Larry Kimura was surrounded from birth by first-language speakers of Japanese (his father’s side) and Hawaiian (his mother’s). He first realized the extent to which the Hawaiian language was endangered and suppressed once he relocated from his childhood home near Parker Ranch in Waimea to become a boarder at The Kamehameha Schools.
“My fellow boarders … I understood they were ashamed to be Hawaiian,” Kimura said. “And I thought, how crazy — I wasn’t ashamed to be Hawaiian. I was proud my grandfather was the head of the cowboys, and he spoke only Hawaiian.”
That was a different era for Kamehameha Schools, of course, and for the Hawaiian language as a whole. Kimura, 72, is associate professor at the Ka Haka ‘Ula O Ke‘elikölani College of Hawaiian Studies, University of Hawaii at Hilo.
He had a lot to do with the language reawakening, partly through the immersion preschool program ‘Aha Punana Leo, which he helped to found; the first schools opened in 1984.
Kimura remained in Honolulu to study language as part of earning his UH bachelor’s degree in anthropology. Teaching began with a stint in adult education at McKinley High School; then after his service in the Army, he was drafted for a tenure-track spot at UH, teaching in what was a young department.
Since then, Kimura also has become known as a Hawaiian lyricist, working with Palani Vaughan, Peter Moon, Eddie Kamae and many others.
“I never thought I’d be composing lyrics,” he added. “But I got involved with that because when I was learning Hawaiian language, I was interested in Hawaiian music because that’s where language was occurring.”
Most recently Kimura’s name pops up as the person who named Pöwehi, the black hole photographed by the collaboration of observatories, two of which are located at Mauna Kea. Astronomers liked the Hawaiian association and approached him for something appropriate. He also helped name ‘Oumuamua, the only interstellar object detected passing through the solar system, discovered by Robert Weryk at Haleakala Observatory.
Naming, Kimura acknowledged, is an important element of Native Hawaiian traditional practices, one that he learned at the feet of his family and native-speaking kupuna, such as Mary Kawena Puku‘i.
“The way people name now is very different,” he said. “You have a right to a name. You just can’t go and use a name because it sounds nice to you … and it belongs to somebody else.
“In Hawaiian culture, they ask you, ‘What is your name?’ and when they hear your name, it means something.”
Question: How did you choose Pöwehi as the name for the newly photographed black hole? How would you translate that?
Answer: When I was asked to attend a meeting on March 30 at the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center here at UH Hilo — attended by three astronomers and Ka‘iu Kimura, the director of the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center — I had a sense that it might be about a request for me to provide a Hawaiian name for a new astronomical discovery/confirmation.
As the two astronomers from the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope spoke, there was an air of excitement in their voices as they talked about the first images that they captured of a black hole. The astronomers reported that this black hole attracts matter with such gravitational power that causes matter to spin at a profound speed, resulting in an illumination of light that then displays the image of this black hole.
Their explanation describing the production of an image or picture, immediately took me to our 2,102-line epic Hawaiian creation chant, the Kumulipo. The Kumulipo documents this dark fathomless, ceaseless creative power called pö, and it records several kinds or descriptions of pö, one being wehiwehi or wehi, honored with embellishments.
So within 20 minutes or so when I offered this explanation from the Kumulipo to these astronomers, they quickly said, that’s it, and we agreed to combine pö, profound dark source of unending creation, with the modifier wehi, honored with embellishments; therefore, Pöwehi, embellished profound dark source of unending creation.
Q: Can you say how you regard the telescope controversy?
A: I believe the controversy is not about astronomy and telescopes, but about a bigger picture for the continuation of a viable Hawaiian identity. When Mauna Kea attracts international attention because of astronomy, then this threatens the welfare of an endangered identity even further.
Of course in earlier times the Hawaiian culture existed with no telescopes, when Hawaiian identity was very intimately connected with the heavens and beyond. Surely voyaging for exploration into a vast and seemingly endless space such as what we know today as Earth’s largest mass of ocean, was nothing new to our ancient people.
Hokule‘a was launched to reconfirm this knowledge. Such voyages of rediscovery are crucial for this bigger picture addressing the welfare of a living Hawaiian identity.
To me, it’s about taking up where we left off with our geneaolgy to pö, that profound power of ceaseless birthings that over generations connects us to the birth of Wakea, the main Hawaiian male progenitor, whose piko (umblicus) is on Mauna Kea.
This helps us to answer the deeper questions of where we come from, what we are and where we are going.
Q:Can you talk about the time you served in the Army, in Germany, before you started teaching?
A:The wonderful thing was being in a foreign country like that, that didn’t use English. I mean in the military, of course they did, but I took every opportunity to leave the barracks and go and visit the country. And not only Germany, but there you are in Europe.
Q: Did you learn German?
A: Oh, yeah, I took German class, so I began to speak it more. … We had a German secretary, Gertrude Bourne, and she kept telling me, ‘You have to speak my Deutsch — you can’t speak this lousy Bavarian Deutsch.’ She was so particular about my German. …
Q:Do you think when you were a student they were looking at you and thinking, this is a future teacher?
A:You know, I didn’t know that. And yet when I was going through some old files, I found a lot of letters and notes and things. And that’s what they were thinking.
Q: Are ‘Aha Punana Leo and immersion schools succeeding at regenerating the Hawaiian language?
A:Yes. First of all the ‘APL started the work for the revitalization of Hawaiian and continues to emphasize a model for a high standard for the life of Hawaiian language, affecting families, children and communities, from infant-toddler to preschool and beyond.
I believe all our Hawaiian language immersion programs, throughout the DOE (Department of Education) system, continue to maintain and persevere with the standards of a good education through the well-being of the Hawaiian language and cultural identity.
Q: How important was the Hawaiian music renaissance to reviving the language?
A:The Kanikapila Hawaiian Music Concerts, conducted during the 1970s and 1980s, drew thousands of people from all races and levels of society for two nights a year at the UH-Manoa Andrews Amphitheatre.
This single Hawaiian music event — produced by Peter Moon of the Sunday Manoa Hawaiian music band, and other young, upcoming Hawaiian music groups — helped to arouse and unite a concern for the welfare of the Hawaiian culture, language and people.
Q: What are the next steps in the language renaissance?
A:To keep improving the reach of our Hawaiian philosophy of education through our own language and to begin to establish our language in other domains of society.
This will require stronger foundational information in the many facets of knowing our language and culture and to make it relevant for today.
We have a big gap from where we left off facing the extinction of Hawaiian as we currently achieve goals finding solutions to curb the immediate death of Hawaiian.
The bigger mission of renormalizing Hawaiian for Hawaii requires the coming together of a myriad of knowledge sources and obtaining consistent, collaborative funding support.