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Preservation On The Reservation [And Beyond]
Fall 1999

Online Archive

*  Return of a Language: Hawaiian Makes a Remarkable Comeback

(photo) Grandmother and granddaughter, both members of British Columbia's Heiltsuk tribe.

"Of the 300-plus languages indigenous to what are now the United States and Canada, nearly a third have disappeared. Only about a quarter of those that survive are being passed on to children. [Without intervention] all of these languages will fall silent within the next few decades. "

Teresa L. McCarty and Lucille J. Watahomigie

by William H. Wilson

Today, at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, young families come to gather plants for traditional ceremonies and children chatter away in a language that has not been spoken by the young in half a century. Here is the home of Pele, "sacred woman of the crater," central figure in epic stories chanted and danced throughout the islands. Here are the forests of the kia manu, or bird catchers, said to be able to call a bird to a hand-held flower, a prominent image in danced poetry, for in Hawaii beautiful birds are like precious children and loved ones. And here too, along with these families and children, is the most successful of the efforts to revitalize a Native American language.

In the 1970s, the bird catchers had been gone for nearly a century, but they were not forgotten. A new generation of monolingual, English-speaking Hawaiians sought out the home of Pele and the haunts of the bird catchers. These young people—often members of newly established hula schools looking for the poetic roots of the dance—were at the vanguard of a cultural revival.

Reviving Hawaiian culture proved to be a formidable task. Tradition places great emphasis on the language. In Hawaiian belief one mispronounced word in a dance or song removes its ancient mana or spiritual power. Tragically, the native tongue was nearly extinct.

The near-extermination of a language is a familiar story for Native American peoples. Before the islands were annexed to the United States in 1898, the indigenous language was dominant. It was the language of public education; even non-natives spoke it. With annexation, the language was banned. The ban was especially vigorous in the schools. Children were physically and psychologically punished for using the native tongue. Parents were told that speaking Hawaiian in the home was a sure way to harm their children. Soon a pidginized English emerged. By 1920, hardly any children spoke the language. The traditions of chant, epic literature, and poetry began a precipitous decline. Even educational achievement, previously at a standard above that of the mainland, plummeted with the closure of public schools using the language. Native culture became a parody of itself to meet the stereotypes of tourists.

The 1970s saw a renaissance of native culture fostered through Hawaiian-speaking elders. But many realized that once the elders were gone, the revitalization would end. The elders themselves said Aia i ka òîlelo, "It lies within the language."

In 1983, a group of teachers, discouraged by the lack of success teaching Hawaiian simply as a class in the schools, formed the ‘Aha Pu_nana Leo, Inc., the Language Nests Organization. The group came together around a native language radio talk show that featured a different elder every week. Many of the elders expressed a wistful desire for a new generation of mnaleo, or native speakers. The term mnaleo had been derived from an identification with the birds of Hawaiian poetry. It refers to mothers passing food to their babies through their lips as birds do in the forest, a process much like the healthy transmittal of language.

The final push to establish the organization was a return visit by a New Zealand Maori who had studied Hawaiian and been a part of the radio program. He told how he and other Maori leaders had set up Kohanga Reo, or language nests, using the same imagery of the birds and the passing of language. On hearing of this the members established the organization with the name ‘Aha Pu_nana Leo, suggesting both the traditional imagery and the Maori connection. By 1984 the group had started its first Pu_nana Leo preschool taught by native speakers, initially a failure because they were not accustomed to speaking Hawaiian in school with English-speaking children. Kauanoe Kaman, one of the founders who was raising her own children in Hawaiian, was determined to see the program work. She established a demonstration Pu_nana Leo preschool site with her children enrolled. Within five months all the children were speaking fluently. The ‘Aha Pu_nana Leo then began to create new preschools to meet rising demand.

The next challenge was to provide education for children matriculating into the public schools. The ‘Aha Pu_nana Leo' and the parents of the pre-schoolers moved on to the state legislature. In the 1980s the old legal restrictions on operating schools in Hawaiian were still on the books. These laws would have to be changed to obtain the full kindergarten-through-high school education that the organization sought. After three years of lobbying and actively challenging the law, the families prevailed. The law was changed.

A state legislator's remarks that the federal government opposed the use of native language led to a new lobbying effort in concert with American Indians and Alaska Natives. In 1990, the Native American Languages Act, introduced by Hawaii's Senator Daniel Inouye, reversed two centuries of policy that sought to eliminate Native American languages.

Simply passing laws was not sufficient. There had to be teachers fluent in Hawaiian along with books for the whole school curriculum. While elders could teach preschool, the state wanted college-educated, certified teachers for the elementary and high school level. The ‘Aha Pu_nana Leo had been preparing for these challenges. College students practiced with the elders and an old system for teaching reading and writing was revived. These young people became the teachers. The ‘Aha Pu_nana Leo then applied for federal grants for the education of the native people.

Each year a new grade is added. An ‘Aha Pu_nana Leo partnership with the University of Hawaii at Hilo provided important support with a language development center and a laboratory school. The school graduated its first seniors in May. Today there are some 2,000 students enrolled in Pu_nana Leo preschools and Kula Kaiapuni Hawaii public Hawaiian language schools, more than five times the number of elders born before 1920.

Education for these students is unlike anywhere else in Hawaii. Students begin the day with a chant, learn hula, maintain traditional gardens, and more importantly approach all subjects from a native worldview. Even though they study through Hawaiian they have succeeded in the academics of the larger English-speaking world. Indeed, the first seniors participated in a concurrent program at the university where they took college courses ranging from biology to Japanese to political science. Their grade point averages ranged from 2.9 to 3.5; all passed the English composition placement exam, which is often a barrier for native students.

The effects of the revitalization can be seen at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, where students come to visit the lands of their ancestors. There is now a Hawaiian-speaking ranger and regulations allowing for the traditional use of natural resources. At the seniors' graduation ceremony, ferns gathered from the park scented the room while the students wore traditional clothing rather than black gowns and mortar boards. Upon their heads were the flowers the kia manu used to capture rare birds, birds whose care of their young in tightly woven nests inspired the ‘Aha Pu_nana Leo Language Nests Organization.

For more information on the revitalization of Hawaiian, visit the web sites of the ‘Aha Pu_nana Leo, Inc. (www.ahapunanaleo.org) and the Hawaiian Language Center at the University of Hawaii at Hilo (www.olelo.hawaii.edu). Or e-mail Dr. William H. Wilson at the College of Hawaiian Language, University of Hawaii at Hilo (pila_w@leoki.uhh.hawaii.edu).

MJB/EJL