What the Survival of the Hawaiian Language Means to Those Who Speak It

A Smithsonian curator recalls his own experience learning the native tongue

Waimea Bay takes its name from the Hawaiian word for "reddish-brown waters." (hey tiffany! via Flickr under CC BY-NC 2.0)
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The Hawaiian language has no term for “virtual reality.” At least, it didn’t in 2017, when the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center held its first event in Hawai’i. Visitors to the Honolulu festival—called “ʻAe Kai: A Culture Lab on Convergence”—could learn about Hawaiian fabric-making and surfboard-crafting or watch Hawaiian films and poetry readings. Most of the presenters were native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders and the signs were in the Hawaiian language. But organizers faced a problem: Some of the words needed to describe the exhibits didn’t exist yet.

“We worked with Hina Kneubuhl, a linguist who was taking part in the program,” says Kālewa Correa, the center’s curator of Hawaiʻi and the Pacific. “She would ask us questions like, ‘What is at the core of virtual reality? What is it, really?’ We had to really tease out how to describe that idea within a Hawaiian worldview.” The term they came up with was hoʻopili ʻoiaʻiʻ, which literally means “true connection,” being fully immersed in an experience. The Hawaiian language expert presented the word to an official panel that approves new words, and the term was submitted to the modern Hawaiian dictionary.

Stories like this harken back to a time when Hawaiian was actively spoken. Correa recalls that his Portuguese immigrant ancestors on his father’s side learned the language when they arrived in the mid-1800s. So did immigrants from China, Japan, Africa, and all over the world. Only about half of the islands’ population were Indigenous at the time, but Hawaiian was the kingdom’s language, spoken in shops, in the fields, in the houses of government.

“It was the language of an advanced, multicultural society,” Correa says. “People often don’t realize how sophisticated Hawaiʻi was at the time. We had universal suffrage. We had women judges. King Kalākaua and Queen Kapi’olani were the first monarchs to ever circumnavigate the globe, back in the 1880s.” On their tour, the royal couple stopped in Washington, D.C. where President Ulysses S. Grant hosted them at the first-ever state dinner. The queen toured the Smithsonian, and when she returned to Hawaiʻi, she had her boat makers create a special canoe and ship it to the institution.

In 1896, just a few years after the king died, the U.S. government overthrew Kalākaua’s sister, Queen Liliuokalani, and annexed the islands as a U.S. territory. Part of the overthrow involved banning the Hawaiian language from all schools. By the time Correa was born in 1975, only the elderly could still speak Hawaiian fluently.

That changed around the time Correa went to college. A new program at the University of Hawaii at Hilo revived the language and developed immersion programs for Hawaiian schoolchildren. Today, more than 18,000 speak Hawaiian fluently, a large proportion of them under the age of 18. (Read more about this program in this article from the December issue of Smithsonian.)

man playing Hawaiian nose flute
Calvin Hoe plays the 'ohe hano ihu (Hawaiian nose flute) at 'Ae Kai: A Culture Lab on Convergence. (Hina Wilkerson)

Correa is playing a role in this revival. Through the center, he runs a program called Our Stories, which helps native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander filmmakers and multi-media artists share their own tales and perspectives. The few popular films about Pacific Islands have mostly been made by outsiders. “Moana is like a tiki bar on film,” Correa says, referring to the popular 2016 Disney cartoon. “They mixed together three or four different Polynesian cultures and essentially said, ‘Here, this is the Pacific!’ But my daughters loved it. And it showed that the world was ready for Pacific Islander stories.”

One of the Our Stories projects is called Language of a Nation. It’s a four-part series by the native Hawaiian filmmaker Conrad Lihilihi, drawing on interviews with leading Hawaiian historians and cultural experts to explore the 1896 ban and its consequences. “Language really is the code of thinking,” says Kaleikoa Kaeo, a professor of ethnic studies at the University of Hawaii in Maui, in the beginning of the series. “It is really the framework of how we see the world.”

Along with his research and storytelling work, Correa has become interested in the boat Queen Kapi’olani sent to the Smithsonian back in the 1870s. He served as the cultural liaison when his colleague Joshua Bell, the curator of globalism at the National Museum of Natural History, brought in two native Hawaiian canoe experts to take a look. The Hawaiians pointed out that sometime after it was donated, the queen’s canoe was inexplicably modified to include parts of other boats. According to Correa, “They said, ‘This is a Samoan mast and it must be part of something else. And those pieces of wood at the bottom—those aren’t part of the design. They’re the packing materials that were used to hold the boat straight inside the crate.’”

The experts also insisted that the boat needed more than just structural repairs. “The Hawaiian mindset about boats is almost like the way musicians think about a Stradivarius violin—that you have to play it and give it energy,” says Correa. “These experts said that the canoe has to be talked to, interacted with, and touched, so that mana, or spiritual energy, can go back into it.”

The same is true of the Hawaiian language itself. Reviving it involves more than learning the vocabulary and grammar. It requires a whole new kind of engagement. “Take a place name like Waimea Bay," Correa says in reference to a part of the island of Oahu. “Waimea means ‘reddish-brown waters,’ When you see places with ‘waimea’ in their name, it means that people long ago noticed the reddish color of the water there—a result of eroding volcanic rock. Once you know the language, you understand so much more about the land around you and how your ancestors saw it. Those stories and perspectives are still there. You just need to unlock them.”

About Jennie Rothenberg Gritz

Jennie Rothenberg Gritz is a senior editor at Smithsonian magazine. She was previously a senior editor at the Atlantic.

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