Keahi, Sarah (on Hawaiian language)
Sarah Keahi is living a life dedicated to mea Hawai‘i. "A proud product of Hawai‘i’s public school system", Keahi once worked as a Hawaiian language teacher at Kamehameha Schools. She has taught the Hawaiian language to some of the most influential Hawaiian people of our time. In this edition of "Talking Story," Keahi shares her story of growing up in Papakōlea and how the women in her life shaped her into what she is today.
Camille: First, let’s just start with who you are and how you grew up. Where did you grow up?
Sarah: My name is Sarah Keahi. I was born on this island (O‘ahu). My mother’s family is from Moloka‘i and my father’s family is from Moloka‘i and Maui, but I was born on this island. I lived with my maternal grandmother, my mom’s mom Sarah Keahi who I’m named after, in Kaimukī up in Maunalani Heights. Then when I was about four I lived with my folks. We moved to different places and then we finally settled in Papakōlea. So I would say that I grew up in Papakōlea, but very close to my grandmother. I was named after her and I was kind of her punahele. I spent summers and weekends with my grandma and then when I was in college, grandma came and lived with us so that was really great.
Camille: Where did you go to school?
Sarah: I went to, actually I’m a proud public school product. I went to Pauoa Elementary, Stevenson Intermediate and Roosevelt High School just when Roosevelt was ending part of the English standard time, you know, when it was kind of like a public-private school. So, I grew up in Papakōlea, one of 10 children. There were five boys and five girls in our family. I was the middle girl and I was also kind of in the middle of the family. There was never a dull moment in our house.
Camille: Did you grow up on homestead land among lots of Hawaiians?
Sarah: Yeah! In fact at that time, Papakōlea was one of the three homestead areas with Waimānalo and Nānākuli. We were very active. My father was the president of the Papakōlea association for years. My mom was actively involved in the community. Yeah, so Papakōlea, grew up amongst lots of friends who came to Kamehameha, the Kapuniais and the Kaalakahis and even the Kukeas from down the street and Harold Johnson up the street, all over. I was surrounded by Kamehameha. We had lots of friends. I had a really good, busy childhood because my parents kept us really busy. My mom was active. She taught hula and she was an entertainer. She was home when we got home from school.
Camille: What was your mom’s name?
Sarah: Helen Smythe and then married my dad Ayat. Mom was really an active person. She had studied hula in ‘ūniki. She really ran a tight ship at home, I mean with 10 kids, that’s all you can really do is keep ahead of them. My mom was an amazing woman. She made our clothes. We raised our own food. We had vegetable gardens, we raised chickens. In fact, my dad always said, “No eat. No plant.” My mom was, if you can’t make hula skirts or leis or pick flowers for the graveyard, no plant. So our yard was filled with all these very wonderful plants. I think my love for plants really came from my childhood. Mom was there for us all the time. I said to mom, you know I can’t believe it, we’d come home from school and my mom would get a chicken, kill it, clean it, cook it, and eat it. I mean, I don’t know how to do that. I mean I couldn’t do that. She was really amazing.
Camille: She didn’t teach you guys how to do that?
Sarah: No, because we were in school. But she also kept the feathers, like the ducks and the chickens. She kept the feathers and she made feather leis and stuff, so you know, I learned to make feather leis from my mom and hula. She was a pretty incredible person.
Camille: What about the Hawaiian? Who spoke Hawaiian in your family?
Sarah: Well see, my mom spoke Hawaiian because her mother, Sarah, her mother was a pure Hawaiian from Moloka‘i.
Camille: Your mom was half?
Sarah: Yeah my mom was half. So, my grandma was a native speaker and grew up on Moloka‘i and then later on came to O‘ahu and then married a pure Haole engineer, Nicholas Smythe. He worked for James Dole, you know the first pineapple company. In fact, my grandfather invented the first pineapple slicing machine.
Camille: Very cool.
Sarah: Yeah. Later it was replaced by the Ginaca machine. So, grandpa was an engineer and he married my grandmother. My mom was half Hawaiian and her father was half German, half Scot. She had the best of both worlds. She had the grace and softness of her mom, but the assertiveness and aggressiveness of her father. She wouldn’t put up with any shenanigans.
Camille: What about your father?
Sarah: My dad is mostly from Maui. In fact, my dad was raised by his grandparents. His grandparents came from China, my great-grandfather. He came to Moloka‘i first, then Maui, met my great-grandmother, a Hawaiian woman. My great-grandfather had the first Chinese restaurant in Lahaina. When my dad was born, his mother passed away soon after he was born, so he was taken by the grandparents and raised on Maui by the grandparents. My grandfather owned that restaurant and my dad learned how to cook Chinese food. He cooked a lot of Chinese food for us. It was really great. My dad was the youngest of four. His father remarried again and had many more children, like eight or 10 after that. All the Ayats are related.
Camille: Ayat is a Chinese name?
Sarah: Yeah. It’s a Chinese name.
Camille: Moving forward. You have grown up knowing the Hawaiian language? Your speaking the Hawaiian language at home . . .
Sarah: Actually we didn’t speak it at home. When I was with Grandma, my grandma would have her friends and they would speak in Hawaiian and I knew words. She would say little things to you or they would speak Hawaiian when they don’t want you to know what they are talking about. She would say phrases and I would always ask. I was always nīele and I would always ask what’s this, what’s this. Then when I was in college she came to live with us. That’s where when I went to UH, I saw in the catalog Hawaiian 101. I thought, great. I’m going to take that. So I came home and I told Grandma, “Guess what Grandma. I’m going to take Hawaiian language.” She was stunned that it was even offered. So I took Hawaiian 101. It was really incredible because I walked into this class and sitting in this class was this old man with gray hair and dark skin and I thought oh this is going to be fun. This is going to be neat, it’s like my grandpa. It was Dr. Elbert, the co-author of the Hawaiian Dictionary, Sam Elbert. He explained to us that he wasn’t Hawaiian but that he was full Danish, but he lived in the Pacific all his life and he did all his work in the Pacific so that’s why his color. Dr. Elbert was such a gracious person. He was really the one that encouraged me to go on into Hawaiian. My grandmother was living with us and I got to practice with her. That was really great. So, I didn’t grow up speaking it. I actually had to take it formally, but I knew a lot of words and I heard phrases. You know, when you grow up you hear certain things, so I knew that, but it wasn’t until I went to the University that I studied formally.
Camille: Is that what you majored in?
Sarah: I was an English major. When I got there I was going to be an English teacher. Then Dr. Elbert sort of persuaded me. When I graduated, I had a double major in English and Hawaiian. I thought if ever I go to a school that doesn’t have Hawaiian, I could teach English and maybe encourage the school to start Hawaiian.
Camille: And that’s exactly what you did.
Sarah: Yeah, but what happened is, I was at UH and it was my senior year. In the college of education, you have to student teach. Junior year you do what’s called observation participation and they put you in a school and you go there and you observe the teacher. Then senior year you actually go in and teach a semester. I went to Farrington my junior year. I did my OP with Mrs. Liloi who was a McGregor and it was really great. I thought, well next year, I’ll come back and student teach at Farrington and I was scheduled to student teach at Farrington, but I got this call from Dr. Mitchell of Kamehameha Schools. He said, “You don’t know who I am, but I know who you are.” I said, “Really.” He said, “I understand that you are going to be doing your student teaching,” I said, “Yes.” He said, “How would you like to be doing your student teaching at Kamehameha Schools and student teach?” I went, “Really?” He said, “Yes,” and I said, “Oh, that would be great.” Anyway, he did all the arrangements for me ’cause I was already scheduled for Farrington. It was great. It was spring of 1966 and I graduated from UH at the end of that year. The following year, I came to Kamehameha and was hired full-time. I was at Kamehameha from then, until I retired in 2003. To be with Dr. Mitchell was just really incredible. When I came here, Dr. Mitchell and Nona Beamer were on the staff and these two people really made it so; they made Kamehameha what I pictured Kamehameha to be.
Camille: As a person who didn’t attend Kamehameha?
Sarah: Right. I had wanted to come here but my mom did not. My parents did not want me to come here. In those days the girls did senior cottage and my mom said, “Look. You come from a large family. You know how to do those things.” I said, “But that’s not all they do.” So, anyway I went to Roosevelt, which I don’t regret because Roosevelt was a rigorously academic school. I think that really helped me to be strong. But, I came to Kamehameha and Dr. Mitchell and Nona Beamer were so warm and welcoming and I felt really comfortable. Doctor Mitchell wrote this proposal to hire me as the Hawaiian language teacher because the Hawaiian language teacher before me had retired, Mrs. Kahananui, in 1964. Those were the days when they had to retire at age 70. She was forced to retire, but she went over to UH and I had her at UH. I was the only Hawaiian language teacher for many years, and now it’s so heartwarming for me to have like seven of my former students teaching on the staff.
Camille: It’s said that you were instrumental in creating programs for the Hawaiian language at Kamehameha?
Sarah: And other Hawaiian things. I was appalled. Here I am, an outsider thinking that those kids were so lucky. They’re going to Kamehameha learning about Hawaiiana. When I came here I found out that it wasn’t true. Dr. Mitchell’s class was the only class on Hawaiian culture and it was an elective. I thought, wow. I was really shocked. Dr. Mitchell and the Hawaiian people from the Kamehameha community proposed a requirement of several years in culture and history. Finally it materialized, with community pressure, and with the graduate surveys that they did. I think the students felt like they were really deficient when they went to the mainland. They sent these graduate surveys out and students said that one of the things Kamehameha was deficient in was that they didn’t know about who they were. When their mainland friends would ask them questions about Hawai‘i, they couldn’t answer them intelligently. They didn’t know when the Hawaiians came here, where they came from, they didn’t know anything. I think with our in-house proposing the requirement and the community, the Hawaiian community at the time it was sort of the renaissance, putting pressure on the school, I think all of those lead to finally the requirement in Hawaiian culture and Hawaiian history. I am happy to know that soon there will be a requirement in Hawaiian language. I think Kamehameha has come a long way. We really have come a long way for language. I taught Hawaiian culture, I taught Hawaiian language, I taught; I proposed this course in Hawaiian art because I looked around and they didn’t even have a Hawaiian art class. Kids were learning all these other things and I said, “Well, it’s wonderful for our kids to be broad based but they need to know about their own people. So, I proposed this course in Hawaiian art and they didn’t have somebody to teach it so they said, “You teach it.” So I did. I taught Hawaiian art for a little while. I was in the art department, I was in the social studies and I was in language, I was like agh. Finally, the language enrollment started to pick up and finally they were able to hire other people in social studies and art. That was great. I stuck pretty much to language because that’s why I came here, to teach Hawaiian language. I think that it’s a good idea for Hawaiian studies people to be able to teach Hawaiian in other areas. You know, to know culture and history and so forth.
Camille: Being that you have seen the progression, you were there at the height of the renaissance, now you are seeing it continue. Do you think we are where you thought we would be?
Sarah: Actually I think we are further. I’m pretty much an optimist. Even though when Dr. Elbert said to me, “You know, you don’t want to be an English major. You want Hawaiian.” I said, “but there’s no place that offers it.” At that time there weren’t. There was the University, but in terms of high schools, no. After Kamehameha then Saint Louis came along. Then as people came out of the University with Hawaiian language, my friend went to Kailua High School and then other schools started. For many years, Kamehameha and Saint Louis were probably the only two. That’s why we had a lot of student teachers because we couldn’t put them anywhere else. I’ve had student teachers in Hawaiian culture, in Hawaiian language because there weren’t other schools. I think we are further along and I’m really glad because it’s about time. I think the immersion program was an impetus for us. I think the immersion program; my department head Keala asked me, “Sarah, what do you attribute to the rise in enrollment in Hawaiian to?” I said, “You know, I really believe it’s a multiple of things. I think it’s the immersion program.” Randie (Fong) folks were taking trips to the South Pacific and I went on a couple of them and I said, “Our students are going down there. They’re interacting with students in New Zealand, the Māori, and the Tahitians and they come back and they’re feeling like those people can speak their language and we can’t speak.” A lot of students were joining hālau. So I think they were interested in learning Hawaiian and I think all of those things led to our increase in enrollment. I don’t think it was one thing. I think it was a multiple of things. But, I think the immersion program really jelled it. I’m really proud to say that Kamehameha has done a lot to help; I mean in Hawaiian studies we are incomparable. There’s nobody that can do Hawaiian studies like we can.
Camille: That’s the way it should be.
Sarah: Yes, given our history and given who our founder is. I mean in terms of high schools, we are the only high school that offers five years of a language. We have more students in Hawaiian now, from 7–12, then they do at the University. All my friends at the University say that our students come so well prepared. A lot of them are graduates.
Camille: Besides Hawaiian language and teaching, what else do you do that a lot of people might not know about?
Sarah: I was really into hula. In fact, I did ‘ūniki with Maiki Aiu Lake in 1973. In fact a lot of my hula brothers and sisters are famous, like Robert and Ala. People don’t know that about me. People are like, “Kumu I heard that you are a kumu hula.” ’Cause I don’t really, you know, I don’t have a hālau. When they find out that I’m a kumu hula, they say, “Oh, do you have a hālau?” My reason for studying with Maiki was not to have a hālau. I wanted to study with Maiki because I had studied with other kumu and my mom and Maiki were very good friends. When Maiki started this class, I thought I’d be interested in it. My colleague up here (Kamehameha Schools), Ho‘oulu, she and I were best buds and she worked in the Hawaiian studies institute and we both went. We both studied with Maiki and Ho‘oulu was actually the first kumu hula that ‘ūnikied with Maiki. Then the rest of us came a year later. You know, Maiki was going to retire, but she got so charged up with our class that she started to do more. That was a really wonderful experience.