Photo: Ka Haka ʻUla O Keʻelikōlani College at UH Hilo
Ka Haka ʻUla O Keʻelikōlani College at UH Hilo offers BA, MA and PhD programs in Hawaiian language and related topics including linguistics, literature, language acquisition, and indigenous cultural revitalization. - Photo: Keiki Kawaiaeʻa

Read this article in ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi

By Dr. William H. Wilson, UH Hilo Hawaiian Studies Division Chair

Progress on a Foundation Laid Down by Kūpuna

In 1982, the UH Hilo Hawaiian Studies B.A. was approved. The following year, the ʻAha Pūnana Leo was formed. For 40 years these two entities have been partners striving to revitalize the Hawaiian language, lobbying for legal changes and providing resources.

By mid-1994, Nāwahīokalaniʻōpuʻu school had been established and then in 1998, Ka Haka ʻUla O Keʻelikōlani. These were the first Hawaiian language-medium middle school, high school and college programs since the time when Lahainaluna was transitioned from a Hawaiian medium school to an English medium one in the late 1800s. From these efforts would grow an integrated Hawaiian language medium system from preschool through to the doctorate that exists today in Hilo.

All these resources came into being in the last part of the 20th century. However, the early 20th century was a period of territorial school persecution of the last native-speaker children. When those children became kūpuna, they would work to reestablish Hawaiian in the schools. Most of us have heard of the Ka Leo Hawaiʻi radio program where many kūpuna put out the call to revitalize the Hawaiian language ( However, not many people may be aware of other activities in which kūpuna activists were engaged.

One such activity here in Hilo was the Hui Hoʻoulu ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi, an organization of kūpuna working for language education with Edith Kanakaʻole as their president. Following the strong example of Aunty Edith in support of language and culture revitalization, UH Hilo students petitioned to have a Hawaiian Studies B.A. established here in Hilo.

Although the university agreed to seek the establishment of such a degree, its leadership was concerned that the degree would ultimately be denied because Aunty Edith and potential language teacher hires lacked graduate degrees. The dean charged with planning the degree contacted me about moving to UH Hilo from the state archives in Honolulu. At that time I was one of the few persons with a graduate degree related to the Hawaiian language.

After being contacted by the dean, I sought out Aunty Edith to get her decision on whether I should accept the job. She told me to accept. The two of us then decided that I should only accept under certain conditions. One was that Hawaiian Studies would have its own department. The other was that the new Hawaiian Studies Department be operated and taught through Hawaiian as an official language under the new state constitution. Both ideas were groundbreaking as no Hawaiian area in any university had its own department and English was then the university medium of instruction even for Hawaiian Studies.

Aunty Edith and the kūpuna of her generation wanted to revitalize Hawaiian as it had existed in schools attended by their parents and grandparents during the monarchy. They were intensely involved in establishing policies and in teaching in the classrooms here at UH Hilo. They are the foundation from which was built the various programs that we have today. Nui ka mahalo ʻia o lākou!