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
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.