Kaʻōhao School Name Change Revives History, But Can it Spark a Movement?

Jun 1, 2017

A school name change on Oʻahu is raising awareness in that community about the origin of place names in Hawaiʻi. The Governing Board for Lanikai Elementary Public Charter School has decided to revive the traditional place name for the land beneath the school. HPR Reporter Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi has more.

For anyone born and raised in Hawaiʻi, your alma mater says as much about you as your family name or hometown. “What school did you go to?” The answer in many ways is your identity. But what if that school changed its name? That’s the case for Lanikai Elementary Public Charter School, soon to be renamed…

NOH: Kaʻōhao Elementary School

Ed Noh is the school’s director.

NOH: Like right now if you mention Kaʻōhao Public Charter School. People are going to ask, “Where is that?!”

The elementary school has been serving students in the beachside community popularly known as Lanikai in Kailua, Oʻahu since 1964.

NOH: People identify with Lanikai Elementary School. It’s all they’ve known.

People like state Senator Laura Thielen who attended the school in the late 1960s. Senator Thielen represents the district encompassing most of the windward side of Oʻahu, including the elementary school.

THIELEN:  What was most moving to me was this wasn’t something superficial. They are trying to get that deeper appreciation and understanding of the place that we live in, and celebrate it.

The school made the official announcement of the name change at this yearʻs May Day celebration. Students paid tribute to traditional place names of the surrounding area through song and dance.

LILINOE: It’s so deep…this history that we have here in Hawaiʻi...these moʻolelo that have been passed on.

Moʻolelo or stories about place names such as Kaʻōhao, the traditional Hawaiian name for the land between Kailua Beach and Waimānalo Beach. Lilinoe Sterling is the Hawaiian studies teacher at Kaʻōhao Public Charter School.

She explains the name Kaʻōhao in the Hawaiian language translates to the “tying together” like the two ends of a lei or rope. It has its origin in a legend of two women who were tied together after losing a game of kōnane or Hawaiian checkers to a spy for a Hawaiian chief at Alāla Point.

LILINOE: Somewhere along the line, we stopped telling those stories, and so people make new ones.

People like 1920s advertising executive and developer Charles Russell Frazier. In 1924, Frazier bought approximately 300 acres of beachfront property in Kaʻōhao, subdivided it into 32 vacation home lots, and named it Lanikai.

LILINOE: They want to say in that name “Lanikai” – “heavenly ocean.” It sounds Hawaiian and so it msut be, it must be right. But it isn’t. The languages are different. They’re structured differently. So simply, yeah, Lanikai is backwards.

Backwards. In Hawaiian, the qualifier commonly follows the noun. Heavenly ocean would translate to Kailani instead of Lanikai.

In March of this year, students, faculty, and staff, lobbied the school’s governing board to officially change the name of the school from Lanikai to Kaʻōhao. Here’s Governing Board President Scott Cullison.

CULLISON: It was a very easy decision because it came from sort of that grassroots approach. It came from the bottom up.

The governing board decision was unanimous and support for the move was overwhelming. Here’s Kaʻōhao kindergarten teacher Shawna Ramos.

RAMOS: I think it’s a great thing. I’ve been waiting years for this to happen. Making it right and going back to what it should be.

COWLAND: There’s power in words and you’ve got to honor what it means and where it came from.

Parent Wendy Cowland has two of her children at Kaʻōhao.

COWLAND: It might be hard to say but I think it’s important to learn, and I think it was the right choice.

MIZUNO: I am 59 years old and it’s another significant thing that I have been a part of in my lifetime.

Jeffrey Mizuno has been mopping the halls of this elementary school for the past 25 years.

MIZUNO: I can go tell my grandchildren I’ve been a part of the name change, the finding, the rebirth of Kaʻōhao.

LILINOE: This whole movement is an opportunity to educate people about our space, our place names, paeʻāina (island chain) wide because it’s important that people know where they are, and what kind of kuleana (responsibility) they have to these places.

Kaʻōhao Public Charter School - May Day 2017 Celebration