ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi Growing in Conservation, Conference Attendees Hungry for More

Jul 25, 2019

Hawaii Conservation Conference attendees grab portable translation devices to attend a panel presentation conducted entirely in Hawaiian language with on-the-spot English translation.
Credit 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 ʻōlelo, and changing the industry in the process.

Hawaiʻi ethnobotanist Natalie Kurashima didn’t grow up speaking ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi or Hawaiian language. But at this year’s Hawaiʻi Conservation Conference, she joined nearly a dozen speakers working in the conservation field on the event’s first ever all-ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi 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. Itʻs here to grow and its here to help all of us, no matter if youʻre Hawaiian or not.”

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

Biocultural specialist Puaʻala 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.

(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.
Credit Center for Biodiversity and Conservation

“He mea maʻamau iā lākou ka loaʻa no nā mikini e ʻunuhi i nā ʻōlelo ʻōiwi,” says Pascua,“No laila ke ʻike aku wau i kēlā, noʻonoʻo wau no ke aha ʻaʻole kākou hana pēlā ma Hawaiʻi?” 

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

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

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 Haʻalilio Solomon is the President of the ʻAhahui ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi 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 naʻe o ka paʻakīkī, i loko naʻe o ka hihia i loko naʻe o ka hana nui, he lanakila,” says Solomon.

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

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

Ulalia Woodside, Executive Director of the Nature Conservancy of Hawaiʻi, 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 Hawaiʻi meet the greatest environmental challenges of our time.