Wahineka‘iu Lum Ho, now 70, remembers hearing her grandparents speaking Hawaiian in their home on Maui. But they never encouraged her to learn the language. She wasn’t allowed to dance hula, though she had master hula teachers in her family. Even when she attended a private school for children of Hawaiian descent, she felt disconnected. “We sang Hawaiian songs,” Lum Ho says, “but I didn’t really know what we were singing.”
Yet on this sunny Saturday morning at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, Lum Ho — who has short, salty hair and strong shoulders from surfing — belts out an oli, or chant, as if she has been doing this all her life.
Lum Ho is enrolled in a community education program, housed at the university’s Hawaiian studies center, that offers classes in the Hawaiian language, hula, and chants every Saturday morning. The classes, which have been held for 20 years, are open to anyone, but most of the 40 regular students are native Hawaiian kupuna, or elders. Most are older than 60. One is 92. Like Lum Ho, they grew up with little formal exposure to their own culture.
Hawaiian-language schools were banned in 1896, three years after American-backed businessmen overthrew the Hawaiian monarchy and two years before the United States annexed Hawaii as a territory. Between that time and 1959, when Hawaii became a U.S. state, the Hawaiian language was replaced by English in almost all public spaces. Many families followed suit, teaching their children to master English and get a Western education.
“My father and mother, like virtually all Hawaiians at that time, wanted their children to succeed, and they believed that to do so required their children to adopt Western ways,” the late Gladys Kamakakuokalani Brandt, a co-founder of the University of Hawaii’s center for Hawaiian studies, said in a 2002 interview.
But in the years since today’s kupuna became adults, Hawaiian language and culture have enjoyed a renaissance. In 1978, Hawaii’s state government made Hawaiian an official language for the first time since the overthrow. The 2010 U.S. Census counted about 20,000 people, or nearly 6 percent of the state’s population, who spoke Hawaiian at various levels of fluency — up from only 1,500 more than three decades ago. Today, there are more than 20 Hawaiian language immersion programs in Hawaii public schools, as well as dozens of hula schools across the state. The University of Hawaii offers degrees in Hawaiian language. Language apps and online resources allow people to learn Hawaiian, hula, and other cultural practices like never before.
At this moment in Hawaiian history, that means some of the traditional generational divides are being upended. Grandchildren and their grandparents learn the same things simultaneously. Younger adults are teaching their elders about cultural artifacts that ordinarily would be passed down in the other direction.
“It’s strange: the younger ones like me teaching them, the kupuna. It’s like reverse role-modeling,” says Lawrence Kealiʻi Gora, who teaches the chant classes.
In the Hawaiian language, kupuna means “grandparent,” “ancestor,” or “honored elder.” But it also means “starting point” or “source.” In Hawaiian culture, kupuna are highly respected and often seen as keepers of ancestral knowledge, as well as sources of guidance and wisdom, even to people beyond their own families. Even the bones of kupuna, referred to as iwi kupuna, are revered — thought to hold the mana, or spirit, of ancestors and believed to continue to guide Hawaiians. Reporting a burial site disturbance is required by Hawaiian law, and the state created a Historic Preservation Division to advise people who do so.
Today, many Hawaiian kupuna turn to the community-ed classes, run by the nonprofit Ka Lei Papahi, to acquire the ancestral knowledge they weren’t allowed to learn growing up. Once a year, adult students in the Saturday classes spend half a day touring Oahu’s cultural and historic sites, from ancient Hawaiian fishponds to culturally important Hawaiian shrines. And every year, Ka Lei Papahi raises money to subsidize the cost of a trip outside the Hawaiian Islands. Often, the students visit other indigenous peoples and learn about their culture and history while sharing their own. One year, a group spent 17 days in Hokkaido, Japan’s main northern island, meeting with the native Ainu. Another year they went to New Zealand to visit a Maori community.
“This experience has reawakened the Hawaiian in me. It helped us discover who we all really are.”
Tiarʻe Martyn, 67, grew up in Honolulu and learned hula, but not the language. She remembers hearing her father speak Hawaiian only to his mother. After hearing about the classes from strangers, including a woman at a grocery store, Martyn decided to drop by one Saturday, partly out of curiosity, partly out of desire to learn the language.
During Martyn’s first visit, Lilikala Kameʻeleihiwa, a senior professor at the university and an expert in Hawaiian cultural traditions, led the class in a chant. Martyn watched as the students introduced themselves in a traditional way, chanting their names, where they’re from and their family backgrounds.
“I knew my turn would come and I knew the kumu [teacher] would ask me if I wanted to try,” Martyn recalls. “I thought, ʻOf course not!’ I was literally paralyzed with fear.”
But Kameʻeleihiwa encouraged Martyn to try. The teacher spoke in Hawaiian, and Martyn repeated. Though Martyn struggled with some pronunciation, she finished the exercise as the teacher and the other kupuna encouraged her. It was a spiritual awakening for her.
“The way they teach, especially for someone like me who didn’t know the language, they made it so inviting and encouraging. I wasn’t intimidated,” Martyn says. “They would say, ʻYou don’t have to learn it today, but in time.’ They want you to really live it, have it become a part of your life.”
Lum Ho, who lived for nearly 30 years on the U.S. mainland, says the class has finally given her a connection to her culture, to her ancestors, and her family.
“This experience has reawakened the Hawaiian in me,” she says. “In a lot of ways, it has reaffirmed a Hawaiianness in me that was maybe never lost. It helped us discover who we all really are.”
On a recent Saturday, about two dozen kupuna stand outside their classroom, lined up behind a student carrying the Hawaiian flag. They perform a chant that requests permission to enter the room; Gora, their teacher, responds from inside with a chant granting entrance. This is how the class begins.
Many students had recently returned from a visit to Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano on Hawaii Island. Some Native Hawaiians, who consider the mountain sacred, have engaged in months-long protests against the construction of an 18-story telescope there. They’re part of a long history of civil disobedience by Native Hawaiians, dating back to the 1960s, including protests of the eviction of farmers and a successful fight to regain state control over Kahoolawe, an island that was a U.S. Navy bombing site from 1953 to 1990.
At Mauna Kea, surrounded by thousands of protestors at an elevation of 6,632 feet, these kupuna had performed a special chant they had practiced in class. It was a pivotal moment for many of them, an experience that made them feel more connected to their culture and to other native Hawaiians. Some called it “profound,” others “spiritual.” Gora sees it as purposeful learning.
“We are taking the things we learn in the classroom and using it, applying it,” Gora says to the students. “If you don’t use it, it will die. It must be shared.”