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??lelo Hawai?i Growing in Conservation, Conference Attendees Hungry for More

Ku'uwehi Hiraishi

Long before concepts like sustainability and biodiversity became environmentalist buzzwords, native Hawaiians cared for their environment as a natural expression of their belief that the land is chief. Now a growing number of Hawaiian language speakers working in conservation are helping to unlock ancestral wisdom preserved in the ??lelo, and changing the industry in the process.

Hawai?i ethnobotanist Natalie Kurashima didn’t grow up speaking ??lelo Hawai?i or Hawaiian language. But at this year’s Hawai?i Conservation Conference, she joined nearly a dozen speakers working in the conservation field on the event’s first ever all-??lelo Hawai?i panel.

Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi

“It really put a message out to the rest of the conservation world that it’s not just culture, it’s Hawaiian science. It’s our identity,” says Kurashima, “It’s here to stay. It?s here to grow and its here to help all of us, no matter if you?re Hawaiian or not.”

The 30-year-old natural resource manager for Kamehameha Schools says her employer mandates ??lelo Hawai?i classes – a policy she says is encouraging but rare.

Biocultural specialist Pua?ala Pascua works at the American Museum of Natural History’s Center for Biodiversity and Conservation in New York. Her job takes her around the globe where she works with indigenous communities who oftentimes don’t speak English.

Credit Center for Biodiversity and Conservation
Center for Biodiversity and Conservation
(L-R): Pua'ala Pascua, Kanoe Steward, and Natalie Kurashima sit on the first ever panel conducted entirely in Hawaiian language at the Hawai'i Conservation Conference.

“He mea ma?amau i? l?kou ka loa?a no n? mikini e ?unuhi i n? ??lelo ??iwi,” says Pascua,“No laila ke ?ike aku wau i k?l?, no?ono?o wau no ke aha ?a?ole k?kou hana p?l? ma Hawai?i?” 

She says live translation devices are a common sight and she didn’t see why we don’t do that in Hawai?i. Pascua helped organize the panel.

Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi
Hawaiian language translator Noah Ha'alilio Solomon provides audience members who might not understand Hawaiian with on-the-spot translations.

More than 150 people attended the session, most of them with headsets plugged into portable translation devices. Once turned on, non-speakers heard the voice of this man...

Noah Ha?alilio Solomon is the President of the ?Ahahui ??lelo Hawai?i an organization dedicated to the perpetuation of the Hawaiian language. He says live translation has its challenges – panelists often speak too quickly and some Hawaiian concepts don’t translate well into English.

“I loko na?e o ka pa?ak?k?, i loko na?e o ka hihia i loko na?e o ka hana nui, he lanakila,” says Solomon.

Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi
Pua'ala Pascua at the podium for the first ever panel conducted entirely in Hawaiian language at the Hawai'i Conservation Conference.

But he says despite the difficulties, hiccups, and hard work, this is triumphant.  

Ulalia Woodside, Executive Director of the Nature Conservancy of Hawai?i, was in the audience.

“What it really represents is a growth in our conservation field,” says Woodside, “They are conservation professionals for whom the Hawaiian language, and the culture, and the worldview, is the way by which they approach their daily life and it’s changing conservation for the better.”

Woodside says this is making conservation work much more relevant to this place, and can make all the difference in helping Hawai?i meet the greatest environmental challenges of our time.

Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi is a general assignment reporter at Hawaiʻi Public Radio. Her commitment to her Native Hawaiian community and her fluency in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi has led her to build a de facto ʻōiwi beat at the news station. Send your story ideas to her at
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