Kī Hōʻalu: Slack Key, The Hawaiian Way (1993)


A collection of candid interviews and archival images, combined with the music of an array of virtuoso performers, this film tells the story of Hawaiian slack key. It depicts how this unique style of playing has become fundamental to Hawai‘i’s musical, cultural and familial traditions.


hosted by Waialua High and Intermediate School


This episode of HIKI NŌ is hosted by Waialua High and Intermediate School on the north shore of Oahu.


Top Story:
Why Are There So Many Mexican Restaurants in Kapaa?
Kapaa High School on Kauai explores why there are so many Mexican restaurants – 9, to be exact – in their small town of Kapaa, where there is only one Starbucks. In spite of the availability of so much Mexican food, restaurant owners don’t feel that they are in competition with each other as they offer regional specialties from Mexico that distinguish their offerings. Besides the popularity of Mexican food, the increasing Mexican population in Hawaii may be a reason for the proliferation of restaurants.


Also Featured:
Punahou School’s Kaniela Lyman-Mersereau Sails on Hokulea
Middle school students at Punahou School on Oahu feature their teacher, Kaniela Lyman-Mersereau, who recently sailed to New Zealand on Hokulea’s Malama Honua worldwide voyage. Kaniela’s mother was among Hokulea’s original crew, which instilled in him at a young age deep values for the ocean and how important it is to take care of each other.


Two Ladies Kitchen in Hilo
Waiakea High School on Hawaii Island visits Two Ladies Kitchen, which serves up over twenty flavors of mochi. The shop started with a family recipe and seven flavors and has grown, making it a popular stop for locals and visitors alike, and where kitchen staff have become family.


Pohole Salad A Hana Specialty
Hana K-12 School in East Maui shares how to make pohole salad, a popular dish in Hana that’s served at community gatherings and special events. It’s made from the pohole fern that grows in patches around Hana.


Master Storyteller Thomas Cummings
Kalani High School students in East Honolulu feature Uncle Tom Cummings, who has been telling stories for over forty years, weaving Hawaiian culture, mythology, history and values into tales that he started learning as a child. He captivates audiences using objects and “stuff” to illustrate his storytelling.


Na Hoku Hano Hano Award Winner Mark Yamanaka
Mid Pacific Institute students in the Manoa district of Oahu had an opportunity to interview award winning Hawaiian musician Mark Yamanaka and listen to his musical stylings. Yamanaka shares one of the biggest challenges of his life – not being of Hawaiian ancestry and wanting to play Hawaiian music.


This program encores Saturday, May 16 at 12:30 pm and Sunday, May 17 at 3:00 pm. You can also view HIKI NŌ episodes on our website,


Aunty Nona Beamer



Original air date: Tues., Oct. 23, 2007


Passionate, Intelligent, Talented and Truly “Hawaiian”


Passionate, intelligent, talented and truly “Hawaiian” are just a few words that describe Aunty Nona Beamer.


Join Leslie Wilcox as she “talks story” with the woman who coined the term “Hawaiiana” – educator, storyteller, hula choreographer, composer – the irrepressible Nona Beamer.


Aunty Nona Beamer Audio


Download the Transcript




Aloha! And mahalo for joining me for another wonderful conversation on Long Story Short. I’m Leslie Wilcox. We’re about to sit down with Aunty Nona Beamer whose life as an educator and composer began simply enough – teaching hula to young, local girls in Kaka‘ako and to America’s first movie star, Mary Pickford. But, as a student herself, young Nona would be expelled from school – for chanting in her beloved language. And it was her love for that school – Kamehameha – that would lead her to write a letter as an adult demanding reform of… well, let’s let Aunty Nona tell her stories herself. We got together with her at her friend’s house at Diamond Head.


(Nona chants)


You wanted to do this interview near Kamapua‘a. What’s the significance?


Well you know, we are not here very often. And so much of our family background is mythology and legends and history and the Pele family and the love affair between Kamapua‘a and Pele you know, and all that exciting passion going on. Here’s a chance to see a replica of that symbol of the legends of the story; so I don’t like to pass up the opportunity to come and say, ‘Thank you!” We are so happy to have the myths and legends to pass on to our children and have my daughter with me, and you know.


You mentioned passions. Look at you. You still have such a passion for life. Have you slowed down at all? I mean, I know you were sidelined in the hospital for four months. But there you are back at it again.


You know, I’m having so much fun and I am so grateful and I think, look where we are in all of this beauty and no matter where we look around us it is glorious. How lucky can we be? How lucky?


You’re in your mid 80’s now.


Sweetheart, I was 84 last week. Is that mid?


And a couple of years ago you where in the hospital for 4 months. You had a bypass surgery, you had a stroke and lots of people were very worried about you.


Bye bye Nona (laughs). I guess God had another plan for me and I thought, well I better get off my arse and do something. So I am trying to do something. Yeah, life is so beautiful. And it’s so beautiful because of each other, you know? Our kindness with each other, our voices, our smiles, the way we touch each other’s hands. It seems so corny but it works.


And you saw some of that when you were ill in the hospital.


Yes, and people that I did not know, reams of cards, school children. And I’m reading them and I had no idea who these people were, but the healing vibes were just so powerful and all the prayers. They’d come to the door and say a prayer standing in the doorway, and I’d look and couldn’t make out who they were. And sometimes I couldn’t hold my head up and somebody would be chanting at my door. I thought, isn’t that wonderful that people would give up themselves and their healing energy is healing me, you know? This business of kindness and love, it’s so, so real. And it works Leslie, in every aspect of your life. And we say to live pono. That’s not very easy, pono spiritually, pono emotionally, pono physically in every aspect of your life. Moderato, you know? So you don’t overeat, you don’t get overemotional, so your blood pressure doesn’t go, you do things moderately and that’s a pretty good recipe for us, you know?


And that’s exactly what you’re doing with management of your diabetes. You are, you are, talk about structure, you are using structure to keep healthy.


My dear hanai sister has taught me how to do that. Yeah. And I have felt so much better since I’ve known the alternative, I keep to this rigid regimen because I know it’s keeping me healthy. So there’s no, no possible way to cheat. And I feel badly with so many Hawaiians, wonderful talent, beautiful people, stuffing their mouths, drinking the sodas. Oh the big uh, I forgot what you call them, with the rice, egg, hamburger, gravy. Loco moco, oh loco moco and I think so unhealthy, oh dear, if we could just get the Hawaiians to eat sensibly, they won’t all die of diabetes before they’re 20.


You are really watching yourself, you’re measuring your water intake even.


Yes, because the kidneys are not happy if you don’t give them enough water. Then I swell up if I give them too much water. So you just have to learn what that balance is, you know.


On the other hand, you were telling me that yours is now a life without laulau.


Yes, but I can have a half a cup of poi twice a week. So I’m happy about that. But no laulau. We make it with won bok. It’s the luau leaves – that has too much potassium for the kidneys.


So you are motivated just to keep going. Your body may be slipping up a bit but you’re all there in every other way.


I’m having a good time. But I’m looking for some mischief to get into. Do you have a grandfather for me? (laughs)


Having a good time and waiting for some mischief at age 84. You gotta love Aunty Nona. And there’s much more to her story. Did you know that it was none other than Nona Beamer who coined the term “Hawaiiana” back in 1949? We’ll find out how – and why – next.


You know, you’ve done so many things in your life. I mean it’s, you’re one of those “hyphen” people: educator, storyteller, hula choreographer, composer. How did all that happen?


Well of course we’re a big family. So that we had to take care of the children, telling them stories so they would go to sleep. And then my mother was ill one summer. I was 12 and getting ready to come to Kamehameha. And my father said that your mother can’t go to the studio, Nona. You have to go and your sister will go and help you, you know. I think my sister was 10 or 9, somewhere around there, so she was going to answer the phones. And I looked on the appointment book and the first student was Mary Pickford. And I said to my father, “Oh I can’t teach this lady. She’s a very important movie star. My father said, “Get in there.” And she came with Buddy Rogers. I think they were on their honeymoon and he was so nice. She was tiny – she was smaller than I was. And her little hands, little feet, she was completely charming. Got me over the fear of teaching because we were talking and singing and doing lovely hula hands, graceful as the birds. And I got over my fear. Well I get to Kamehameha in September and there’s a notice on the board. “Any girls interested in teaching at the Kaka‘ako Mission, sign up.” I thought, I taught, I know how to teach, so I signed up. And here were little preschool children at Kaka‘ako. It was a very deprived area, you know? And they didn’t know about soap and water. So the children had sores all over their legs. And they smelled bad. And ah, so the first thing we did was get big washtubs and bathe the children with tar soap, smelly brown tar soap. And I’m crying and trying to sing and then the children would say, “Oh, come to the singing lady. Come to the…” So my line gets long as the children were waiting for their baths and nobody at the other tubs. I thought, “Hmm, singing is the way to interest children,” you know? So the first class I faced I started telling them stories and then began chanting about the kahuli and the kolea birds (sings a bit). “Spooky, spooky, spooky!.” And they were frightened. So then I put one note in the song (sings a bit more). And they smiled and weren’t frightened anymore. I thought, “That’s how I’m going to teach. I’m going to teach them little songs, tell them the history and they’ll be smiling and learning their history all in one fell swoop.”


You composed music that stands forever. Every school kid, virtually, in Hawaii knows Pupu Hinuhinu. You wrote it. How does that feel? I mean, virtually every child grows up knowing your song.


Well it’s a sweet little simple thing, you know. But I think that it’s appealing to all levels, children and grandparents, just the sweetness of it, you know? I think we are very lucky, if we can sing sweet little songs it kind of calms us down and maybe we’re not raising our voices, maybe there is more calmness in the family, you know? So I think it has a lot of uses.


So storytelling is really the basis of so much of what you’ve done and what your family has done as well.


It is, yes. Well we didn’t have books, we didn’t have you know, lot of authors writing about Hawaiian culture. In fact, I didn’t even know about the overthrow until I was on the Native Hawaiian Study Commission. I didn’t even know about the politics of those times, you know?


Where do you get your knowledge of Hawaiianess? From your family experience?


Yes, well it was from grandparents, grandmother.


But you don’t speak fluent Hawaiian?


No, no. We were not allowed to. And then the suppression at Kamehameha. I think psychologically it caused a lot of damage among a lot of Hawaiians in my age group, you know? Because we were forbidden, we were punished. Yeah, it was a psychological block.


And yet, as a teacher you had to have structure?


Well you know we didn’t have textbooks. We didn’t have curriculum, you know? We didn’t have a term Hawai‘iana until ‘49 when I coined it. And it was at a workshop with the department of education teachers. Well it was called Department of Public Instruction then – D.P.I. So I wrote on the board “Hawai – glottal i – dash – ana.” So I turned around, I looked at the teachers.. I said, “I’d like for us to study this word ‘Hawaiiana… Hawaiiana.’” Now the “ana” is the root word “to measure, to evaluate, to determine what is the best.” So we’re going to concern ourselves with that and teach only the best of Hawaiian culture in the classroom. And that was my reason for that word “Hawaiiana.”


You made it up.


Yes. And I didn’t mean “-ana” like Americana, Mexicana like a conglomerate of things, you know. But I meant to measure everything that we’re going to teach, and offer the children the very best in the culture.


That’s one of the many one-of-a-kind things you’ve done, firsts you’ve done. What about when you were a student at Kamehameha Schools and got briefly expelled?


(Nona holds up two fingers)


Twice you got expelled?


Well it was strange. The first time, the President of the Trustees, Frank Midkiff, was having a tea in the pink garden, in the bougainvillea garden – so pretty. And so he asked me, I had started the Hawaiian Club and it was simply because my friends had said, “Can we learn a song? Can we learn a chant? Tell us a story.” So we’d gather Monday after school and we would learn a chant. Unbeknownst to anybody else, but Mr. Midkiff was a champion of mine, a personal friend and hero. So for him I would do anything. So we came into the garden chanting (sings the chant). And we finished our chant and we bowed to everybody and we walked out. And then my principal said, “Winona you may pack your bag and leave this campus.” It was a sacrilege that I committed – to chant and do motions as we were walking.




Because it wasn’t allowed. No language, no chanting, no dancing, no nothing.


But you could do western dancing?


Oh yeah, we could do anything else, yeah.


But that’s how it was in those days at Kamehameha Schools.




Because everyone was on this western path.


Well, it was just the mindset of the time, I think, you know? They were there to school good and industrious men and women, you know? And there was no further look about advancing us, as students or Hawaiians! I wanted to go to college. “Winona, there’s no reason to go to college.” I mean, my principal! I though, what kind of principal would tell you not to think about going to college? So it kind of hurt me that they wanted to keep us so subservient.


Have you had kind of a love-hate relationship with the school since you were a kid?


You know, I’ve loved them all my life, all my life. In 1927 my grandmother took me to the old chapel where Farrington School is now and I heard the voices of the Kamehameha men. Oh, the stone walls were just vibrating with these wonderful voices and I fell in love with Kamehameha. Didn’t know anything about it except just a name, you know? And I knew later on about the campus where my father had lived as a child. And then later on when I was hired we were given living quarters there where my father was when he was 6 years old. He was in his dormitory, you know? So there was a lot of joy in my heart for Kamehameha just from that initial love of the sound of their voices, the men singing. Of course, my grandmother was a graduate and my parents had attended. Of course all of us in our family had attended. And now it was time for the grandchild, and you know, they have been as close to me as my own blood family.


The school which expelled you twice was the school where you dedicated 40 years of your teaching life.


And $87,864 scholarship money I have raised in 35 years for scholarships for Kamehameha. Yes, I love them like my family. Well now they’re coming into the sunlight.


And you were part of that. You were part of bringing back the Hawaiianess into the school.


I like to think I was, but there’s a whole faction of us. Class members, students, they were asking. Why can’t we have Hawaiian? Why can’t we be what we are? Why do we have to be who we are not?


And the school was acting in what it thought was your best interest?


Yes, and yet they said Princess Pauahi, in her will, stated that we were not to speak, we were not to chant, we were not to dance. So when they hired me, the first thing I did, “Could I see the will? Please may I see the will?” Nothing in it about Princess Pauahi saying there would be no language, there would be no dancing, there would be no – they lied to me, they lied to me all those years. So my estimation of administration went (motion of hands going down).


Well and then what happens many years later, your idea of the administration had again fallen. You wrote a letter to the State Supreme Court in the late 1990s, in which you said, “Mrs. Lindsey, Mrs. Lokelani Lindsey, a trustee’s micromanagement methodology is an utterly diabolical plan of a self-serving egoist.”


Oh, I didn’t know her at all. But it was just an abomination that had happened.


In your letter, you were expressing what had been an inner angst, many people upset with what was happening at the trustee level at the old Bishop Estate. But so many people didn’t want to lose what they had and you were the one who brought it out.


Well, you know they were afraid of their jobs. The students were afraid of their scholarships. I didn’t have anything to lose. I had no children in school. I had retired. And I thought this was just not right. So when my hanai son Kaliko Beamer Trapp came home and told me that Lokelani had sent a directive to the University Language Department that the vocabulary they were developing could not be taught at the Kamehameha Schools, you know? So I just felt that because if it was spoken during Pauahi’s time we could have spoken it. But I thought ah, we’re back to the middle ages. We can’t speak it ‘cause Pauahi didn’t speak it 50 years ago. Something’s wrong, you know? So that really sort of capsulated it from there. We had to do something about it. That was the straw.


And there was a firestorm after you wrote the letter.


True. Well, I think it gave other people the courage to speak up too.


And that triggered an overhaul, a reform of the old Bishop Estate.


It was about time, about time. Well, I wish it were as lasting and as meaningful now. But they aren’t there yet, they aren’t there yet. I think they have to do more on campus with the old guard. I love them dearly. We’re all good friends. But they have to be more mindful of Hawaiianess, you know? Not to be thinking of all the business and the dollars and the cash register. Think about the students. That’s why we’re there – for the students. Not to amass fortunes in the bank.


The woman who coined the term “Hawaiiana” – lives it. Aunty Nona Beamer stands up for what she thinks is right – what she feels is pono. We don’t have much time left, so we’ll make the rest of this long story, short. Stay with us as we continue “talking story” with the irrepressible Nona Beamer.


Are we going to see you in future years standing up again, doing the kind of things that got you expelled, that triggered reform in the old Bishop Estate?


(Laughs) You know I am getting a little more outspoken and Keola says, ”Ma, you’re swearing more these days.” I used to say dammit, but now I say dammit to hell. (Laughs) Well I think that’s one of the perks of the elderly – that we can speak up, that we’ve been there and we have the courage ‘cause we know what it feels like to be denied your language, denied being a Hawaiian. So there’s no, I don’t think there’s any guilt. It’s just positive affirmations.


You’ve done it before and perhaps you’ll do it again.


Do it again? (laughs) Thank you honey.


You know, you have so much love, so much aloha and yet you believe in principles and standing up even if it ruffles feathers and makes people lose their jobs.


Yes. Well it seems, if it’s right, if it’s reasonable, it’s good you know, you should try to keep as much goodness as you can. And sometimes we just need a little help from one other. Just hang on to one another and make it better.


But I think what you’re telling us is it’s not just about being nicey nice. It’s about following principles, and values.


True, true, yeah.


Let me ask you one question – this may be dicey so let me know. One of the things that we do is we ask viewers what would you like to ask Aunty Nona? One of the questions that people always ask about and you may not want to talk about it, I understand. A viewer in Hilo would like to know if you see any mending between your sons Keola and Kapono Beamer?


Well you know there doesn’t need to be mending. They have diverse careers.


So your sons had a personal and professional parting of the ways. Does it hurt or is it something a family deals with?


Well I miss them together, I miss the sound of their singing. At my father’s funeral I was just weeping because I heard them singing together when I hadn’t heard them for a while. I miss the mellowness of their sound. But I see it coming in my grandson now. And I think of all the good things we’ve done. So if their direction is different, so be it. We can’t just stagnate in our same place. We got to grow or we die. So I don’t see that there’s a lot of mending because the love is still there. I don’t know that they’ll sing Honolulu City Lights together again. I don’t know.


But they both came to see you when you were in the hospital?


Yes they did.


Must have been nice to see both of them at once?


The same room – we were all talking together. Yes, yes. And I’m glad that it happened before I “make die dead”! (Laughs) Well I do think that they have a lot to contribute. I don’t know what direction. But I think we’re going to see something through Kamana. And his generation will probably mend the fences that their parents have knocked down.


They’re the next Beamers.


I think so. I think we are going to see some interesting things from him.


So what do you, what do you look ahead to? What’s ahead for you?


Well you know, I want to keep the Hawaiianess in things as much as possible. And it doesn’t seem as though it’s that important. In fact, it’s kind of corny when you say, “What is the Hawaiianess?” you know? It’s this aloha feeling – the kindness between people. You know, speaking nicely, looking at each other smiling, you know. Oh, it seems like so little. But it’s a gargantuan concept to keep this aloha in the world. And that’s what we all have to do in our own hearts – to keep this aloha. Not easy.


You know when people who’ve known you a long time and know you well describe you, the personal qualities they tend to talk about are: courage, stubbornness – and they say you’re full of aloha. Are they right?


Well, you know I’m very grateful and that’s a big stabilizer in my life – that I’m so grateful for all the things, the goodness of family and everything you’ve had behind you, you know. But you’re not here by yourself. Oh, my great-grandmother’s here, my grandmother’s here, everybody’s here behind me. And I think oh this is part of our aumakua, our belief in our guardians that are around us. But we have to listen. We have to be in tune because they’re all here to help us. But sometimes we get so busy we just run rough shot over everything. And life has so much beauty underneath it. If you just be quiet enough to listen to it.


Passionate, intelligent, talented and truly “Hawaiian”… just a few words that describe Nona Beamer. It was a pleasure sharing stories from Aunty Nona – and sharing them with you. I wish we had more time. But we have to make this Long Story Short. Mahalo for joining me. I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou kakou!


Solomon Enos



Original air date: Tues., July 14, 2009


Hawaiian Renaissance Man


Leslie Wilcox talks story with Hawaiian Renaissance man Solomon Enos. The muralist, painter, book illustrator, comic strip creator, educator, and futuristic storyteller is also the groundskeeper for the forest preserve in the back of Kalihi Valley – the site of Kokua Kalihi Valley Comprehensive Family Services. Enos draws inspiration from the land and considers it a “sentient” that must nurtured the way one nurtures a family member. Enos also talks about developing his Honolulu Advertiser comic strip Polyfantastica into a graphic novel.


Solomon Enos Audio


Download the Transcript




What Hawaii really is, you know, I—I think is—we’re still coming to understand that. You know, I think there’s a much—much deeper layers of meaning that we have yet to tap into. And that’s pretty exciting stuff. [chuckle]


Wow; and you plan to be right there when— 


Hopefully, hopefully.


–when the meanings come out.




A painter, illustrator, forest preserve groundskeeper, educator, and futuristic storyteller; he might best be described as a Hawaiian renaissance man. His storytelling canvas stretches from the beginnings of Hawaiian culture to forty thousand years into the future. And while he’s only in his early thirties, he seems to possess the wisdom of a very old soul. His name is Solomon Enos, and you’ll meet him just a moment on Long Story Short.


Aloha mai kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. Like father, like son might be the best way to begin the story of native Hawaiian artist Solomon Enos. Solomon’s father, Eric Enos, also has a background in art and is the cofounder and executive director of Kaala Farm in Waianae, a nonprofit farm that promotes sustainability based on the Hawaiian ahupuaa system, and is also used as a cultural learning center. Solomon is a groundskeeper of a similar organization deep in Kalihi Valley, Kokua Kalihi Valley Comprehensive Family Services. His parents and his other family members supported Solomon’s decision to pursue a career in art, but the gift of artistic ability was something born to Solomon Enos.


All little kids love art; they love fooling around. At what time did you get a sense that maybe you had a gift?


H-m. Well, I remember my um, kindergarten teacher pulled my parents aside one day—I think it was during a uh, parent-teacher night. And she said, Solomon, when he draws people, he doesn’t just draw circles with lines; he draws their heads, he draws their bodies, he draws their pants, and the buttons, and everything. And I remember that; I remember that affirmation at such a really early part of my life. And I just thought, like, Oh, cool, okay, uh, I think I know how to draw, I think I’m a—think I’m gonna be a drawer. [chuckle]


An—and your parents encouraged you.


Yes. All throughout, all throughout my life.


How did they influence you?


My grandfather, to begin with, Joseph Enos, always wanted to do artwork, always wanted to draw; actually had a big collection of art supplies. And he could never really sit down, he never really got into it, but he always encouraged me to draw. And whenever he—I drew pictures of anything, of like monsters and robots and things like that, he would post it up inside the house, and my grandmother would roll her eyes—Oh, no, my goodness. But he was always—he’d always say, Whoo, ah, I’ve always wanted to draw, and I’m so happy that you’re drawing. Oh, good, good, good. And my mom was just an amazing support, because she gave me a lot of really interesting ideas, interesting ways to look at life. You know, sometimes um, she would tell me, You know, Solomon, whatever you put your mind to, you—you really do it. You know, and that an—well, and that kind of encouragement, I think, really helped to, you know, form up my—my process. ‘Cause whenever I start a project, I’m like, at the end, I know it’s gonna be great. You know, I’m gonna put my mind to it, and it’s gonna—it’s gonna be awesome. And my father had received uh, a masters of fine arts at the University of Hawaii in 1969; he was really quite a profound influence on me as well. And there’s one painting which um, he did which shows a person lying down at the bottom of a valley, and—and his body kind of opening up, and all of his entrails kinda leading out and becoming the landscape. And it’s not gross at all; it’s actually quite beautiful. And that—and that’s that kind of interesting kind of a uh, paradox of, you know, internal organs and landscape, those are the kinda thoughts that really influence me at an early age of my life.


Of course, your father uh, is also a cultural heavyweight on the Waianae Coast, having started the Cultural Learning Center at Kaala, and using um, the farm and life to—to help drug abusers an—and people who’ve lost their way find um, stability again.




How did that influence you?


In the beginning, it was always a bit rough, ‘cause I—[chuckle]—I’d rather—I wanted to be at home, you know, drawing or uh, watching cartoons and things like that. And so my father would be pretty adamant about taking me and my brothers up to go and work up in—in the taro patches up in the back of Kaala. But what I was able to do was look at how my father helped—with all the other folks that work at uh, Kaala Farms, uh, to help to engage um, different kinds of people, you know, from folks, you—you know, folks from universities, you know, school children, um, uh, to talk about the deeper significance of the back of the valley and the deep—deeper significance of, you know, what the role of Hawaiian culture has to play within uh, the future of Hawaii. And I think um, all of those are—become uh, I guess, themes for my artwork. And I think that—uh, looking back, i—uh, I was really given quite a uh, enriched experience, uh, an enriched uh, childhood.


And here you are now, living on a forest reserve. So you’ve got uh, some of the same elements you had when you were a kid.




Except in another form.


M-hm; m-hm. Uh, everything that I’m doing in the back of uh, Kokua Kalihi Valley Nature Preserve is really like an artistic process.


What is your actual job? There’s none like it—




–anywhere else, I don’t think.


Well, uh, it’s interesting, interesting. Um, I’m actually a caretaker uh, at the nature preserve. There’s actually um—the nature preserve is divided into two different uh, uh, ili or subsections of the ahupuaa. And uh, different ili within the ahupuaa are almost like different organs within the body. And the—uh, which is actually very appropriate, because the nature preserve is a department of Kokua Kalihi Valley Health Center. And so we’re actually a health center that is uh, you know, uh, has adopted a nature preserve. Uh, the hope is, over time, this—these areas that we’re—we’re managing up here in the uh, back of Kalihi can become resources for members within the community.


To get to the preserve, or the reserve, you go all the way back Kalihi—Kalihi Street, right?


Yeah; yeah.


Very, very back.



And you have devised the nicest No Trespassing sign—




–ever, which says nothing about trespassing. What is it?


I took out the Keep Out signs, because um, when you—when uh, I think when working with youth and working with individuals, uh, who have challenges with authority, you know, they’re gonna look at it as a way to say, Oh, you know, I’m gonna go in. I’m going to go in, and I’m gonna do what I like. You know. And so I took out the Keep Out signs, and there was one Keep Out sign left, and I didn’t—I couldn’t take it down, uh, ‘cause it—it was um, a sign that said Violators Will Be Prosecuted, you know, a five hundred dollar fine. And about six months ago, it got some graffiti on it, and there was graffiti on some of the other signs on some of the other properties, uh, adjoining out property. And so I went and took a little paintbrush, and I cleaned up some—my neighbors’ signs and things, touched it up a little bit. And when I came to that one sign that said Keep Out, you know, Fine, I covered it over and I wrote … This Land is Your Grandmother and She Loves You. And … it’s a little bit, you know, sappy. But it’s amazing, because I think it causes people to pause and to think about what is their relationship to their grandmother, what is their relationship to this land, and it even um … and I kind of touch on—tou—touch on this a bit in some of my other work; it—it kind of encourages this thought that this land is a sentient being. It’s—in fact, we may just be figments of its imagination. [chuckle]


And it will always be there, whereas we won’t.




The deceptively peaceful looking forest preserve where the Kokua Kalihi Valley Comprehensive Family Services resides is a bustling learning center for a wide spectrum of organizations and people of all ages.


I um, work with uh, Farrington High School. Uh, they have a uh, environmental sciences class. I do—we actually have Halau Lokahi Charter School; uh, two of their classes are based up at the preserve, so we always have children around all the time, which is an amazing, amazing blessing. And we have community workdays where we try to engage co—community members from Kalihi Valley in—in part of the whole … the story, which is the—which is the preserve. I—also, I’m able to do a lot of work with patients from the clinic. And um, the clinic is really kind of a core for a lot of the programs that I’m—that we hope to be expanding into, particularly—


And what kind of patients?


Well, uh, initially, patients through the nutrition department at Kokua Kalihi Valley Health Center, and these are elderly uh, Samoan uh, Trukese, uh, Filipino, and Hawaiian patients who have dia—you know, diabe—diabetes, uh, heart disease, and other kinds of chronic uh, illness. And my understanding is, you know, looking to a source of illness, you know, so much of it is related to displacement from culture, land, family, which leads to depression and stress. And—and um, so the opportunity for us to open up garden areas where these elders can come outside, and start to plant their traditional foods again, and um, become a community. ‘Cause in this community, you have different peoples in the same area, different cul—customs, but sharing ideas, talking story. They’ll come outside, they’re a little stiff, they’re—it’s a little rough to get going, and they’ll get out, and the—the sun is out there, and it’s a nice breezy day. They—they start to straighten up a little bit, they look at the gardens, they look at the soil, they—before you know it, they’re tiptoeing on the logs, and they’re teasing each other, and they’re translator is saying, I can’t translate that.




I shouldn’t. [chuckle] Being—and out of the corner of my eye, I’m just—they’re like little children again. And I think that’s really coming back to, you know, trying to figure out what is the source of illness, and what are—where can we—where can the real healing uh, begin. You know, and I think that—you know, it’s very much an artistic process, you know. Because it’s watching how people evolve from b—from the inside, and it’s providing the—the environment for that.


So for you, it’s—it goes beyond health to art.


Yes. Yes, yes. And it’s um … uh, understanding health as almost like a medium, almost like uh, uh, a—a transformative process. Plants like ilima and um, uh, popolo berry, um, and uh, alaala wainiu all ha—all—it’s almost like a um, a pharmacy, you know, an organic pharmacy. And I think that uh—you know, you take—you take the leaf, and that’s your prescription. And you say, Okay, this—this—this leaf and I get this medicine. So instead of uh … instead of pills, we have berries, you know. And I think that uh, that’s kinda cool. Um—This nature preserve can help to become sort of the future health center, you know, and future clinics and future hospitals. I mean, in a sense that—or future pharmacies, actually [chuckle] when you think about it.


In the sense of medicinal gardens?


Medicinal gardens; yes, yes. And it makes sense, because that’s how it’s been for millennia. [chuckle] Is that living healthy, you know, um, to keola pono, to live well is, you know, you—isn’t really limited to your health centers. You know, it’s—it’s everything you do throughout your life, you know.


You know, all of this sounds very inspiring and very physical in part.


M-hm, m-hm.


How do you do your art in addition?


Um, well—


Your personal art.


Lately, I’ve really been having to channel a lot my energy into doing the work on the land. And I actually … will take down some trees, and drop them into the ground, and build up the soil, and cover it with mulch. And it’s almost like that is the artwork. [chuckle] And so instead of painting pictures of gardens, I’m sort of building them. You know, and actually, that—that whole process is—is um, I guess, where I’m putting a lot of my creative energy into. Um, but to translate it a little bit more directly, I hope to be doing some carving and painting, and uh, even uh, digital media classes with uh, youth from the housing areas in Kalihi. And that’s—that’s where I think I’ll be able to link it up a little bit more closely. Because we do actually have um, classrooms and um, other facilities up at the preserve there, where we can bring people, take a walk through the forest, um, get really inspired, and come inside and try to capture those uh, those ideas in—in—in some form of media.


What’s it like at the preserve when the school children go home, and the—the health center patients go home, and it’s—it’s just you and your family uh, alone on ninety-nine acres?


M-m. You know, it’s—there’s almost a s—I hear a sigh of contentment from the land.


Sure it’s not you?


No, it’s—might be me; it might be me. And I—but [INDISTINCT]. But uh, it’s—it’s—it’s a sigh of contentment. Because what we try to do is think about how we’re trying to translate what the land is telling us, and what—and—and uh, you know, we’re trying to listen to the land, an—and—and—and try to—we’re trying to, you know, humbly to speak for it. And one of the things that um … I know it’s been telling me is that it’s missed all these—all the children, it’s missed the families, it’s missed the elders, it’s missed the jokes and the laughter. ‘Cause it’s—it’s had to put up with a lot of junk, a lot of rubbish, a lot of pain—


It was a dumping ground for—


Dumping for—


–a long time.


–for cars, and—and for people, really. I mean, maybe not—well, not entirely literally, but you know, in—insomuch as people who ha—having a lot of issues or problems, going up there and having to … self—you know, I guess self medicate, I guess you could say. You know. And um … but—so uh, from a lot of that pain, you know, we’re hoping to transform that place. And again, it’s—it’s the people who are—who are always there, you know, this—the energy that’s there, that’s um, that’s really been asking. That sentient—sentient grandmother [chuckle] landscape that’s been saying, Oh, where’s the—where are the babies, where are the children? And they say, Oh, oh, they’re coming, they’re coming. You know, bringing back the voice of the children to—bringing back the—the breath is something that uh, it just—it just makes so much sense, and it really does seem to be what the land is—is asking for.


You know, so many people of your generation, or—or almost any generation today, no longer count on having one job for their lifetime. They figure they’re gonna have six, seven, eight careers.




But you’re saying, the—the next thirty years, this is where I’ll be.


Yeah; yeah. Um—


And it’s not—it’s not a cakewalk. I mean, you’re—you’re—you’re felling timber, and creating—




–mulch and all that.


Yeah; yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah; and actually, I feel very content. And I mean, it’s—it’s I guess um, who’s that guy; Joseph Campbell who says, you know, you follow your bliss. You know, and it’s definitely—I—I’m—I’m following it. [chuckle] And I feel very, very content to be doing so. And—and actually, what I hope to do is to kind of figure out, you know, if I do a really good job up at the preserve, that I can help to create more of these kinds of opportunities for other, you know, youth and families to become caretakers, you know, to open up more areas of land in the back of the valleys. Um, uh, because there are so many different benefits, you know. Particularly, the hope is to partner up with, you know, Board of Water Supply, because they own the back of Kalihi Valley. What we’re doing is excellent watershed management, you know, ‘cause we’re putting back natives, uh, we are opening up areas for composting and mulching, you know, putting up garding and—gardening and farm areas. And these go, you know, really far to help to uh, retain water for—and to help to um—for the health of the entire aquifer, entire uh, watershed. And—and that can become a model for the back of every valley in Hawaii, you know. And that’ what we hope to do, is kinda create a—uh, what you call ohe kapala or like a bamboo stamp; create a template. You know, get a—get a really good design, and then you go [CLUCKS TONGUE], right across. [chuckle] And so …


How has your artwork changed since you began living in the back of Kalihi Valley?


M-m … well … well, well. You know … there’s just a lot more rain in the back of Kalihi than there is in Makaha. [chuckle] So uh, rainy days are great days for me to sit inside. Um, I have uh, I’ve converted my—our—our dining room table into a s—par—partially into a studio area. [chuckle] And uh, um, so I’ll sit there. And it’s great, ‘cause I have—my children are playing around, and family’s around all the time. So I do get a lot of in time—uh, inside time, you know, to sit and to render, to draw. Sunset and morning times, amazing light. Just the—the light—


And different light in different parts of—




–the island. Sure; that makes—




–a lot of sense.


Oh, it’s amazing. And just stepping outside and watch—and looking how that layer of light is … it’s—just washes over everything, and it just unifies the entire landscape with beautiful amber hues. And so um, yeah. So if I’m ever at a loss, or if I’m not—ever don’t feel inspired enough, I just sort of open—open my door for about forty-five seconds. And I go, Oh, okay. Close the door—




–and get back to it.


Have you looked at the history of the back of Kalihi Valley—


Oh, yeah.


–to see what happened there before you?


Yeah; yeah. That’s actually right where we are in some of our discussions at the preserve, about doing research that—that tells the story of the back of the—or that’ll help to tell the story of the back of Kalihi Valley. And one of the persons that I hope to really engage … more is uh, Puakea Nogelmeier. Because he is also a Kalihi resident, and he lives on—right off of Kalihi Street as well. So yeah, yeah. And so uh, hopefully, we’d like to translate some more stories about Kalihi, and um … throughout the preserve—I’m really excited about this, is actually looking at creating installations that uh, could be carvings and different things, and at the base of the carving will be a story. And it could be a story of—you know, one of the many stories of the back of Kalihi Valley.


So this—the—the installation, the art would explain, introduce the valley to the people—




–who come along?


Absolutely; absolutely. And uh, even, there could be some uh, pathways that move through the ninety-nine acres of the preserve where each different section of the pathway would be like a page from a story and—where it’ll be a different scene from a story. Uh, it would be a stone with a different figure carved into it, or it could be carved in certain shape. And so um, and it kinda ties into this idea of uh, when we take groups through the preserve and we talk about all the different volunteer groups that have gotten involved in different areas, what we’re doing is we’re—we’re actually walking story.


While his current lifestyle seems utopian and far removed from the highly competitive world of commercial art, Solomon Enos has enjoyed success as a book illustrator, muralist, CD cover artist, and cartoonist, starting from a very early age.




Do you remember the first time you ever got a check for your artwork, you ever got paid?


Yes; yes, yes. Actually, the first time was—uh, and it was actually my very first commissioned project. And I was honored that my first—the first offer I’ve ever had to collaborate with was Auntie Pua Burgess. And so—amazing, amazing, amazing woman. And it was curriculum for fifth grade at uh, um, Makaha Elementary School. And actually, I think it was used for a broader uh, range of schools through the DOE. I was sixth grader; so I was a sixth grader doing artwork for a fifth grade textbook. And uh, you know, the images are raw, you know. But there’s one uh, experience that I particular remember from working with Auntie Pua, which um, you know, I like to draw upon that was, you know, quite a lot of fun. And this—it’s a story about this boy that daydreams a lot. And so he’s helping his mother unpack groceries from the car, and he drops the eggs, so the eggs spill. And his mother is—you know, she’s got other—other things going on in her life, and she’s really upset. And she picks up an egg, and she throws it at him. You know, and then she [GASP] realizes what she’s done. And—you know, and she feels really ashamed about it. And so Auntie Pua says, Okay, for this part, here, put on this old dirty tee-shirt and let’s go outside. So we went outside.




And she gets an egg and she goes—she even makes this mean face. She goes [GROWLS], throws it at me. I go, Ah. And for one moment, for three seconds, I was that boy within the story. And I was like, Wow, why did she—oh.




[INDISTINCT] And—but I think it—it—that kind of immersion into the character, into the story, has really helped to influence everything that I’ve ever done since. And so—anyway, so my first—my first paycheck, I think it was like uh, I think it was like a thousand dollars. Like at the time, I was like, Wow. And my mom goes like [WHOOSH] [chuckle], I’ll be taking that. [chuckle]


Don’t want to get too used to you spending it.


Exactly. [chuckle]


What kind of art have you done as a—as a paid artist since?



Well, all the book projects I’ve done have been uh, quite a lot of fun. Kimo Armitage; two stories in particular, the uh, Na Olelo Noeau No Na Keiki with uh, through Island Heritage, and Na Akua Hawaii. And that was um, through Bishop Museum Press, and those are gods and goddesses of Hawaii. Every project that comes along is um, an opportunity for me to do research, to—that … or that research that comes out of those projects actually help to inform everything else I do after that. And on the other end, I guess, would be the work that I’ve been doing uh, for Polyfantastica, uh, which is very much more of a conceptual uh, project. You know, it’s really thinking about, you know, broad an—and long ranging ideas that tap into the meaning of our—or the role of our, you know, our uh, human beings within the—within the universe, you know. So it’s pretty far out kinda stuff. [chuckle]


Is it—is it Star Trek meets Hawaii?


Uh, yeah; yeah, yeah. That could be; that could be one way to look at it. And uh, you know, but honestly, I think my influences are more folks like uh, Kurt Vonnegut and uh, more uh, folks like uh, Carl Sagan. You know, folks that uh, kinda challenge what’s accepted as normal, you know, and helps to provide … helps to make the thing everyday become much more significant.


So you’re quoting a writer—a writer and a scientist, rather than another artist—




–as having been—




–your models.


Yes, absolutely; absolutely.


And you translate.


Yes; yes. And it’s that inspiration. In fact, I’m thinking of—there was one line from Vonnegut where, uh, he asks uh, uh, the characters in the story, you know, there’s—What is faster than light? And they don’t have an answer. And he says, Okay, you see that star? Okay; you see that star. Okay. Awareness. So wow, okay. So an idea can be extremely powerful; it can be faster than light, you know, consciousness.


Polyfantastica began as a weekly comic strip for the Honolulu Advertiser illustrated by Solomon Enos, and written by his wife, Meredith Desha Enos. It has since grown into plans for a graphic novel. The ever evolving epic is filled with philosophical parables stretching tens of thousands of years into the future.


In this story, um, a father and son, they’re—they’re strapping themselves onto this great big kite. And they’re in the middle of this great, beautiful valley, gardens going as far as your eye could see. And they launch themselves up into the sky, and the fa—the father tells his son, I’m taking you to a special gathering today up in the sky. And this gathering is—we’re gonna tell you a story about a time when human beings used to kill each other. And the son can’t—you know, What? Wha—how do you—how—with the world full of wonder and beauty, how would anybody ha—how could you even do that? The whole concept is lost to him; violence and war is lost to him. And he says, Well, when we get there, you’ll understand, you’ll hear the story, and um, we’re gonna go to this place. And what it is, is they break through the clouds, and it’s this great big kite city. And this kite city, all these kites are parking, you know, drifting up to the top. And they go, and there’s this knowledge that is put up in that kite city that never touches the Earth again. But it’s put there, and the children go there to understand that human beings can destroy, human beings have had a hi—has this history, but we’ve moved—we’ve evolved away from it. But we still need to tell that story, so that we never make those mistakes again.


You’ve set yourself a huge task with the preserve, and forty thousand years with Polyfantastica. That’s a … where’d you get forty thousand years, an—and how are you gonna do that amount of work?


Uh, well, um … I hope to be able to build a—or help to foster a um, moolelo industry, a storytelling industry here in Hawaii. And uh, it can happen at many different levels, but it—we’re gonna need a whole host of researchers, of artists, of writers, of creative thinkers to tell the traditional stories of Hawaii, and also tell—um, and to help to look at what the role of Hawaiian people have been as navigators, as people who m—when sitting on their island, looking at the currents, watching the birds, saying, There’s something else beyond where we are right now. And I’d like to create a theme that talks about there’s something else beyond the way the world is now. It’s here, but we need to get there somehow. And so how—what are we gonna do, and how can we use the stories that we tell ourselves to change reality?


If you looked at Solomon Enos’ resume, you might conclude he’s a guy who can’t decide what to do; artist, illustrator, groundskeeper, environmentalist. But there is one job description that ties everything he’s about together; storyteller. His tools are material things; paints, pencils, computers, plants, land, students. But the stories he tells with these materials are of another realm, one that traverses tens of thousands of years. We wish Solomon Enos the best in his storytelling endeavors. For PBS Hawaii and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. Ahui hou kakou.





And as you raised your hand, I saw a tattoo.




And—and since you’re an artist, I—




–I want to ask you what’s—what’s the image?


Oh, I’m not sure. Um, I’ll probably figure it out later on. [chuckle] I actually um, was just experimenting a little bit with—


Did it yourself?


Yeah; yeah, yeah, yeah. I just was sort of making things up as I went along. I—I do have a few other tattoos on me, and I’m just actually kind of like a uh, a sketchbook, really, a live sketchbook. [chuckle] So not—not a lot of—


Since you can’t erase. [chuckle]




You can’t blend it out.


[chuckle] So not—not a whole lot of things [INDISTINCT] some of the artwork that I um, that I have uh, uh, on me.


Warren Nishimoto



Original air date: Tues., Jun. 26, 2012


Director of the UH Manoa Center for Oral History


Leslie Wilcox talks with Warren Nishimoto, director of the UH Manoa Center for Oral History. As an oral historian, Warren has recorded other peoples’ stories for over three decades. Now he shares his own stories about the indirect path to becoming an oral historian, including working at his family’s store, the historic Iida’s. He also explains how he documents the lives of everyday people to preserve Hawaii’s history.


Download the Transcript




This is the first time I’m actually saying a lot of this stuff. And when you asked me to come on this show, my first reaction was, Why do you want to talk to me for?


And that’s what the people you asked for their oral histories say to you; right?


Exactly; that’s right. Now I know how they feel. Sometimes in the middle of a taping, they’d say, Do you really want to know all this stuff? [CHUCKLE]


And do you find it interesting?


Of course; definitely. Everyone has a story to tell.


On this edition of Long Story Short, Warren Nishimoto has been recording other people’s stories for more than thirty years, but he never told his own story until now.


Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawaii’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in high definition.


Aloha mai kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. In this edition of Long Story Short, I turn the tables on one of Hawaii’s most prolific interviewers. He’s the director of Hawaii’s Center for Oral History, established by the State Legislature in 1976, and based at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Warren Nishimoto may not be a household name, but you’re likely to recognize parts of his own family story, from World War II Hawaii to a beloved island retail institution, to the tensions between generations and cultures. Nishimoto has spent his professional life preserving the stories of ordinary people, but it’s taken most of his career to recognize that his own history may be just as interesting as that of the folks he interviews.


My father was Tsuyoshi Nishimoto, who was from a small plantation town called Honohina. His father was a Buddhist minister.


Where was Honohina?


Honohina is near Ninole, Hakalau, on the Hamakua Coast. So eventually, they moved to Hilo, and my father went to Hilo High School, graduated in 1928. And he wanted to go to University of Hawaii. Just when he was about to go, his father passed away suddenly in 1928, so he couldn’t go, ‘cause the family didn’t have the money to send him. He came to Honolulu anyway, and he always said he wanted to find his fame and fortune and come to Honolulu. So he came here, and he worked various jobs here.


And now, your mother was related to who?


The Iida family. So my mother’s maiden name is Iida. Her grandfather, Matsukichi, started the Iida Store. Those of you who remember Iida Store. It started out in 1900 in Chinatown, just off Maunakea Street, I think, and then, it was destroyed in the Great Chinatown Fire of 1900. So, eventually in the 20s, they moved to the corner of Beretania and Nuuanu Avenue, and they started the store called S.M. Iida.


And so, the store sold lacquer ware, and incense, and …


Anything from Japan, they sold. We had a heavy Japanese population here coming to work on the plantations, so it wasn’t too far from the train station in Iwilei area. So people would come from the plantations, get on the train, come over, get off at this train station, walk over to the Iida’s and buy lacquer ware, rice bowls, chopsticks, Buddhist altars, incense, scrolls.


So your father ended up working there as well.


Right. Well, my father became the manager. After marrying my mother in 1938, the war started in 1941. My grandfather, who was a leader in the Japanese community, was interned, incarcerated on the mainland. Places like Missoula, Montana, Santa Fe, New Mexico. So he was there for the duration of the war. My mother’s mother, Koichi Iida’s wife, was ill with cancer. And so, my grandfather tried to get back here. So we have some records of all the letters that he wrote. People wrote letters on his behalf so that he could be allowed to come back here. Unfortunately, he couldn’t make it back. She died. So my mother, being the oldest daughter of seven children, became the matriarch of the family.


That’s a game changer for the family, isn’t it? Did your father marry your mother, knowing she was committed to raising all these kids?


I think so. I think it was more like, in the old days, sort of an arranged kind of marriage. Because I think my grandfather sort of knew that something was going to happen during the war. Because he was, again, one of the pillars of the Japanese community. He knew, I think, if hostilities broke out between America and Japan.


And he wanted to see her married.


Right. That, plus, he didn’t want to lose the business. Because an alien, if you were an alien and you had a business, it would have been taken over by the federal government. So he passed on the business to my father.


So she ended up raising her siblings, younger siblings, and her children as well.




Were you in the house at the same time, or was it all different times?


Well, we were pretty much in the house at the same time. Yeah.


How many siblings do you have?


I have one older brother, one older sister.


So what was life like in Pauoa?


It was more life in that house, ‘cause I had a lot of aunties and uncles in the house. It was right on the corner of Pauoa Road and Nuuanu Avenue, right across the street from Kawananakoa Middle School today. So we had fairly large property, so there was a lot of space to run around. And then, Nuuanu Stream was right in the back, so we spent a lot of time down in the stream, catching crayfish, little mosquito fish with nets.


I think your family was a privileged family. You owned a large property, you had this successful business. So, where do you go to school?


I went to University Lab School.


Which is a public school, but it’s like a private school.


Right. It’s a laboratory school. It was part of the College of Education at the University of Hawaii. It was to train student teachers, so all of our teachers were young and energetic. And the other function was to test out curriculum. So it was important that that school sort of replicated the public school population.


Your dad didn’t have the opportunity to go to college, and he assumed tremendous family responsibilities. Did that play a role in your wanting so much to go to college and have advanced education?


I guess so, but, again, we’re from that era where it was pretty much a given that you’re gonna go to school beyond high school. And University Lab was a college prep kind of a curriculum, so even more so.


So it was just what you were gonna do, that’s what you do. But of course, it wasn’t an expectation that you get a PhD, which you did.


No; right, right. But it was more like a continuation. Okay; to me, college was the thirteenth grade. [CHUCKLE] That’s all it was. I had no aspirations to get a PhD or anything like that. It was just something that I needed to do, after twelfth grade.


What about the family business? You weren’t geared to go into the family business?


I was encouraged to go, and I was working there part-time throughout, ever since I was old enough to go in there. I don’t know if you remember it.


I remember. I remember the buckets, I mean, just fun stuff.


It was a three-story building. It was the old section of Honolulu. Lot of tenement homes around there, Beretania Follies was down the street. So it was just this old building, cement floor. You had to wear slippers, ‘cause if you went barefoot, your feet would be black. And just exploring all of these things, and all the excelsior from the goods. The goods that came from Japan was all over the store. Great place to explore.


What about outside the store; did you go exploring Downtown?


Of course. Yeah; that was my playground, actually. When you asked me earlier what was it like in Pauoa, I can’t really tell you much about Pauoa except going to Kawananakoa School to play baseball with the neighborhood kids once in a while. But really, my playground was that store, which was about a mile away from where we lived.


But you didn’t come out of high school saying, Oh, I’m gonna go get business training and then come back and take Iida to new levels?




No interest?


I had no interest.


And was it a source of frustration on the part of your family that, Oh, Warren doesn’t want to do that?


Well, number one, I wasn’t the oldest son. So that gave me a break.


Was the oldest son interested?








Your poor father. [CHUCKLE]


Yeah. My father tried, and he was pretty traditional, and he liked to do it the old way.


Why do you think none of the kids in your family was interested?


I think as far as I’m concerned I think it was around it so much, and I could see how hard my father worked. And it was so tradition-bound, and I was trying to be not Japanese, I was trying to be American. And so, it was like I was living two lives. I had the life at home, where people were speaking Japanese and talking about this aspect of culture, or something that’s happening at the store and, so forth. And then, I would go to school and be perfectly happy, be American, play sports. And so, I saw the difference. And so, I guess there came a time when I had to choose one or the other. And if I chose doing the store, I would have had to go in that direction. And if I chose not doing the store, and doing something else, like pursuing a career that I earn, by going to school, that would be the other path. So eventually, I chose that path.


Did you try to say, Oh, I could really get into this part of it? No?


Yeah, so I guess when I went to UH, after I graduated from high school in 1967 … I think I did say I was gonna major in business. And then, I looked at the courses that I had to take, and I see pre-calculus. I said, Forget it.




I’m not the math guy. [CHUCKLE]


After two years at UH, Warren Nishimoto wanted to sample life outside Hawaii, so he went to the University of Illinois and wound up majoring in history. The course of study was mostly what he called book history, memorizing names and dates, and learning about famous people.


At that time, I selected history because that’s the one field that I had the most credits in. And now, remember, this is the late 60s, now, this is Vietnam. And so, we needed to stay in school if we wanted to not get drafted.


What about that whole time of rebellion and revolt, and dissatisfaction with the way things were?


That was right at that time.


And did that affect you? How did that affect you?




Were you wearing your headband and your beads?


Yeah, yeah; my hair was about this long. I was part of that, I was part of the Asian American Student Alliance. Demonstrations, protests, we sat in at the [INDISTINCT] Union which was a union all because they were bringing in ROTC recruiters. So we sort of sat there, and then the cops would come with the bullhorn and say, If you don’t get up, if you don’t leave in five minutes, you’re going to get arrested.


Did you think the war in Vietnam was inherently wrong?


Yes. I did.


Warren Nishimoto graduated from the University of Illinois in 1972. Then he returned home to Honolulu, and worked at various jobs that did not require a college degree, like driving a truck for Duty Free Shoppers and unloading Matson containers for the Honolulu Sake Brewery.


Were you trying to earn tuition money for your—




—next venture?


To eventually go to University of Washington. But not in history, though. I wanted to go to Washington to get a degree in communications, so that I could be a sports announcer. How do you like that? So I went to University of Washington and enrolled in the School of Communications, master’s program. Well, I didn’t get a master’s to be a sports broadcaster.




I don’t know. See, I just didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t like it. It was much too theoretical for me, and I didn’t need all of this theory. I just wanted to learn how to talk good.




So I dropped out of that, and I ended up going back into history. So I ended up in Asian history.


You were a good student, I bet.


No. I wasn’t a good student. I was a average student.


But you liked going to school.


Yeah. I guess I was competent. I wasn’t a good test taker, I was an okay writer. But I think it was the idealism of the 60s that sort of fueled me into continuing in the humanities, rather than going into business or something else.


So, then you get your master’s degree, and then what?


So I came back to Hawaii in 1977. And guess where I worked? Iida’s. [CHUCKLE]




I started working at Iida’s, and I was doing a lot more than just doing what I was doing when I was a kid. I wasn’t in the back anymore. I was out there, and you know, I liked dealing with customers, I liked to tell them about the background of a certain item, vase. I started to learn a lot about that. That was interesting. So from ’77 throughout the 80s, even when I started at the Center for Oral History, I was working at the store at night. That was something to do, but yet, at the same time, I knew it wasn’t something I was gonna do for the rest of my life.


But now, you say you did get a job at the Center for Oral History. How did that happen?


That happened in 1979. There was an ad for a researcher/interviewer for the Center for Oral History. It was called the Ethnic Studies Oral History Project back then. It’s part of the Ethnic Studies Program at UH Manoa. When you’re a history major, and you see a job with the word history in it, you jump at it. Okay; it just leaped out at me, and it says, Ethnic Studies Oral History Project. I ignored the oral part.




I’ll go apply. And so, when they explained to me what it was, it was conducting life history interviews with ordinary people about their life experiences. And you put those histories together—that’s what they were doing, putting it together, and that would be another source for future researchers to go to, to understand Hawaii’s history. So in other words, instead of reading a book by a historian about pineapple cannery work, you talk to the pineapple cannery worker. Right? What a revelation to me. I mean like, wow, that’s history. And so, this divide that I had between classroom history and my own history, started to come closer and closer together. Because now, I’m talking to people like my parents, like my father, about pineapple cannery work, pineapple field work, sugar plantation work, fishing, farming, longshoring, homemaking … all that kinda stuff. And so, that’s what the Ethnic Studies Program was. Their slogan was, Our History, Our Way. And when you think about that slogan, it’s very true. It’s not history written by an outside historian who comes to Hawaii and writes the history of Hawaii. It’s talking story with the people who actually lived history. And I thought that was the greatest thing.


And you’d only been into book history before this.


That’s right.




That’s right. When I came to apply for the job, it was a fulltime researcher job. And I’m sitting there waiting to be interviewed, and then a woman walks in and sits down next to me, and I introduce myself, she introduces herself. And she says, Oh, I’m applying for this job. And I said, Oh, yeah? So am I. Okay; so, well, nice to meet you, and so forth, good luck. So we both interviewed, and it turned out that the director, Chad Taniguchi, liked both of us. Well, she’s my wife now. [CHUCKLE] He couldn’t decide, so he split the job in half, and he gave me half the job, and gave her the other half.


And it became a part-time gig now, right?


Right; part-time gig, and so we both constituted one fulltime person. So that’s how we got together.


So that became your life’s work. You’re still there after all these years, and obviously, she’s been your wife of all these years.




And you finally got a fulltime position, and so did she; right?


Yes. Right. Right; right, right, right. Yeah.


But you’re both still there.


We’re both still there.


So, who becomes the boss?


Well, depends on how you define boss. But as far as the hierarchy is concerned in terms of the UH and so forth and so on, I’m the director, and she is the research associate.


How did that get settled?


It hasn’t. [CHUCKLE] No, it’s okay. Sometimes some people say, How can you work with your spouse? Yeah? A I just say, Well, you just go with it, and hopefully you agree on things without having it being said, and you move in the same direction. That’s essentially what it is.


And that’s what happened?




What’s the most amazing oral history you’ve ever taken?


I can’t really name one. I can talk about my very first. This was back in the 70s when I first got hired, and my assignment was to go to Wahiawa and find a fieldworker, pineapple fieldworker. So, I contacted a woman, her name was Motoe Nihei. I still remember her name. And I went to her home in Whitmore Village. And I was nervous. She’s sitting there, and she’s never been interviewed before. In fact, she told me, Why do you want to interview me for? I just worked out in the fields for fifty years. Why don’t you go interview Spark Matsunaga or Dan Inouye? That’s the real history, right? I said, No, no, we want to talk to people like you, who worked out in the fields. So, okay. So she’s sitting there, and I could see she was sort of kinda nervous. But here I am, kinda shaking as I’m pressing the button. And she says, Let me help you.




And she’s, I think it’s this red button over here. So she goes, tchk. Okay; you can start.




I’m the one that’s supposed to be the cool composed person. But she taught me a lot that day.


That would be just the first of countless interviews Warren Nishimoto has conducted over the course of his career. His colleague and wife, Michi Kodama Nishimoto, also goes out and gathers these precious accounts.


Tell us how your family developed. You got married a couple years after you worked together at the Center?


Yeah; we started in 1979, and we got married in 1984.


Oh, what was the delay?


Well, we needed to know each other. [CHUCKLE]


But you were seeing each other all the time. [CHUCKLE]


That’s true. When we say that we celebrated our twenty-something anniversary not too long ago. And we would tell people, Well, it’s actually our fiftieth, because we spend, twenty-four hours a day with each other, as opposed to most couples that spend maybe half that. Right?


Do you have any advice for people who, twenty-four hours with your spouse, and a solid marriage. How do you do that?


Hm. [CHUCKLE] Maybe we gotta bring her along.




I guess, talk. Find common interests, and keep those common interests. Keep making them relevant to your life. And when our two boys came, we kept that going. We coached them in sports.


Both of you?


Well, yes and no. I was more the coach, she was more like the team mom kind of person, but we were—


But you did it together.


—always active. Yeah. We’ve tried to be a part of our sons’ lives as much as possible. We didn’t want to let work get in the way. We did our work, but we spent a lot of time as a family.


Did you talk together about what you wanted your family life to be like? Did you have a certain vision of it? Which was perhaps very different from your own family.
That’s right. Yeah. And that sort of drove me too, because my father was always pretty busy, my mother as well. So I didn’t consciously think it, but, it was on my mind that I wanted to make sure that I enjoyed raising children, and I’d be a part of their lives, their upbringing.


Hands-on dad?


Hands-on dad. Not a helicopter dad, but a hands-on dad. Yeah.


Neither of your sons went into business either.




Did you have a hand in that?


No; I never told them what to do.


But they’re attracted to humanities as well.


Yeah. Ben was a politics major at Occidental College, and Scott was an English major at UH Manoa. Both totally useless majors, just like their dad’s.


[CHUCKLE] And they’re both interested in nonprofit work.


I guess so. I guess so. They’re both socially conscious, socially aware. They have concerns about … maybe sometimes the direction that Hawaii is going. They have one eye toward the underdog as much as possible. So their world views and their ways of thinking reflects that concern.


You went through Lab School, K through 12. I believe your sons did too.


Right; both of them.


And of course, your career and your wife’s career have been at the UH Manoa. I’m surprised you don’t live near the campus.


[CHUCKLE] Isn’t that weird?


You’ve stuck to this area of Manoa for a long time.


Yeah. We can’t afford it. Yeah, it’s funny, because all these years, we were getting in the car and commuting, fighting traffic, dropping them off at the Lab School, and then we’d go to work. And then at the end of the day, same thing. The opposite. To someone who doesn’t do that, it must sound pretty weird, huh? [CHUCKLE]


You’ve lived in Aiea for a long time. What’s your favorite thing about your neighborhood?


I like the fact that it’s people like us. It’s people in the same socioeconomic situation, people that we could relate to. Because when we go out into the community, it’s because we’re walking our dogs, and most of the people we see out there are people walking their dogs. So it’s that security that you have something in common with someone else, with your neighbor or someone who lives down the street, and you can talk about it. And you can say, Well, how’s your dog doing? Well, my dog just came back from the vet’s, bla-bla-bla. It’s a comforting feeling, and I think everyone has that.


So you’ve actually stayed with what you pick early. Aiea long time, your career long time.


Yeah. I’m a pretty stable guy, I guess. [CHUCKLE]


[CHUCKLE] And then you laugh. [CHUCKLE]


Yeah. Well, yeah, I guess I’m, mm, stable guy, and I sought that for my family. You know, I think stability is a good thing.


What do you see in your future?


I’m gonna be retiring sooner, rather than later. I think it’s a young person’s job. In other words, when I started, I was in my thirties, and interviewing someone in their eighties about daily life, for example, was just a total education for me. Once my interviewees start to get to be my age, it’s time to turn it over to the next generation.


Even after he retires from the Center for Oral History, Warren Nishimoto would like to continue teaching, and grooming the next generation of oral historians. The many hundreds of interviews he’s conducted paint a rich and vivid picture of life in these islands from an era that’s already virtually unrecognizable to new generations. Together, these recorded interviews create a legacy that will inform Hawaii far into our future. The stories are shared with the public in the form of books, articles, exhibits, lectures, and even plays. And Warren Nishimoto has come to see his own ordinary family story as part of the island’s extraordinary history. For Long Story Short, and PBS Hawaii, I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou kakou.


For audio and written transcripts of this program, and all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit


I love reading your transcripts, because as the transcripts unfold, I find you asking exactly what I would want to know. And it’s just a gentle nudge. It’s not leading in any way. It’s just to kind of open it up a little bit, or remind that you know, we want to find out more about this. But it’s very unobtrusive. Is that what you’re aiming for?


Exactly. You’re actually a facilitator and a listener. That’s what makes a good interviewer. I’m not saying I’m the best interviewer, but I’ve learned over the years that the best interviewers are the best listeners.



Makia Malo



Original air date: Tues., Oct. 12, 2009


Sharing Stories of Hawaii and of Kalaupapa


Makia Malo is an award-winning, native Hawaiian storyteller who has traveled the world, sharing his stories about Hawaii and especially Kalaupapa, where he lived until recently. Makia talks about being diagnosed with Hansen’s disease and sent to Kalauapapa where he joined three other siblings. He also recalls some of his experiences there and how, after leaving Molokai and earning a degree in Hawaiian Studies, he met his wife Anne.


Makia Malo Audio


Download the Transcript




He’s a native Hawaiian storyteller, known internationally. His stories are personal, sometimes in pidgin English, and they’re always embellished for fun—mostly about growing up in Kalaupapa where he spent most of his youth as a Hansen’s disease patient. Elroy Makia Malo, next on Long Story Short.


Aloha mai kakou, I’m Leslie Wilcox. Welcome to “Long Story Short.” The Belgian priest, Father Damien, served people with Hansen’s Disease in Kalaupapa a full half-century before Makia Malo was banished there as a child. Yet Makia feels very close to Saint Damien across the span of time…because Damien treated patients like people. And even though there was no cure at that time for the dreaded disease, Damien was not afraid to embrace patients spiritually and physically. Makia Malo was once a boy living happily with his family in the Hawaiian homestead of Papakolea, near punchbowl national cemetery. He probably had leprosy or Hansen’s disease as we call it in Hawaii, years before it was diagnosed.


When we kids used to—we cut short through then, we ran around bare feet. We rarely wore shoes. At least I rarely did. And so what happened was, one day I stepped on this glass and I didn’t know.


How old were you then? Was that shortly before you went to Kalaupapa?


Oh, no. I was about third grade, maybe.


Because that’s one of the signs of Hansen’s Disease—




right? Loss of sensation.


Right. And so that was the first time. But then later on, under the same spot of my foot, I remember I went with Daddy up Tantalus, they had this place where they get the gravel from the kind of pumice from the lava flow. And they had—I guess they call it, black sand—way up Tantalus. And they would haul it off in these big trucks. So we went up there and I was running around inside. The next day, oh, my leg hurt so bad, and Daddy … I went to him, he called me out in the yard, we’re sitting on this table. He said, Look, eh, put your foot up on this table. And I see him sharpening his knife. And then he was prodding and probing at something, and then this darn thing hurt. It just popped out. And it was an ulcer, I didn’t know the word applied, but there was a hole under my heel. And after that, that took care of it, and it healed. And years later when I was Kalaupapa, I realized way back how young I was then, that the sign of the disease was already on me. I was losing sensation.


At what point did Hansen’s Disease come into your life? What do you remember?


When it first happened, I didn’t know what it was. Mama … one day, she said, Makia, tomorrow, you’re not going to school. I said, Oh yeah, Mama? How come? Never mind question. I always needed to know why about things. And the next day, Friday morning, Mama takes me and my kid brother, Pilipili, to the old Kapahulu Theater. Are you familiar with—


I remember, long time ago.






Okay; the Kapahulu Theater. And we went there, and the movie, I still remember until today; They Died With Their Boots On, when it first came out. And so we went to the movie, and then next, she took us to eat ice cream, and then she took us home. Next morning, we had to get on the car, my brother and I, and then I didn’t know Daddy went in the back of the car, and then he got in the car. I heard something slam behind. And then we were on the car, we were driving out. Mama didn’t say anything. And we went straight down to this place. I didn’t know it then, but this was the Kalihi Hospital. We drove right through the open gate and took a right, and then we took a left, and we stopped right in front of this long building. And then Mama says, Pilipili, get out this car, and you stand right here. She’s pointing right outside of her door. And Mama turns and looks behind, and goes like that. [INDISTINCT] And then he gets out of the car and closes the door and stands in front Mama. And then I hear the thing slam in the back again, and I see Daddy putting the small suitcase next to him. Then he gets around the car, get in, and we drive straight down, and turns around, and coming back, and my kid brother is like this; his face up in the sky, and he starts crying, the tears just come. And we were together so often, when one cry, the other one, oh, just automatically cried. And I’m crying; I’m calling, Pilipili, Pilipili. And he’s looking up the sky [INDISTINCT]. And what I saw next was this man coming off the porch of that long building, right across from where we dropped him off, and that man was walking on the steps to get him. And then we went home, and didn’t see him for almost a week.


What did your parents say to you? What happened?




Nothing? Did you say, Why are we leaving—




—Pili there?


No. Well, like I say, when I ask questions you know Mama’s response.


What little Makia Malo did not know, and what Mama was not saying, was that having Hansen’s disease or leprosy was actually considered a crime in Hawaii! If you had the disease, or even if you were suspected of having it, you had to turn yourself in, or you’d be arrested. Beginning in 1865, Hawaii law required that people with the disease, then incurable, be banished to Kalaupapa, an isolated peninsula on the island of Molokai. It was a place of no return.


And then when it happened to me, all Daddy said was, Makia, tomorrow … you’re not going to school. I said, Oh, how come, Daddy? Don’t ask questions.. I was thinking, oh, jeez, how come? So the next day, we got on the car, and we drove down to Dr. Chun Hoon’s office. He was the head of the Health Department at the time. And we stayed there for about two hours. But when we first got in, we sat down for a while, and then he came out and he took snips from our ears, taking blood sample. They nick the ear. And so he took the blood, and about two hours, we stayed there waiting, and waiting. And when he came out, he said, Oh, Mr. Malo, I got good news for you. You don’t have the disease, but I’m afraid your son, Elroy, does. And he has to go to Kalaupapa next week. He said, He has to go to Kalaupapa. And Daddy jumped up and he said, Doctor, I like my boy go Kalaupapa tomorrow to be with his brothers and sister. And Dr. Chun Hoon said, Oh, I’m sorry, Mr. Malo, the flight is full. But he can go next week Friday. But he go next week Friday, he can stay at home. But he cannot go to school. In my young mind, the only part I heard was I didn’t have to go to school.


And did anyone tell you they didn’t expect you to ever leave Kalaupapa, based on the state of the disease?


Oh, that’s what we were told.


You knew that, that—


Oh, yeah.


They were really banishing you as a kid.


Oh, yeah. But nobody said stuff like that to us. We were just there, we’re locked up. We were never told we had choices. And so for me, as I was a teenager, oh, god, I loved that place. I was doing more hunting than anything. Even if I didn’t catch anything, it didn’t matter.


Well, what exactly did you experience and know you were experiencing when you were in Kalaupapa?


Oh, I used to go hunting. I love hunting. And in [INDISTINCT] Valley, the first valley that’s directly opposite from the crater, oh, every day, I can go hunting, even if I had pain in my feet. And I had an ulcer under my heel, and I’d still go hunting, and I’m running in the dry riverbed, jumping on stone to stone. In the morning, I can run free, but by evening, I’m having so much pain that years later, I had five ulcers on my feet, three on one, two on the other. And so the dressings every day. And then we would try to take pain pills on days. The only thing we took [INDISTINCTI can’t think of the name.]


Codeine? No?


No, they never gave us codeine then.


Did you not feel the pain until it went deep?


Oh, yeah.




That’s right.


But in the beginning, you couldn’t feel it, because it was surface—


No, it—




Yeah, it wasn’t as bad. In the morning, I get up, there’s no pain, so I just get dressed, I go hunting. But when I come back from all that running, and climbing, I just get so much pain in the evenings. And that never stopped me from doing that kinda stuff. And then I’d jump in the water, and in salt water. That’s bad for the wound if you go swimming every day, because then, like running around up on the mountain, they don’t heal. And for years, I think no, not seventeen years. Maybe thirteen or fifteen years, I had those ulcers under my foot.


So you were a young guy living an active lifestyle—


Yeah, very. And we never had that kind place in Honolulu. No place to hunt. We used to go hunt for birds.


So you were going crazy with hunting, but meanwhile, the disease was making itself felt?




In the sense that you couldn’t feel in your outer extremities?


Yeah. The skin level, and being unaware of it. And there was no one telling you how to be careful. They don’t caution you about what things to do, what not to do.


I thought there were—


So I—


—medical people.


Oh, yeah, there were.


But they didn’t tell you about lifestyle—




—changes you should make?


No. And even the time too, I wouldn’t listen to them too.




But what I’m saying is that they never cautioned the new patients, no one was cautioned about doing things. It’s after you did it, and it happened to you; then they tell you, because you went—did this, and did that, and that’s why it happened. And that’s it.


So you learned by pain.


You learn it on your own, you had to. Because there wasn’t anything around to really stop you.


I’ve heard there was a needle test, to see if you’d lost sensation in your face, in your hands, your feet.


Yeah, they would do that at the hospital.


Your hands, you don’t have full fingers, right?


That’s right. Because I don’t feel, they were damaged. Starting a blister, and because they don’t feel, you keep using your hand. Even you have it dressed. Sometimes you get the pain, but it doesn’t last forever. And then next thing you know, you lose one finger, you lose the second finger, and you always have these slits on the bottom. Bottom of the base of the finger, in the palm. And ulcers in the feet. So those two places on the body suffer the most damages.


A drug cure for Hansen’s disease came to Kalaupapa in the late 1950s. It was great news for the newly diagnosed.   But for Makia Malo and those who developed the disease before the cure, the nerve and other physical damage to their bodies was irreversible.


Is going blind a—




—a common effect of Hansen’s Disease?


For many. Well, it’s one of the things. Not everybody came blind, but many.


When you felt yourself going blind, and knowing that others at the settlement tended to be shut-ins once they were blind, did you tell anyone?


No; not even the doctor.


You were trying to keep it a secret, so that you could be—


I didn’t know I was blind. And I thought this was just temporary. So the doctor asked me how I was doing. I said, Okay. A whole week, I couldn’t see. But like I say, in my mind was only temporary. So I find my way to the bathroom by just hanging onto the wall, and crossing the floor, by counting the doors where I know the bathroom is.




I go in the bathroom, I take a bath. And the soap, because my hand didn’t feel it, it kept dropping all over the damn shower while I’m taking a shower. Oh, god, was so hard. And then after that, I bathed in a bathtub.


So then, I’m in my bed. I’m thinking, how the heck I going tell my parents? Oh, man. Oh, jeez, I know. So that evening I got up, and I’m looking around. I listening, rather. Nobody in the hallway. I walk out to the hallway. I come by the nurse’s station, and nobody in there. And right across the nurse’s station right alongside the continuing hallway down to the outside is this pillar. I can see the light inside the telephone booth.




I walked straight to the light. I walked inside, close the door. I turned off the light, and I thought, How the heck I going call Mama them? And then I thought, I know what. When I used to dial, I didn’t even bother looking at the telephone, so I going try the same thing. I did and I got through. I said, Oh, Mama, Mama, this is Makia. Mama, can you and Daddy come down tomorrow? She said, Oh, yeah, okay, son. They came down and Daddy end up sitting at the end of the bed, Mama sits on my right. And Mama always did this; she sit by me and she grab my arm, she rubs my arm. You know, rubs my arm. And then I said, Mama, I have something to say. And Mama says, Yes, son. Mama, I blind. Yes, son. And keep rubbing. Mama, you heard me? She said, Yes, son. She continues rubbing; each time it’s getting harder and harder. Mama, Mama, I’m blind. And I could hear her sobbing and she was rubbing harder and harder. And my daddy, I can tell when he’s crying; he starts sniffling.




And that was how I told my parents how I was blind. And then I spent the rest of the time trying to figure out how to survive.


Makia Malo summoned up personal resilience and inventiveness, and he persevered. In 1971, after the drug cure, Makia bravely set off for Honolulu. He rented an apartment and earned a bachelor’s degree in Hawaiian studies, plus a teaching certificate. He also started his career as a Hawaiian storyteller. That’s when a cultural treasure whose name often turns up in recollections on this program, the late Auntie Nona Beamer, introduced Makia to somebody named Ann Grant. Indeed, Makia Malo fell in love with Ann. She had eyesight and she had never had Hansen’s disease…they got married.


Who made the first move?


Oh, her.




She wanted to take me to her apartment, and I was thinking, Oh, jeez, how I going get home? And anyway, she finally Auntie went tell me. She said, After we finished performing, Oh, Makia, I have to go to this, birthday party, so I going drop you off with Ann, okay? I said, Okay. She dropped me off with Ann. Went into the house, and Ann had these videos she wanted me to listen to. It was some professor. I forget what kind videos. And I was listening, and by the time I went back to Hale Mohalu, was after eleven. And it was from that day on. We just kept in touch and I just couldn’t see this Haole girl from the mainland. I thought she crazy.




I’m blind, I’m all jammed up. I have an embarrassing history. Didn’t matter to her. But I felt bad for her.


Sounds like she didn’t complain.




Her whole long marriage with you.


No, she didn’t complain. She got angry often. And now and then, I would get angry too. But she was my angel, man. Oh, god. What a life she helped me into.


Ann Grant Malo managed her husband’s career as a storyteller.


What kind of stories? Here’s one of his favorite tales…he’s refined it over the years.


It came out of one of the kids asking me one day, and I was waiting for my turn. ‘Cause Ann was starting to talk to open up our program. And this young boy asking me, Why you wearing dark glasses? I said, What? Why you wearing dark glasses? And I didn’t know what to say. I said, Oh you wouldn’t want to know. And then I walked away. And then I kept thinking about it, then I had a fabulous line. And my line was, The reason why I’m wearing dark glasses is that I’m so ugly, I stop traffic. And the kids all laugh. I say, You guys believe me? No. I say, Oh, good. If you guys believe me, then I no can tell you the story. But if you no believe me, then I gotta prove it to you guys, right? And when I say, right, I waiting for answer. Then the kids, they start thinking. Oh … something up, you know. [chuckle] And so then, that’s when I really pace. So here’s what I—I going count ‘til three. If you’re not scared, please look and enjoy yourself. But please, if you’re scared, please do not look. And by this time, I told them guys and they were kinda scared already. By this time, I says, Oh, by the way, you boys, if you’re scared, you can jump in the girls’ lap.




Ann told me after that, the girls all grabbed their chairs—




—moved to the other end of … so when the time, I started counting. Oooooone …




Twoooooooooo …




I scream. Oh, they all scream.




Then I yank off my glasses and they look at me.


What’s the biggest mistake people make when they’re reacting to someone who, today, is a former patient?


Well, it’s not only us. The same thing happened to those who had AIDS. Another of that kind of contagion, you know. But for us we ended up in the Bible. And that’s where so many people, I believe, use that as almost like a right to call us by that L-word.


I know what the L-word is.




I think the reason it is such a horrible word to residents and patients of Kalaupapa is because it describes a person in terms of the disease.


Right; right. You’re not a person anymore; you’re a disease.


What about the term leprosy, the disease?


Well, they know the word. They know the word, but that other word describes you.


So calling the disease leprosy or Hansen’s Disease, no big deal. But it’s describing—


The person.


—the person as a leper.




Has somebody said to you, You leper? Have they done that?


Not me personally, but describe me as part of Kalaupapa. You lepers of Kalaupapa.


Do you say anything when they say that? Do you correct them?


Oh, yeah.


What do you say?


I cuss them all out by saying, F you.


Very succinct. [chuckle]


Yeah. And I say, you and your family too.


It’s that terrible a word.


Oh, it is.


‘Cause it reduces you to a disease.


To a disease. And it’s out of hate or fear. It’s not because they embrace anything. Just because hate or fear, that’s it.


These days, the disease that for so long separated so many Hawaii families is treated in office visits, with drug therapy. But patients say the stigma remains. Thank you Makia Malo, for your candor, and thank you for watching Long Story Short. For PBS Hawaii, I’m Leslie Wilcox.   A hui hou kakou.


But at the time the patients have all passed, and it is what would you like to see happen to the settlement?


My preference is that Kalaupapa go back to the Hawaiians, as intended. When the program started to take over Kalaupapa, the Health Department, no, I think the Homestead program offered the Hawaiians who were given designated spots in Kalaupapa. They gave them homes on other islands.


I see.


Wherever—whichever island they wanted.



Maile Meyer



Original air date: Tues., Dec. 14, 2010


Building a Hawaiian Community of Artists and Storytellers


Growing up in Kailua, Maile Meyer was surrounded by a family that embraced anyone who walked through their door. Now, as the owner of Native Books, Maile has taken that tradtion of gathering and applied it to building a Hawaiian community of artists and storytellers.


Maile Meyer Audio


Download the Transcript




My sisters and I, we’re our self-entertaining unit. We—




—were our teammates, we were our confidants, we were our competitors, we were our friends, and our helpmates, and my parents made a beautiful lifestyle for us where we could all grow up together.


What determines who we are, the people we become? Is it our heritage? Is it our surroundings? In the story of native Hawaiian bookstore owner and retail entrepreneur, Maile Meyer, a strong, close-knit family provided the foundation for her life. But it wasn’t until she embraced her Hawaiian ancestry that Maile Meyer became the person she is today.


Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawaii’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in high definition.


Aloha mai kakou; I’m Leslie Wilcox. When you hear the word, gathering, what comes to mind? Your family? Your community? Your culture? What Maile Meyer sees when she envisions a gathering is all that. For this strong-willed, multidimensional Hawaiian woman, who launched such groundbreaking businesses as Native Books, Na Mea Hawaii, and Bookends, the concept of gathering has been her lifelong companion.


So many people know at least one member of your family; one of the—




—M’s or the—




—L. How did that happen? Tell us about your siblings, and your family.


Oh; thank you. Malia, Mele, Maile, Moana, Manulani, Luana, and Maui are the seven children of Harry and Emma Meyer. And my mother is an Aluli.


Now, you have one sister who’s an L; the rest are all—




—have names that start with M.


Yes; and we just learned the stories, whenever we learned them. But we learned the story that there was a kupuna who was a Chinese woman, who told my mother, just asked, Why do you want to have so many girls? Don’t you want a son? Because, obviously, in the Asian culture, sons are so important. And my mother said, Why do you say that? And this woman said, Well, it’s because you keep naming your daughters—your children M. Whatever the superstition. So this woman said, Name your next child with something else. So Luana was born, the sixth girl. And then, number seven was Maui. So all of us, we lived in a compound. My mother was much more, what’s a good word … it just worked better that we were all there in this little nest. And so we lived alongside the canal in Kailua, right next to all of my aunties and uncles on my Aluli side. Every time when we had dinner, someone was at the table that wasn’t related to us. And they were always part of the family, or cousins, or relatives. I mean, it was a Hawaiian style. My mother didn’t necessarily connect to her Hawaiianess by name, but she exhibited qualities that really were all about what we as a people feel. So the inclusiveness, family was a very loose definition; it was anyone that entered into your sphere. And so, we hanai’d all kinds of different people who lived with us when they needed a place to stay.


What was your dad like?


My father was from the Midwest, and really wanted to get away, and get to a place of warmth, and an island. He had a vision of going to a place warm and far away from where he was. And he was in a small town, and he lost both of his parents at an early age, so he was very independent, and jumped on a—he was drafted and went off to Hawaii, and got off that ship, and was able to stay home with some finagling, stay in Hawaii. And he just was a man who believed that his daughters could do anything. He was really, really supportive of us being our own people, and independent thinkers. And when he showed up we had a very long driveway from where the garage was. And the minute we heard his car door slam, my sisters and I would race to see who could get to our father first to get a big hug. ‘Cause he worked really hard, but he really supported travel. We saw slaughterhouses and orchards, and machine shops, and places where he could show us how things were made, constantly educating us through experiencing things. He really fostered creativity, as my mother did, in the way we played with each other, the way we lived in our neighborhood.


Now, didn’t your mother lose her parents early, too?


She did. Her mother died when she was three, and her father died when she was six. And she was raised by the Sacred Hearts nuns in Nuuanu, and by her older sister, Alai, and Aima, actually, Auntie Aima. So they had that in common. So they didn’t have a lot of—my kinda broke the mold for themselves. They didn’t have an idea of what parenting looked like. But that idea of—there was discipline, and there order, and structure, and lots of classes to learn to sing, and dance, and read, and elocution, and I mean, it was hysterical, the things—




—that my parents tried out on us. They wanted a big family.


Did they speak of arts?


Oh, all the time. My mother—ever since we were little, we were the full class, because there were six of us. We took all kinds of painting, and drawing. And my sister Mele had a kiln by the time she was ten. And my mother had the Young of Heart Workshop and Gallery, which was a not-for-profit in Kailua, attached to St. Anthony’s Church. And she had about thirty volunteers there, and all my sisters and I set up chairs, took them down, we helped to teach classes. We did anything and everything she wanted. And so we grew up around artists, and art. And my sister Mele is a practicing artist and art educator. Moana is an artist, Luana is a teacher, Malia was a nurse, my sister Manu was an educator, and creativity is kind of at the core. Creative thinking and problem solving is kind of embedded in our family. And we all tend to work for ourselves, because my father and my mother were very entrepreneurial and independent.


What’d your dad do?


My father ran a lot of little businesses until he landed in a collaboration with my Uncle Kepp, who built something—a hotel called the Hawaiiana. Uncle Kepp was a developer of small, fabulous projects all over the islands. He was amazing. And he built The Hawaiiana. And he was not a good hotel operator, and my father was. So my father ran The Hawaiiana for about eighteen years, with my mother at home with all of us in Kailua. And he did a phenomenal job. He hired all Hawaiians. I mean, George Naope was the first hula show at The Hawaiiana. Iolani Luahine used to go there. I mean, all the women and men who were part of the Hawaiian entertainment movement in the 50s all did shows around the pool.


Is this The Hawaiiana Hotel that was in—


On Beachwalk.


—existence until recently?




A low—




—key, low stories.


On Beachwalk, by The Breakers.


And that retained its appeal, although lost some of its luster—


Yes, yes.


—even into the 2000s.


Exactly. In the 50s and everyone who was there, who was a guest, became part of our family. So they would come in the summertime. My father would take them by bus to our home, and we would—




—do hula for them, we cooked for them, we cleaned for them. We did all the—we just—they became beloved. And we would visit them. Those were the days when people came to Hawaii, could have access to Hawaiians and local families, and that’s the way they were treated, like family.


Despite instilling a strong sense of family in their children, Harry and Emma Meyer didn’t raise them to stay close to the nest. Soon, it was time for Maile Meyer to go away for college; and when she did, she had one overpowering criterion.


I just wanted to go where it was warm. So I didn’t really get that—you know, the Stanford energy was a Stanford energy. It was the warmest school that I got into. So I went. And I had a sister, Mele, who was there, so we both were at Stanford. And I had a fabulous, fabulous time there. I just am completely engrossed by whatever I’m doing, so I was so naïve, coming from Hawaii. Oh, my god. And people were blown away at how naïve I was. I would jump on my bike with my swimsuit, and go to the pool, and people would look at you like, Why are you wearing your swimsuit? You wear your swimsuit at a pool, you don’t go to the pool in it. Or I’d buy people ice cream, and they would be weirded out. I don’t know you, how come you’re buying me ice cream?




Why are you smiling so much? I mean, there was a real cultural process that I had to understand. That people from Hawaii, we want to include, it’s our nature. And in different places, people don’t necessarily want all that loving on. [CHUCKLE]


How did that affect what you did?


I was misunderstood a lot; believe me. But because I knew at my core that’s who I was, I just held steady, and did what I did. And people were always commenting about, That Hawaiian girl. And I didn’t really associate myself ethnically as a Hawaiian at that point in time.


Why not?


Because during that time period, in the 70s, I learned Hawaiian. I took a Hawaiian history class at Punahou. It was taught by the band teacher, from Michigan. And so, it was a totally throw-away focus at Punahou during that time.


What about your parents? Your mom was Hawaiian.


Well, of cour—but we were raised—my mother’s father—so many Hawaiians passed during the turn of the century, and there was so much pain with the overthrow. My grandfather decided that in order to survive, he needed to Westernize, but never left the core of who he was as a Hawaiian. He wanted to adapt. So he was the first Hawaiian that got a law degree, from Michigan and Yale. He went and got all the palapala that you needed, all the paperwork to say that you could come compete, and you could be part of the system, because he knew it was a system that was going to help his people; or so he thought. But he could never get on the bench, he could never get a judgeship, and he was very disillusioned by that. But he was raised my mother, went to the Royal Hawaiian to learn how to—or the Moana to learn how to eat artichokes properly, and hold her teacup right. So it was a very difficult time to be a Hawaiian, the turn of the century. But did my mother always pray and include others, and her generosity and her aloha spirit? Those were Hawaiian things that she didn’t necessarily identify as Hawaiian—she was Hawaiian-Chinese. But they clearly were; that was where they came from.


So here you are at Stanford University. What did you take up? Were you like so many people at that age who say, Well, we’ll see what happens after the first two years of the—




—core requirements?


When you’re in an environment where there’s so much learning that you can do, it was such a joy to just fill the days with all kinds of classes across all kinds of disciplines. And I ended up staying in the arts, because it was just an extension. I could be creative. In other words, I’m kind of web thinker, so there’s not one solution set for me, and the arts were a place where I could come up with lots of solutions to any one problem. So I did a lot of photography and design, and then went and studied over in Italy, and had an incredible time. I did a study on contemporary art in a medieval city, in renaissance city, and there wasn’t any. I mean, it was literally underground. And it was things like umbrellas stuck in fruit. You know, that was like the best that they could do in the 70s. But I loved the arts, and gravitated towards those things, and really enjoyed my time in that department.


Then you went over to the other side of your brain, and you got an MBA in arts management.


I did. Which was such an interesting experience, because the people I were with were ballet dancers, and museum painters and artists that weren’t good enough to do the thing.


Is that true? Do you mean that seriously?




Or are you being modest?


You know what? I didn’t choose that. You have to be really fearless to be an artist in today’s world, because creative people aren’t supported, whether you’re a musician or a dancer, an artist, or a writer. Those are paths that you feel compelled to do, because it’s soul work that you’re doing. So that character, I was always better in a support role.


And by now, you’re at UCLA for your—


I’m at UCLA.




Yes. And I met my husband, Michael, at Stanford. He was from the East. Very buttoned down and formal. And I was shorts and slippers, and the same tee-shirt kinda thing. And then he went to UCLA Law School, and then I went to UCLA Biz School. So we took the bus together with our brown bag lunches, and were graduate students together. But the business school, we had much better parties than the law school. So [CHUCKLE]—


Important distinction.


Absolutely. It was much more fun to be in business school. And everybody went off, migrated to Wall Street, and then the arts community, we all went into things that were much more creative. And so I got to work for the Olympic Arts Festival in the Olympics, which was fabulous.


What did you do for them?


I was a venue accountant at all of the Olympic Arts Festival started the LA Arts Festival that’s been around since1984. So it brought in incredibly creative acts from all over the world. So we handled all the box offices. So myself and six other arts management graduates, we had badges that let us in anywhere, to see anything. And then when the shows were done, we handled all the tickets and the accounting. And then I migrated over to the Olympics, and I was head of the payroll for the Olympics, while the Olympics were going on.


Sounds like a dream job.


It was hysterical. I was younger by—we had all these accountants in suits, sitting on long rows, trying to process payroll from all the venues. And they put me in charge of all of them. It was ridiculous. [CHUCKLE]


Why was it ridiculous?


Because I was really young, and I was a minority woman. And it was bizarre. And I had a great time. We ran out of money one day; I told them, Take your ATM cards, get it out of the machine. I mean, because you could come up with different ideas, if people trusted you. And Peter Roth was a man who went to whoever had the competency. So he let—


He came to you?


Well, he let all of the arts people, all of the venue accountants, we all ended up getting placed in different areas. And so ran payroll until I went to work for Chiat/Day. But it was like being in a war. I mean, we did whatever it took to pay these people, and it was very bizarre, but it was lots of fun.


The Olympics doesn’t last forever, unfortunately.


No, it didn’t.


So then, what did you do?


Then, I went to work for Chiat/Day.


And what is Chiat/Day?


Chiat/Day was an advertising agency that, I think, I was the seventy-fifth employee, and I think there’s ten, fifteen, twenty thousand of them now. But we worked out of the old Biltmore Hotel down in Waikiki—I mean, hello, down in Los Angeles. So I was an account executive for them.


And whose accounts did you handle?


I started with Nike, and then I worked on the Apple account, and Pizza Hut, and lots of different accounts; mostly Nike. In the 80s, at the Olympics, Lee Clow did all the creative, and so I got to work directly with an amazing man.


So he’s a certified genius, isn’t he?


He is. And if you saw him, you’d think he was a homeless man. When I first met him, I couldn’t believe that he was the creative genius. And he was a pure creative genius. And inside his jacket, whenever we went anywhere, were all the things that he had to remember. Because he couldn’t remember them; he was too busy getting a great idea out of that light bulb over there.


Working in the 1984 Olympics, being part of a successful advertising agency, with Nike and Apple as your clients; for most people, that’s a career. For Maile Meyer, there was a higher calling.


At that point, having that much fun, did you intend to stay in advertising in LA?


The advertising business in the 80s, when I left towards the end of the 80s, it was intense. People were doing all kinds of crazy things, and they were producing bad work. And so, my creative team—I couldn’t go up and sell bad work, ‘cause it wasn’t that creative, that one window of time. So I decided to leave. Because I would much rather have been creative, than someone selling someone’s work. Just because you worked at a creative place did not mean you were creative. So I started doing some game development with one of my brother-in-laws in LA, and I went and traveled. My husband was working really hard at a law firm, and so I left and went to Europe and dug ditches, and planted in orchards, and spent time with a really good friend of mine, who was a landscape architect, and traveled, just to kind of let go of that workaholic … ‘cause Chiat/Day, we worked twenty-four/seven. And then we came home, ‘cause it was time to kind of connect to a community. I loved LA. I love lots of choices, to be able to reorder the universe. But Michael, that’s not his idea of good time, so it was time to move back to community.


How did you know that Michael would love living in Hawaii? After all, he wasn’t of this place, and he—


Well, you know—


—was from the East Coast.


Yeah. Well, you can’t talk people to into living on islands. So it was his decision to come home.




Yeah. Because he’s a community person, so he wants to run into people you know on the streets. I love wherever I am, so I was so happy. But I couldn’t make the decision to come home. That was not my decision to make. And he was so happy. He tells a story about being at Aloha Stadium, at a game, a football game with my father. And the people behind were very concerned when it started to rain, and kind of reached over and covered him with an umbrella, and the announcer said, Make sure you don’t block anybody’s view. And it just seemed so kind and gentle, and he was really, really taken by that, and wanted to live in place where people at a stadium, filled with thousands of strangers, could still be kind.


When you moved back to Hawaii, did you think about advertising? You had some great experience, some nice cred in advertising.


[CHUCKLE] Well, I always laugh, because I went to Bishop Museum Press, thinking it was publicity press. I mean, what an idiot.


But it was a printing press.


Printing. So as I was talking to the production guy, he’s sitting there, and I’m noticing multiple titles of the same book, faded ad then more. And I thought, Oh, my god, they’re publishers, and those are different editions of books. But I was hired at Bishop Museum for half of what I was making in Los Angeles. We’re retro yuppies, Michael and I. We’ve always taken jobs where we get paid less every time. And so I went to the Bishop Museum Press, because it wasn’t about the money, it was about the experience and connecting to the Museum.


Did you realize you had changed substantially when you came back?


I did, through the eyes of others. And it was interesting, because I was hired from the mainland by Dr. Duckworth, who hired me because he didn’t know that I was Hawaiian. ‘Cause when I came back, I was one of the highest, whatever tiered, because that was not the time. When still, Hawaiian—the incredible Hawaiian leaders were—that was the day when Manu Boyd was on the switchboard, and Pat Bacon was using Correct-O-Tape and typing. These people were not being valued at all.


Are you saying that Dr. Duckworth did not know you were Hawaiian, and that was a good thing in his mind?


He didn’t know, and if he did, he may not have hired me. I don’t know. But it was the strangest thing, to come and see these incredible resource people not being valued for who they really were. And as Hawaiians, we’re waiting; we’re not trying to assert. And Koko Willis, the head of Molokai Clan, he was the janitor. He could have run the museum, for god’s sake. But because I had credentials. Probably the only time I ever tell people where I went to school is when I absolutely, positively have to. Because it doesn’t matter. But it mattered to him, and that’s how I got the job.


Stanford and UCLA.








And meanwhile, you’re going through this acculturation period again, where you’re getting back to your Hawaii roots. How did that change process go for you?


Like everything, you just start to laugh. It was funny. Because I just didn’t know what I was talking about, I didn’t fit in. And I had to learn humor, laugh about the mistakes that I made. And not knowing how to pronounce Hawaiian words properly, being in places, and especially when I started Native Books, because I took books out into community all the time. And one of the places that helped the most for me was going to the Hawaiian Leadership Development Program, which my sister Manulani, at the University of Hilo, that’s how Native Books started. And I went there for years beforehand, and then started Native Books, but learned to be in community again. To actually be with other Hawaiian people, and people who were serving the Hawaiian community. And so, learning through being, and doing, and gathering, was the right way to do it. From community.


So there you were now, this is your first your business, Native Books.


M-hm. My daughter Emma, who’s twenty now, she came with me, and she was six months old. We went to Manu’s. The Leadership Conference was in one big room. I had a table in the back where I had brought books in order to help pay for our airfare, and a little ordering sheet, and I passed Emma along to the Hawaiian to my right, and children are communal property, in the best sense of the word. So everybody loved on Emma. And I looked up, and I saw her being passed around the room. And I kept writing orders, and I came back with a hundred orders, and my first person to help me was my mother, sitting across a desk. And that’s how Native Books was started, with family. Family being there, family supporting, family just helping in every, and any way. That’s how I started.


And nobody trying to collect a paystub over it.


No. [CHUCKLE] That wasn’t the idea.


Your approach to business has never been conventional. What is your approach?


I think if I was told that I was in retail, I would be unnerved by that. Because I don’t want to be in the exchange of goods. That’s not what I do. What I do is, I create and hold space for relationships to develop between people, between knowledge and access to knowledge, and opportunity for people to share and be a resource to each other. So books are a form of that delivery of knowledge, but so are conversation and time spent in practice. So just being a resource for a community is really what I’ve wanted to be, and to do it with people who want to have that model, where money is a very low frequency kind of method of exchange. It’s for people who don’t know each other, and then you can barter, which is a wonderful thing that’s coming back. I mean, now, all kinds of things are being traded. We have fish, dried fish and poi on Friday that comes from Keoki Fukumitsu, and people will come, and we’ll trade them if they want a bag of poi, and they want to drop off something. There’s other ways, we can be an exchange.


But how does that translate into the dollars and cents of the IRS?


M-hm. Well, communities support us, so people come, and when they need to buy something, they buy something; but they don’t come to Native Books just to buy something. They come to learn something, they come to get advice on something, they come to hear Hawaiian, they come to watch and participate at a reading, or we recently had an event where I was giving away a very beloved book on The Duke. It was published by the only native Hawaiian publisher, Top Down Publishing. And the books had been remaindered, and I bought them so that they wouldn’t be destroyed, because they had value to me. And I gave them away based on people’s ability to write me a story about a Hawaiian that inspired them. So you couldn’t buy the book, or put a silly price, because it wasn’t about buying the book. It was about sharing a story, and sharing a resource to an inspiring Hawaiian, The Duke. So I can do that when it’s my own business. I can’t do that with every product, but I can do that with some things. I can give away things, I can make them have less monetary value, I can make them have more monetary value. You can buy a poi pounder at Na Mea Hawaii, but if you are a practitioner, you will pay half of what you would pay if you’re putting it on your shelf. So if we use the things that we value in the ways where they can be helpful to community and be of service, they have a different price on them, to me.


Yeah, there are times when one passes your store, where you can’t tell that it is a retail operation.


Yeah, yeah.


It’s a … kumu are teaching, and reading is being done. It just—




—seems like a place of free-flowing knowledge.


Those are happy days for me, ‘cause then I know it’s working, ‘cause people are in many forms of learning and growing. And the Hawaiian word for learning and teaching is ike or ao; you can do both. You can be a teacher, and a learner. And if we can be that way for each other, then there’s some real dynamic in relationship that happens. So that’s the kind of place I want to be, and I want to figure out what that form looks like as we move ahead in time, because twenty years from now, who knows if there will be bookstores, or what form the books will take. But I know the sharing of wealth and knowledge, that will still be a need. So how can Native Books and Na Mea Hawaii kind of address that need? Maybe kupuna are always gathered there, and people can talk directly, or there’ll be people learning from kupuna. There are so many forms that it can take. So I’m looking forward to what’s gonna be happening next.


For some, the concept of gathering a community that shares and trades ideas, services, and goods is not the ideal retail model. But that doesn’t matter to Maile Meyer; she wouldn’t have it any other way. For Long Story Short, and PBS Hawaii, I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou kakou.


For audio and written transcripts of this program, and all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit


My sister Manu, my sister Mele, Moana, Luana, Maui; all of us in our own way, we reach out in the ways we were raised, and there’s a lot of pushback, because people don’t want to be kissed if they don’t know you. They don’t want you to buy them something and tell them, Oh, don’t worry, you can pay me back. ‘Cause they don’t want you to do that, they have a different construct. But we’re Hawaiians in our land, and we can celebrate generosity, and kindness, and respect for our people, and for others, without having to feel like if I want to give away something, I can, it’s my store. If I want to share something, I can.


Puakea Nogelmeier



Original air date: Tues., Nov. 3, 2009


Advocating and Promoting the Hawaiian Language


A year out of high school, Marvin Nogelmeier arrived in Hawaii on his way to Japan and stayed on a whim. Whether by happenstance or destiny, over thirty years later he has become Puakea Nogelmeier, Hoku-award winning songwriter, Kumu Hula, and Associate Professor of Hawaiian Language at the University of Hawaii. He tells Leslie about some of the choices he made, how they led to a career advocating and promoting the Hawaiian language, and how he got his name.


Puakea Nogelmeier, Advocating and Promoting the Hawaiian Language Audio


Download: Puakea Nogelmeier, Advocating and Promoting the Hawaiian Language Transcript



Original air date: Tues., Mar. 16, 2010


Puakea Nogelmeier on the Hawaiian Language:


In part two of her interview with the Hawaiian language scholar, Leslie Wilcox talks with Puakea Nogelmeier about this thirty years of work perpetuating an appreciation of the richness and intricacies of the Hawaiian language and culture. They also discuss the herculean task of translating into English the 500 page “Epic Tale of Hi’iakaopoliopele,” and Puakea’s collaboration with others to translate into English many 19th and 20th century Hawaiian newspaper articles and put them online. Puakea also explains the true meaning of the word kaona (it’s not what most people think), and what it’s like to be the voice of The Bus.


Puakea Nogelmeier on the Hawaiian Language: Audio


Download: Puakea Nogelmeier on the Hawaiian Language: Transcript




I say to people that Hawaiian is an easy language to learn. But it’s a really difficult language to learn well.


How did a restless young man from Minnesota become one of Hawaii’s leading Hawaiian language scholars? Next on LONG STORY SHORT, the remarkable journey of former post office worker Marvin Nogelmeier, now Dr. Puakea Nogelmeier.


Aloha Mai Kakou, I’m Leslie Wilcox.


In this edition of LONG STORY SHORT…Puakea Nogelmeier, Hawaiian language advocate and teacher at the Manoa campus of the University of Hawaii for more than a quarter of a century. He was Marvin Nogelmeier when he landed in the islands on an adventure. He didn’t mean to stick around; Hawaii was supposed to be just a stop-over on the way to Japan.


But this is where he stayed.And it’s where the young man in his early twenties was singled out by one of Hawaii’s most respected Hula Masters ….


Well, the name was given to me by Maiki Aiu Lake, and it was her name. And it blindsided me [chuckle], and I didn’t understand it. I was in hula with one of her students from the first graduating class, Mili Allen, out in Waianae. Maiki used to borrow us; but we didn’t really know her. I mean, she was the mother.




She was the head of it all. And so she’d borrow the men dancers especially. So we had performed for her, there was thank you luau afterwards. And she’s the one talking, so we have to wait until Maiki finishes. And she’s thanking, seemingly, everyone in the Honolulu phone book. And then she launched in talking about the man with the spear, and I want you meet the man with the spear. Well, we had done hula it was done with a spear in hand. And so she starts going, So I want you to all meet Puakea. Puakea, stand up and show them who you are. Now, I’m three or four rows back. And she keeps pointing right to me, and going, Stand up—this is Puakea. And I’m still not standing up. And my hula brothers and sisters are going, Marvin, I think she’s talking to you. [chuckle] So I stand up with one of these, you know, you’re the wrong guy—




Or, it occurred to me, maybe she just got me confused with someone else.




So I’m blushing to the roots of my hair. And she goes on real naturally; This is Puakea, and he’s out in Waianae, and he’s dancing with Mili, and so I sit down, totally befuddled. And we go to leave and we’re gonna ask about, by the way, I’m [WHISPERS] Marvin.




And from across the way, she goes, That was my name when I entered the hula, and now it’s your name.


What an honor.


It’s an honor, and it’s part of her method. ‘Cause then we all get in the car, and my kumu now is left to explain all that. So I’m thinking, It can’t be my name, I was born Marvin.




And so Mili explained that that’s a really heavy thing, to gift a name, and to gift her own name. And so from now on, that’s it. So in halau is where it started. I was always referred to Puakea. But it signifies, fair child, in effect. So I was the pale one in our line. That works. She never really explained why that name, or why she gave me her name. She just said, I expect you to do good things.


The fair child born as Marvin Nogelmeier spent his early years moving with his family throughout California and Nebraska, finally settling in Minnesota when he was seven. One year after high school and during a particularly vicious winter, he was persuaded by friends to quit his job at the post office and head off on an adventure to Japan with a brief stop in Honolulu.


Lost my wallet in the San Diego airport. So we had driven cross country, gone to San Diego. We had an airline ticket to as far as Honolulu. I would pick up passport here. I didn’t even have a license, I didn’t have my birth certificate, no money, really. I had my plane ticket.   So I came to Honolulu. Had to call and say, okay big adventurer, already blew it, lost my wallet.






Send money.


Yeah. Mom, get me a birth certificate. My money came first, birth certificate took probably a month. By the time the birth certificate came, it just seemed there was no rush to get to Japan. So put that off, and put that off.


Why did you decide to stay? What happened in that month?


Oh; from the airport, we ended up going out. We stayed at Makua Beach.


How did you—


It’s 1970—


—find you way to Makua Beach from the airport?


The two kids I’m traveling with actually knew people here. There was a Minnesota house at Makua Beach.




Mostly, this is a leftover—a lot of that was Vietnam War folks; guys who had come back.   They weren’t ready to go back to the states. And a whole bunch of folks ended up out there. So we end up in this handmade little, nadas in Makua Beach. I lived there for three months. Maybe the nicest three months of my life. Really. Just blissful ignorance. I didn’t read a newspaper, I didn’t think about anything. Just wandered along, enjoyed water, enjoyed sand. And I guess they would have thought of this as homeless, although it’s really the most organized homeless that I’d ever seen. There were full houses, fully equipped.


And this is right on the edge of the beach?


Right on the edge of the sand.




Up against the keawe trees and the haole koa.




And I mean, it was really a remarkable place. There were probably fifty people.


The Minnesota Hooch had two bedrooms. Two like formal [INDISTINCT] and a bunk bed.




I mean, made out of plywood, made out of leftovers that were found all over the place. Kept very tidy, actually. Full kitchen setup, dishes, everything. It’s not exactly the way the homeless are running today.




It did fall into decline, and by the late 70s, they were doing cleanups. It had gotten pretty … just a lot of rubbish, but it was actually tidy, nice place to be. The beach was pristine. Chilled there for three months. I actually got an infection on my foot, and had to go to the hospital. They would not let me out of the hospital if I didn’t have a residence. So I ended up moving in to Makaha; moved in with friends in Makaha.


Puakea Nogelmeier confesses that his first means of support in Hawaii was living off his unemployment checks. Then he linked up with a community of artists in Waianae and became a goldsmith.  


Oh; that was my career. That was something I could do for the rest of my life. And I’ve not done it now for thirty years. But who would have thought. And one of my co-crafts persons was Mililani Allen, who became my kumu hula. She did beautiful silk batik, with Hawaiian motifs and just beautiful things. But one day, she was talking about, Well, I’m teaching hula. We didn’t know she taught hula. And I want to open a men’s class, but guys are so gun shy, they won’t take it. And so we pretty much said, Well, you should open your class. We’ll take your class. And she said, Would you? Okay. So now we’re all committed, so her class of men started up with all these a motley crew of crafts people. They were not dancers.


What was the name of the halau?


Halau Hula O Mililani. [chuckle] Which—




—that was her name. She had been teaching maybe two years. She had graduated from Maiki Aiu Lake. She’d been teaching women, this very formal halau structure. Classes run for an hour once a week, et cetera, et cetera. So she opens the men’s class. Now, I gotta say, we were all dummies.




We didn’t know anything. I didn’t know any Hawaiian history. I didn’t know Hawaii had a kingdom, or kings. I didn’t even know they had a language. I came as an empty calabash. I’d been here for a while, but I learned Waianae stuff, not necessarily Hawaii stuff. So we step into class and it’s just a doorway to a whole new world I didn’t know was there. So while all the girls’ classes were an hour a week, the guys’ classes we’d start at six, we’d go ‘til midnight. ‘Cause we were so intrigued, and we were so empty. [chuckle] And so engaged. The halau became a social center—




—for us.


You were doing more than—dance, you were doing language?


Well, we were doing dance. And with dance, in the Maiki school of dance, you have to do research, and you have to—


I see.


—attempt translation, and you have to write notes for all your dances. You have to keep notebooks, there’s quizzes. It’s like an academy of dance, right? So we did that. So I started to learn language just sort of randomly. Then we started to learn chant. There was project in 1 75, 76 maybe, called The Mele Project. Keahi Allen, it was the board she was on. They felt that chanting was gonna go away, ‘cause the only ones who knew it were elders, and nobody was teaching it and it wasn’t seen. So they set up to have Edith Kanakaole and Edith McKinzie teach chanting to young people. To people that are involved in halau. I end up in a class. That’s fascinating stuff, the chants. They come from everywhere. Some of them are really ancient, some of them are more recent. That’s what led me into language. And there’s actually an epiphany that happens, ‘cause I have a good short-term memory, so I could look at a chant and memorize it. And under pressure, I could keep that for a while. So we could memorize these things. And I’d have to memorize the Hawaiian, and then memorize the English to make sense out of it. And the payback for these classes was, we had to do presentations. You had to go out to schools and what not, make it living practice kinda thing. So we did a presentation, and it might have been at McKinley, I don’t remember. This old gentleman walks up to me and talks to me in Hawaiian. And I was stunned.   I said, Oh, sorry, Uncle, I don’t speak Hawaiian. And he looked a little crestfallen, and he said, Well, but how can you understand what you’re chanting? I said, Well, I memorized the English. And it sounded dumb. It still sounds a little dumb.




But he says, But how can you tell how well you did?


How can you tell how well you did.




Who was this man?


Well I didn’t know who he was. He walks away. And I thought, You’re right. And then I thought—right there, I just thought, You’re right. Why would I engage if I’m not trying to learn what this is about. So then I started to try and learn Hawaiian language. Now, it’s probably ten years later that I realize who that old man is. He’s Auntie Edith’s husband, Luka. Yeah, tall, handsome man. And you know, I was so blown and intimidated, I never even asked, Who you?




So we started, we went back to Auntie Edith McKinzie, who was running our class with Auntie Edith Kanakaole would come teach us, but Auntie Edith was the main one. We want to learn some language. Well, she was a student herself, really. She wasn’t a native speaker. Her mother spoke it, and her grandmother, so she had a good handle, but she’d gone to classes. And she says, Well, I’ll teach you what I know. So we started with a class on her back porch.


That back-porch class would lead him to another home-style learning experience, with an elderly man, born in 1891, a cultural expert and noted photographer who’d taken pictures at the funeral of Queen Liliuokalani. His name was Theodore Kelsey. Young Puakea was introduced by Mr. Kelsey’s caretaker, the writer/historian June Gutmanis.


She researched Hawaiian stuff, and she had written a number of books. Na Pule Kahiko, Kahuna Laau Lapaau; she would assemble Hawaiian language material. And she could do that ‘cause she had this old gentleman living with her; he was eighty-eight, I think, when I met him. And he was fluent in Hawaiian. And he would help translate. He would translate all her things, and then she would make sense out of it. So when I met him, and I asked him, Would you be able to teach Hawaiian? He said, No. [chuckle] He said, I’m not a teacher. He says, There’s some books on that.




But with what Auntie Edith was doing. See, I’m a highly motivated [chuckle] character. If I want something, I’ll usually figure out a way to—




—try and make that happen. So I would take what Auntie Edith was teaching us, which was pretty simple Hawaiian, and I would talk to him when I went up to visit, and he’d talk back in Hawaiian. He wouldn’t teach me Hawaiian, but he’d engage. So my Hawaiian was atrocious.


So you must have gotten to some dead ends in the conversation.


Oh, dead ends; lot of dead ends, or misunderstandings. ‘Cause I would say, of course, what I thought … meant A, and he would understand it very clearly for what I’d really said, which was B. So he’d respond to B, and I’m still in A—


Was he able to correct you? Did he do that?


It started off so slow, I took to going up three days a week. I would be there and he welcomed that, and June welcomed that. It was sort of an interesting triangle there. June would give him things to translate. He was a gentleman; he was born in 1891, so he had a whole different set of ethics. He would not translate anything for her that was sexual or inappropriate for a lady.




She’d always tell him, I’m no lady.




But he’d just say, Oh, I can’t understand this. So she would give me things that he had sent back to her saying, I can’t interpret this, and he’d interpret it for me.


Oh, I see. Oh, you—


So this became—


You were the guy.


Yeah, so this became an interesting little triangle. So in the course of this, he would correct me the next visit. Way too gentle. So let’s say that instead of saying wai-a-nae, I say wai-nae. So the next visit we’ll be in the middle of something, and he would go, Oh, and I ku manao, o Waianae ka pololei. Oh, by the way, I think that Waianae is probably correct. Correct for what? And it took a while for me to recognize that he’s actually dealing with something that I misunderstood, mis-said, mis-translated and something-something from the last—


And that’s his way—




—of being gentle and polite, and old school.


In the course of a few years, and it took a few years, he would correct me as I said it.


Oh, okay.


Whew. [chuckle] Big, what do you call, progress. So then it became more workable. The other thing is, he was going deaf rapidly in English, and not in Hawaiian.


How does that happen?


June was insistent. It’s just ‘cause he likes Hawaiian. It has nothing do with it. Actually, we run into a lot of elders who can hear in Hawaiian, and cannot hear in English. The structure of the language is different enough. Hawaiian is very projectile in its way. Every word ends in a vowel. So every word exits.




And a lot of English words don’t.


You swallow the syllable.


And the end word is a consonant. Like a word like consonant. [CHOKING SOUND] You know, it all goes in. So just too much of it is unheard. In Hawaiian, every single word ends in a vowel. Every syllable ends in a vowel. So it’s actually a lot more hearable. Also, this, the low resonant voice goes in, in a way that upper range wouldn’t go.   And even in Hawaiian, he could only hear a male voice. And June would get real frustrated, ‘cause he just was so deaf to her tone. So she’d come to the table and say, Do you want more eggs? At first, he wouldn’t hear anything. And then finally, she’d tap and he’d have to look and she’d end up shouting. YOU WANT EGGS? YOU WANT EGGS? And he says, My leg? What?




What? What you want? And then if I just turned and said, I hua moa ho nau? Oh, no, no, no, I’m fine, he’d answer.




And it’d be so frustrating for her. But that’s the level and the language.


Sounds like you’re making progress, then. You’re learning Hawaiian.


Oh, by then, we were rolling. We were rolling. Once it started, I mean, I was so fascinated.


And were you learning more than basic words? Did he actually explain nuances, or were you able to tell nuances from how he spoke to you?


It’s so funny, he’s born … I don’t know, what, seventy years before? He was born in 1891. So we weren’t gonna exist in the same worlds. He’s the oldest living human I’d ever met. [chuckle] So what do you talk about? Actually, we kind of just jumped off the cliff and went into deep water. Later on, I had to learn stuff that made sense. We would go mostly into things that June was trying to get translated, were either chants or articles that were really kinda dense articles about opinion pieces in the newspapers. So we’re working on language that’s way over my head. And he’d walk through and go, Well, this is this, and this is why, and this is …, but doing grammar, doing phrasing, and why this would be said here, and what this place name really means, so if it shows up in this chant it’s … Well, this is stuff my little fragile head really wasn’t ready to get a hold of yet. So we’re playing there. That’s where I went to university. So I’d go in to UH. I’m gonna be an academic, and I launched in taking Hawaiian language as fast as I could. Thank goodness, Noe Losch, who you might know—




—was my teacher. And she knew what I was doing already, so she let me take 101 and 201 at the same time. And I may miss two days a week, because I went to see Mr. Kelsey on Tuesdays and Thursdays. So she let that go. And so I showed up three days a week, and did class. And that made sense out of the pieces. ‘Cause I could always bring something—




—interesting back, and on Monday, she’d go, Well, if you see Mr. Kelsey tomorrow, ask him about this.




You know.


—experiential learning, so that—




—that fits.


It made it so usable. ‘Cause I wasn’t in school. I didn’t even necessarily want a degree. I was in school ‘cause they had the toys. And I wanted that.


You were continuing to do your …




Your metal work, your craft work?


Yeah, yeah.




Actually, I start to step away from that about the time I launch into school. I’m doing it part-time now, I’m doing it special, for a special event or something. And then we step away from it. That’s about the time I step away.


That’s when you decided, this is where I’m turning my body?


Well, and I make money different there; I’m a student aide at school, or I got paid for where I lived. I was a caretaker for a house.




On the beach in Waianae. So they paid me to live in this house. To go to the beach. [chuckle] It was a nice life. So that pretty much covered expenses, and then school paid for itself. I got scholarships for school, just enough to cover tuition. Tuition at Leeward Community College wasn’t real intimidating yet; it was forty dollars a—






Is that right? Forty dollars?


I think that was it, for fulltime.


Had you learned any languages before this?


I learned Spanish badly when I was in high school.


And did you have an ear for language? You must have.


People say that I do, and I think, Then why did I have to work so hard at it?


At what? At Hawaiian as well?


At learning, at any language. Yeah, I’d have to like go over vocab lists and talk to myself, and if I really had an ear for it, I would think you’d just kinda fall in. But I think maybe I have a little ear, but not a whole lot of ear.


And you’re willing to work at it.


That’s a big piece. I’m willing to work. And I will. Because I used to ride the bus back and forth to Waianae, and I’d be mumble—muttering to myself the whole way, ‘cause I’m using a new pattern that we just covered in class, or just, you know, oh, that lady is doing this, that guy is doing this, or they are doing this. God, just run the pattern through in my head to kinda familiarize it, normalize it. So I think if I was wiz, it would have happened, like you wake up and you’re just good at it.




[chuckle] I don’t know.


Do you think Hawaiian is different from other languages to learn? Some people say, Oh, it’s a simple language, it only has, what, is it twelve letters or thirteen?


Thirteen, with the okina.


But of course, it’s a very dense and rich language. But I’m not sure, since I don’t speak it fluently, how and why. If it …


I think it’s—


There’s a lot of—


—it’s different.


There’s a lot of layers of meaning, and how does that work?


Yeah, I say to people that Hawaiian is an easy language to learn. But it’s a really difficult language to learn well.




But there’s an entry level to language, but I think it’s easier.


Because it’s a logical language, right? Unlike English, which is not terribly logical.


It follows its rules much better [chuckle] than English does. And it doesn’t conjugate verbs, and it uh—I mean, so there’s a lot of … just the structural part of the language makes it easier to access.




But then you get into multiple meanings, and you get into, you know, just juxtaposition that allows things to happen in language that I don’t think is nearly as common in English, it certainly wasn’t in Spanish. Um, Spanish to me was more mechanical.


How do you understand the multiple meanings if you’re away from the context in which the language was formed?


Some of them, I think, are probably beyond full grasp, without some of those original contexts. So you can read texts that were written in a time and with reference to things that are just impossible to get your head around today. So you might be able to get some inkling, but you’re not gonna get the details of it. When we translated the Hiiaka from Hawaiian into English.   Now, that’s five hundred pages of text, and it goes everywhere. The narrator and the author are both having fun. Basically the same guy, but it’s officially, the narrator is having fun in the telling of the story, ‘cause he injects himself all the time. But the author, then, all the way through the story, is doing little plays [INDISTINCT] words and just—you know, this. Sahoa Fukushima, who was the collaborator on this, he and Kamaoli Kuwada, he turned at one point when we were done, I think. And he says, How much of this do you think we really got? Now, we had translated it, we had edited that translation, we’d been on it for a year and a half on this one text.


And you’ve pointed out different things in your text about how, you know, this is what some people say, but this is what you think, and you really did a lot of interpretive work on that. And you explain to the reader.


Well, we really tried to minimize that in the book itself. But a whole lot of that happened in the processing.




While we were doing this, there was so much dialog. Now, look at this, look at how this is working. And so he says, How much of this do you really think we got? And we sat there, and we were trying to imagine. I said, If we’re really lucky, sixty percent maybe.




What do you think?




That there might be that much more of the humor and the sarcasm, and maybe cynicism in other pieces that they’re there, and we might have caught some flavor. We know some things there.


Yeah. And it had so many human emotions and values in there.


Oh, yeah, yeah.




Yeah. And a great challenge. But you’re right; there’s some of it that I think is simply sort of beyond grasp in some ways. You keep trying, keep reaching. I’m a better student today than I was.




I’m older and I’m more entertained. [chuckle] I think I get more out of the interaction. How’s that?


If Puakea Nogelmeier’s voice sounds familiar to you, perhaps you’ve heard it, taking The Bus on Oahu. It’s his voice announcing the street names at all of the stops. In 2009, Puakea is busy working with collaborators on a groundbreaking online Hawaiian-language project to make accessible 19th and 20th century newspaper articles. These represent an archive of largely untapped resources rich in cultural knowledge and history. The online project is called Ho’olaupa’i, which means to generate abundance and can be found at Among other projects he’s worked on, a 500-page text that represents the first English translation of the epic tale of Hi’iakaikapoliopele. And Puakea Nogelmeier continues to share the Hawaiian language, teaching others as he was taught long ago as a young malihini. Until next time…for Long Story Short on PBS Hawaii, I’m Leslie Wilcox. A Hui Hou Kakou.


Mr. Kelsey had become kind of a pivotal part of my life. He was like a window on another world. He was an adult photographer at the funeral of Lili‘uokalani.


It was actually the funeral of Liliu that made him think, The things I love most are going away. He made a promise to spend the rest of his life documenting.




Well, he didn’t know he’d do it for the next seventy years. He lived to be ninety-six.


Did you see his documentations, his journals?


His material at the archives is like seven, eight feet of paper. So he really did spend the rest of his life writing things down.


So he became widely recognized for his—


He didn’t publish hardly anything. He was actually part of a group that was outside of the Bishop Museum, but documenting Hawaiian culture.