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The American Indian Quarterly 28.1&2 (2004) 86-91

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Hä, Mana, Leo (Breath, Spirit, Voice)

Kanaka Maoli Empowerment through Literature

In order to understand how our literature is empowering to us, nā Kānaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian people), one must first look to our 'ōlelo makuahine, our Indigenous language base, and the mana'o (thoughts) expressed within its embrace. A traditional 'ōlelo no' eau (proverb), i ka 'ōlelo ke ola, i ka 'ōlelo ka make, "in the language is life, in the language is death," speaks to the power of language, as words have the ability to heal or destroy.1 'Ōlelo is "language, speech, word, utterance; to speak, say, tell; oral communication.2 'Ōlelo is the root of our word for stories oral or written, mo'olelo. Mo'olelo is formed from two words: 'ōlelo, language, and mo'o, a "succession [or] series"; thus mo'o 'ōlelo is "a succession of talk, as all stories were oral, not written," although today the term also encompasses written literature.3

Until American Calvinist missionaries created a Hawaiian alphabet and writing system after their arrival to the Hawaiian islands in 1819, all Kanaka Maoli literature was oral. By inventing a Hawaiian alphabet, the missionaries were able to teach Kanaka Maoli reading and writing; by the early 1830s the first missionary-controlled printing press was established, and by 1861 the first of several dozen independent Kanaka Maoli Hawaiian-language newspapers, which flourished from 1861 through the 1930s, came into existence. From the beginning Kanaka Maoli enthusiastically embraced the technology of writing as a new method of recording oral traditions such as mo'olelo, oli, mele, mo'okū'auhau (genealogies), and other kinds of information they wanted to preserve and share. Rather than replace oral tradition, the technology of writing expanded the capability of recording and sharing information within the lāhui Hawai'i (Hawaiian nation). Kanaka Maoli wrote down and published, side by [End Page 86] side, traditional Hawaiian mo'olelo (such as the epic of Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of the volcano), mo'olelo from other countries translated into the Hawaiian language (such as The Tempest, Tarzan, and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) , and also created new mo'olelo (such as the romance of Lā'ieikawai). These and other mo'olelo ranged in length from a paragraph to over one thousand pages and comprised the bulk of the typically eight-page long newspaper. Thus, Hawaiian literature, composed in the Native language, flourished for approximately one hundred years.

The overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy by U.S. military-backed American businessmen in 1893 had devastating effects on Hawaiian mo'olelo, as the subsequent foreign-run Provisional Government banned the Hawaiian language, replacing it with English as the official and sole language of the islands. Thus, by the 1930s the number of Hawaiian-language speakers began to drop dramatically, resulting in the death of the Hawaiian-language newspaper industry. Because the Hawaiian language was severely eroded by colonial laws and social enforcement during this time, very little Kanaka Maoli literature was published from the 1940s until the revival of Hawaiian politics and cultural practices in the 1960s, a period generally referred to today as "the Hawaiian renaissance." While some cultural arts (like hula) have flourished, others, such as Indigenous-produced literature, have grown at a much slower rate. No one knows exactly why Kanaka Maoli-produced literature has not prospered as much as our other culture arts, although some speculate there are several possible reasons, such as the banning of our ancestral language over one hundred years ago, which cut us off from self expression; writing, because a foreign introduction, is often viewed as a colonial tool of oppression rather than an Indigenous tool of empowerment; the resistance to literacy (reading and writing) equals resistance to colonialism. Generations of Kanaka Maoli who have been indoctrinated by a colonial education system to believe that anything Native is never "good enough" has led to a lack of confidence in the ability to write anything...


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