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Vol. 17, no. 2
April / May 2014


The 'Olelo Odyssey 

Story by Ronald Williams Jr.
Photos by Dana Edmunds

At the quaint, white-walled Congregational church just off the main dirt road in Kaumakani, worn pickup trucks sit in the lot at the edge of a manicured lawn, and waves break gently on the nearby shore. Inside, fifty or so faithful fill the pews and the rows of folding chairs with the word “Ni‘ihau” stenciled across their backs. Bookracks on the walls hold copies of the Baibala Hemolele (Hawaiian Bible) and Buke Himeni Hawaii (Hawaiian Hymnbook).

 Those gathered to worship here on this Sunday morning are members of the Ni‘ihau community living on the west side of Kaua‘i. Ni‘ihau, which lies seventeen miles southwest of Kaua‘i, has been privately owned since 1864. Access to the island is by permission only—a policy that has kept much of the residents’ Native Hawaiian culture intact for the past century and a half. ‘Olelo Hawai‘i (Hawaiian language) has always been their first language, and though there are native speakers scattered throughout the state, the people of Ni‘ihau make up the only community in the Islands with an unbroken link to the language of their ancestors.

I’d spent the evening before talking story at nearby Salt Pond Beach Park with some of the folks from Ni‘ihau and my host, Keao NeSmith, who also speaks Hawaiian. They were gracious, forgiving of my slow ear; though I am by most standards fluent, the differences between ‘olelo Hawai‘i learned at a university and the spoken Hawaiian of Ni‘ihau can be significant. In church that Sunday morning, I wanted only to listen.

The pastor read from the book of Timoteo (Timothy) in soft, confident verse. Then everyone, from the youngest keiki (child) to the oldest kupuna (elder), stood one after another to read aloud from the Baibala Hemolele. Their ‘olelo was natural, vibrant, resonating long after each speaker had finished. The feeling in the room was powerful enough to overcome my skittishness about reading Hawaiian in front of these native speakers, and I sensed anew what had first drawn me to the language years ago: its ea (life, breath). This, I felt, is a language not merely rescued but brilliantly alive and still powerfully connected to these Islands — to their history and to their future.