Paige Okamura ’09

A Voice for Hawai‘i

By Rachel Breitweser ’03

In the early hours of the morning, then second-grader Paige Okamura ’09 would arrive by bus to Punahou from her hometown of Hale‘iwa, well ahead of her classmates. And every morning, “Uncle” Pal Eldredge ’64 opened up his third-grade classroom to her to pass the quiet time before the start of school.

In the beginning, that daily bus ride put distance between Okamura and her hometown Hawaiian community. “I felt like I lived a double life,” she shares. As a Hawaiian, she felt like an ethnic minority at school, then would return home only to feel like an outsider because she’d spent her day learning and growing on the other side of the island.

Third grade with teacher Mary Kāne started to bridge that gap. She could relate to the Hawaiian-centered curriculum because it was something she practiced at home. In high school, she came into her own. “There were many opportunities for me to sink my teeth into that I was already grounded in,” Okamura says, adding that Hawaiian culture and language faculty Ka‘au McKenney ’83 and Hattie Eldredge ’66 Phillips helped her interest in Hawaiian language to bloom.

Through Wo International Center and Luke Center for Public Service, she grew up with a mindset toward making a positive impact on community. “Punahou has always been teaching us to be invested in our culture or a culture,” she remarks. Attending the School was a big source of pride for Okamura and her family, especially her grandfather.

During a time when students were feeling pressured to pursue business or economics (she graduated soon after the Great Recession began), College Counselor Myron Arakawa ’66 supported her passion to study ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i – Hawaiian language – in college.

Just as she sees the University of Hawai‘i intentionally positioning itself as a Hawaiian place of learning, she sees Punahou “making big strides to push faculty to be part of cultural movements and looking for ways to expand the Hawaiian curriculum beyond the required third grade and seventh grade lessons. Punahou is always ahead of the curve, leading innovation in facilities and also learning practices. I was lucky to go there as a Hawaiian; it’s an opportunity that not all Hawaiians have.”

Okamura is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Hawaiian language from University of Hawai‘i, Mānoa, and works as a graduate assistant in cultural and historic research, translating Hawaiian newspapers from 1834 – 1960s into English.

“The collection of newspapers is the largest repository of Hawaiian knowledge, and we only currently use 3 percent of it,” she explains. She and her colleagues are helping a wider audience access that knowledge. Her current focus is on weather and natural disasters, and she recently translated an article about the 1881 Kīlauea eruptions. She says the work has advanced her language skills, especially since she can see how the language has evolved since the 1880s: “It’s a lot like reading old English.”

Okamura is also deeply embedded in Hawaiian as a spoken language. Dubbed DJ Mermaid, Okamura has hosted a weekly show called “Kai Leo Nui” on the university’s KTUH radio station for the past four years. She speaks both Hawaiian and English so that the show can serve as a lesson in language and history. Her music choices span from traditional to contemporary, with an ear toward “good pronunciation” and pieces that don’t get much playtime, if any, on commercial radio stations.

As part of the Hawaiian language revival, Okamura is hopeful about the perspective shift that it entails, noting that there are times when her own thoughts are better expressed through Hawaiian than English. “Cultural revival stems from learning the language. With a knowledge of the language, you can learn about your history and do your own research,” she comments. With this shifting paradigm, an interest in Hawaiian knowledge, values and practices grows naturally – inspiration for Okamura to continue her work as a champion for the language.

Nana i ke Kumu Look to the Source

The traditional saying popularized by Mary Kawena Pukui is often invoked as a reminder of the ancestral wisdom at the heart of Hawaiian culture. By honoring our roots and history, we are better equipped to face the present and shape the future. As ‘ike Hawai‘i, Hawaiian knowledge, becomes more intentionally woven into the Punahou experience, the School’s graduates can honor and represent the host culture of their home, wherever they end up in the world.

The featured alumni in the fall 2018 issue of the Punahou Bulletin demonstrate the impact that Punahou graduates can have on Hawai‘i, as well as the different ways their Punahou experience informed their life’s calling. From hula to aloha ‘āina to ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i, their work strengthens the bridge between ke kumu, the source (or the teacher), with an inspiring vision for Hawai‘i’s future.

See related profiles about Leslie Māpuana Howell ’67 de Silva and Matthew Kapalikū Schirman ’92.