Educators honor Fred ‘Peleke’ Flores for work rooted in Native Hawaiian culture, values

A Kauaʻi man was recognized on a national stage for his integral role in the preservation and education of an ancient fishpond near Līhuʻe.

Fred “Peleke” Flores, field operations and cultural resources manager with Mālama Hulē‘ia, received the Ellison S. Onizuka Memorial Award from the National Education Association in Philadelphia Wednesday.

The award, named for the late beloved astronaut and engineer from Hawaiʻi, honors individuals who significantly impact education, achievement, and equal opportunity for Asians and Pacific Islanders.

Cultivating indigenous ecosystems, culture, values

Flores is essential to the revitalization of the ʻAlakoko Fishpond, clearing it of invasive species so that endangered, indigenous species critical to Native Hawaiian culture can repopulate and thrive. He also freely shares this passion and knowledge with others, especially educators and students in the community.

HSTA Kauaʻi Chapter President Sarah Tochiki, Chiefess Kamakahelei Middle School band director, said Flores and his work impacts every student on the island.

“They have a goal to essentially make the fishpond something to feed the island for generations,” she said. “But the fishpond is not only a place to preserve history. It is a historical place where the past connects to the future by working in the present with the keiki and families of Kaua‘i.

Keoni Pau, Hawaiian language and culture teacher at Chiefess Kamakahelei Middle School, said, “He works with schools, businesses, and community groups to spread awareness of the importance of keeping the ecosystem in balance and shows the impact that balance has on our island.

“Haumana (students) not only learn the logistics and science of the habitat, they also build a sense of pilina (belonging or connection) to the land that they live on. They learn kuleana (responsibility) for caring for the land and sea that provide for them and their ʻohana (family) which are core values of Hawaiian culture. He teaches aloha (love) for the land in his lesson but moreover by showing them with his work. This is what inspires others to take pride in our small island in the middle of the Pacific,” Pau said.

Educators say his preservation work is vital, not only for the local ecosystem but also to perpetuate traditional Hawaiian values, language, and the culture of caring for ʻaina (land).

Flores said with a chuckle, “I’m humbled and honored that teachers would recognize what we do, literally in the mud. All the time. Usually it’s all asses and elbows. We’re always bending over, working, working, working.

“This charges my batteries more to keep pushing. But I feel we’ve still got a lot to get better with, so I’m always growing,” he added.

Helping educators weave place-based learning into curriculum

Flores says while his goal is to educate everyone in the community, from keiki to kūpuna, he works directly with educators to create an integrated learning experience that extends beyond a simple visit to the fishpond.

“I started to notice like man, if I don’t get the teachers to invest in this stuff, they’re not going to back me up in the school. So I take my time,” he said. “I’ll visit a teacher and say, ‘Tell me your curriculum and I’ll find a way to get it connected.’ I want to understand the curriculum and say, ‘I’m checking this, this, this off for you.’ I don’t want this to just be a field trip. It should be an outside lab. I want to stack on their learning.

“I acknowledge our haumana, but I know that if I don’t invest in our kumu (teachers), I can’t get to the students, and then all our work is for nothing,” Flores said.

Alex Nelson, a science teacher at Kauaʻi High School, experienced the success of Flores’ approach firsthand.

She explained, “Peleke has helped support the development of a robust scientific sampling program at the fishpond in which my students are able to design award-winning science fair experiments and use the fishpond as their outdoor lab and sampling site. He has helped me develop an interdisciplinary project for all freshmen in which we do invasive species monitoring and water quality testing at the pond while also learning about the history. These projects give my students meaningful, relevant experience that connects them to the place where they live.”

The importance of uplifting Native Hawaiian work

Flores was nominated for the award by the Hawaiʻi State Teachers Association Kauaʻi Chapter.

Sheri Abigania, HSTA Kauaʻi Chapter treasurer and Kawaikini New Century Public Charter School kumu (teacher), said, “Peleke and his team, they have a lot of knowledge about the ecosystem and the food chain and what’s going on there and engaging the students. And for me, it’s bigger than just the fishpond. It strengthens the whole lāhui (people).

“Peleke is such a humble person and I just want him to feel all of the aloha that we have for him, to make him and his team stronger, and just be able to continue the work,” Abigania said.

Member leaders encourage other HSTA members to submit nominations for the NEA Human and Civil Rights Awards program to honor Native Hawaiian leaders in their communities and uplift their work in expanding educational opportunities for students and educators of color.

Tochiki, HSTA Kauaʻi Chapter president, said, “We are immersed and surrounded with ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi, with Hawaiian culture, and sometimes we just take it for granted that it is so well known. And even within Hawaiʻi, we still have more to teach and more to uplift. But as soon as you step away from the islands and you head to the continent, you head to another country, nobody knows. They still think that Hawaiʻi is this tourist destination; folks go for a fake lūʻau, maybe they can name Duke Kahanamoku.

“So it’s so important for us to make sure that Native Hawaiians are at the forefront of everything that we do, and it is our responsibility within HSTA to make sure that we are constantly putting forth the work that Native Hawaiians are doing,” Tochiki said.

Past NEA Ellison S. Onizuka Memorial Award recipients from Hawaiʻi include Virgie Chattergy (1977), Shirley Librarios (1978), Ernest Librarios (1980), Helen R. Nagtalon-Miller (1985), Ellison S. Onizuka (1987), Frank DeLima (1994), Charles Thompson (1995), Laverne Moore (1996), Keolanoi Correa Noa (1997), Leonelle Akana (1998), Alexander Natatani (1999), Jean Mitsuko (Togo) Dobashi (2003), Kathryn Xian (2005), Sharon Y. Moriwaki Miyashiro (2006), S. Haunani Apoliona (2008), Blaine Kamalani Kia (2013), Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (2014), Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu (2016), and the Polynesian Voyaging Society (2020).