Languages of Water: Arapaho and Hawaiian

  • Kate A. BerryEmail author
  • Teresa Cavazos Cohn
  • Katrina-Ann R. Kapāanaokalāokeola Nākoa Oliveira
  • Iva Moss Redman
Living reference work entry


What are the parallels between language and water? Both erode and deposit. They shape landscapes. Both have power and are shaped by power, positioned at the center of life. The bridges between internal and external landscapes of two Indigenous languages, Arapaho and Hawaiian, are examined by considering the ways in which language connects to water. How do the Hawaiian and Arapaho languages position water both linguistically and geographically? How have representations of water changed linguistically through colonization and water infrastructure shifts? How have past ideas, knowledge, and experiences associated with language and water been deployed in contemporary initiatives to build Indigenous communities? As centers of cultural vitality and source of life, water and language endure change because of their fluid nature; their essence is to transform. This paper presents observations about the ways in which water and language have been connected to resilience for both Hawaiian and Arapaho peoples.


Water Indigenous languages Hawaiian language Arapaho language 


Consider for a moment water as a defining element of place. Water as it sculpts sand and stone, revealing terrain and unearthing the past. Water as it invites flora and fauna, attracting colors to the land. Water as it resonates, characterizing sound. Water as it orients human landscapes, delineating spaces of power from those impoverished. Consider for a moment, water as central in shaping events and space. Elusive or knowable, transient or persistent, benign or aggressive – water may be any of these things. Where, when, and how water assumes these qualities shapes place, structuring geographies, histories, and peoples (Berry 2006a).

Consider for a moment language as the defining essence of people in place. Language as it names stone and stream, through story remembering the past. Language as it invites poetry and song, attracting colors to the land. Language as it resonates, transforming sound. Language as it orients human interactions and culture, delineating spaces of power from those impoverished. Consider for a moment, language as central in shaping events and space. Elusive or knowable, transient or persistent, benign or aggressive – language may be any of these things. Where, when, and how language assumes these qualities shapes places, structuring geographies, histories, and peoples.

Consider, finally, water and language as relatives, both pivotal in shaping place. They erode and deposit, both changing landscapes. Water and language have power and are shaped by power, positioned at the center of life. Palmer (2016, p. 436) sees water as “the ultimate medium for the conversations that continually create the world ... [a] substance [which] acts forever as a meeting place and medium” (quoting MacLeod 2013, p. 49). As centers of cultural vitality and sources of life, water and language maintain their fluidity and their transformational natures.

This paper looks at water through two different Indigenous languages, Arapaho and Hawaiian. This is an important way to approach “thinking relationships through water,” as Krause and Strang (2016) urge. In this paper the ways in which language connects to water are examined and, conversely, how water has been and continues to be connected to language. Starting in the distant past, changes are traced up through the present, ending with a discussion about how past ideas, knowledge, and experiences associated with language and water have been deployed in contemporary initiatives.

Before Language Was Written, Before Waters Were Owned


In the beginning there was only water, a man sitting on a Flat Pipe floating on the water, and an array of birds. Needing their help, the man called to the birds and asked them to dive down into the water to find the bottom. Each one tried and failed until the last bird–a duck–dove down. For days the duck was under the water while the man waited finally surfacing with mud on its feet. Then a turtle dove down, and again arrived days later with mud on its body. The man took the mud and spread it on the Flat Pipe to dry, then blew it in four directions to create the Earth, making motions over the ground to create its waters. The final shape of the world was as a turtle, with lakes and rivers on its surface, and the great water beyond. (Dorsey and Kroeber 1903; Cowell et al. 2014)

The Arapaho creation story exemplifies the paradoxical nature of water: water takes life, water gives life, water is both a barrier and conduit, and out of water comes both destruction and what everyone needs. In its many facets, and since time immemorial, the Arapaho people have believed Nec Hiine’itiit, water is life. The creation story enforces a value of water as a powerful and essential element and sacred to all who are living. Without water, earth would not exist, life would not exist, and humanity would not exist. To hold water sacred, the traditions of the Arapaho people teach generation after generation to respect and honor the water, whether it manifests as chaotic or calm.

In the Arapaho language, water is nec, and several morphemes describe its presence on the landscape:

niicie (river)

niiciihehe’ (little river)

ni’ec (lake)

nooxeb or hooxeb (spring)

koh’owu’ (stream)

The Arapaho language represents the westernmost part of the Algonquian language family, and like many American Indian languages, Arapaho is polysynthetic. Its words are composed of morphemes, or like water, by basic structural building blocks that cannot be divided. The verb is the “heart of the language” (Cowell and Moss 2008, p. 7). The Arapaho language is composed of 12 consonants, 4 vowels, 3 diphthongs, and a pitch accent (Cowell and Moss 2008).

Before settling in the reservation era (1878) at the confluence of three waterways – the Wind River (wootei-niicie), Popo Agie (boo’oowu’), and Little Wind River (hoteiniiceii) – Arapaho people recall an ancestral movement along the vast expanse of water bodies that supported their migrations. Songs, stories, and Arapaho words themselves are reminders of these histories. For example, the current clan name “Big Water,” refers to an early inhabitation of the Great Lakes region. Other sources note religious and linguistic affinity to the Cree and the Arapaho word for one of its subtribes, Beesowuunenno’, which refers to dome-shaped structures typical in Eastern Woodlands (Anderson 2001).

Additional Arapaho stories describe specific events as they traveled. For example, a well-known narrative recalls a time when a group of Arapaho crossed the Missouri River and found a buffalo horn protruding from the ice. When a grandmother, urged by her granddaughter, chopped the buffalo horn from its skull, the river ice split, leaving some people on one side of the river, and some on the other; the Arapaho people divided. While there is no single interpretation of this story, several sources suggest the story remembers the division of the Arapaho and Gros Ventre people (Cowell et al. 2014; Anderson 2001) and the Gros Ventre is the closest linguistic relative to the Arapaho language.

Before language was written and water was owned, language and water flowed freely, uncontained. Like the pre-dammed Missouri River flowing from its headwaters across the Great Plains, sometimes fluctuating by 30 ft in height and several miles in width (Schneiders 1999), the Arapaho language was dynamic, shaping and shaped by the landscape of the Arapaho people. Words eroded from the Arapaho language with movement away from particular landscapes and as groups split into subgroups; words were deposited by the merging of subgroups and movement through different landscapes.


E ui aku ana au iā ʻoe,

One question I ask of you,

Aia i hea ka wai a Kāne?

Where is the water of Kāne?

Aia i luna ka wai a Kāne,

Up high is the water of Kāne,

I ke ʻōuli, i ke ao ʻeleʻele,

In the heavenly blue, in the black piled cloud,

I ke ao panopano,

In the black cloud,

I ke ao pōpolohua mea a Kāne lā, ē!

In the black mottled sacred cloud of the gods;

Aia i laila ka wai a Kāne.

There is the water of Kāne

E ui aku ana au iā ʻoe,

One question I ask of you,

Aia i hea ka wai a Kāne?

Where is the water of Kāne?

Aia i lalo, i ka honua, i ka wai hū,

Deep in the ground, in the gushing spring,

I ka wai kau a Kāne me Kanaloa,

In the ducts of Kāne and Kanaloa,

He waipuna, he wai e inu,

A well spring of water, to quaff,

He wai e mana, he wai e ola,

A water of magic power – the water of life!

E ola nō, ea!

Life! O give us this life!

Excerpt from Aia i hea ka wai a Kāne? Where are the waters of Kāne?

Since time immemorial, wai (freshwater or water) in ka pae ʻāina Hawaiʻi (the Hawaiian archipelago) has cascaded down the mountain slopes, collected in streams, and continued to the ocean. As the water flowed downstream, ʻauwai (small irrigation ditches) diverted some water from streams into wetland kalo (taro) gardens known as loʻi. Water flowed from one loʻi to another, providing cool running water to each before the nutrient-enriched water returned to the stream. Water, land, atmosphere, and sea were explicitly recognized as interrelated systems upon which humans relied. Hawaiian narratives, chants, and stories reveal attitudes toward water in which the resources relate to human beings as if they were part of an extended family (Chang 1989).

In ancestral times, Hawaiians had a subsistence lifestyle based upon reciprocity with the ʻāina (land; that which feeds) and wai. ʻĀina was considered to be an elder sibling of Native Hawaiians. Great respect for the ʻāina and its resources is reflected in the ancestral proverb, “He aliʻi ka ʻāina, he kauā ke kanaka” (the land is chief; the people are its servants). In order to maintain a subsistence lifestyle, access to water was based on the principles of aloha ʻāina (caring for the land and living in harmony with the natural environment) (Oliveira 2014). Equally important, wai was a communal resource, shared and governed for the common good. Traditionally, Hawaiian culture, language, politics, and economy were intertwined with ancestral management of the environment, designed to ensure that water was properly cared for. Management was based upon ahupua’a (water-land-sea management units that typically extended from the mountains into the sea) and a socially stratified system in which konohiki (chiefs of ahupua’a) regulated the use of wai, the physical embodiment of the god Kāne (Derrickson et al. 2002). Konohiki and their luna wai (water managers) had the authority to limit water use to those who actively contributed to the maintenance of ʻauwai (Nakuina 1893). Figure 1 is an example of `auwai system in Nu’uanu valley, Oahu.
Fig. 1

Map of the ‘auwai system in Nu’uanu valley. Natural streams are in dark blue and ‘auwai are in light blue. Overlaid on 1888 Hawaiian Government Survey map drawn by S.E. Bishop. (Credit: R.D.K. Herman, Pacific Worlds website)

While there was no concept of environmental ownership per se, there were expectations by the gods that humans would act as good stewards – managing, using, and protecting water, land, and sea appropriately. So wai and other resources were not seen as commodities to be bought and sold, but on the contrary, Hawaiians had an intimate relationship with both ‘āina and wai. For example, not only were places named but so too were the rains of different places. For example, ‘Oninipua’i’o is the sea rain associated with Hāna, Maui, and with the saying Ua pau, ke ho’i nei māua me ka ua ‘Oninipua’i’o i ka moana (The end; returning with the ‘Oninipua’i’io rain to the ocean) (Akana and Gonzalez 2015 – a book dedicated entirely to the various names associated with Hawaiian rain).

The Hawaiian language reflected that notion that control of wai was associated with power. Not surprisingly, the reduplicated form, waiwai, means many things: wealth, prosperity, and possession. Wai was also the basis of kānāwai, or law. Kānāwai originated from the systems deployed to allocate waters of a stream. As such, linguistically water became the foundation for law (Handy and Handy 1991).

When Laws Wrote Water, When Language Was Dammed


Nih’oo3oo was walking downstream.

He reached a steep bank.

He saw plums in the water.

Then he dived under the water [but failed to get the plums].

He dived under the water again [but again failed].

Then he tied rocks onto his hands and his feet.

Then he dived under the water again, because he was looking for plums in the water.

Then he floated back up to the surface on his back.

Right nearby he saw plums hanging on a bush [above his head].

(Cowell et al. 2014, p. 88)

Nih’oo3oo (the “Old White Man”) is the Arapaho trickster and fool (Cowell et al. 2014) named after the way spiders, released from sacs, spread outward uncontrollably in masses. Nih’oo3oo stories often portray the unintended consequences of short-sightedness and greed.

As Euro-Americans spread, they began recording the movement of the Arapaho people on paper during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, often locating the Arapaho people alongside their waterways. Jean Baptiste Trudeau recorded Arapaho people near the Cheyenne River (1795); Pierre-Antoine Tabeau noted them between the Yellowstone and Platte rivers (1804); Lewis and Clark found their lodges on the Yellowstone, Cheyenne, and headwaters of the Platte rivers (1804); and Alexander Henry recorded them on the Platte and on a river to the south, likely the Arkansas River (Fowler 1982). The Treaty of 1851 wrote the Arapaho and Cheyenne people into lands bounded by the North Platte River to the north, Arkansas River to the south, and the continental divide to the west (Kappler 1904; Fowler 1982). The Arapaho people – who had moved fluidly with and among the buffalo (hii3einoon) – became increasingly bound by the language within the four edges of a page.

Such language altered relationships with the waters and lands. The buffalo – which Chief Medicine Man said once “made the prairie look black all around us” – dwindled and disappeared. On November 29, 1864, volunteer soldiers attacked over 500 Cheyenne and Arapaho at an encampment on Sand Creek (nii-cii-nec-iini’) without provocation (Fowler 1982). The gold rush brought increased pressures, and to avoid increasing conflict and declining resources, the Southern Arapaho moved south to the Canadian River in Indian Territory and the Northern Arapaho north, eventually moving with military escort to join the reluctant Eastern Shoshone people of the Shoshone Indian Reservation on what would become the Wind River Indian Reservation in 1878 (Cowell and Moss 2008; Anderson 2001). When the Arapaho language roamed with the buffalo, water wrote the land. When notes on paper contained people in place, men wrote laws and laws wrote water.

When laws wrote water, the words said “first in time is first in right” and water was owned. When laws wrote water, the words said “use it or lose it” and water moved with the words. When laws wrote water, water became a commodity which could be bought and sold. Laws written on paper drew lines on the land in an attempt to confine and control. The Winters Doctrine of 1908 guaranteed tribes the right to enough water “to make the reservation livable” (Pevar 2002, p. 206), but, like many tribes, the Arapaho people struggled to make life livable. Due to disease and starvation, their numbers dwindled to fewer than 1000 (Fowler 1982). Fluid movement between the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains became confined. The Arapaho language lost the fluency of this movement, and the multilingual nature of its nomadic people declined, which included Indian sign language (Anderson 2009; Gross 1951). When laws wrote water, they wrote in English. The word nec did not appear on the page.

Water and wellsprings of culture and vitality were first diverted and then depleted. As settlers continued to spread westward in increasing numbers, tribes were pressured into smaller spaces through land cessions and allotments; water was commonly diverted away from tribal lands to serve new Euro-American settlement needs (Pisani 2002). In 1905, Congress ceded over half the Wind River Reservation – all lands north of the Wind River – to the federal government to allow for Euro-American settlement. By then the newly formed Reclamation Service had mapped irrigation opportunities for the soon-to-be-ceded tribal lands (Fig. 2), lands that became the Riverton Irrigation Project through damming the Wind River and constructing a series of reservoirs and canals (Wyoming State Engineer 1905–1906). Estimated at 265,000 irrigable acres, the newly ceded tribal lands were advertised to new settlers as “uniform and of first class quality” with the note that “Three things make the climate here the most enjoyable on the continent; eighty-five percent of the days are full of sunshine and blue sky, and every day dry air” (US Reclamation Service 1917; Wyoming Central Irrigation Company 1907, p. 2). But when a rush of land seekers arrived by train “and saw great patches of white sand, with the nearest tree ten miles away, they just felt like getting on the cars again and kicking themselves all over” (Wind River Mountaineer 1981). Lands north of the Wind River were found to be of poorer quality than expected, and irrigation infrastructure was vastly more expensive than anticipated.
Fig. 2

Map of proposed irrigation development. 8th Biennial Report of the State Engineer 1905–1906, p. 50

In 1939 the trend of losing tribal lands reversed. All lands north of the river that had not sold were returned to the tribes, except the Riverton Irrigation Project, which was still fed by diverted Wind River water. The reservation extended across 2.2 million acres, with the Euro-American irrigation project as a hole in its center that held some of the region’s most fertile agricultural lands and much of the water. In 1950, as part of the Pick-Sloan Plan, a final 19,000 acres of land was alienated from the reservation through a government taking for the construction Boysen Dam and its reservoir and power plant (US Bureau of Reclamation 1951). Rich riparian bottomlands along the Wind River were inundated (Fig. 3).
Fig. 3

Aerial images of Boysen Dam area depicting bottomlands flooded when Boysen Dam was completed in 1952. (Image (a) 1948/49 aerial imagery (US Geological Survey) and (b) 2006 imagery (National Agriculture Imagery Program))

When laws wrote water, dollars “had a way of sliding off the Indian side of the ledger and onto the non-Indian side” (O’Gara 2000, p. 249), and water was made to flow north to water non-Indian lands. When the language was dammed, federal government agents made efforts to divert language fluency from Arapaho to English. Family names were Anglicized (Salzmann 1951): names like Arthur, Monroe, and Garfield were taken from Presidents. Other names were changed. Six Spears became Shakespeare (Anderson 2003), the Red Wolf family became Redman, Young Chiefs became Moss, and Brown Bears and Lone Bears became Browns.

Arapaho children were taken from their families and sent to boarding schools. If they ran away, they were caught and returned. While some Northern Arapaho children were sent to distant boarding schools, many Arapaho children were required to attend either the St. Stephen’s or St. Michael’s Mission schools on the reservation remembered for the beatings of students who spoke Arapaho rather than English. Elder Val Norman remembered (Shoshone Homelands Project 1991):

All I spoke was the Indian language. Boy, I had to learn fast, ‘cause those instructors made sure we learned fast. You couldn’t talk your own language among each other, if they caught you, why, you were in for it again. You’re facing the wall or kneeling down or else – Sometimes they give you – another weapon, in other words. If they think you needed it, then they’d let you have it. Some of those kids in there, they’d be in their rooms bawling their eyes out.

By the middle of the twentieth century, men left the reservation to fight for the United States in World War II. When they returned, they listened to radios instead of Arapaho stories (Oldman 2016, personal communication). Powerlines drew from dams and the radios spoke English. Grandparents still spoke Arapaho and used Indian sign language; parents spoke English and Arapaho; and their children and grandchildren spoke only English.

When laws wrote water and language was dammed, Nih’oo3oo was tricked by the reservoir’s reflection. He saw the reflection of the plums and overlooked the reflection of his greed.


I ka `ōlelo nō ke ola, i ka `ōlelo nō ka make (In language is contained the power of life and death)

Originally ka ʻōlelo Hawai‘i (the Hawaiian language) was an oral language, one that wielded great power. Language – particularly in poetic forms, prayer, and chants – could create and destroy (Wilson 1998). Words changed realities.

In the 1820s foreign missionaries worked with Hawaiians to develop an alphabet that included five vowels (a, e, i, o, u) and eight consonants (h, k, l, m, n, p, t, w) as well as two diacritical marks, the ʻokina (or glottal stop) and the kahakō (or macron) (Warschauer et al. 1997). Reading and writing were vigorously embraced by Hawaiians, who preserved a large body of oral literature in their own language (Chang 2016). In the Kingdom of Hawai’i, Hawaiian was a language of governance, media, education, and inter-ethnic communication. Although English language use became increasingly common, textuality and literacy in Hawaiian thrived during much of the nineteenth century. For example, in a Hawaiian language newspaper, J.H. Kānepu’u published a series of articles, Ka Honua Nei a me na Mea a Pau Maluna Iho (The World and All the Things Upon It), that included a discussion of over 32,000 words about Hawaiians’ geographic knowledge of the world and what they sought to know (Chang 2016). Language had yet to be dammed; words flowed with little obstruction.

Throughout much of the first half of the nineteenth century, laws that wrote water were Hawaiian. Oral traditions and law in Hawai`i continued to support water control systems and system of governance from ali’i to luna wai that had developed over the decades and centuries to sustain the intensive cultivation of kalo. Law prioritized flows for kalo over other uses and ensured that people who worked in lo’i and maintained the `auwai received water (Berry 2014). Such laws allowed streams to be diverted, levees to be constructed, diversion channels to be built, and water conflicts to be resolved, but water still remained in streams bound for the sea. Water was essential to wetland kalo production, and kalo culture was essential to Hawaiian culture (Fig. 4). Language reflected the link between human culture, water, and agriculture; the kalo sprout, or `ohā, was the basis for the human family, `ohana (Handy and Handy 1991).
Fig. 4

A kalo lo’i in June 2018. The first kalo (taro) crop in Kahoma Valley, Maui, grown in more than a century after Hawaiians successfully petitioned for return of 85% of the streamflow. (Source: K. Oliveira)

During the second half of the nineteenth century, laws rewrote water. English language and western law became increasingly influential as a growing number of legislators, government officials, and others traced their ancestry and ideas back to the US rather than Hawai`i. An official Commission of Right of Ways and Water Rights (commission) was established in each district throughout the Kingdom to make legally binding decisions about local water conflicts, altering traditional water conflict resolution and governance. While the commissions addressed the pragmatic needs of resolving water conflicts and bolstered the sovereign authority of the Kingdom, they also tended to adopt the language and forms of Euro-American water institutions. Thus, they became a means to modernize and transform water (Berry 2014).

With the law of the Great Māhele at midcentury, property rights were ushered into Hawai’i. While land systems changed dramatically, water governance was also reconfigured so irrigation water could be secured for major export crops. Although the words “first in time, first in right” and “use it or lose it” never took hold in Hawai’i, the language of water changed. Water allocation privileged agricultural plantations, which became central to Hawai’i’s economy for nearly a century. Rather than supporting kalo, waters were redirected to irrigate export crops, the most significant of which was sugar. In the last decade of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth century, immense transbasin diversions were engineered to move waters from many streams on the windward sides to the leeward sides for irrigation in sugar plantations. As a result, many windward streams slowed to a mere trickle or ran dry completely, and little water was left to sustain flows for kalo (Berry 2006b). By the last decade of the nineteenth century, laws wrote water to favor the demands not of Hawaiians but of other residents of the archipelago.

During this same time, language was dammed. In the wake of the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893 by American agriculturalists, Hawaiian language was banned from schools and actively suppressed. Overt and covert language suppression continued for nearly three-quarters of the twentieth century to the point that Hawaiian nearly bordered on extinction. Yet, the Hawaiian language did not disappear. Just as damming the language did not permanently restrict the flow of words, the laws that wrote water did not extinguish desire for water.

As Language Revives, as Waters Endure


Nec ni'iihiine'etiitooni' (People live by means of water)

Concern for reinvigorating the Arapaho language mounted in the 1960s and early 1970s with the recognition that few Arapaho children were learning their language (Greymorning 2011). Pius Moss began teaching Arapaho in schools in 1969. This was followed by the formation of the Arapaho Language and Culture Commission and the production of a dictionary with Zdenek Salzmann in 1983, Dictionary of Contemporary Arapaho Usage. In 1994, Steven Greymorning and elders began an Arapaho language immersion kindergarten, advised by the Hawaiian Pūnana Leo consultants (Greymorning 1997, 2011). Both Wind River Tribal College and Central Wyoming College initiated Arapaho classes for older students, and a second immersion school, the Arapaho Language Lodge, opened in 2008.

Despite the accomplishments, language revival has been fraught with challenges. When attempting to expand hours of Arapaho language learning in schools, Steve Greymorning (1997) recalls fighting against school administrators who believed assimilation was the best for students. Today, the Arapaho language has dwindled to 40 fluent speakers. Yet this has not deterred continued efforts to revive their language. The Arapaho Tribe maintains two early childhood language immersion programs and recently developed a language app for iPads in public schools as well as a website to support revitalization in collaboration with the University of Colorado, Boulder (The Arapaho Language Project).

To ensure that their waters endure, the Northern Arapaho Tribe, in conjunction with the Eastern Shoshone Tribe with whom they share the Wind River Indian Reservation, became conversant with law. Feeling the pressure of increasing water demands and a limited water supply, the state of Wyoming (1977) filed a water rights adjudication that involved the Northern Arapaho’s and Eastern Shoshone’s waters. Eleven years later, the US Supreme Court jointly awarded the tribes a Winters water right of nearly 500,000 acre feet with an 1868 priority date (Robison 2015). A portion of the newly acknowledged rights were dedicated to instream flow as a way to support declining fisheries, but the state resisted this designation. In 1992 the Wyoming Supreme Court ruled that instream flows were not a beneficial use of water and that the Wyoming State Engineer, not the tribes, would administer water rights on the Wind River Reservation (Robison 2015). In order to use their substantial water rights, it would seem that water must essentially be diverted from rivers and streams.

The Wind River Tribes monitor and address water quality threats affecting reservation waters. A uranium and vanadium processing facility, for example, produced “yellowcake” for nuclear reactor uranium fuel (1958–1963) and left 1.8 million cubic yards of tailings that contaminate reservation groundwater (Ranalli and Naftz 2014). Additional water contamination has taken place north of the Wind River as a result of oil and gas activities (DiGuilio et al. 2011). To better control water quality issues, and alongside the Eastern Shoshone, the Arapaho Tribe is working toward Treatment as State (TAS) status to govern the water quality of reservation waters. Against considerable state pressures, the tribes have achieved TAS status for air quality (EPA 2012).

To ensure that the Arapaho language revives and their waters endure is not a simple task. These take vigilance along with conversancy with law, funding, decision-making, and action. Although the Arapaho face increasing pressures with respect to both language and water, during the past half-century efforts continue to maintain a living language and support their waters.


Uē ka lani, ola ka honua. (When the heaven weeps, the earth lives.)

After decades of suppression, an interest in Hawaiian language started to emerge in the public sphere in the 1960s and 1970s (Warschauer et al. 1997). By 1978 Hawaiian was reinstituted as the official state language along with English, and by the mid-1980s not only were more adults learning the language through college courses, but many children were being taught Hawaiian. During the past half-century, thousands of children have been in full-time Hawaiian immersion programs in preschools or studied the language in public and private schools.
Today language revitalization, especially youth language education in Hawaiian, is a unifying force in the constructing Hawaiian places where collective discourse can be shaped and common sense forged. A new politics of language and identity has been emerging, a political and cultural discourse rooted in the liberation of language itself. Despite deep political and economic cleavages that splinter Hawaiians and the backlash that Herman (1999) points out as inevitable in the footsteps of increasing the cultural capital of Hawaiian language, the language remains powerful. Haunani-Kay Trask, a well-known Hawaiian activist, believes that much of Hawaiian history would have been written differently if historians knew the Hawaiian language:

None of the historians had ever learned our mother tongue. They had all been content to read what Europeans and Americans had written. But why did scholars, presumably well-trained and thoughtful, neglect our language? Not merely a passageway to knowledge, language is a form of knowing by itself…. (Trask 1987, p. 172)

Initiatives to revive Hawaiian language have also been connected to efforts to ensure that waters endure. A significant example is the re-emergence and reorientation around ahupua’a in the past few decades (Berry 2002). Educational materials designed for schoolchildren about ahupua’a have become popular in Hawai`i. There are children’s books, written in both Hawaiian, English, and sometimes in both languages, that describe the significance of ahupua’a. In the 1990s the Kamehameha Schools produced a poster on ahupua’a for classroom use and an accompanying teacher’s guidebook. Websites provide images and text about ahupua’a, disseminating information about the historical and cultural grounding of ahupua’a, about the connections between people and nature and about community-based responsibility for a healthy environment. Some environmental activists as well as Hawaiian activist organizations have also called attention to ahupua’a management, such as the Ahupua’a Alliance Network, a taro advocacy and support group – ʻOnipa’a Nā Hui Kalo – and the Native Hawaiian Advisory Council. Conventional print media has also raised awareness of ahupua’a, such as the monthly environmental newsletter, Environment Hawai’i, that frequently discusses issues related to ahupua’a across the islands. Government institutions have also been involved. In 1999 the US Environmental Protection Agency made an award to a grassroots group working with children within a highly urbanized and contaminated area of Leeward Oʻahu that approached environmental management through the lens of ahupua’a (Berry 2002). University scientists and government officials, such as those within the State Office of Planning and Coastal Zone Management Program, have also been involved in educational efforts on ahupua’a management (Derrickson et al. 2002). Taken in combination, such efforts reinvigorate traditional Hawaiian language, concepts, and practices while simultaneously extending legitimacy to water initiatives. Within the context of contemporary conditions, such initiatives place value on efforts to revive language and to ensure waters endure.


As in the beginning, water and language are close relatives, both constraining and enabling their peoples. In the times before language was written and before water was owned, both flowed relatively freely and shaped landscapes of both the Arapaho and Hawaiians. Water equated to life for the Arapaho and language was a distinctive, dynamic force. For Hawaiians, the movement of water was connected to its use as a communal resource and language reflected how fundamental this linkage was.

During the times when laws wrote water and language was dammed, the writing of language and restricting waters changed the lives and landscapes of the Arapaho and Hawaiians. For the Arapaho, the language of laws and treaties restricted the movement of the people, and water was diverted to flow away from them. And in Hawai`i, language underwent a fundamental change as it was transformed into written form, and increasingly waters were redirected away from Hawaiians.

Most recently, language revival and the endurance of waters have been tied to Arapaho and Hawaiian resilience. The revival of Arapaho language has been a significant challenge and is a continuous effort. Similarly, the Arapaho are reconnecting to water by working to improve access and water quality. For their part, Hawaiians have dedicated more than a half-century of work to language revitalization and through this process shifted the cultural and political landscapes of Hawai`i. During recent decades, enhancing waters, as well as making connections between people, language, and water, has also been significant in the Hawaiian cultural revival.

Because personal naming is both a facet of language and a marker of cultural resilience, it is a fitting final example to illustrate ties between language and water. As one of the first gifts given to a child, a person’s name becomes one of the most treasured gifts they possess, and, just as water may give or take life, a name too has powerful potential to benefit or harm (Pukui et al. 1972). Arapaho names, which continue to be fluid like water, change throughout a lifetime. Exchanged in ceremony, Arapaho names may be given by older people to younger people as a gift to remedy sickness or hardship. Younger people may take a new name from the living or the dead (Anderson 2001). Arapaho names, like the Arapaho sense of water, are not private property; they continue to be shared as gift. Hawaiian naming also marks their cultural resilience. Today, many Native Hawaiians who previously used their English first names are now known in personal and professional arenas by their middle Hawaiian names. Such intentional renaming is a political stance that reaffirms Hawaiian identity and strengthens ties with kūpuna (ancestors). What is a personal name if not an expression of the dynamism of language, with a fluidity and power that harkens back to water?


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Kate A. Berry
    • 1
    Email author
  • Teresa Cavazos Cohn
    • 2
  • Katrina-Ann R. Kapāanaokalāokeola Nākoa Oliveira
    • 3
  • Iva Moss Redman
    • 4
  1. 1.University of NevadaRenoUSA
  2. 2.University of IdahoMcCallUSA
  3. 3.University of Hawai`iMānoaUSA
  4. 4.Arapaho Middle SchoolArapahoeUSA

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