At the Y

A Handy Way to Rep the Y

Long before becoming a BYU hand sign, the shaka originated with Hamana Kalili, a Latter-day Saint fisherman in Laie, Hawaii. This statue of Kalili stands in the Hukilau Marketplace at the Polynesian Cultural Center in Laie. Photo by Michael Walker.

A Handy Way to Rep the Y

Howzit? Hang loose. All clear. Welcome. Thanks. The Hawaiian-born shaka, a relaxed fist with thumb and pinkie extended, has evolved to signal a plethora of positive messages. Now the shaka takes on another meaning: Go Cougars! For the BYU family, this amalgam of the spirit of the Y and the spirit of aloha lets everyone know where your heart is.

Use it “whenever you want to represent the Y,” says head coach Kalani Sitake, who grew up with the shaka in Laie, Hawaii. “To me, it makes a lot of sense. It’s the Y in sign language. It fits perfectly.”

The shaka’s most credible origin story hearkens back to a powerful fisherman and well-known Laie Latter-day Saint named Hamana Kalili (1882–1958). One day as he was pressing sugar cane through rollers at the Kahuku Sugar Mill, he lost the middle three fingers on his right hand. He was later assigned to work the sugar cane railroad and would use the gesture to signal “all clear” to the train. Local kids who liked to hop the train adopted Kalili’s gesture as their own. The symbol also became known to church-goers as Kalili led the music as ward chorister.

Island visitors became acquainted with the shaka when Kalili, dressed as King Kamehameha, welcomed them to hukilaus—festive feasts that helped fund Church building efforts and inspired today’s shows and luaus at the Polynesian Cultural Center. And the symbol caught hold in the Hawaiian surfing culture in the 1960s before going global.

Now this part of Kalili’s legacy has reached BYU fans worldwide. Ever since January, when the new, shaka-throwing football coaches were introduced at a home basketball game, use of the latest Y symbol has been on the rise in Provo, most visible in the ROC as students send positive vibes to free-throw shooters. But it is also showing up on the quad and beyond the borders of campus. Expect to see countless shakas come September.

“I think it’s really cool,” says new defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki. “If you see another person and you have no idea who they are, if they’re throwing it up you’re like, ‘That’s my guy! That’s my gal! We both have something in common; we rep the Y.’”

Need some pointers on how to manually rep the Y?

  • The always-friendly sign is best paired with a smile, a nod, or “Go Cougs!”
  • To make a Y in ASL, keep the hand up, palm forward.
  • You can even rep the Y in text, like this: \,,,/ or \,,,_
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