He is role model to young Polynesians

‘Uncle Bill’ says the meaning of his Hawaiian name is reflected in his work

LAIE, Hawaii — His name is a little longer than most. The middle name alone has 17 letters — and a great deal of meaning. In the Hawaiian tongue, Kauaiwiulaokalani means "the red bones of the heavens."

For William Kauaiwiulaokalani Wallace, this carries plenty of responsibility. His name denotes "I would become the caretaker of my people," he said, while recently sitting on a lawn at BYU-Hawaii on a warm sunny day. Behind him, resting on blocks of wood, is Iosepa, "Joseph" in the Hawaiian language — a stunningly beautiful, 57-foot long, double-hulled canoe that is somewhat of a "floating classroom" for the Jonathan Napela Center for Hawaiian Language and Cultural Studies at BYU-Hawaii.

Brother Wallace, or "Uncle Bill" as he is known to his students, has been the director of the center since it was founded at the school through a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in 1998.

"I don't know how much more closely connected to the translation of the meaning of (my) name (I could be) than I am right now," he told the Church News, saying that the manifestation of his name "reflects itself in the work we do in Hawaiian studies."

For "Uncle Bill," the journey he guides his students through in discovering their heritage reflects his own path — one that led him through BYU law school, then civic and private practice and finally to the Church-owned school in Laie, Hawaii. His knowledge of and love for his ancestral heritage not only makes him an authority on the Polynesian culture, but also a unique role model for young people finding their way in today's society where heritage is often forgotten and even mocked.

And he looks back with irony on the time he almost left it behind.

Named after the Scottish national hero, William Wallace III has ancestry from opposite ends of the world "all ending up right here in the Pacific." One ancestor immigrated from Scotland to Hawaii to cattle ranch and married a Hawaiian woman. As a boy growing up on Molokai, young William Wallace learned the ancient art of the Hawaiian chant and hula from the renowned hula master, Harriet Ne, and was taught at the knees of many "kupuna" (a Hawaiian name for the honored elderly), including his Samoan grandmother.

"She had left Samoa when she was 6 years old and she had never returned," Brother Wallace recalled. He remembers as a small boy "sitting on her lap. I said, 'Grandma, I promise I'll go back to Samoa for you.' "

As a young man, he attended the Church College of Hawaii (now called BYU-Hawaii) and worked part time at the Polynesian Cultural Center. He graduated with a degree in history in 1972. He later did graduate work in Pacific Island Studies at the University of Hawaii — Manoa. He returned to Moloka'i where he developed and conducted a program to train teachers of Hawaiian Studies. He also married his wife, Nihipora, a native of New Zealand, with whom he had four children. (Today, they have six grandsons.)

Then, in 1981, he was accepted to BYU law school in Provo, Utah. "At that time, because I wanted to succeed as a law student, I thought, I'm not going to chant anymore. I'm not going to teach anymore."

And he nearly flunked out of law school. He will never forget the Christmas season he discovered he had earned all Ds that semester. "I went into my bedroom and I looked at my Hawaiian Ipu (gourd drum). I looked at my children and I started feeling very emotional because I felt I had failed.

"At that moment, I touched my Ipu and I started beating on it again. I started doing my chants from my home island. All of a sudden, I started to feel a strong sense of spiritual support. I could almost feel my ancestors were surrounding me with love."

That's when a strange thing happened. He started chanting the various laws he was supposed to have learned that semester. He realized that the very culture he left behind held the key to his memorizing abilities. "I was able to learn as a young child hundreds of lines of chants by memory."

The young law student used chanting to get everything he needed to learn in a semester down to one sheet of paper. When he needed recall, he chanted the lines, if only in his mind. "My memory would automatically kick in. It was fun. Even my professors said, 'You're doing a lot better.' "

He told them he was using a new way of studying. "That's all I would say to them," he recalled, laughing. He turned back completely to his heritage, doing luaus and weddings throughout Utah.

After receiving his law degree in 1984, he came home to Hawaii and worked as a public defender until 1985, when he was finally able to fulfill his promise to his grandmother. That year, he became the assistant attorney general in American Samoa, where he served until 1987. He quietly, and somewhat emotionally, recalled the moment he looked up and said, "Grandma, here I am."

Then, in 1991, after several years of a successful private practice in Kaneohe, near Laie, he began teaching history at BYU-Hawaii and closed his practice. "I've been here ever since, no regrets. There are things in life that are worth more than money."

To "Uncle Bill," that includes the Hawaiian studies program he helped develop. One of his greatest joys is seeing his students learn on Iosepa, which was launched on Nov. 3, 2001, and was recently featured during the 40th anniversary of the Polynesian Cultural Center. (Please see Nov. 1, 2003, Church News.)

But the building of the canoe means less to Brother Wallace than the building of young men and young women. He described, as example, a young man of Hawaiian descent who had grown up in Utah and knew very little about his cultural identity. He enrolled at BYU-Hawaii and entered the Hawaiian studies program. "I watched him carefully because I felt he had a good spirit. He was a young man who I needed to kind of nurture a little bit and work with."

It paid off. One day, the young man walked into the Hawaiian studies office and told Brother Wallace that while doing an assignment on his family history, he discovered the life story of an ancestor. "He shared the story with tears in his eyes. He was so excited. I said, 'You're catching on.' "

Just as a young law student did with his Ipu years before.

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