fbpx Hanakeaka | HowlRound Theatre Commons


Hawaiian Medium Theatre Inspiring Hawaiian Identity

Language is a critical piece to indexing identity. A person is often known to be from a particular sector of people by his/her language. Hawaiian—ʻŌlelo Kanaka or ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi—is no different. The onset of proselytism in Hawaiʻi aimed to dismante our traditional ways, including our linguistic independance by stripping away our dialectal differences through the establishment of a single orthograhical system. Today, we seek to reestablish our independance, and language is a part of that. Hawaiian medium theatre, hanakeaka, has been a positive addition to the Hawaiian language revitalization movement.

A Glimpse of ʻŌlelo Kanaka

ʻŌlelo Kanaka is somewhat synonymous with ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi. It differs in that Kanaka means person, and when used with ʻŌlelo, which means language, it refers to the language of the Indigenous people of the archipelago of Hawaiʻi. ʻŌlelo Kanaka does not geographically separate our people as ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi does.

In the past, ʻŌlelo Kanaka may have had subtle dialectal differences based on geographical location. However, for the most part, it is believed that the language was mutually intelligible from district to district, island to island. Around 1820, a writing system for Hawaiian was established. This time period marks the onset of proselytism in Hawaiʻi, and missionaries and early converts wanted to translate the Bible into our language. Meanwhile, Hawaiian nobles realized that writing was a powerful technology, and they wanted it for Kānaka Maoli, Native Hawaiians. Soon thereafter, in 1834, the first Hawaiian newspaper was published, and Hawaiian literacy boomed; it is estimated that hundreds of thousands of pages of Hawaiian medium papers were published during the run of Hawaiian medium newpapers between 1834 and 1948. Really, though, it was not until the 1860s when newspapers such as Ka Hoku o ka Pakipika and Ka Hae Hawaii came along that we saw Kanaka Maoli voice come through.

Western contact with Kānaka Maoli and, subsequently, ʻŌlelo Kanaka had profound effects. Disease brought to Hawaiʻi decimated the population, which went from hundreds of thousands to about forty thousand in a little over a century. Then came the illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy. One major target of the insurgents was ‘Ōlelo Hawaiʻi: not only was it banned in schools in 1896, but corporal punishment methods were employed by teachers and administrators for children who spoke Hawaiian and letters were sent home to their families, insisting that the language was detrimental to their children’s wellbeing.

If terrorism is the act of instilling fear into a sector of people so that they do as the terrorists desire them to, then the official ban of ‘Ōlelo Kanaka in Hawaiʻi schools constitutes a form of terrorism, specifically linguistic terrorism. The illegally established provisional government willfully and knowingly sought to disenfranchise Kānaka Maoli by banning ʻŌlelo Kanaka. This disenfranchisement had long and profound effects, one of them being the abandonment of our indigenous language. By the time the mid-twentieth century rolled around, there were not many speakers of ʻŌlelo Kanaka left. Outside of Niʻihau, the last island where the people maintain their mother tongue through its exclusivity, there were few native speakers remaining. Most of these people were taught by their grandparents to carry on our language. I am not sure how many of those speakers remain today, if any at all.

Hanakeaka is where chants come to life, where narrative weaves moʻokūʻauhau (genealogies or abridged histories), where political commentary is made.

In the late 1960s, early 1970s, our Kanaka Maoli community found a sense of urgency to revitalize ʻŌlelo Kanaka. The renowned father of the ʻŌlelo Kanaka movement, Professor Larry Kimura, started Ka Leo Hawaiʻi—a Hawaiian language radio program that primarily featured native speakers of Hawaiian discussing a variety of topics. The next big step was the creation of the ʻAha Pūnana Leo (ʻAPL) in 1983—a non-profit organization that was established to “drive and inspire change to ensure a living Hawaiian language in Hawaiʻi and beyond”—the first ʻŌlelo Kanaka preschool in 1984, and, not long after, the first Hawaiian immersion school.

This created the need for university programs and degrees in ʻŌlelo Kanaka. The University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa established its bachelor’s degree in 1976 and the Hilo campus followed thereafter. Both Mānoa and Hilo now offer master’s degrees in Hawaiian. The Hilo campus also offers a philosophical doctorate degree in Indigenous studies, focused primarily on language revitalization. These are some of the initiatives that propelled ʻŌlelo Kanaka to where it is today. Without them, ʻŌlelo Kanaka would more than likely not be a spoken language anymore, especially outside of the Niʻihau community.

Hanakeaka – ʻŌlelo Kanaka Takes the Stage

Part of the puzzle that is revitalizing ʻŌlelo Kanaka is hanakeaka, a modern theatrical practice that stages dramatic pieces in the language. However, it is far more than simply entertainment. Hanakeaka is where chants come to life, where narrative weaves moʻokūʻauhau (genealogies or abridged histories), where political commentary is made, where belief systems are emulated and subsequently shaped, where legends are reenacted, and where history is woven into the fabric of life.

performer in traditional Hawai'i clothing

Photo by Haili‘ōpua Baker.

Hanakeaka is a vehicle for moʻolelo (history, story). In explaining what moʻolelo do, Poepoe, who was a reknowned scholar and prolific writer in the late nineteenth through early twentieth century, claims that moʻolelo are the hoʻolou (snare, link) and hoʻopili (connect, connector). Hence, Poepoe proposed that moʻolelo are what keeps the past linked and connected to the present, for we are the summary of our past. He also ties this approach to the philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero: moʻolelo, which Poepoe specifically meant as history, is the messenger of the past that enlightens truths. Hanakeaka provides a venue for moʻolelo to be communicated and conveyed today; hanakeaka is a vehicle that links and connects us to our past.

Moʻolelo is the foundation of our culture. It is how we know what we know about ourselves. Given the profound effects that colonization has had on Kānaka Maoli, hanakeaka is a means through which moʻolelo educate our people, reconnecting us to our history, to our belief systems, to our traumas, to our triumphs. Being involved in hanakeaka since its resurgence in 1995, I have witnessed firsthand some of the impacts that hanakeaka has had.

Moʻolelo is the foundation of our culture. It is how we know what we know about ourselves.

For example, many of our moʻolelo contain the reasons why certain phenomena are the way they are. When we produced Māuiakamalo, which detailed the feats of one of our greatest heroes, Māui, we brought to life the moʻolelo of Kaʻalaehuapī, an elder of Māuiakamalo who was characterized as an ʻalae (mud hen). She and the other ʻalae who were also females held the secret of fire. Māuiakamalo sought to share that secret with all. Kaʻalaehuapī, as the (stingy) in her name suggests, was not keen on sharing the secret of fire. Māuiakamalo ultimately learns the secret and as punishment for her pī; Kaʻalaehuapī was scorched on her forehead forever leaving her head scarred red. This is how we know that the ʻalaeʻula (red-billed mud hen) came to be.

After Māuiakamalo’s show toured our archipelago, I recall people coming up to me and saying that they were glad to know the moʻolelo as now they have a way to explain it in our own indigenous way. This story is, thus, woven back into the fabric that makes up who we are as Kānaka Maoli today.

Hanakeaka is also a great means for students of the language to increase their fluency. There are not many speakers of Hawaiian remaining, and those who commit to the journey of staging a Hawaiian medium production are exposed to additional hours of ʻŌlelo Kanaka. Besides the scripts being entirely in ʻŌlelo Kanaka, rehearsals are often run in the language as well. There is often a sink-or-swim approach, but more often than not the actors find a way to swim. Speakers of the language will often translate what non-speakers need to know, and by the end of the process we see heads nodding in understanding by those who were once completely unfamiliar. In a language movement, we have to seize every opportunity to transmit ʻŌlelo Kanaka to those who want to learn. The rehearsal process is no different.

I am a dramaturg and language coach. As dramaturg, I am responsible for the authenticity of our shows—particularly given that they are historical in nature—and as language coach, I have an understanding of what the facts of the moʻolelo are, which develops my understanding of how the language should be produced. I also work as an assistant professor of Hawaiian at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, where I bring that skillset into the process when I work with the actors to ensure that they interpret, understand, and produce the best possible rendition of the words provided to them in the script.

Those who have a good command of ʻŌlelo Kanaka and take on roles within a show work intently on knowing what they are saying on stage, searching for their motivation in each utterance on their own. My responsibility is to provide them with the necessary guidance, even reference material, so that they can be the best that they can be.

ʻŌlelo Kanaka, the native tongue of the Aboriginal people of Hawaiʻi, is more than simply sequences of sounds that constitute words of meaning—which, when combined in particular orders, form salient utterances that cause comprehension by an audience. ʻŌlelo Kanaka is the means by which we express ourselves through our own ideologies—lexicalized in words and grammaticized through structure in both colloquial and idiomatic ways. Proficiency in ʻŌlelo Kanaka also provides us access to our moʻolelo, that which defines us as a people. Hanakeaka is a theatrical vehicle where ʻŌlelo Kanaka and moʻolelo are vibrant living expressions by Kānaka Maoli.

Bookmark this page

Log in to add a bookmark
Thoughts from the curator

Kanaka Maoli theatre artists are grounded in our homeland, our language, and the stories, beliefs and ways of our ancestors. This series explores the fundamental elements of Hawaiian theatre while highlighting the elevation and expansion of hana keaka (Hawaiian-medium theatre) across our island chain.

The Foundation and Rise of Hawaiian Theatre


Add Comment

The article is just the start of the conversation—we want to know what you think about this subject, too! HowlRound is a space for knowledge-sharing, and we welcome spirited, thoughtful, and on-topic dialogue. Find our full comments policy here

Newest First

Subscribe to HowlRound

Sign up for our daily, weekly, or quarterly emails so you never miss the latest theatre conversations.

Sign me up

Supporting HowlRound

We fundraise to keep all our programs free and open and to pay our contributors. Thank you to all who make our work possible!

Donate today