Awaiāulu: It’s About Knowledge

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Read this article in ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi

The renaissance of Hawaiian culture over the past 50 years has been ignited by many inspiring efforts.

This story – about two malihini who dreamed of bringing historical Hawaiian knowledge to the forefront via ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i – is especially remarkable considering neither of them were born with Hawaiian blood nor did they know anything about the culture when they first arrived on O‘ahu.

Photo: Puakea Nogelmeier
Puakea Nogelmeier – Courtesy Photos

Hailing from St. Paul, Minn., 18-year-old Marvin Puakea Nogelmeier set foot in Honolulu in May 1972, intending to stay for just a few days before heading to Japan. Losing his wallet, however, thwarted that plan. Days turned to weeks, months and years and he wound up never leaving.

Joining a men’s hālau with six friends marked a turning point in Nogelmeier’s life. “With our kumu, Mililani Allen, we had to translate songs, study history, do homework,” he said. “I was…what?! There was a Hawaiian Kingdom, a Hawaiian language? I realized that I knew all kinds of Hawai‘i things, but I didn’t know Hawaiian things. In that regard, I was an empty calabash.”

Nogelmeier could easily repeat Hawaiian chants, “but it was parroting,” he said. “It wasn’t learning the language. I wanted to learn the language.”

In 1978, he met renowned photographer and ethnologist Theodore Kelsey, then 87 years old, who was living with his friend, writer June Gutmanis, in Wai‘anae, a 5-mile bike ride from his Māiʻli home. Born in Seattle, Kelsey and his parents settled in Hilo when he was 6.

“If you lived in Hilo back then and you didn’t speak Hawaiian, you didn’t have anyone to talk to,” Nogelmeier said. “Mr. Kelsey was totally fluent in Hawaiian. When I met him, he was helping June translate research material written in Hawaiian.”

Kelsey initially rebuffed his requests for tutoring but eventually relented. For the next eight years, until the elderly linguist became too ill, Nogelmeier met with him for at least two hours every Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday morning.

Meanwhile, he was attending college, and he graduated from UH Mānoa in 1983 with bachelor’s degrees in anthropology and Hawaiian language. Having proven his proficiency, he was immediately hired as an instructor of ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i at the university and served in that capacity for 35 years.

Photo: Duane Nakila Steele
Duane Nakila Steele

In 1988, Dwayne Nakila Steele enrolled in one of Nogelmeier’s Elementary Hawaiian Language classes at age 53. He was one of Nogelmeier’s oldest and most enthusiastic students, and they became fast friends.

Born in Wichita and raised in Denver, Steele attended the University of Colorado where he met and later married a girl from Kahuku. After living a few years on the West Coast, they decided to make O‘ahu their home.

Steele earned a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering and a master’s degree in business administration from UH Mānoa. In 1975, he purchased Grace Brothers, a small family-owned paving company, with three friends. Renamed Grace Pacific a decade later, the company flourished under his leadership as CEO, and by the time he retired in 1989, it had grown to be one of the largest construction firms in the Pacific.

With more free time, Steele was able to pursue his love for Hawaiian history and culture, including becoming fluent in ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i. In his characteristically humble way, he also quietly financed many causes to keep the culture alive. Among them were Hawaiian immersion schools, a weekly radio talk show in Hawaiian, and a project to digitize Hawaiian language newspapers published from the mid-19th century to the early 20th century, so they could be available online.

While working with Steele on several such projects, Nogelmeier received a master’s degree in Pacific Island studies and a Ph.D. in anthropology. In September 2003, he completed the final draft of his doctoral dissertation, which focused on the extensive amount of printed Hawaiian language material in the 1800s and early 1900s – very little of which had been translated into English.

“The missionaries taught Hawaiians to read and write, and within two generations, Hawai‘i was one of the most literate nations in the world,” Nogelmeier said.

“Two million pages of material were published in Hawaiian – more than the rest of the Pacific combined – and maybe just 3% of it was being used in modern times because English had become the primary language in Hawai‘i and few people were fluent in Hawaiian.”

Steele read Nogelmeier’s dissertation overnight, showed up at his house at daybreak and asked, “What are you going to do about it?”

As they discussed ideas, Nogelmeier recalls Steele saying, “It’s not about language, it’s about knowledge. A huge body of Hawaiian knowledge is not being accessed, and even if we reprint Hawaiian material and make it accessible, 99% of people wouldn’t be able to read it. We will have to publish it in both English and Hawaiian.”

That same day, they laid the groundwork for Awaiāulu (“to bind securely, fasten”), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. Its mission, they determined, would be “developing resources and resource people that can bridge Hawaiian knowledge from the past to the present and the future” by training translators; generating Hawaiian educational material; and researching, translating and re-presenting Hawaiian language texts from the past for contemporary Hawaiian- and English-language readers.

Nogelmeier assumed the role of Awaiāulu’s executive director, at first part-time; he has been full-time since his retirement from UH Mānoa in 2018. Until he passed away in 2006, Steele was a dedicated “worker bee” as well as the major source of funding for the organization’s work; it is now largely supported by grants, contracts and donations.

To date, Awaiaulu has translated and published six books (https://shop.awaiaulu.org), and its 14 translator scholars, overseen by Nogelmeier, are working on a seventh. They are also expanding content for Kīpapa Educator Resources, which produces online curriculum in English and Hawaiian that’s accessible to everyone, not only teachers, for kindergarten through high school students (https://awaiaulu.app).

“Without this effort, the connection to Hawaiʻi’s past would be fractional and piecemeal at best,” Nogelmeier said.

“Awaiāulu is committed to training a new cadre of scholars, so the vast trove of Hawaiian knowledge, which has been underutilized for decades, can be shared with the world.”