Revival of the Hawaiian Language

Hawaii Stories

Hana Hou! Magazine

Olelo Odyssey

Its pioneers and champions reflect on the revival of the Hawaiian language


“I couldn't speak Hawaiian, and my friends couldn't speak English,” says Keao NeSmith, who grew up on Kauai among a community of native speakers from Niihau. “But we just go play.” Today Keao is not only fluent, he's translating classic European literature, like Alice's Adventures in Wonderland into Hawaiian.

At the quaint, white-walled Congregational church just off the main dirt road in Kaumakani, worn pickup trucks sit in the lot at the edge of a manicured lawn, and waves break gently on the nearby shore. Inside, fifty or so faithful fill the pews and the rows of folding chairs with the word “Niihau” stenciled across their backs. Bookracks on the walls hold copies of the Baibala Hemolele (Hawaiian Bible) and Buke Himeni Hawaii (Hawaiian Hymnbook).

Those gathered to worship here on this Sunday morning are members of the Niihau community living on the west side of Kauai. Niihau, which lies seventeen miles southwest of Kauai, has been privately owned since 1864. Access to the island is by permission only — a policy that has kept much of the residents’ Native Hawaiian culture intact for the past century and a half. Olelo Hawaii (Hawaiian language) has always been their first language, and though there are native speakers scattered throughout the state, the people of Niihau make up the only community in the Islands with an unbroken link to the language of their ancestors.

I’d spent the evening before talking story at nearby Salt Pond Beach Park with some of the folks from Niihau and my host, Keao NeSmith, who also speaks Hawaiian. They were gracious, forgiving of my slow ear; though I am by most standards fluent, the differences between olelo Hawaii learned at a university and the spoken Hawaiian of Niihau can be significant. In church that Sunday morning, I wanted only to listen.

The pastor read from the book of Timoteo (Timothy) in soft, confident verse. Then everyone, from the youngest keiki (child) to the oldest kupuna (elder), stood one after another to read aloud from the Baibala Hemolele. Their olelo was natural, vibrant, resonating long after each speaker had finished. The feeling in the room was powerful enough to overcome my skittishness about reading Hawaiian in front of these native speakers, and I sensed anew what had first drawn me to the language years ago: its ea (life, breath). This, I felt, is a language not merely rescued but brilliantly alive and still powerfully connected to these Islands — to their history and to their future.

Speaking about the importance of Hawaiian language

Niihau resident Hiipoi Kanahele speaks to the students about hte importance of preserving olelo Hawaii, the language of the Hawaiian people.

In the 1700s an estimated half-million people spoke olelo Hawaii.

In the 1700s an estimated half-million people spoke olelo Hawaii. Then the tide turned: contact with the outside world brought diseases that decimated the native population and introduced new languages to the Islands, one of which would displace the native tongue. The 1893 overthrow of native rule in Hawaii was followed by laws that mandated English-language instruction in all schools. Olelo Hawaii was further suppressed by those who would shape the Islands into an American territory welcoming tourists, military personnel, and tens of thousands of English-speaking settlers. The economic and social pressures that accompanied Americanization throughout the twentieth century further eroded the use of the native tongue so that by the 1980s the number of Hawaiian speakers had dwindled to fewer than two thousand, most of them aging. The language teetered on the brink of extinction.

In 1983 a small but passionate group of Hawaiian-language educators founded Punana Leo (Language Nest), an organization whose mission has been, in part, to re-establish “ke kulana mana o ka olelo Hawaii ola mai o Kikilo mai” (“the mana of a living Hawaiian language from the depth of our origins”). Rallying to the cry, “E Ola ka Olelo Hawaii!” (“The Hawaiian Language Shall Live!”), they worked to revive ka olelo makuahine (the mother tongue) not only in schools, but in everyday Island life.

There have been extraordinary achievements: a 1978 constitutional convention made olelo Hawaii an official state language — Hawaii is the only U.S. state with two official languages — and thousands of Island students have matriculated through K-12 Hawaiian-language immersion programs. In 1999 the first class in more than a century to be educated completely in Hawaiian graduated from high school. The number of fluent speakers has grown to an estimated ten thousand, and today the language is spreading beyond the schools: Apple’s operating systems and Google’s search engine are available in Hawaiian; Bank of Hawaii’s ATMs offer a Hawaiian-language option. Oiwi TV, a Hawaiian-language cable station, reaches more than two hundred thousand homes across the state and is available online.


“Looking at the written record of Hawaii through the lens of Hawaiian language changes your perspective on everything,” says Annemarie Aweau, here at the archives of the Hawaiian Historical Society. Born in the Bay Area, Annemarie reconnected with her Polynesian roots after enrolling in the Hawaiian Studies program at UH Hilo. 

Much has been written about the unlikely recovery of Hawaiian, and while the achievement is universally celebrated, some question what real difference these past three decades have made when still today fewer than 5 percent of Native Hawaiians are fluent. In an economy characterized by uncertainty, unemployment, and budget cutbacks, some doubt the wisdom of spending dwindling resources teaching Hawaiian in a place where English is dominant, and they question whether educating children in Hawaiian will put them at a disadvantage.

These questions are hardly new. In 2003 I enrolled my five-year-old daughter, Kiele Makana, at Kula Kaiapuni O Maui ma Nahienaena in Lahaina. I was a Hawaiian-language and Hawaiian studies student at Maui Community College at the time, and while I strongly supported the recovery, I felt some trepidation. My child would be part of a small minority learning Hawaiian in an English-speaking world. Kiele and her classmates seemed aware of this, too. They were sometimes reluctant to speak Hawaiian outside of school. When we would see other Kaiapuni kids out surfing or at the Lahaina Safeway, I’d call out, “Whoo-ee! Aloha no, pehea oe?” (“Aloha, how are you?”) They’d sometimes look furtively around to make sure no one was listening before answering in Hawaiian. The last thing any kid wants is to be different.

Still, Kiele blossomed and became fluent. She grew from a shy toddler who spoke very little at all to an outgoing, bilingual class leader. And as Hawaiian has become more widespread, so has respect for those who can speak it. When we moved to Oahu, Kiele continued in the immersion program at Kula Kaiapuni O Anuenue in Palolo Valley, where even the football team speaks Hawaiian during games and practice.

While urban Honolulu and the “mecca” of Hawaiian language, Hilo, usually draw the attention of those surveying the Hawaiian-language landscape, it’s often in the smaller towns that one can gauge the impact of the renewal and preview what might be ahead. If olelo Hawaii is to have a significant future on Maui, it will be because of people like Ekela Kaniaupio-Crozier.

A Hawaiian-language teacher for more than thirty years, “Kumu Ekela” was born and raised on Oahu. Her roles in “the movement” have included that of college instructor, designer of Hawaiian-language online courses, immersion school parent, and hope kahu (assistant pastor) at Ka Ekalesia O Kupaianaha, The Church of the Living God in Wailuku, where services are conducted in Hawaiian. Ekela currently serves as the Hawaiian protocol facilitator at Kamehameha Schools Maui. But things might have turned out differently for Ekela had it not been for her tutu (grandmother).

I fly from Honolulu to meet with Kumu Ekela, excited to return to the island I had left ten years earlier and to see her again. Her husband, Pomaikai, had been my kumu (teacher) in the mahiai kalo (taro farming) classes I’d taken as an undergraduate in Hawaiian studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, and I had wonderful memories of staying with them and joining the weekly backyard Hawaiian language lessons she hosted. Walking from my car at the Pukalani campus of Kamehameha Schools, I hear a deep, resonant voice cut the tranquil Upcountry air. “Whoo-ee! E, aloha mai!” Ekela, with her usual joyful smile, greets me with the kind of hug you don’t want to ever break free of.

Hawaiian-language teacher Ekela Kaniaupio-Crozier 

“What a blessing it was to be raied in a Hawaiian-speaking church,” says Ekelea Kaniaupio-Crozier, who went on to earn one of the first college degrees in Hawaiian language and has been teaching ever since.

We speak olelo Hawaii, and for a few moments I get lost in the sound of her lyrical, rolling Hawaiian. Ekela, who grew up just prior to the Hawaiian cultural renaissance of the 1970s, is among those few speakers who bridged the generation gap between kupuna concerned that fewer young people were speaking the language and today’s native students who are eager to learn. Ekela first heard Hawaiian “mai ka hanau” (from birth), she says. “‘Aole i namu kou kupunahine iau, ua olelo Hawaii wale no oia iau. Ale wau lohe ka olelo ka namu mai kona waha. Ua hanai a wau i loko o ka halepule olelo Hawaii.” (“My grandmother didn’t speak English to me, only Hawaiian. I never heard English from her mouth. I was raised in a Hawaiian-language church”).

Ekela calls her grandmother a “radical activist” for tenaciously hanging on to her olelo at a time when few could — or wanted to — speak it. She chose to pass it on to Ekela from all of the moopuna (grandchildren). Clearly, Grandma had a plan. At age nine Ekela entered Hawaiian-language classes at her church, one of only two keiki; everyone else was over 50. She struggled, but “I could always feel the love that the pastor and the others had for me and my effort,” she says, switching now to English (because I nervously had). “I knew my tutu was proud, too, that her mo o (grandchild) could olelo — as weak as I could, as horrible as I spoke.”

That the language was critically endangered rarely occurred to Ekela. “I was not really thinking about the political, the cultural aspects. You’re just trying to become what everyone else is becoming — wearing hot pants and whatever else was happening at the time!” With few peers who spoke Hawaiian, she often asked herself, “Why am I doing this?” and when she entered Aiea High, she felt relieved that Hawaiian wasn’t offered. “Hallelujah!” she exclaims. “I can take Japanese, French, Spanish — no more Hawaiian!”

Ekela chose Spanish with Marjorie Woodrum as her instructor. But Tutu was not about to be sidelined. When Ekela wanted to take Spanish again in her sophomore year, Grandma said no: Ekela would take Hawaiian. Ekela replied, “‘A ole loa” (“No have”), but Grandma was a step ahead of her. “Ua kelepono au i ke kula. Loa ka papa.” (“I telephoned your school. They have a class.”) Tutu had persuaded Mrs. Woodrum to teach Hawaiian.

Ekela wasn’t pleased. “I was a typical 15-year-old with plenty attitude,” she says, and before long Mrs. Woodrum pulled Ekela aside. She showed her student a globe. “She spun it, stopping it with a finger. She asked me, ‘Do you know where this is?’” Ekela didn’t. “‘This is Czechoslovakia,’ she said. ‘That’s where I’m from. I know all the customs, I know the language, I know what my grandma would say.’” Ekela remained unmoved. “‘And you know those things about being Hawaiian. But if you look in your school, no one else does. There’s not a lot of people like you. I didn’t do this because I thought I could get a great award for bringing back Hawaiian language into the school. But it’s important for a people to have their language, because it’s their identity. In it you’re going to find all the things that matter to you. Everything is in your language.’

By the 1980s the number of Hawaiian speakers had dwindled to fewer than two thousand, most of them aging

“By then my tears are coming down,” Ekela says, but Mrs. Woodrum wasn’t finished. “‘I don’t need to be doing this,’ she said. ‘I need you to be doing this. And I think you’ve been destined to do it.’ At that point I’m broken, I’m thinking of my grandma.” Ekela pauses, her voice cracking.“What did it all mean to her, to me, to our kupuna? I’m just trying to be a regular teenager, and all of a sudden this kuleana,” she says, giving the word for “responsibility” the full weight of its meaning, “I could feel it being handed over.”

When Ekela told her grandmother what had happened at school, Tutu shared heartbreaking stories: “She told me of being beaten in school for speaking Hawaiian. She told of having masking tape put over her mouth until she would use English. And she continued on with story after story,” Ekela says. “As a child I loved the language, but I couldn’t see a future in it. That day her stories fueled me, and I knew we would create one. Now we have schools taught in Hawaiian, we have people wanting to speak the language. How far we’ve come is incredible.”

Even after decades of teaching olelo Hawaii, Kumu Ekela’s mission is far from over, and the new generation of haumana (students) will undoubtedly be grateful that Tutu had a plan.

Keaoopuokalani NeSmith was born and raised not far from the church at Kaumakani. As a child “Keao” spoke English, but his grandmother and great-grandmother were both fluent in Hawaiian. It was in fact his great-grandmother’s first language; she spoke little English. As he grew, his tutu Annie Kealoha Kauhane — who was raised in a traditional grass hale (house) in Puna — passed to Keao her olelo makuahine. That most of his friends were from Niihau helped, and by the time Keao reached high school, he was speaking the language that became his life’s passion.

Today Keao is a doctor of applied linguistics, having earned his PhD from the University of Waikato in Aotearoa (New Zealand). Fluent in Hawaiian, Tahitian, French and English, Keao is part of a growing wave of Native Hawaiians in academia. Currently he’s working to translate classic English and European literature into Hawaiian. He hasn’t made it easy on himself by choosing texts from the nineteenth century, but Keao aims to continue a tradition begun in that era, when Hawaiian-language newspapers brought the works of Edgar Allan Poe, Alexandre Dumas, and even Shakespeare to their readers. Keao has produced Hawaiian versions of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. He’s translated one of the best-selling books in history, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince, and he’s seeking rights to produce a Hawaiian-language version of The Hobbit.

Alice in Wonderland translated into Hawaiian 

The front page of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland translated into Hawaiian by Keao NeSmith. “Teenagers have so little to choose from,” NeSmith says, “and we can add to that body of material. We can give them stories in Hawaiian that aren’t ‘homework.’”

For Keao, translating difficult texts into Hawaiian is an enjoyable challenge. “Lewis Carroll liked playing with language,” he says by way of example. “The Alice pieces involve a lot of wordplay and literary devices, which are so similar to how Hawaiians use language. Some passages were like intricate language puzzles that I had to re-create in Hawaiian.” Coming up with Hawaiian terms for things distinctly British was also part of the fun: In Na Hana Kupanaha a Aleka ma ka Aina Kamahao the Mallymkun, or dormouse at the Mad Hatter’s tea party, is a rodent that hibernates for the winter. He’s continually falling asleep and so becomes the “‘Iole Maka Mania” (sleepy-eyed mouse). The excitable March Hare, so called because March is rutting season for European hares, becomes the “Lapaki Eu eu” (horny rabbit). The books themselves are beautifully produced and include the original drawings by John Tenniel— with a few minor adjustments. In one familiar image, Alice holds a vial with the words “E inu i au” printed on it: “Drink me.”

With such a limited readership, why would anyone undertake translating Carroll or Tolkien into an endangered language? “There’s a tremendous lack of literature in Hawaiian out there for young adults,” Keao says. “Teenagers have so little to choose from, and we can add to that body of material. We can give them stories in Hawaiian that aren’t ‘homework.’”

The effort to revive olelo Hawaii is having ripple effects even beyond the Islands. According to the most recent census, as much as half of today’s Native Hawaiian population lives outside of Hawaii, and stories of Hawaiians leaving in search of jobs and affordable housing are commonplace. Less talked about are those who return “home.”

Born and raised in Livermore, about thirty miles east of San Francisco, Annemarie Aweau considered herself a typical Bay Area teen. Though her father was part Hawaiian, there had been little talk in the family of her Polynesian roots. When she started choosing colleges for a career in interior design, Annemarie focused on nearby and affordable California schools. Then, with the flip of a page, everything changed. “I found this random magazine article about Hawaiian studies,” Annemarie says. “There was a quote from a student talking about how he was learning to navigate, like the ancestors, using the stars. Something clicked. I ran out to my mom, showed her the article and yelled, ‘I’m gonna do this!’”

In 2006 Annemarie arrived in Hilo as a student at the University of Hawaii. “I really didn’t know anything about Hawaiian culture,” she admits, and the shock was amplified by the fact that all Annemarie’s classes were taught in Hawaiian. While she struggled at first, she found a calling in the study of oli (traditional chant). With each passing day the voices of the past connected her to a lost part of herself — so much so, she says, that she wept as she boarded a plane to California for fall break. “My first semester was such an incredible experience,” she says. “I had fallen in love with the language.”


Students at Kula Kaiapuni O Anuenue are immersed not only in the language but also the culture of Hawaii; here students inspect the schools loi, or taro patch.

Annemarie completed her BA in Hawaiian studies and, being a lover of books and libraries, went on for an MA in library and information sciences. That field is one in which those with Hawaiian language fluency are reshaping our under-standing of the Islands. Annemarie currently serves as an archive technician for the National Park Service and archivist for the Hula Preservation Society. The NPS in Hawaii curates and interprets for the public some of the Islands’ most significant places: Pearl Harbor, the Hansen’s disease colony at Kalaupapa, Hawaii Volcanoes and Haleakala National Parks. The NPS also serves as a repository of information for park planners, geographers and archeologists; over the years it has amassed (but not processed) a huge collection of information about Hawaii. “Having someone who can speak Hawaiian to process these surveys and reports affects everything,” says Annemarie. “Viewing these things through the lens of the native language, accessing the traditional place names, the moolelo (stories), means you see the land’s history more deeply. That can make an imprint on how these places will be viewed by future generations. It gives the places a deeper resonance.”

Annemarie is excited to see many of Hawaii’s public and private institutions actively seeking Hawaiian speakers; certainly she herself plans to pass on the gift. “I cannot wait to raise my kids with a grounding in the language of their kupuna and this land,” she says. “That is the future of olelo Hawaii.”

To understand Annemarie’s optimism one has to think in generational time spans, says Maenette Ah Nee-Benham, the first dean of the Hawaiinuiakea School of Hawaiian Knowledge at UH Manoa. “The supression of our olelo makuahine took place over many generations,” she says, “and we need to allow it time to flourish once again.” She believes that now is a critical transition: “Those in the first wave of students and supporters who have been trained in Hawaiian are moving into positions within so many fields where they have the ability to make significant change. I’m very excited for what’s to come.”

We are beginning to see entire families committing to the revitalization of Hawaiian

Kiope Raymond, a professor of Hawaiian language and Hawaiian studies and a co-founder of the immersion program on Maui, echoes that thinking: “One of the first parents who joined our efforts on Maui was Hokulani Holt-Padilla,” a prominent language specialist, hula teacher and activist. “She committed her daughter Kaniau to the program. Kaniau finished her PhD at the University of Southern California and is now a tenure-track Hawaiian studies instructor.” Dana Naone Hall, a distinguished poet and teacher, sent her Hawaiian-speaking daughter to Stanford, Kiope points out. “And there are many more. We are beginning to see entire families committing to the revitalization of Hawaiian as olelo Hawaii ola, a living language.” He pauses. “The question is, Should it be measured only by the degrees you achieve?”

His question stayed with me long after our conversation. Kiope was my first Hawaiian-language teacher; he inspired me to continue on to earn a BA in Hawaiian studies, an MA in Pacific Island studies, and a PhD in Hawaiian history. Now I have all the palapala (documents) one can get and a fulfilling job teaching at UH. But when I consider what measure matters most, it’s the passion and aloha for the language that one senses from people like Ekela, Keao, Annemarie, and Kiope. As my own daughter grows into adulthood, I reflect on that difficult decision to send her through the Hawaiian-language immersion program, and I am thankful. Thankful that my child is bilingual, linked to the place of her birth and grounded in a worldview filled with wisdom. As for Kiele herself — whose mother is from San Francisco and whose dad hails from Arkansas — her response to my asking what her Hawaiian language means to her surprises even me: “It gives me a reason to be here,” she says. “It makes me feel connected.”

The pragmatic success of the Hawaiian-language recovery is fairly easy to measure. What’s harder to quantify is the effect that a language has on its speakers and on the place where it’s heard. Thinking about this, my mind drifts back to the little white church in Kaumakani and the sound of living Hawaiian. In that moment I was reminded of the advice the wise fox gave to the little prince in Keao’s translation of Exupéry’s tale: “O kau huna, ua maalahi loa: Aohe o kakou ike pono koe me ka puuwai. O na mea pono loa, aohe ike ia e na maka.”

“Here is my secret. It is very simple: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.”

Story By Ronald Williams, Jr.

Photos By Dana Edmunds

Hana Hou! vol. 17, no. 2 vol. 17, no. 2 This article first appeared in the April/May 2014 issue of Hana Hou! The Magazine of Hawaiian Airlines

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