duncan Ka’ohu Seto.” Vicky and Duncan are both previous FPF Community Spirit Award honorees.

It was during these meetings that Vicky Holt Takamine (Native Hawaiian) founder and kumu hula (master teacher) of the PA’I Foundation, brought up her longtime relationship with FPF. Eventually, The PA’I Foundation hosted a community meeting that brought artists, culture bearers, CNHA, and First Peoples Fund together. While most conversations concerning economy begin on the economic development side, this meeting was different. The group focused on immersion in Hawaiian culture then moved to the economy and marketplace.

Jeremy Staab.JPG

“That was inspiring,” Jeremy says. “Later, we went back and had a session with CNHA and explained the Indigenous Arts Ecology grant to them.”

We invited CNHA to apply for the IAE, and they were awarded in January 2018. Their project includes training two staff members in the NAPD curriculum and also in how to move the work of the IAE program through their community.

“We saw the need for additional support through the IAE program where there has been a shift to focus on Native Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs),” says Jeremy Staab (Santee Sioux). “The CNHA, being a Native CDFI, aligned with the grant’s goals.”

The recent IAE convening in Phoenix modeled the goal of artist centered economic development for CNHA to observe, learn from, and bring back to their community. It was a transformative experience.

In her role as capacity manager for CNHA, Cassandra assesses her community and what projects are or are not addressing needs. She puts the pieces together and connects the dots for significant impact.

“Being able to do that for artists — our culture bearers — is a huge privilege,” Cassandra says. “I commend First Peoples Fund for initiating this momentum and creating resources for Native artists. I’m glad I can be a part of it, to learn and be able to offer so much to community members.”




The IAE grant is supported through the Bush Foundation, McKnight Foundation, Northwest Area Foundation, and the Surdna Foundation.