Nogelmeier studied chant at Honolulu Community College. By now he was learning Hawaiian words and phrases in hula class. The class required giving public presentations, and one day after a performance an elderly Hawaiian man came up to him and attempted to engage him in conversation—in Hawaiian.
“And I said, ‘I apologize, Uncle, I don’t speak Hawaiian.’ And he looked crestfallen, and he said, ‘How can you know what you just chanted?’ And I said, ‘Well, I memorized the English’—and it sounded stupid then, and it sounds stupid now. He said, ‘But how can you know how well you did?’ He had come up to congratulate me!
“I walked away thinking, ‘It’s true, I need to know this language if I am going to work with this material.’”
Fortunately, by that time McKinzie had begun teaching a language class in her home. Nogelmeier, now called Puakea (“white flower” or “fair child”) courtesy of kumu hula Maiki Aiu Lake, began studying with Aunty Edith. He also tried out his lessons three times a week with an elderly man who was to become his mentor: Theodore Kelsey.
“He was a haole from Hilo, but he first came to Hawai‘i in the 1890s,” Nogelmeier recalls. “If you wanted to make friends back then, you had to learn Hawaiian. He’d be so delighted to hear me speak it, and he’d gently correct me: ‘You need to flow this,’ or ‘I think you mean this or that.’ Sometimes I didn’t even know what the error was and I’d have to really stew to see what he was pointing out. To someone who doesn’t know better, these may seem subtle mistakes, but they are not subtle. Mr. Kelsey would be patient until I became more ma‘a (accustomed) to it.”
Nogelmeier also studied under Naomi Losch at Leeward Community College and eventually enrolled at UH-Manoa. An unusually quick study, he had graduated from high school at age sixteen. It took him only seven semesters to earn a double major in anthropology and Hawaiian languages. Now fifty-three, he has a master’s in Pacific Island studies and a Ph.D. in anthropology, and has been teaching Hawaiian languages at Manoa since 1984.
“He’s very giving,” says Losch, who is now chair of Hawaiian Language at UH-Manoa. “Some people take and take, but he gives back. With his students he’s very engaging. He challenges them; he expects a lot. If you don’t challenge them, you don’t get much from them.”
Nogelmeier is often told he has a natural ear for pronunciation, but he says it’s really due to hard work. Remembering his UH days, he says, “I’d take the bus from Wai‘anae to UH everyday, and I’d practice in my head all the way, doing my homework.”
Nogelmeier’s understanding of Hawaiian has recently graduated to a new level. In September he was made a kumu hula under the tutelage Aunty Mei Kamamalu Klein.
“It’s a great honor, very humbling,” he says. “It is my kuleana, my responsibility, to perpetuate a tradition.” As he says this, the large green corneas of his eyes float limpidly in pools of white. “The word ‘kumu’ literally means to be a resource for others, and I intend to maintain that position of integrity.”
That path seems certain, particularly with the recent publication of Hi‘iakaikapoliopele (Hi‘iaka in the bosom of Pele). Though it was put to paper a century ago, this legend of the volcano goddess Pele, her favored younger sister Hi‘iaka and Pele’s lover Lohi‘au, has never been completely translated into English. Nogelmeier has not only translated the 450-page manuscript in its entirety, but also published the Hawaiian and English versions in companion volumes.
“We pulled out all the stops,” says Nogelmeier, obviously proud of the work. This special “centennial edition” includes color illustrations by Solomon Enos and is published in two different versions: the $300 set, on machine-bound moiré fabric; and a limited-edition moiré-and-leather hand-bound set that will run $1,500.
“Not everyone will own that, but they will see it, and they will know the most beautiful book they ever saw will be a Hawaiian book,” he says. A regular edition, smaller and much less pricey, is also in bookstores.
In the meantime, Nogelmeier continues to work with Ho‘olaupa‘i, a collaborative project spearheaded by the Bishop Museum with the goal of digitizing and placing on the Internet tens of thousands of pages from Hawaiian-language newspapers of the nineteenth and twentieth century, which are currently available only on microfilm. Project manager Kau‘i Sai-Dudoit says the newspaper project essentially amounts to reconstructing a national archive. “This is our language, and there is nowhere else in the world we can learn this language,” she explains. “If we don’t keep this language alive here, it will certainly die. Today, thanks to people like Puakea, there are a lot more Hawaiian language resources available than there were yesterday.
“I don’t know anyone that gives of himself so freely,” she says. “I asked him once, ‘Why do you do all this?’ He said that he received his skills as a gift, and now it is time to share everything that he has learned.” HH