LAHAINA - He has traced his ancestors back 27 generations to ali'i chiefs, but for years - like many Hawaiians - he knew virtually nothing of his culture. Now he is an expert, a respected kupuna doing all he can to revive interest in and increase respect for his heritage.
His early life illustrates the frustrations of Hawaiians over the last century. Today, on this island, he is perhaps the foremost preserver of things Hawaiian.
Ke'eaumoku Kapu, easily the most influential Hawaiian involved with the Lahaina community, is a man of deep convictions. What he calls one magical week in 2008, he even walked around the entire island with a group of followers and sympathetic locals just to demonstrate.
Ke‘eaumoku Kapu (left) leads a group of Hawaiians and supporters of the culture into Lahaina after an epic walk around the island.
Conviction began to take shape early. At William McKinley High School in Oahu, his task was to raise the state flag each morning. The act was both ironic and distasteful, not because of the flag but who the school was named after.
In 1893, Grover Cleveland, president of the United States, wanted to reverse the U.S. takeover of the Hawaiian Kingdom. He was defeated, however, by one William McKinley. McKinley went along with sugar interests, and so Hawaii was officially annexed by the U.S. in 1898.
The irony of going to a school named after a guy who squashed Hawaiian sovereignty was not lost on Kapu.
Neither was the realization that he knew nothing about his own culture.
His own father, John Paul (Hawaiians often took Christian names), would "get whacked" for speaking Hawaiian in class. Suppress the language, the thinking apparently went, and you could suppress a culture - a common goal of some non-natives in those days.
During Ke'eaumoku's high school days, suppression was a little less harsh. Taught by his dad, Ke'eaumoku was fluent in Hawaiian. When he used it in school, it meant a trip to the principal's office and possible suspension. He, too, liked to challenge authority by speaking Hawaiian.
Ke'eaumoku said he was "brainwashed from the time I was four. If you spoke Hawaiian, it was a sign you were from yesterday. My dad had spent his whole life in Maui but worked in Oahu at a fish cannery. Later, he joined the U.S Marines and served in Korea," he said.
Born in Oahu, Ke'eaumoku described the island as "a concrete jungle. We were living under the State of Hawaii housing system. We didn't have land; we just had an apartment. Hawaiian natives were living at the poverty level.
"Hawaiian wasn't even a required language. No one even knew there was a language. The language survived within the homes of grandfathers and grandmothers," he continued.
"Samoans in school were allowed to speak Samoan, and Filipinos could speak Filipino, but Hawaiian was banned."
John Paul wanted more for his son, shipping him off to Oregon to get a better education. The experiment had its pluses and minuses. "People made fun and looked at me funny when I spoke broken up pidgin," he said.
He dropped out at 17, mostly because no one in the family was working then, and he needed to help financially. On returning, his dad joked that "now you sound just like a haole (foreigner)."
Ke'eaumoku's high school days are long gone. Today, with his wife, U'ilani, things are different. Both head amazing organizations (Aha Moku of Hawaii and Na 'Aikane) that are having an impact every day.
Next: Ke'eaumoku becomes a cultural warrior.
Columnist's Notebook: This column is part of a continuing series of short, hopefully readable essays on a culture that becomes more impressive the more a writer digs into it. This is the 40th cultural column that began with an interview of the late Kupuna Ed Lindsey in 2006, with King Kamehameha and unification of the islands (2010), and earlier this month, the first of several columns planned on Queen Lili'uokalani.