Out of 45 grandchildren, J. Ekela Kaniaupio-Crozier was her grandmother’s “golden child.”
For years, Kaniaupio-Crozier’s grandmother held onto what was left of the then-forbidden Hawaiian language. But when Kaniaupio-Crozier was born, her grandmother chose her to carry, or perhaps redefine, the legacy of her native language.
Now, after a lifetime of teaching, Kaniaupio-Crozier has learned what her grandmother always hoped she would: Aloha, more than anything else, means love.
Kaniaupio-Crozier, the E Ola! learning designer and facilitator at Kamehameha Schools Maui, and contributing member of the Hawai‘i Development team for the Duolingo language-learning app, gave her lecture “Renormalizing the Hawaiian Language” at 10:45 a.m. Thursday in the Amphitheater, continuing Week Five, “The Life of the Spoken Word.”
“From the rising of the sun, high above Haleakalā, unto its setting on the sands of the bays of the high chief Pi‘ilani; from one level to another level; from the verdance of the deep forest to the glistening ocean; from my homeland, to here in Chautauqua — here I am,” Kaniaupio-Crozier said.
Kaniaupio-Crozier is the daughter of Antonia and Kuanoni Kaniaupio, the grandchild of Kauhiwaiokamakalepo and the great-great grandchild of Lakana, a descendent of Keaunui, high chief of the Ewa plains. Those ancestors, along with many more, are who allow her to share the love of Ōlelo Hawai‘i, the Hawaiian language.
“It’s not the things that I’ve done that define me and my identity, it’s the people I’m connected to,” Kaniaupio-Crozier said. “I recognize my ancestors and my children — for the work I have done and continue to do is not just for me or for the moment or to put some nice cash in my pocket — I do it because I know I have a responsibility to those who stand beside me in this good work and a responsibility to those who will come after me and continue to do the good work of sharing the spoken word.”
From the day Kaniaupio-Crozier was born, Kauhiwaiokamakalepo spoke to her in Hawaiian.
“She chose me, for whatever reason, to be the one that would carry on this language,” she said. “She was the first Hawaiian activist I ever met, but I didn’t know it. She held on to this language until I came into her life.”
Speaking Hawaiian was rare while Kaniaupio-Crozier was growing up, and when she realized she didn’t hear it anywhere other than her home, she “rebelled.”
“I thought, ‘Why are you speaking this language when the only people who speak it look like you?’ ” she said. “They were all kupuna, our elders. I didn’t see any future in this language living or surviving, so for (my grandmother) to speak to me in this language, it just didn’t make sense.”
When Kaniaupio-Crozier was 9 years old, her grandmother brought her to Hawaiian language classes at their local church, where the two were joined by her mother, father and grandfather every week. Considering her family already knew Hawaiian, Kaniaupio-Crozier was confused as to why they came to class with her — until now.
“I know now that they were there for me,” she said. “They were there to show me aloha, to support me in all my frustrations.”
Kaniaupio-Crozier attended Hawaiian language classes until she graduated high school. Excited by the chance to pave her own path in college, she decided to take Spanish for her language credit.
Her Spanish professor, Marjorie Woodrum, was a charismatic woman who demanded attention the minute she walked in a room — the kind of person Kaniaupio-Crozier realized she wanted to become. However, by the time Kaniaupio-Crozier entered her sophomore year, her school had implemented a Hawaiian language course and per her grandmother’s wishes, she took both Spanish and Hawaiian. When Kaniaupio-Crozier found out Woodrum was also teaching Hawaiian, the woman she once idolized suddenly lost her charisma.
“I was mad,” she said. “I was like ‘You don’t know anything about Hawaii, you’re not even Hawaiian. You are a white lady from far away who teaches Spanish, and that’s cool, but you’re going to teach me Hawaiian? No.’ ”
Kaniaupio-Crozier maintained a good attitude in her first-period Spanish class, but as soon as her second-period Hawaiian class rolled around, Kaniaupio-Crozier made sure Woodrum felt her disdain.
In response, Woodrum told Kaniaupio-Crozier that she understood her frustrations. Woodrum then pulled out a globe and asked her if she knew where Czechoslovakia is. Kaniaupio-Crozier did not, and that was the point.
On the other hand, Woodrum knew everything about Czechoslovakia. She knew its culture, its customs, traditions, how people dress, how they think, what they eat and what they value — all things she learned by speaking the language.
“(Woodrum) said, ‘You speak your language, you know who your people are, you know everything about them, but there are Hawaiian children in this school who know nothing about who they are because they don’t know their language — they haven’t heard it,’ ” she said.
Woodrum told Kaniaupio-Crozier she should be the one teaching the school’s Hawaiian class and in that moment, the entire direction of Kaniaupio-Crozier’s life changed.
“I understood what she was saying,” Kaniaupio-Crozier said. “Our language is our identity. Our language answers so many questions about who we are and why we believe what we do and why we think the way we do.”
Kaniaupio-Crozier went home and told Kauhiwaiokamakalepo she had decided to become a Hawaiian language teacher. The only way her grandmother knew how to respond was by telling her story.
Growing up, Kauhiwaiokamakalepo was beaten for speaking Hawaiian. On her first day of school, at 5 years old, her teacher covered her mouth with tape, telling her she couldn’t speak in class until she learned English.
“(My grandmother) said to me, ‘Do you know how hurtful that is?’ ” Kaniaupio-Crozier said. “ ‘Do you know how painful it is to not be able to express your deepest emotions? At 5 years old, you’re told everything that you know is wrong, and you’ll be told that for the rest of your life. You can’t understand, not just the physical pain of being beaten with a frying pan for speaking your language — but the emotional pain, the physiological pain. All of that kind of pain? You will never understand because that’s why I have given you this gift.’ ”
After hearing her story, Kaniaupio-Crozier said she felt a responsibility to her grandmother, and to every Hawaiian, to ensure no one else would have to endure that pain.
“It was wrong, and it should never happen again,” she said. “I was going to make sure that it wasn’t going to happen again.”
Kaniaupio-Crozier was unable to switch her major because her school did not offer a degree in Hawaiian language, but she forged ahead, believing that with her grandmother by her side, she could become a teacher anyways. However, five months later, Kauhiwaiokamakalepo passed away.
“I was mad,” Kaniaupio-Crozier said. “We were supposed to do this together, but then she left me.”
It didn’t take long for Kaniaupio-Crozier to realize her grandmother was still with her, just in a different way.
“She showed up, every day, with me,” she said. “She was always there.”
In Kauhiwaiokamakalepo’s passing, Kaniaupio-Crozier felt the presence of an unanswered question: Who would want to take her Hawaiian language classes? Her grandmother always said people would line up to take Kaniaupio-Crozier’s classes, a compliment she didn’t believe until her school approved a Hawaiian degree program and she became the first to graduate with a bachelor’s in Hawaiian language.
“That’s no coincidence,” Kaniaupio-Crozier said. “I don’t live my life by coincidence. I know that every step has been determined by my God, that every step he has already set up for me, and (my grandmother) was my prophet. I call her my prophet and my Hawaiian activist because she knew all of these things and she fought for it.”
Upon graduation, Kaniaupio-Crozier received multiple job offers. She went from teaching preschoolers, to university students and everyone in between — never interviewing for a single position. Even with Kaniaupio-Crozier’s success, her community still questioned why she pursued her career. According to Kaniaupio-Crozier, it’s because the language “touches so many hearts.”
“When you share it wide, people feel it,” she said. “They feel it in their guts and they feel it deep inside because everybody in the world has aloha in their hearts. At the core of every single one of us, is love, love that we want to share.”
In 1978, Hawaiian became Hawaii’s official language, along with English. Though that status is an accomplishment, Kaniaupio-Crozier said the state has a long way to go in terms of respect for the islands and their people.
“It’s become the token. It’s like, ‘Here Hawaiians, you have the official language of the state,’ but when we say we need more money to educate our children in their language, we don’t get it,” Kaniaupio-Crozier said. “When we want to protect our lands and protect our people, it’s not honored. It sounds really good to say that we have the official language, but the reality is it’s not official.”
Regardless, Kaniaupio-Crozier said over time, Hawaiians have become more and more interested in learning more about their culture — and the language especially. As a result, schools — from preschools to universities — have implemented Hawaiian language classes.
“Now we have hundreds of graduates and thousands of students who are not just learning Hawaiian, but are learning in Hawaiian,” she said.
Things got even better when Duolingo, a language-learning website and app, was launched in 2011. Now, more than 500,000 people across the globe are learning Hawaiian online. According Kaniaupio-Crozier, that kind of access is crucial for a language to survive.
“The more people that have access to our language, or languages in general, the more it brings us together,” she said. “It helps us to stand up for each other, it helps us to believe that the things that each group needs and wants for their people are good things. Language is the key; it’s the key for us to be able to unlock doors to know about people, to understand their culture and their identity.”
Kaniaupio-Crozier wonders what her grandmother would think if she saw the way Hawaiian language has transformed under her watch. Although she can’t know for sure, Kaniaupio-Crozier has a pretty good guess: “Ua ha‘i aku wau iā‘oe pēlā.”
“I told you so.”