Sounding the Pū

Portrait by Aaron Yoshino
On set images by Ara Feducia

On a hot October day in Makiki, as the air begins to thicken with humidity, the noises of Ke‘eaumoku Street traffic are calmed by the bellow of the pū (conch shell). The staff of ‘Ōiwi TV gather outside their office and sing a mele as they look toward the hillsides that rise above the city.

E ku‘i e ka lono i o nā kai ‘ewalu,
A lohea maka ka leo e ka nui manu
Ua ala, ua laha, ua ‘ikea
Ke aloha o nā pu‘u nui o Makiki ē

(Let the stories of Hawai‘i be heard
Let them be heard by all
Awake, widespread, and known
Is the aloha of Makiki)

Since ‘Ōiwi TV went on air in 2009, its crew has worked in places many of us can only dream of, from the blinding white atolls of Papahānaumokuākea to the deep green hills of Fare Hape in Tahiti. But it is here, in a converted three-story house in Makiki, where the day-to-day work of this local production company happens. Schedule permitting, each workday begins with this morning piko, a kind of centering protocol that brings the staff together to oli and share some guiding mana‘o, or thoughts, for the day. The piko itself is a reminder that ‘Ōiwi TV is not your average production company, and the fact that it takes place in ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i, the native tongue of Hawaiians, is a statement that ‘Ōiwi is not just here to do things differently but to transform the way we think about language, media, and indigenous identity in Hawai‘i.


keoni (8 of 9) copy resizedHawai‘i’s relationship with film began in the years following World War II, when America’s paradisiacal darling began to grace the silver screen in South Seas films. Though the camera loves Hawai‘i—is perhaps, infatuated with it—historically, its relationship with kānaka maoli (Native Hawaiians) has been exploitative. For Hollywood, Hawai‘i is a backdrop, its people merely props for Western stories of love, adventure, and coconuts. More insidiously, the news media too readily turns to Native Hawaiians for headline stories of conflict (i.e. coverage of Representative Faye Hanohano’s outbursts at the state capitol; a Maui man’s rants to tourists on the beach; and Kamana‘opono Crabbe’s dissenting letter to the very board he represents, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs), perpetuating a narrative plagued by negativity and deficit while ignoring stories of success and community.

For founders Keoni Lee and Nāʻālehu Anthony, the idea for ‘Ōiwi TV emerged as a way to leverage the immense power of visual media and technology to change this paradigm and begin to tell Hawaiian stories from a Hawaiian worldview. ‘Ōiwi TV currently reaches more than 220,000 households via Oceanic Time Warner Cable’s Digital Channel 326 and engages a worldwide audience through its online and social media platforms. Lee and Anthony met as graduate students in Shidler School of Business at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa and completed their thesis project on the Polynesian Voyaging Society together. “We became good friends through that project, and when it was finished, we decided that one day we’d start something for the community,” says Lee.

“The idea for a Hawaiian television channel, a station for the nation, had been around for years,” he adds, “but in 2008, there was a perfect storm of opportunity.” Technology was getting cheaper, Kamehameha Schools was expanding its investments in the community, ‘Aha Pūnana Leo was partnering with KGMB to do Hawaiian language news segments, and Oceanic Time Warner Cable launched an interactive television program. Conditions were ripe to bring their vision to reality. Today, Lee and Anthony have come full circle, right back to their graduate thesis project: ‘Ōiwi TV was asked to document the Polynesian Voyaging Society’s Worldwide Voyage onboard the Hōkūle‘a and Hikianalia. “It’s just another affirmation that we’re on the right path,” says Lee.

In the five years since going on-air, ‘Ōiwi has carved itself a unique position within the Hawaiian community. In addition to in-house projects like Nā Loea, which highlights masters in different areas of Hawaiian knowledge, ‘Ōiwi also contracts its services to clients looking to share their work through professional media. By using its platform to show that Hawaiian language and culture is thriving, ‘Ōiwi fundamentally challenges the dominant representations of Hawaiian people that too often devalue their knowledge systems and ways of being. “We get to tell the stories of our people,” says Lee, pausing for a second as if to savor that simple fact. “Hopefully, we’re the ones our community can trust to provide a fair and authentic representation of their stories.”

On top of the pressures faced by any production company in the cutthroat world of corporate media, ‘Ōiwi’s staff takes seriously the kuleana, or responsibility, of being accountable to community. That often means providing their services at deep discounts to community members who may otherwise not be able to afford high-quality, professional media and taking the time to meet with interview subjects beforehand, with cameras off, to answer all the “who yo’ maddah, who yo’ faddah, where you grad” questions that help us gauge an outsider’s positionality, genealogy, and relation to their work. But time and again, the folks at ‘Ōiwi seem to pull off this delicate balance. At this year’s Hawaii International Film Festival, ‘Ōiwi screened a documentary film about Hui Malama I Na Kupuna ‘O Hawai‘i Nei’s final repatriation of iwi (human remains) before the organization eventually disbands. The project presented unique challenges because the bones of kūpuna require a level of respect that is often difficult to maintain from behind a camera lens. “For Hui Malama to be able to trust that we would know how to act and tell such a sacred story was quite an honor,” says Lee.

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Like the sound of the pū at morning piko, ‘Ōiwi serves as a vehicle to amplify native breath and sound a call to bring people together. Recognizing that culture and worldview are codified in language, one of ‘Ōiwi TV’s main missions is to normalize ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i by making it heard. Roughly 25 percent of ‘Ōiwi’s programming is in ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i, but creating Hawaiian language content, especially with accompanying English subtitles, is time and cost intensive, and funding is limited. While Maori TV in Aotearoa receives nearly $50 million dollars annually in government funding, state funding is still a dream for ‘Ōiwi, despite the fact that Hawaiian is recognized as an official state language. “I’d like to see us at 51 percent or more Hawaiian language programming one day,” says Lee.

The staff at ‘Ōiwi envisions media as a way to extend the reach of ‘ōlelo beyond educational spaces like Hawaiian immersion schools and the university’s Hawaiian Studies program. While the academic world has achieved incredible success in language revitalization, people are beginning to realize that for ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i to truly thrive, it must be heard and spoken outside of the classroom: in government, at home, in the media, by Hawaiians and non-Hawaiians who live in Hawai‘i. Big Island native and immersion-school graduate Ku‘lei Bezilla works as a producer for ‘Ōiwi TV. “Education is one small sliver of a person’s life,” she says. “If language is limited to education, you’re going to learn it and never use it again, but if we can infuse ‘ōlelo into our media, we take one more step towards revitalizing and normalizing ‘ōlelo.”

Bezilla likens the role of Hawaiian media makers in language revitalization to producers of Hawaiian language newspapers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when Native Hawaiian nationalists produced their own newspapers during a time of intense political upheaval. In the years following the illegal overthrow and occupation of the Hawaiian Kingdom, the papers served as a fiber that bound together the political struggles of the nearly universally literate lāhui, or nation. As Hawaiian language began to embody the political power and struggles of Hawaiian nationalists, it became an increasing threat to the colonial project, eventually prohibited from being spoken as a language of instruction in schools. These newspapers, however, served as repositories of information, and when language revitalization began in earnest after the Hawaiian cultural renaissance in the 1970s, the papers served as critical sources of knowledge for Hawaiian scholars across the islands. With 6.1 percent of Hawai‘i’s population speaking Hawaiian at home as of 2008, ‘Ōiwi TV is continuing the work of the revitalization movement on a new front. “We’re just perpetuating what our ancestors have been doing for so many generations—leveraging the media of our time,” says Bezilla. “We take this technology and ho‘o Hawai‘i it, or make it Hawaiian.”

Like their predecessors who painstakingly crafted stories letter by letter on newspaper presses, the folks at ‘Ōiwi are working to ho‘o Hawai‘i a foreign technology so that Hawaiian language and worldview can reach a wider audience of both native and non-indigenous people in Hawai‘i. “How you are related to the world and how you verbalize that relationship teaches you so much about your place in it,” says Lee. ‘Ōiwi’s commitment to ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i thus goes beyond numerical victories that show impressive increases in the number of Hawaiian language speakers. He adds, “Our society is broken right now, and the more we can get people—Hawaiian or non-Hawaiian—to speak the language and be supportive of an indigenous worldview that emphasizes balance between other people and the environment, the better off we’ll be.”

Oiwi-TV-FLUX-Hawaii‘Ōiwi TV is not alone in its conviction that Hawaiian knowledge and values have something to teach the world. In 2013, when the Polynesian Voyaging Society launched Hōkūle‘a’s Worldwide Voyage to spread the message of mālama honua, or “to care for our Earth,” across the globe, ‘Ōiwi TV was chosen to document the journey, streaming videos via satellite from the very beginning of the journey through its final moments in 2017. “This was an opportunity to take what we do at ‘Ōiwi TV and put it on the mothership,” says Lee. And he means it literally. ‘Ōiwi traces its genealogy to the Hōkūle‘a in more ways than one. Co-founder Nāʻālehu Anthony is a certified captain for the voyaging society, and directed Papa Mau: The Wayfinder, a 2012 feature-length documentary about the legendary sailing master Mau Piailug. Hōkūle‘a’s first voyage in 1976 began a movement to revitalize and respect indigenous knowledge. “Hōkūle‘a raised the consciousness of Pacific Islanders,” says Lee. “Now we can speak truth to power and bring that message to the rest of the world.”

On the Hōkūle‘a and her companion wa‘a (canoe), Hikianalia, ancient and modern technologies carry these truths across oceans and airwaves. Cameras and computers have proven less resilient than the well-trained crew, less able to withstand the constant salt spray and sun. “It’s hard work, but it affords us this incredible opportunity to be a part of something so important,” says Justyn Ah Chong, a director of photography for ‘Ōiwi, who helped document the Samoa to Aotearoa leg of the voyage. “What other production company could bring cultural knowledge, professional skills, and be on the wa‘a the whole time?”

The marriage of ancestral oceanic knowledge and cutting-edge communications technology onboard the sailing vessels shatter outdated conceptions of indigenous cultures as static “museum” cultures. Reflecting on his own changing perspective, Ah Chong says, “When I was younger, I kind of fell for the myth that the Hawaiian culture and language were dying. Working for ‘Ōiwi, I see people restoring ahupua‘a, working in the lo‘i, speaking the language, sailing around the world, and I know that it’s thriving.” Hōkūle‘a’s worldwide voyage—and ‘Ōiwi’s role in it—dares us to critique the failures of modernity and its relationship to the earth and to imagine the possibility of another way of living on this planet. “The values intrinsic in being island people, in terms of living together as a community with limited resources … that perspective is something that the whole world could learn from,” says Ah Chong.

It is hard to say with any kind of certainty that the world is ready to listen to the Hōkūle‘a’s message of mālama honua, or that ‘Ōiwi TV will succeed in its efforts to normalize the Hawaiian language and worldview here at home. But on any given morning in Maikiki, the sound of the pū calling from an inconspicuous house on Ke‘eaumoku Street is a sound of hope.

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