Samuel Elbert '28

Unforgettable Grinnellians

Monday, Sep. 15, 2008 3:23 am | By A. Ono '51


Died May 14, 1997

For many decades, it had become unfashionable, even rather awkward, for Hawaiians to speak Hawaiian, their own language. The language was dying.

But then Sam Elbert '28 came on the scene and recognized the importance of keeping the Hawaiian language alive. Over the last two decades or so, it has become acceptable to speak Hawaiian again. Elbert became an expert in the language, and with Mary Pukui, published a Hawaiian language dictionary.

Is this what a Grinnell education does for us -- helps us to recognize that which is important while the world forgets?

Today, there is a renaissance of the Hawaiian language. Young people are composing songs in Hawaiian. We even have a young classical guitarist from New Jersey who has transplanted himself here and has mastered the "slack-key" style that has become Hawaii. He's Flanaggan, one half of the Hapa -- which means mixed breed -- as his partner is Hawaiian. Another, Amy Hanaialii Gillom, studied voice at Julliard. She too now composes in Hawaiian. Most recently, I bought CDs of Jeff Peterson and Riley Lee playing a fusion of slack-key and Japanese shakuhatchi [bamboo flute]. That, in a nutshell, is what Hawaiian Renaissance in music is about.

But, the heart of the Hawaiian Renaissance is about the rebirth of pride among Hawaiians, and rightfully so. In scientific terms, it is like most languages -- not very useful in science and technology. But then, in the ancient Hawaiians, we had people like everywhere else ... starting with contemplation of the nightly migration of the stars and discerning its mystery in their own cosmology and myths. It is that common beginning that unites us all ... the wonderment of this universe. Of that, we can all be proud.

I thought I might take Elementary Hawaiian this semester -- but gave up the idea until I had time enough to pursue it seriously. I found that the University of Hawaii has 11 sections in that course, seven in second-year work, and three sections for the third year.

Sam Elbert, a Grinnellian, was quietly in the hub of the preservation of the Hawaiian language. I wish I could be that meaningful. He also wrote the text, Spoken Hawaiian. All this when the language had been spurned.


Originally published as an online web extra for The Grinnell Magazine, Fall 2008