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When Disney’s "Moana" set sail to screens this fall, the animated blockbuster gave the isolated islands of Polynesia a new mainstream image, countering decades of misrepresentation.

“The coming of this film was, and continues to be, a source of pride for thousands of people across the world who can trace their heritage back to our wayfinding ancestors of the Pacific,” said Delia Ulima, a Pacific Island Studies master’s degree student at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa.

Other artists meanwhile have been crafting contemporary works, such as film and theater, to accurately portray Hawai‘i in a new light as well. These innovative approaches allow for the preservation and growth of the Hawaiian culture. In conjunction, however, many visitors will find that the plastic leis and pineapples – living up to Hollywood’s typical portrayals of Hawai‘i – are readily available upon arrival, too. As visitors make their ways through the Honolulu International Airport, and to their hotel, they will hear that English— as heard in the movies — is the primary spoken language. So it's complicated.

Visitors, for example, would never know that the Hawai‘i State Constitution recognizes two official languages in this state: Hawaiian and English. Of the 50 states in the U.S., 32 have recognized English as their official language, while the remainder of the states do not have official languages.

Hawai‘i and Alaska are the only states with at least two official languages.

Efforts to preserve the Hawaiian language were strongly enforced during the Hawaiian Renaissance in the 1970s. Contemporary art forms lately, such as theater and film, have been used to continue to expand the use of Hawaiian language to a broader audience and to inspire people to take notice.


“We have an existing treasure trove of storytellers, screenwriters, filmmakers, poets, authors, musicians and others who have and continue to share and craft the stories of our people, educating others about our past, shedding light on the present circumstances of our island people throughout the world,” Ulima said.

The first all-Hawaiian play “Lā‘ieikawai” was performed at Kennedy Theater earlier this year. Written by Tammy Haili‘ōpua Baker, “Lā‘ieikawai” took 20 years to curate and stage, including the laborious creation of accurate cultural representations aimed at revitalizing Hawaiian language. 

Hawaiian-based arts, though, compete culturally with movies like “50 First Dates” and “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” in which the Hawaiian language is depicted as more of a tourist attraction than it is a way of communicating.


“It’s important that local filmmakers tell their perspective to sort of balance out or to combat this outsider Hollywood narrative that’s been sort of imposed on this place,” said Christopher Yogi, a Hawai‘i-based filmmaker.

Yogi’s short film, “Occasionally I Saw Glimpses of Hawai‘i,” premiered in this year’s Hawai‘i International Film Festival. In his piece, Yogi walks the viewer through the movies of Hawai‘i in the past 100 years. For filmmakers like Yogi, premiering his film at an international film festival marks a moment of achievement that contributes and impacts the future of an entire culture.


“What it really comes down to is the absolute necessity of homegrown filmmaking of people who sort of have experiences here, the insider narrative,” Yogi said. “People can see how strange and surreal and weird the outsider narrative is, and that can be a sort of motivation to filmmakers from here.”

Despite the efforts of artists to make Hawaiian and English equally recognized languages, some still believe that Hawaiian language does not provide all the educational opportunities students may want.


Even the director of Hawaiian language advancement at Kamehameha Schools, Keoni Kelekolio acknowledged that the Hawaiian immersion education system may lack in some areas of student interest.

“I have two boys, and neither of them attend Kaiapuni schools,” Kelekolio said. “To me, the most important thing is the fit for the family. Some kids need the different kinds of opportunities that public schools and private schools can offer.”

Where Hawaiian immersion schools excel in the learning of language and culture, he said, they may not offer courses such as auto mechanics, woodworking or physics that students may be interested in as well.


Filmmakers, such as Yogi, said that having Hawaiian language and culture classes more foundationally integrated into his education would have created more of a connection with his home and its history.

Educational systems in Hawai‘i overlap in many ways but one. Hawaiian immersion schools teach lessons strictly in Hawaiian, until English is later introduced. Non-Hawaiian immersion schools do not require teaching Hawaiian.


“There’s definitely been a move toward incorporating Hawaiian language and Hawaiian culture more into children’s literature and other young adult and regular adult literature,” said Ku'ualoha Ho’omanawanui, associate professor of Hawaiian literature at University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa.

Where Hawaii tends to get left behind, though, is through the political history of English implementation since the arrival of the first American Christian missionaries, Ho’omanawanui said. The missionaries came in with this idea that anything but English, anything but Western culture was wrong, setting a tone for Hawaiian language with all future outside populations.


The Story Behind the Language

Having a basic understanding of the Hawaiian language will unlock the meaning for the place names of Hawaii. Knowing the story and meaning of something as simple as a street sign can be the gateway of a greater appreciation for Hawaii as a whole.

“Without taking ownership of your voice and your stories and of your experience, you run the risk of having others tell you what your experience is or try to secondhand explain your experience,” said Kemuel DeMoville, theater manager at Leeward Community College.

Though “Moana” has appealed to millions around the world and given rise to the Polynesian culture, worries still remain about its use of the symbols and stories as a potential form of cultural appropriation.

“Disney will make a pretty penny from ‘Moana,’ and I just ask, how will this benefit the people whose stories they are portraying on the big screen? Some will ask if it should be, and if so, how? It comes down to, in many instances, power, money and control,” Ulima said.

Greater than just money and power are the accuracies of the culture depicted, she said.

“For better or worse, ‘Moana’ is made," Ulima said. "It is important, at this point, to focus on all the things that we have learned and how we want to move forward as a people, highlighting the potentially wonderful pieces and addressing the areas of concern."

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