First-ever Hawaiian
master’s in sight

The UH-Hilo graduate student
also studied Hawaiian literature

By Rod Thompson

HILO >> To earn his degree at the University of Hawaii-Hilo, Hiapo Perreira studied the legend of the Kauai hero Kawelo, who broke with the status quo to better the lives of his people.

University of Hawaii

Perreira, 27, raised on Oahu in a family originating on Kauai, is following Kawelo's example.

When Perreira graduates May 18, he will become the first person ever to receive a master's degree in Hawaiian language and literature.

His will be the first master's degree in any subject granted by UH-Hilo, and he will be the first person in the nation to receive an advanced university degree in any indigenous language in the United States.

"I have dedicated my life to the preservation and revitalization of the Hawaiian language and culture," he said.

"My interests stem from the early high school days, when I would seek out kupuna to strengthen my knowledge of Hawaiian language and values," he said.

He grew up in a family in which no one spoke Hawaiian.

At Kamehameha Schools, of which he is a 1992 graduate, he was urged to study a "world" language like Japanese. He knew a little of the language from his grandmother, born in Japan. But Hawaiian attracted him.

"I just wanted to know actually what people were saying," he said.

At UH-Hilo he met Hawaiian language professors who had also faced discouragement. William "Pila" Wilson had a doctorate in linguistics because there was no degree in Hawaiian.

That was like wanting to study Shakespeare but being told to study English grammar, Wilson said.

Perreira earned his bachelor's degree in 1996 and entered UH-Hilo's new Hawaiian master's program funded by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.

"My cohort (of students) was at the tip of the spear, because what we were doing had never been done before," he said.

"The worst part of the program was working two jobs while going to school full time. I would have like to have had more time for research," he said.

His research included a week in Spain studying the revival of minority languages Catalan and Basque. And he discovered the 300-page story of Kawelo, serialized in 1909-1910 in a Hawaiian language newspaper.

He rewrote the story in modern spelling, then expanded the book-length work into a 438-page master's thesis with notes and commentary to assist new readers. The book is intended for fourth-year Hawaiian language students.

"I wanted it to be used," he said.

And every word is in Hawaiian. "It was important for me to write my thesis in Hawaiian to show that scholarly work can be done in Hawaiian," he said.

His work is not over. He wants to continue "at the tip of the spear" to create a doctoral program in Hawaiian language at UH-Hilo.

University of Hawaii

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