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ON THE COVER C’est si bon! Halau Mele chanter Marques Hanalei Marzan with Paris’ most famous landmark—la Tour Eiffel—in the background. Photo by Kevin German
Vol.17, no.6
December 2014 / January 2015


The Other Hawaiian Renaissance 
Story By: Ronald Williams Jr.

Palolo valley is resplendent in the clear morning air. On the blacktop that serves as a playground for the Hawaiian-language immersion school Ke Kula Kaiapuni ‘o Anuenue, a student begins an oli (chant), and a chorus of some three hundred voices immediately joins in. These haumana (students) stand with straight shoulders and heads poised as they raise their voices, the tradewinds carrying the ancient syllables up through the hills. They chant with a confidence that comes from knowing who they are and who their ancestors were. In many ways they are fortunate; a little more than a generation ago, these students would not be chanting before morning classes, and there would not have been a Hawaiian-language immersion school for them to attend. For their grandparents and great-grandparents, the very act of speaking Hawaiian might have gotten them kicked out of class—or their knuckles rapped.

The 1970s saw the beginning of a sea change in attitudes about what it means to be Hawaiian. Events, including the 1976 voyage of the double-hulled canoe Hokule‘a from Hawai‘i to Tahiti, inspired a passionate and far-reaching revival of interest in all things Hawaiian that has since been called the Hawaiian Renaissance. The movement sparked interest in a range of nearly forgotten traditional arts, sciences and cultural practices: lomi lomi (massage); kalaina (carving); la‘au lapa‘au (medicine); oli (chant); ku‘i a lua (hand-to-hand combat) and many more. At the center of this revival was a renewed attention to the role of ‘olelo Hawai‘i (the Hawaiian language). Enthusiastic students of the language now have access to long-untapped writings of their ancestors (such as the over one hundred thousand pages of Hawaiian-language newspapers produced in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries). The wave of interest in and new acceptance of Hawaiian culture encouraged kupuna (elders) to more freely share what had been once been both assailed and restricted knowledge. The current generation of practitioners has breathed new life into ancient ways: Dilapidated loko i‘a (fishponds) have been rebuilt, heiau (places of worship) restored and native histories retold. 

The Hawaiian Renaissance was also a deeply political response to events both in Hawai‘i and beyond. “Vietnam was an important part of this period, nourishing the nationwide mood of questioning of authority and old myths through protests, demonstrations,” writes cultural historian George Kanahele. Native Hawaiians worked to set a political agenda that addressed a host of issues: land rights, Hawaiian-language recovery, native sovereignty and more. There were significant achievements, such as the ending of the Navy’s bombing of the island of Kaho‘olawe, securing the right of Native Hawaiians to gather resources on private property and most notably the 1978 state Constitutional Convention that made ‘olelo Hawai‘i an official state language and created the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.

The many achievements of the Hawaiian Renaissance have been rightly celebrated, but as Kanahele pointed out in a 1979 essay, they “are the logical culmination of events and causes that happened before, including the efforts of many individuals and groups. … History, after all, is a continuum with its own karma.” In other words, the Hawaiian Renaissance of the twentieth century has a genealogy—it wasn’t the first.