The Wounded Warrior

After a tragic accident, Terry Kanalu Young found a way forward for himself and for his people
Story by Ron Williams Jr.

On a summer day in 1969, 15-year-old Terry Young dived from a rock wall into shallow water and hit his head on the ocean floor. Paralyzed from the neck down, he would never walk again and was left with only limited use of his hands and arms.

Yet Young finished high school, then college, competed as a wheelchair athlete, earned a doctorate in history, helped pioneer the field of Hawaiian studies and became a respected figure in the pursuit of Native Hawaiian rights.

Before his accident Young was a typical local boy coming of age during the social and political upheavals of the 1960s and ’70s, when American counterculture made its way to the middle of the Pacific. “Vietnam was an important part of this period,” writes cultural historian George Kanahele, “nourishing the nationwide mood of questioning authority and old myths through protests, demonstrations.” In Hawai‘i this coincided with the “Hawaiian Renaissance,” a revival of native culture and language along with renewed study of Hawai‘i’s history from a native perspective.

Above, Terry Kanalu Young leads a 1993 march on the centennial of the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy. Despite an accident that left Young paralyzed, he became an influential voice for Native Hawaiian rights.

A gifted and eloquent storyteller, Young was frequently interviewed and became a spokesman for “Kānaka Maoli”—the newly revived aboriginal-language term for “Native Hawaiians”—as they rescued ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i (Hawaiian language) from near extinction and fought to recover a sense of identity. In 2015 filmmaker Marlene Booth turned Young’s story into a documentary film of which Harvard law professor Martha Minow said, “An intimate story of an extraordinary person, Kū Kanaka/Stand Tall provides a deep and haunting dual history of one man reclaiming his life after a severe injury and helping to lead Hawai‘i in reclaiming its language, history and uniqueness.”

George Terry Kanalupilikokoamaihui Young was born in 1954, growing up in the working-class neighborhood of Kapahulu, near Waikīkī. His mo‘okū‘auhau (genealogy) included both native and non-native ancestors; his grandfather Harry Johnson, a GI stationed in Hawai‘i, had married his pure Hawaiian grandmother, Susan Kalepa of Lahaina, Maui. Young spent his child-hood doing what most boys his age in Honolulu did: climbing mango trees, hanging out with friends at the beach and playing sports. As a teen he enrolled at Kamehameha Schools at Kapālama, a private Honolulu school built and maintained by a trust bequeathed by Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop in 1887. Classmates at the nearly all-Native Hawaiian school knew him as George, one of the two English names he used before choosing to go by the name Kanalu later in life. “At Kamehameha they wanted us all to go by our Christian names,” says Young’s classmate Deborah Okamura. “We weren’t supposed to use our Hawaiian names.” Young noted in a 1999 television news interview that such experiences shaped his early identity. “The schools taught us that Western ways of thinking and being were very positive,” he said, “and you add on your Hawaiian stuff at certain times, like when you want to sing or when you want to express hula. But other than that, get on with life as an American.” Always outspoken, Young earned a reputation at KS for being a brilliant, if kolohe (mischievous), student.

The accident in Young’s junior year forever altered his world. Facing a life without use of his legs and only slight control of his arms, Young’s passion transformed into a barely tolerable anger. The hospital staff bore the brunt of his frustration; he shouted at nurses, barked orders at all hours and defied his therapists. More than a few times he sent food trays flying. Okamura, working as a candy-striper at the hospital, was among the few who managed to avoid the worst of his tantrums. “I think he knew that the physical therapists all had an agenda: to get him to move his arms, to complete a task, etcetera,” she says. “I was a naīve 16-year-old girl who was there just to listen and pass time playing games with him. The only agenda I had was to beat him at checkers!”

The daily struggle with his anger wore down both the hospital staff and Young. In a 2007 video interview for the program Voices of Truth, Young noted the turning point: “One day, it was a weekend in 1969, November or December, there’s this gnat that landed on my cheek. I hadn’t moved a muscle, literally, since August 14. But there was some kind of connection between the frustration of that itch and something in me that was ready to move that got me to bring my hand up to my face to swat the itch on my own. I did it. I laid back in my bed and closed my eyes. I felt like I had been surfing. Like I had ridden a wave again. Like I was able. That small thread of humanity was something to build upon.”

After rehab and graduating from high school on time, Young wanted to help others like him. He entered the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa to study social work and counseling, graduating with a bachelor’s in psychology in 1976. That year was a watershed one for the Hawaiian Renaissance as Hōkūle‘a, a replica of an ancient Hawaiian voyaging canoe, successfully sailed from Hawai‘i to Tahiti using nearly lost techniques of wayfinding, sparking a wave of pride across the Pacific. 1976 was also the year when the small but historic Hawaiian studies program was founded at UH. Young, now going by the name Kanalu, continued with his education, earning a master’s in counseling in 1979. “Cocksure, American-trained rehabilitation counselor goes back to the hospital where he did his rehab and took a job,” Young said in the Voices of Truth interview. “I lasted a year.” He didn’t want to be a counselor, to have his entire life defined by his accident. But that decade of college work? “I felt like an abysmal failure,” he said. “I had an identity crisis.”

“He was in that front line because he belonged there,” says colleague Jonathan Kamakawiwo‘ole Osorio, “and everybody knew that the future of the Hawaiian community, the caring for that historical memory, it was in that frail body and very, very powerful mind.”

For the next several years a rudderless Young hung out at the university, playing wheelchair basketball and making friends. One semester, one of those friends went on leave and offered Young an opportunity to teach the class in his absence. Something clicked. “I was suddenly reconnected to a kuleana [responsibility] that I knew was mine,” Young said. Teaching also rekindled his passion for learning. He registered as an unclassified student and began taking history courses. David Hanlon, former director of the Center for Pacific Islands Studies and current chair of the department of history, remembers Young even from thirty years ago. “He was a very memorable student, intelligent, eloquent and engaging. He welcomed debate with other students and was blatantly seeking out truth.” Young digested all he could, adding ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i and oli (chant) to his studies. In 1988 he entered the doctoral program in history.

In 1991 Young was hired as an assistant professor of Hawaiian studies, where equally passionate colleagues took him under their wing, including Haunani-Kay Trask, Lilikalā Kame‘eleihiwa and others, all of whom remain active in the struggle for Native Hawaiian rights. Noelani Goodyear-Ka‘ōpua, an associate professor in political science who was a student, then colleague and friend of Young, notes: “Although he was humble, scores of stu-dents will tell you that it was his own gift of storytelling that made him such an impactful teacher. He had an incredible ability to reach haumāna [students]. He was able to give his haumāna the greatest gift of all, a belief in themselves, their ancestors, and their lāhui [nation].”

Young, pictured here on graduation day, went on to receive a doctorate in history from University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. In 1991 he was hired by UH as an assistant professor of Hawaiian studies.

But there was more than just story-telling going on in Hawaiian studies. “The struggle” demanded activism beyond the classroom, and Young was again at the fore. When a June 11, 1992, celebration of Kamehameha Day at ‘Iolani Palace turned into a standoff between activists who wanted to enter and police intent on pre-venting them, more than thirty people were arrested. Young, who had shut off his motorized wheelchair so the police could not move him, was among them. Six months later Young would be among those leading a crowd of ten thousand at the ‘Onipa‘a march commemorating the centennial of the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy. One photograph of the leaders approaching ‘Iolani Palace has become an iconic image—Young is front and center. Jonathan Kamakawiwo‘ole Osorio says in Booth’s documentary, “He was in that front line because he belonged there, and everybody knew that the future of the Hawaiian community, the caring for that historical memory, it was in that frail body, that frail body and very, very powerful mind.” Being at the forefront—or even ahead of it—was Young’s way. Goodyear-Ka‘ōpua says, “At a time when everyone at Hawaiian studies was talking about achieving federal recognition, Kanalu was the first faculty member to come out for total independence.”

“Students will tell you that it was his own gift of storytelling that made him such an impactful teacher,” says friend and colleague Noelani Goodyear-Ka‘ōpua. “He was able to give his haumāna [students] the greatest gift of all, a belief in themselves, their ancestors, and their lāhui [nation].”

“I think what’s most rewarding,” says Young in Kū Kanaka/Stand Tall, “I realized that in a way the Hawaiian community was in a sense historically and culturally challenged, spiritually disabled, broken in many ways—but in recovery.” Young’s own recovery from ever more frequent trips to the hospital grew slower and less robust. In the summer of 2008 he entered the hospital for a final time, knowing the end had come. Ever one to be in charge of his own destiny, Young, after several weeks of care, instructed the doctors to remove his feeding tube and respirator. The hospital room was filled with things that the kolohe boy from Kapahulu loved best: friends, family, ‘ukulele music and stories. No longer able to speak, the gifted storyteller was ready to move on, to join the ancestors who were the subjects of so many of his tales. Young died at the age of 54 on August 31, 2008. Yet, says Goodyear-Ka‘ōpua, “Kanalu’s voice, his mana, his aloha for everyone, carries on in so many of his haumāna, in his friends and family, and in our lāhui.” HH