To get here, behind the scenes at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, where three dozen rows of century-old Polynesian war spears line two storage-room walls, where latex gloves are required, one must pass through a hallway of five bolted doors and security gates.
Only the most privileged are allowed to pass through.
John Timu, Danny Shelton and Hau’oli Kikaha come here each Monday after football practice, making the 15-minute walk to the northwest edge of the University of Washington campus. This is where they come for 90 minutes of quiet reading, carving, playing. They come to understand, to give themselves more than just passing knowledge of their Polynesian roots.
There is no syllabus for how this independent-study class with Dr. Holly Barker plays out. On the first day of class, the three football players passed through the security checkpoints, put on their white “Visitor” badges and latex gloves, and had free rein to explore the artifacts in the Ethnology Room’s vast shelves. Kids in candy stores never had so much fun.
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Several weeks later, back in the storage room, Timu grabbed Catalog No. 4-12790 and held it up with his right hand. The Huskies’ starting linebacker posed in attack position with the 3-foot-long Samoan war club, date unknown, which appears to have been used, perhaps in battle. A handful of the club’s 30 sharp wooden teeth have been worn, or crushed, off.
“This is awesome,” Timu said.
Next to him, his close friend Kikaha, UW’s leader in sacks, bent over and examined a large, flat fish basket. Barker, a UW anthropology instructor and Burke curator, stood close, pointing out the detail of the craft’s seashell designs.
A class like this is typically reserved for graduate-level students, said Rebecca Andrews, the museum’s collections manger. The three players are here because Barker has taken a special interest in them, and their futures.
“These guys,” Barker gushed, “are brilliant. They are just superstars.”
Barker has kept the curriculum open-ended for Shelton, Timu and Kikaha, all of whom have taken multiple undergraduate anthropology courses with her. All are on track to earn degrees in the next year, and Barker sees these sessions as a gateway to graduate school for them.
“Mostly,” she said, “I want them learning every week, and they are. Where that learning will ultimately take them I’m not necessarily sure, but if they feel confident in their identities and cultures, and if we can reflect their own upbringing in their educational curriculum here at UW, then I think we serve them better.”
KIKAHA IS SITTING at a table in a small office in another backroom. His three plastic water bottles, one half empty, are lined up in front of him; to his left are a stack of three books he pulled off the Burke’s backroom shelves.
Right now, he’s studying artistic designs from his native Hawaii. In truth, he’s studying for something much bigger: meaning, purpose, place.
“I’ve always wanted to learn everything about my people and our history,” Kikaha said. He paused, then added: “I’m mad.”
He’s mad because he doesn’t know enough. He’s mad because he doesn’t feel he’s doing enough to help other Pacific Islanders.
In their previous classes with Barker, and especially in their 10-day anthropological trip to Tahiti with her last summer, Kikaha, Timu and Shelton said she had helped cultivate within them a better sense of self.
“She’s the best,” Shelton said. “She’s opened so many doors for us.”
Kikaha, for one, wants to pay the knowledge forward. “People don’t really know that much, and it’s disappointing,” he said.
During the trip to Tahiti, which included Barker and 10 UW student-athletes, Shelton lifted large rocks on the beach to prepare for the coming football season. Timu ran sprints in the sand. Kikaha fished every morning, using a spear to catch two octopus.
They also saw poverty and the effects of colonization. Kikaha, who carries a 3.49 grade-point average in American Ethnic Studies, was named last week to the District 8 all-academic team, the first UW football player so honored since 2001. His goals after football are ambitious.
The trip to Tahiti, he said “helped me realize that my goals are more attainable than I thought in life after football. There are more people that could use help, and I can have more of an impact that I thought.”
Timu and Shelton, both of Samoan descent, share a similar passion. Shelton pulled out a book, Gagana Samoa, he recently bought online to teach himself the Samoan language. Timu, whose last name in Samoan means “rain,” is focusing on art. He’s in another backroom carving a detailed raindrop onto a wood plank, which he plans to hang in his living room when finished.
“I’m way behind where I want to be,” Timu said of his cultural learning. “This is stuff we’re supposed to know.”
BARKER THOUGHT SHE had a pretty good understanding of football before the players invited her to a recent team meeting on the night before UW played California at Husky Stadium.
“She got to see firsthand our football culture,” Shelton said.
It was, Barker said, as eye-opening as anything she’s taught in anthropology class.
“I was just blown away,” Barker said. “I did not understand a word they were saying. And the speed the coaches were talking — oh my, I was just absolutely lost.”
Timu, Shelton and Kikaha say they are appreciative of the opportunity for these independent sessions at the Burke.
“The lucky thing for us is we’ve been able to stick with one professor,” Timu said, adding that their cultural reconnection “grew over time here, and it got stronger and stronger the more we took classes with her and the more we learned.”
Each Monday, behind locked doors, surrounded by history and culture, that connection continues to get deeper — between a teacher and her students, and players and their passions.
• The Nov. 23 Washington-Oregon State game will kick off at 7:30 p.m. in Corvallis for an ESPN2 broadcast, it was announced Monday.
Adam Jude: 206-464-2364 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @a_jude.