Luce Fellow Spotlight: Francis ‘Palani’ Sinenci

First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) is excited to partner with the Henry Luce Foundation (Luce) for a third year of the Luce Indigenous Knowledge Fellowship. In 2020, First Nations and Luce awarded the inaugural 10 $50,000 fellowships to advance and support the work of Indigenous knowledge holders and knowledge makers dedicated to creating positive community change. Beginning in 2021, we expanded the fellowship award to $75,000 over two years to support fellows committed to preserving and sharing Indigenous knowledge with future generations. In 2022, First Nations and Luce awarded 10 $75,000 fellowships.


The Hawaiian octogenarian is well-known for building traditional hales, or “grass shacks,” throughout the islands.

Francis “Uncle” Sinenci is a Hawaiian treasure; a one-of-a-kind personality and a joy to know. He was blessed with many talents that he has shared throughout his 81 years of life. But the one that stands out most is his sense of humor.

As he told First Nations at the start of our interview, “Like the white guys used to say, ‘SHOOT!’”

Sinenci, often called “Kumu (teacher) Palani,” is renowned in Hawai`i for preserving the dying art of building traditional hales (hall-lees), or thatched structures. “I grew up hearing them called ‘grass shacks’ because our language was starting to fade rapidly and be replaced by English,” he recalls.

Since retiring from the military in 1990, Sinenci has built approximately 486 hales of all sizes, for schools and other organizations. “Nobody has built more hales in this millennium,” he claims with pride about a job that is no easy feat. “It takes more than common sense to build a hale. It is like building a spaceship, and it is STILL too much work!”

Sinenci lead the task force that included architects, engineers, and state legislators that created the Indigenous Architecture Building Code under which hales are determined legal structures in Maui. Other counties in Hawaiʹi have adopted similar codes. Hales are used as gathering places, for events such as luaus, and can be slept in. But Sinenci says it is illegal to live in a hale because you cannot have water and electricity in them.

Sinenci goes to great heights to build hales. He established a traditional school to train students to become certified hale builders.

Uncle Francis is the only Hawaiian currently referred to as a Kuhikuhi Puʻuone, which loosely translates to “master architect, builder, and engineer, all in one.” The foremost expert in building Hawaiian hales has also earned a name for himself as a master Indigenous mason, restoring sacred temples and repairing fishpond walls using a dry method of stacking stones with no cement to bind them. “Gravity, friction and know-how keep the bricks together,” and in his lifetime, he adds, he has set a thousand tons of rocks.

This “unstoppable life force,” as one colleague referred to him, admits to feeling a responsibility to continue building hales and passing on traditional knowledge to other Hawaiians. To ensure that the torch is passed to the next generation of hale builders and Indigenous masons, Sinenci established Halau Hale Kuhikuhi, a traditional school that trains students in-depth at various levels of mastery.

He also piloted a program at Maui Community College that graduated certified hale builders.

Teaching, building, restoring, training, consulting ─ it is an exhausting schedule for anybody. So why does the octogenarian continue to work 40 to 80+ hours a week, when he would rather go fishing? “Because if I die right now, people are gonna start scrambling!” he predicts.

His journey into building hales

The Luce fellow was raised in Hana, on the island of Maui, and served 30 years in the military ─ in both the U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force, where he worked as a survival equipment technician and retired at 49 as a chief master sergeant.

“I was in the Navy for four years, three months, 29 days, 11 hours, four minutes and 29 seconds,” he recalls with precise clarity. “Seriously, I really, really enjoyed being in the service. And through it all, I maintained my Hawaiian culture, organizing many luaus for fellow soldiers.”

Uncle Francis is the only Hawaiian currently referred to as a Kuhikuhi Puʻuone, which loosely translates into “master architect, builder, and engineer, all in one.”

After retiring from the military, Sinenci built his first Hale, “the size of a pup tent,” for a local school. He had no previous training and simply jumped right in. “I never wanted to build another hale again after that one,” he laughs. But because building hales had become such a rare practice in Hawaii, word spread quickly, and he was commissioned by the curator of the Hana Museum to build one for the Hana airport.

The rest is hale history.

So why are hales so important to Hawaiian culture? To answer that question, Sinenci paraphrases Samuel Mānaiakalani Kamakau, a celebrated Hawaiian historian. “He said there are three things necessary for the well-being of Hawaiians: land to grow crops, a canoe to travel from island to island, and a hale to provide shelter and ‘rest,’ which everyone knows really means ‘procreation.’”

According to the Luce fellow, it can take up to three months to build a hale. “The fastest you can build one is nine days. But that’s with a dedicated crew of about 20 people.” His hales have ranged in size from 120 feet to 100 feet long by 30 feet wide. “It’s the largest hale ever built in the universe,” he claims.

One of “Uncle” Francis’ works in progress.

Plans for the Luce Fellowship

Thanks to Sinenci’s earnest efforts over the last 30 years, the demand for hales continues to grow in many Hawaiian communities. To keep up with the demand, he will use his Luce fellowship to buy state-of-the-art machinery and equipment for the harvesting and transporting of natural materials, and establish a storage and staging area.

“Back in the old days, a guy went into the forest, cut one or two logs, and had to drag ’em all the way down to the beach,” says Sinenci, who has made so much progress since then.

Long-term, the Luce fellow aims to create paid positions for hale builders and masons; establish more certification programs at higher learning institutions; plant and grow more natural resources, like palm leaves; create and disseminate educational and training materials; and continue to build partnerships with schools, colleges, botanical gardens, community-based nonprofits, and state and national parks.

It’s a big job. But for someone who parachuted out of an airplane for his 80th birthday, Uncle Francis is planning to jump right in and get to work.