Paige Okamura: The Heart of Hawaii & DJ Mermaid

"In my family my grandmother was raised in a Hawaiian language household, but It was thought that it was more beneficial for us to leave our cultural things behind and become more western and more American, more white, English speaking citizens in order to be successful."

Paige Okamura is a keiki papa of Māeaea, Waialua, Oʻahu. She's fluent in Hawaiian and is currently pursuing her MA in ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi (language) at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. Her thesis research focuses on traditional land stewardship tied to the kuleana of kupa and kamaʻāina, and what those roles mean for our identities and our future. She is a graduate research assistant for the Institute of Hawaiian Language Research and Translation and does translation of historical accounts of tsunamis and eruptions. She currently hosts two radio shows: “Kai Leo Nui,” a bi-lingual mele Hawaiʻi show on KTUH FM Honolulu, and “Bridging The Gap” on Tuesday nights on Hawaiʻi Public Radio. When she’s not doing way too much all the time, you can probably find her digging for vinyl or home in the ocean. Paige's passion and knowledge of Hawaiian music is focused by her love for her native culture and language.

Bridging The Gap (with DJ Mermaid)

Paige Okamura: In my family my grandmother was raised in a Hawaiian language household, but was encouraged... not encouraged. It is thought that it was more beneficial for us to leave our cultural things behind and become more western and more American, more white, English speaking citizens in order to be successful. So...

Emy diGrappa: Hello, my name is Emy diGrappa. Each week we bring you stories asking our guests the question why. We learn about passion, purpose, and the human experience. Brought to you by Wyoming Humanities with the generous support of the Wyoming Community Foundation, this is "What's Your Why?"

Emy diGrappa: Today, we are talking to Paige Okamura. She is the host of two Hawaiian public radio shows and a graduate research assistant for the Institute of Hawaiian Language and Translation. Welcome, Paige.

Paige Okamura: Thank you. Mahalo.

Emy diGrappa: Did you grow up speaking Hawaiian?

Paige Okamura: Um, no, I didn't. So if you don't know a lot about Hawaii's history, we lost a lot in the last 200 years. Actually, this year we celebrate or commemorate 200 years of the decision for our ruling chiefs at the time, in 1819, to leave our traditional law system. And then, so fast forward 200 years, the illegal overthrow in 1893, we have been so oppressed that we've lost, a lot. And one of those big things was our language, so, in my family, most people in Hawaii they don't grow up speaking the language anymore by now.

Paige Okamura: In my family my grandmother was raised in a Hawaiian language household, but was encouraged... not encouraged. It is thought that it was more beneficial for us to leave our cultural things behind and become more western and more American, more white, English speaking citizens in order to be successful. So already in my family, about a generation and a half, we had lost the language, so within maybe, you know, 80 years and our language was gone from my household. So I didn't grow up speaking it, um, I had to take it in high school and then in college.

Emy diGrappa: And so would you say you're fluent now?

Paige Okamura: I'm fluent now and definitely functionally fluent, plus a little better, and that's actually quite the privilege today. We've had a resurgence since the 70s, we had the Hawaiian Renaissance and Hawaiian language has had... has made big strides in the last 40 years. We're not totally where we need to be, but the fact that I speak the language is actually quite the privilege today.

Emy diGrappa: That's, that is wonderful. So what was your journey, what was your passion? Why did you want to go into language research and translation?

Paige Okamura: I think all grow up here, and even I grew up, thinking that I would take Japanese and find a job in the tourism industry. That was sort of what we all thought would get us a job. And Japanese tourism, when I was younger, was such a big deal that I thought, "Oh..." And also, I'm half Japanese. Then I took Japanese and I was awful at it.

Audience: (laughing)

Paige Okamura: And in high school, they offered Hawaiian language at Punahou, and I thought, "Okay, well I'll take it," also it's something... I grew up in a Hawaiian household, you know, that's the reality is that I grew up in a Hawaiian household with a Hawaiian world view, so taking Hawaiian language was actually much easier than it was taking Japanese. Um, and so I thought, "Oh, okay. Well, I can function in this world." You know, I dance hula, so all these things connect for me. It wasn't anything foreign, it wasn't, it wasn't that difficult because I had already grown up in parts of it. Um, and then when I graduated high school, uh, I decided to stay home. I think a lot of locals, and Hawaiians especially, we have a lot of responsibilities to our families' home here, and it's hard for us to leave home. It's expensive.

Paige Okamura: My grandfather passed away my senior year, and for my family that was really hard 'cause he was the, he was the man of our household. So I decided to stay home and Punahou is... serves the top 2%, and Barack Obama's high school and all these things, um, so I grew up under the stigma of going to Punahou and being rich or anything like that, but my single mother struggled and paid for my tuition all on her own. I lived under the stereotype of Punahou graduates become doctors, lawyers, you know, these big Fortune 500 company CEOs, and they do. That's true. However, that just wasn't me and it wasn't what I wanted to do, and I was lucky Punahou really supported what we were good at. I wasn't good at math, I wasn't good at some things, but they knew I was good at culture. They knew I was good at my language, so I chose to stay home and major in Hawaiian language, which is also a privilege because you couldn't do that even 20 years ago.

Emy diGrappa: That's true, and that's wonderful.

Paige Okamura: Yeah.

Emy diGrappa: That's really encouraging for a lot of reasons, especially in preserving your culture. So you have two radio shows?

Paige Okamura: Yes.

Emy diGrappa: And describe them, what are their names and describe what, what they're about.

Paige Okamura: So, uh, I do one show on the university radio station, it's KTUH. It's on Thursdays from 4:00 to 6:00 PM, it's called Kai Leo Nui. It's a bilingual show, so it's in Hawaiian and English and I play Hawaiian music. I always say good Hawaiian music, which is very broad adjective. Traditional Hawaiian music, a lot of vinyl, a lot of LPs. Newer contemporary things that I personally deem quality music, so that's every Thursday on that radio station. Then I also work for Hawaii Public Radio, which is our NPR affiliate here. So I host a late night show every Tuesday, it's called Bridging the Gap. I have the Tuesday night, but Bridging the Gap runs weeknights from 10:00 to midnight.

Paige Okamura: Um, that show's a little different. I have to follow... it's called a triple-A, so every week or every show is a different genre or different theme, so I can't play to my strengths all the time. I can't just do a Hawaiian show. It's not a Hawaiian show. I can do Hawaiian shows every once in a while, but every week it's, it's a different theme. This week I did a 90s throwback show because I went to the Backstreet Boys concert.

Audience: (laughing)

Paige Okamura: But I didn't play any Backstreet Boys. It's still gotta be quality and I mean, it's still public radio. I have to be classy, I have to behave.

Audience: (laughing)

Paige Okamura: So those are the two shows that I have.

Emy diGrappa: I love that, you have to be classy.

Paige Okamura: I have to behave and I have to be classy.

Emy diGrappa: What does the triple-A stand for?

Paige Okamura: Um, I think it's like adult, alternative... something like that. It's a little bit dated. It's like a technical genre term, but it basically was sort of the, you know, it's, it's not jazz, it's not classical, it was everything else.

Emy diGrappa: Well, how did you get into radio?

Paige Okamura: I actually got into radio because at KTUH on Sunday afternoons there's a Hawaiian language show, so it's three hours, it's 3:00 to 6:00 PM. It's called Kipuka Leo and it's only in Hawaiian. It plays Hawaiian music, it's only in Hawaiian, and when I was an undergrad, one of my professors who started the show or is one of the DJs in a long line to sort of curate that show, needed student, needed new hosts so she had asked me and a classmate of mine to take it over. And so we kind of, in a very short span, applied with the sole purpose to do this show, and it's the one show that KTUH will... I mean, it has always given priority to, so it's currently the only show on an FM station here that's in Hawaiian, which is great, also unfortunate 'cause there's only one.

Paige Okamura: And so I started there and there were two of us and it didn't make sense to have two DJs and only one show. If you have two bodies, you should be able to do two shows, so I broke off to do my own show. And, you know, I chose to make it different and have it bilingual. Kipuka Leo's very staunch. It's only in Hawaiian, which is great, but I would meet people who listen to that show every week and always tell me, "I love that show. I have no idea what you're saying, but I love that show."

Audience: (laughing)

Paige Okamura: And that's great, but I also think we have to start building access points for people. There are some things I talk, we talk about about those songs that are so important and they're so interesting, and they have 200 years of history to them that I don't want people to miss. So I thought, "Well, if I do this and I do it in both languages, then people are not missing out on the educational aspect, but I'm still exposing them to language. I'm still opening an access point for them to be interested enough to start to dig on their own without me having to hold their hand through it every time." Also, side note, when I don't want them to know what I'm saying, I just say it in Hawaiian. It's usually when I'm being really sassy, but-

Audience: (laughing)

Paige Okamura: ... that's the perk.

Emy diGrappa: That makes me think that... Where we live in Wyoming and in other parts of the United States, there's large Spanish speaking populations. Do you have a Spanish speaking population in Hawaii?

Paige Okamura: Funny thing, I don't know if you have noticed, we don't have very good Spanish or Mexican food, so that usually reflects the demographic of our population. So we have high school Spanish-

Emy diGrappa: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Paige Okamura: ... students, you know, w- Spanish is still one of the more popular languages to take, but we don't have a heavy Spanish or Latin population, so not a lot-

Emy diGrappa: I think that's interesting.

Paige Okamura: ... few and far between-

Emy diGrappa: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Paige Okamura: ... where Spanish is their native language or the language spoken at home.

Emy diGrappa: Right. And, and it's just the opposite I guess where I live in Wyoming. Where we try and do... Well, we have Spanish radio, we have, um, we translate a lot of our materials whenever we can into Spanish-

Paige Okamura: Well, all of our materials are translated in Spanish. All of our legal documents, you won't find a single one translated in Hawaiian, but Hawaiian is our state language. We are the only... I think we're the only state that has two state languages, so English and Hawaiian, and you will not find a legal document that you could go to the courthouse today, go file something out... I can write my checks in Hawaiian, and you can... the bank has to honor it, but that means the teller probably has to look it up.

Paige Okamura: We have... It's a big, actually, it's a big issue because a lot of people today, I don't know if you guys know some of our modern days issues, but Hawaiians will go to court and insist on representing themselves or speaking in Hawaiian and the judges will... I don't know what the correct terms is, but they don't allow it. They won't recognize it. I mean, they will stand in front of you and you can tell them, "This is a s- this is the language of this state." It is a state official language, and we are not allowed to speak it in a courtroom because the judges won't un- they can't understand, so they require a translator or it's sort of a strange-

Emy diGrappa: Relationship.

Paige Okamura: Definitely. It's a product of our occupation. You can go to any legal city office, all of the verbiage will be translated in Spanish, Filipino, three dialects of Filipino, Japanese, a couple other... a handful. There's a lot, but none of it in Hawaiian. So that's one strand in our very complicated political history, but it all ties into why language is important to us today.

Emy diGrappa: Absolutely, and I really commend you for preserving your culture and language.

Paige Okamura: Oh, mahalo.

Emy diGrappa: Thank you.

Emy diGrappa: Thank you for joining us for this episode of "What's your Why?" brought to you by Wyoming Humanities with support from Wyoming Community Foundation and generous supporters like you. To learn more, go to, subscribe and never miss a show.