HONOLULU (June 18, 2013) — Millions flock to the Hawaiian Islands as tourists every year but few stop to think that it is the only home of what was once a language on the verge of extinction.
By the early 1970s Hawaiian was spoken by fewer than 2,000 individuals under the age of 18 – a mark by which linguists officially classify a language as “dying”. By 1984 the community of fluent speakers had dwindled to a few elders and a tiny geographically isolated population on the island of Ni‘ihau, north of Kaua‘i. Hawaiian language speaking children under the age of 18 numbered less than fifty, and the demise of the Hawaiian language –“the ‘ōlelo” – was imminent.
Enter a small but determined group of academicians and language teachers, some Hawaiian and some not, from the University of Hawai‘i and beyond, who rallied to stop the erosion of this critical part of Hawai‘i’s culture. Today one can hear the Hawaiian language spoken when landing at the Honolulu International Airport, while shopping at the local drug store, or on the street corners in downtown Honolulu.
In June and July the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, in collaboration with the Smithsonian’s Recovering Voices initiative, UNESCO, and the National Geographic Society, will present “One World, Many Voices: Endangered Languages and Cultural Heritage” featuring case studies from around the world exploring the critical ways in which languages embody cultural knowledge, identity, values, and creative expressions, and highlighting the important role that language documentation and revitalization plays in sustaining cultural heritage and traditions. This is one of three themes to be featured, along with “Hungarian Heritage” and “The Will to Adorn”.
Students, faculty, and staff from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, and Hawai‘i Community College – 3 of the 10 campuses in the University of Hawai‘i System – comprise the majority of the Hawai‘i delegation to Washington, D.C. and this year’s Folklife Festival. They will be sharing how language has embodied their culture, history, values and world views for centuries and into modern times. Presentations, lectures, “talk stories” and demonstrations cover kalo (taro) pounding to make poi, a staple of the Hawaiian diet, Ni‘ihau shell lei-making, non-instrument celestial navigation as practiced by Polynesian voyages centuries before Englishman James Cook “discovered” the Pacific, and music, chant and hula as the oral and visual history books of the Hawaiian Islands.
Artisans, practitioners, linguists, chanters and dancers will travel to the National Mall from Hawai‘i to showcase a true story of survival against all odds of the melodic tones of spoken, chanted and sung Hawaiian.
Leading the delegation is Aaron Salā, noted local performer, pianist and vocal entertainer, and Assistant Professor of Hawaiian Music in the Ethnomusicology Department of the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa.
“This year’s ‘One World, Many Voices’ theme presents an opportunity for us to extol, on a national stage, the efforts of our kūpuna (elders and teachers) who have made it their life’s work to assure not just the survival but also the advancement and flourishing of our language,” said Salā. “In turn, that continued revitalization has solidified a foundation for us to define a distinctive and individual Hawaiian identity for ourselves. This year’s Festival is also exciting because we will be able to share with, and learn from, peoples of other cultures whose histories are undoubtedly similar to our own.”
“The University of Hawaiʻi is extremely honored to be able to share our own journey in helping to rescue an indigenous language on the verge of dying with the Smithsonian audiences this summer,” said University of Hawai‘i System President M.R.C. Greenwood. “We were the first public university in the nation to institute and offer a Master’s Degree and later a Ph. D. in an indigenous language – Hawaiian – and today we remain the only place in which all seven community colleges offer an Associate of Arts degree in Hawaiian Studies. UH continues to be a model world-wide for breathing life into a nearly-extinct form of communication and Native Americans and other indigenous peoples travel from around the world to Hawai‘i to learn from us.”
What it took to save Hawaiian
Hawai‘i is one of only two states (Texas being the other) that were once independent nations outside of the United States of America. Hawai‘i was a kingdom until the monarchy was overthrown, largely at the instigation of American business interests, in 1893. As a Territory of the U.S. and later a state (in 1959), Hawaiian culture was stifled in many ways.
In 1896 education through the Hawaiian language in both public and private schools was outlawed on the model of U.S. policy towards the use of American Indian languages in education. Teachers were told that speaking Hawaiian with children would result in termination of employment and children were harshly punished for speaking Hawaiian in school.
Amazingly, in the mid-1980s when efforts to revitalize and save Hawaiian as a language were mounted, it was still illegal to speak Hawaiian in the public classrooms statewide. This same law had to be rescinded by the Hawai‘i State Legislature and that took years of lobbying, testifying, and public support before it was finally abolished. This was just one of many, many battles that continue to be fought today.
Today the front lines focus on student assessment, testing and how learning is measured within the context of a language other than English. One of the tenets of the Hawaiian language revitalization movement has been the immersion school approach, starting with pre-kindergarden students.
Immersion education makes Hawaiian the first language a child hears on a daily basis, and places pre-schoolers in a learning environment in which Hawaiian is the primary medium of instruction, care, play time, and all other functions of child care. This model started with the few native speaking elders, or kupuna that still lived, serving as the first instructors until there were enough young adults fluent in the language to take their place.
The Hawaiian Immersion Education Program ‘Aha Punana Leo (“Nest of Voices”) is celebrating 30 years of active effort to revitalize Hawaiian language, and today operates 22 schools throughout Hawai‘i, promoting a multi-gene rational approach to language. The program requires the parents of enrolled students to also commit to attending Hawaiian classes and learning to speak the language, if they do not already do so. And the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa’s College of Education echoes this precept in its teacher training.
The University of Hawaiʻi’s delegation will be presenting daily at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival – the Smithsonian’s “museum without walls” — on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. from June 26 through July 7, 2013.