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How Hawaiians Saved Their Language

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At the time that turned the heat of the earth,
At the time when the heavens turned and changed,
At the time when the light of the sun was subdued
To cause light to break forth,
At the time of the night of Makalii (winter)
Then began the slime which established the earth,
The source of deepest darkness.
Of the depth of darkness, of the depth of darkness,
Of the darkness of the sun, in the depth of night,
It is night,
So was night born.

–  opening verse of the Kumulipo as translated by Queen Liliuokalani, published in 1897


A news article with a woodblock print of the Queen wearing a royal sash.
An article about Queen Lili’oukalani’s efforts to restore her government in an unidentified newspaper in about 1897. The text of her protest can be read in this article if it is downloaded and expanded. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

In January 1893 the Kingdom of Hawai’i faced a national and  cultural crisis after a group of American and European businessmen overthrew Queen Lili’uokalani, falsely claiming that they had the military of the United States at their back.  They declared martial law and declared themselves the Provisional Government of the new Republic of Hawai’i and asked the United States to annex Hawai’i as a territory. The Queen appealed to her friend, President Cleveland. Cleveland called the overthrow an act of war, but did not intervene to reinstate the Queen. The Provisional Government shortly set about its goal of making Hawai’i a westernized republic as they envisioned it. Hawaiian was banned in schools and there was an aggressive effort to raise the next generation as speakers only of English.

In 1895 there was  an uprising in an effort to reinstate the Monarchy. This failed, and the leaders were arrested along with the Queen and some of her supporters. The Queen was accused and convicted of providing arms, an accusation that many historians doubt, as she was still pursuing a diplomatic solution with the United States. She was given a chance to abdicate in exchange for commuting the death sentences of the rebels. She abdicated on  January 24, 1895 and was imprisoned in a room in her own palace until September 4, 1896. It was during her imprisonment that she translated the Kumulipo, the long sacred chant of that tells of the creation of the Earth (available in full in the Sacred Texts Archive) and gives the succession of Hawaiian rulers — the first verse is quoted above.1

After President McKinley took office he made the annexation of Hawai’i a priority, and Hawai’i became a territory in 1898. The United States continued the English-only policy for education. Queen Lili’uokalani continued to appeal for the restoration of an independent Hawai’i for the rest of her life.

Two women holding hands wearing large skirts and European style blouses with traditional decorations on their ankles and in their hair.
Traditional hula dancers, showing a costume common in the 19th century, ca. 1870-1880. From an album of photographs of Hawaii, page 7. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

What would you do if you lost your country and faced the possibility that your language and perhaps much of your culture could be destroyed in a generation?  This problem has been faced by many peoples as colonies in the Americas were established and as the United States pushed its borders westward. When the Queen translated the Kumulipo, her foreword described it as “folk-lore or traditions of an aboriginal people” and a “souvenir” for her few visitors during her imprisonment. But I see this as an example of strategic modesty. It was no accident that the Queen chose the Kumulipo to translate so that speakers of English could read it. It includes the royal descent of Hawaiian rulers to the time of Kamehameha I, and she appended her own genealogy at the end. The “souvenir” she gave her visitors was a protest and a statement of her right to rule.

The Hawaiian people proved particularly resourceful in their efforts to preserve their language and culture, as they were a literate nation. The Kumulipo, for example, had been transcribed in the Hawaiian language (ʻOlelo Hawaiʻi) and published by the Queen’s brother, King David Kalākaua, in 1889. There were protests by the Kahuna priests at the time, as this was a sacred text and not intended for the masses. But from the King’s point of view this was a new age. This was one of many chants that were written down by Hawaiians in the late 19th century, now preserved in archives. There had been an astonishingly fast development of literacy and education under Kamehameha III in the early 19th century. He is famous as a builder of schools. The alphabet, created first by missionaries, had developed over time to use 12 letters from the Roman alphabet, an apostrophe to represent the consonant called the ‘okina, or glottal stop, and a diacritic mark to indicate elongated vowels.2 At the time of its annexation, Hawai’i had become one of the most literate nations in the world, with newspapers and books published in Hawaiian.

As many peoples have discovered, it is difficult to restore a threatened language using written sources alone. Living speakers, recordings, and/or linguistic transcripts using phonetic symbols are needed to know how the language should sound. The culture embodied in a language, including poems, stories, riddles, and songs, cannot be recreated if they are lost. Knowing that the Hawaiian people were aware of the danger to their language gives interesting insights into what they chose to preserve.

Head and shoulders portrait of a woman.
Princess Miriam Like-Like, sister of Queen Lili’uokalani, who wrote a song about her home, ‘Ainahau. Hawai’i photo album page 5. Portraits of the Hawaiian Royal Family and others, ca. 1870-1880. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

The annexation of Hawai’i was met by Americans as a wonderful new culture to enjoy. Hawaiian music had been featured at the World’s Columbian Exposition, and happened to include two sounds that were new to Hawaiians. The ‘ukulele (an adaptation of a Portuguese instrument) and the steel guitar (an adaptation of the guitar) were thought of as the epitome of Hawaiian music and people wanted more. So in spite of efforts to ban Hawaiian in schools, the performance of traditional songs and dances was found to have commercial value. Victor sought Hawaiian performers to record commercially.

What did the performers themselves choose in this early opportunity to preserve their music? One of the things they wanted to record, as we might expect, was their national anthem, “Hawai’i Pono’i,” with lyrics by King Kalākaua and music by his band leader, Henry Berger, performed by the Hawaiian Quintette (note that the song is incorrectly attributed to Lili’uokalani). E.K. Rose recorded “Aloha oe” in 1917, a farewell song the Queen she said she wrote in her youth that took on a poignant new meaning after she was deposed. A song she wrote as if talking to a water sprinkler, a new invention to her, “Ka Wiliwili Wai,” was recorded by the Hawaiian Quintette. While “Ka Wiliwili Wai” is probably sung as it was intended, “‘Ainahau” by Princess Miriam Like-Like, performed by the Irene West Royal Hawaiians, seems to have been recast for Western audiences. A song by the sister of the deposed Queen about her beloved home, ’Ainahau, would probably have been performed more slowly for Hawaiians and without the ‘ukulele. But perhaps by catering to American tastes, the performers saw that the recordings would survive.

Artists also recorded popular songs of the sort Americans sought after, such as David Nape’s “Tomi Tomi,” also recorded by the Hawaiian Quintette.  The same group also recorded a traditional sacred song “Mauna Kea” in 1913. So what we find is a mix of popular songs, songs by members of the royal family and some traditional songs. (There are a number of Hawaiian songs in the National Jukebox that we don’t know much about at this time, but perhaps readers could help. There are incorrect attributions and poorly spelled titles, but the sound on the recordings is clear.)

Dancers in Hawaiian dress blow on conch shell horns as part of their performance.
Unukupukupu Halau Hula of the Hawai’i Community College performing at the Library of Congress in 2012 (see the video player below to watch this performance).

During the early twentieth century, scholars sought to record speech and songs in languages that were in danger of disappearing. In addition, recording companies besides Victor sought out Hawaiian music and songs.

Alan Lomax’s Global Jukebox is a new online tool, still in development, which brings together recordings of various ethnic groups so that they can be  compared and studied. Under “Polynesia” on the culture “wheel” there is a bright yellow green sliver that, when you select it and select “Hawai’i” when it appears on the right you will find a few recordings of traditional songs. The green square that appears by the player in the lower right corner can be selected to find more information on each recording. Several were recorded by Edwin Grant Burrows in about 1950, with others recorded by Tommy Kearns of Waikiki Records, a company that produced records, largely for the tourist industry, in the 1940s through the early 1960s.

In spite of the efforts of Hawaiians of the late 19th and 20th century to preserve what they could of their language and culture, a great deal was lost. Cultural pressure to conform to an “American” way of life and to speak English in order to live and work in the Hawai’i of that time was so great that children often did not grow up fluent in Hawaiian. An additional factor was the introduction of diseases through trade with Western people, which devastated the native population during the 18th and 19th centuries. By the middle of the 20th century, Hawaiian had become a threatened language.

In the movement to preserve the Hawaiian language an old proverb has provided inspiration: “I ka ‘olelo no ke ola, i ka ‘olelo no ka make,” meaning that language can heal and language can destroy. The modern interpretation is that with Hawaiian language, Hawaiian culture will flourish, without it it will die. Hawaiians have worked to preserve their language through teaching it as a second language, in the hope of promoting bilingualism in future generations. They have also worked to document native speakers of the language. One interesting resource was the population of the  island of Ni‘ihau. This privately owned island was protected from many of the forces cultural change after annexation. The small population of native Hawaiians there continued to speak their language, a dialect a bit different from that elsewhere in Hawai’i. The revitalization of Hawaiian is a growing effort that draws on what is preserved in memory, in Hawaiian archives and libraries, and on recordings, in order to give young people the language of their ancestors as well as much of the culture that it conveys.

The story of Hawai’i’s culture demonstrates the great importance of literacy and the places that preserve cultural documentation, such as libraries, museums, and archives. Hawaiian has not been completely preserved. Hawaiian as taught in schools is more uniform and lacking in many of the dialects that used to exist in the islands. But through the efforts of the Hawaiian people past and present, their language has a future. A fine example is found in this video of Unukupukupu Halau Hula of the Hawai’i Community College at the Library of Congress in 2012. At the end of the performance, the instructor, Dr. Taupouri Tangaroto, explains that the dancers must learn Hawaiian, as the language and the preservation of ancient tradition are the foundation of the dances and songs that they perform.


  1. Another translation of the Kumulipo by folklorist Martha Beckwith, published in 1951, includes the text of the transcription published by King David Kalākaua as an appendix. It is available via the Sacred Texts Archive at the link.
  2. The long vowel sign, called a kahako, is not currently available in this blog format and so does not appear in this article.

Resources [updated 2019]

Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum, Honolulu, Hawai’i

The Global Jukebox, Association for Cultural Equity

Gary Haleamau: Traditional Hawaiian Music from Las Vegas, Library of Congress, 2008 (concert webcast).

Hall, Stephanie, “King David Kālakaua: Royal Folklorist”, Folklife Today, May 15, 2018.

“Hidden Folklorists: Folklife Today,” podcast that includes a discussion of Hawaiian efforts to preserve their culture. May 2019.

Huapala: Hawaiian Music and Hula Archives, compiled by Kaiulani Kanoa-Martin.

Hawai’i Digital Newspaper Project, University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa Library, Library of Congress, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The National Jukebox, Library of Congress (online collection)

Ulukau: Hawaiian Electronic Library (provides access to Hawaiian language newspapers)

University of Hawai’i, Hilo, College of Hawaiian Language, Ka Haka ʻUla O Keʻelikolani

Unukupukupu Halau Hula, Library of Congress, 2012. (Direct link to the concert webcast. This concert is also available on Library of Congress YouTube.)

Winick, Stephen, “Homegrown Plus: Ledward Kaapana,”  Folklife Today, January 3, 2019. (Includes webcasts of the concert and oral history.)

Comments (5)

  1. hi i am using this fora school project thanks for the info i need it for class and im super glad u came up with this.

    • I am glad that it is helpful. Good luck with your project.

  2. This article is exactly what I was looking for. I did not know that the rapid adoption of literacy helped the people save their language. I am looking for anything I can find about how Hawaiians bravely sought to save their culture for future generations.

  3. Hello, I am using this website for a school project and I am wondering if you have an outlook email because I want to contact you for an interview, can be face-to-face or just on Outlook.
    Thank you for making this article because it is super useful and helpful for the research field that I am doing currently, which is Promoting the Hawaiian Language. I would like to interview you because I am curious and would like to ask some questions about your profession and your personal experiences with the Hawaiian language or just language in general.
    I am making this comment because as of right now, I do not have your outlook email or anything like that.
    Mahalo nui loa,
    Kapono Tehero

    • Hi JT,

      Stephanie Hall, who wrote this blog, retired a few years ago. I will check if she is OK with being contacted and let you know if this is the case. Thanks for reading!

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