Keao NeSmith was born in Waimea, Kaua‘i Island in the Hawaiian Islands. The son of an American father of Scottish and Welsh descent and a Native Hawaiian mother, Keao was raised in a household of seven children.
Standard American English was the primary language of the home while Keao grew up, with many Hawaiian terms known and occasionally used. Even though they were native-speakers, Keao's mother's parents did not speak Hawaiian to her or her 10 siblings except for some words and expressions as a result of the prevalent negative stigma associated with Native Hawaiians and their language and culture in Hawai‘i society throughout the early to mid-1900s while she grew up, and so Keao's mother is a native speaker of English with no proficiency in Hawaiian.
In his late teenage years, Keao lived with his maternal grandmother, and it was there that he learned to speak her native language, Hawaiian. She spoke Hawaiian to him whenever they were together and eventually he learned to speak it through her mentoring. It was some eight years later when Keao first entered a Hawaiian language classroom at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo where the language was taught as a second language. Keao's Master's thesis is partly a recounting of his personal experience learning Hawaiian as a second language and his observations of the second language acquisition process in relation to Hawaiian and documentation of second language speaker tendencies.
In addition to Hawaiian, Keao learned Tahitian, another Polynesian language, from native Tahitian speakers, and after becoming somewhat fluent in that language, he took courses in Tahitian literature at l'université de la Polynésie française (the University of French Polynesia) in Tahiti and later taught that language at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. At the university in Tahiti, Keao also studied other Polynesian languages, such as Marquesan and Pa‘umotu.
At the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, Keao studied French since it is the most common language in usage in French Polynesia which he frequents and he has become somewhat fluent in that language.
Much thanks to grant donors for their support of Keao's PhD research: The Mellon-Hawai‘i Doctoral Fellowship, Kaulele Project (Manu Kaiama, Director), Kāko‘o ‘Ōiwi (Kehaulani Watson, Director), Nāpali Coast ‘Ohana (Sabra Kauka, Pres.), the Wichman ‘ohana and the Rapozo ‘ohana.
In this photo (Hau‘ula 1986), Tūtū Kealoha (back center) poses with her adoptive brother, Joe, and sisters, Flora Muriel (left) and Momi (right). The name of the father of Joe, Flora and Momi was Joseph Borges. Tūtū Kealoha, being the eldest among the siblings, acted as surrogate mother to her brother and sisters as well as older sister, as their mother had died when they were very young. Tūtū Kealoha came to take on the family name, Borges, and regarded this family as her own in exactly the same way she regarded her birth siblings, the Kaaialii sisters and their birth parents. She remained very close to the Borges siblings the rest of her life.
When Tūtū Kealoha was about seven years old, her father contracted leprosy where the family lived in Ka‘ū, Hawai‘i and was taken to the leprosy colony at Kalaupapa, Moloka‘i. His wife accompanied him to care for him. The children were adopted out to other families, but kept in touch with each other. It was with the Borges family that Tūtū Kealoha lived in a traditional grass house in Puna, Hawai‘i Island. The Borges family only spoke Hawaiian at home, as did most families who lived on the east coast of Hawai‘i Island at the time, and the children learned English at school. However, due to the negative stigma associated with Native Hawaiians and their language at the time, Tūtū Kealoha's adoptive brother and sisters abandoned Hawaiian, but understand it still when spoken. Tūtū Kealoha's knowledge of and fluency in Hawaiian continued with her until she passed away in 1999. Click here to listen to more of Tūtū Kealoha.