Residents share their experiences learning the Hawaiian language in documentary ‘Ola Na Iwi’

  • The Kula Kaiapuni program graduating class of Ke Kula O Ehunuikaimalino in Kona. The film "Ola Na Iwi" documents the program from its start in 1988 through its progress to its current state, 30 years later. (Ola Na Iwi/Courtesy Photo)

KAILUA-KONA — Kalimahana Young was just a 6-year-old student when he became a part of an important and long-lasting educational program to keep the Hawaiian language alive.

Young’s story is just one of many being told through the documentary film “Ola Na Iwi,” which follows the Hawaii State Department of Education’s Kula Kaiapuni Hawaiian immersion program. The program began in 1988, and the film was created as a celebration of the program’s 30th anniversary.


“At the time, I didn’t realize it, but now that I’m out of it and looking back, I can see that it was valuable,” Young said. “It’s one of those things that you don’t know how good it is until it’s gone. So it wasn’t until after graduating and leaving that I realized that it was something different and something I was thankful for having experienced.”

“Ola Na Iwi” is playing throughout the year on the local Spectrum channel 356 and is also available online.

Young, who lives in Hilo, is just one of the several Hawaii Island residents interviewed for “Ola Na Iwi.” The film’s title is translated to “the bones live,” which comes from a Hawaiian proverb, and is said of a respected elder who is well cared for by their family.

Kaiapuni educators, students and parents of both past and present are interviewed on their experiences with the program, and how the prominence of the Hawaiian language has changed since the program’s introduction.

In the film, Mary Kalehua Kaleikoa and Larry Kimura speak about their experiences being punished in school for speaking Hawaiian, and how far the language has come in a few decades.

“Today, the Hawaiian language is desirable. You get paid,” they said in the film.

Ann Marie Kirk, who works for the Department of Education’s video production branch, is the director and producer of “Ola Na Iwi.” She traveled throughout the Hawaiian islands to find the stories from students and teachers that she felt needed to be shared with a wide audience.

“Usually this is like a two-year project, and I basically had less than a year to put it together,” Kirk said. “There was such support from the different schools that I spoke with, and then there was a real desire in making sure it was translated and subtitled, so that everyone can enjoy it.”

Kirk also directed a short documentary “Na Alii” about the relationship between Hawaiian royalty and the Department of Education. The film is being shown alongside “Ola Na Iwi” on Spectrum 356.

Teachers Puanani Wilhelm and Heanu Weller are some of the other Hawaii Island-based people besides Young who were a part of the immersion program and interviewed for the film. Kirk said she wants everyone in Hawaii to see it so that the program’s success shines.

“I hope that when people see ‘Ola Na Iwi,’ they really get a sense of the journey of the Hawaiian language program, and just the treasure this particular program is,” Kirk said. “To hear the Hawaiian language when they are out and about, it’s such a special thing. But the other thing is we need to normalize it, too.”

For Young, he hopes the film inspires people to want to learn the language. He said “Ola Na Iwi” works as an explanation of the history of the Hawaiian language in schools.


“My friends that I went to school with, some of my coworkers as well, and then my mom and my sister speak Hawaiian, too. We don’t always speak Hawaiian, but every once in a while we’ll speak Hawaiian at home,” Young said. “The program helps people build that identity as Hawaiian people. It helps them discover who they are and where they’re from, and it connects the speaker to their past.”

Info: To watch “Ola Na Iwi” online, visit “Na Alii” can be viewed at

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