Students, faculty and staff from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo and Hawaiʻi Community College will travel to Washington, D.C. for this year’s Smithsonian Folklife Festival, June 26–July 7.
The UH delegation 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, Niʻihau shell lei-making, non-instrument celestial navigation, and music, chant and hula as the oral and visual history books of the Hawaiian Islands.
One theme of the festival is “One World, Many Voices: Endangered Languages and Cultural Heritage” and will feature 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.
Leading the delegation is Aaron Salā, assistant professor of Hawaiian music at UH Mānoa. “This year’s ʻOne 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 Hawaiʻi 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 PhD 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 Hawaiʻi to learn from us.”
What it took to save Hawaiian
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.
Hawaiʻi is one of only two states (Texas being the other) that were once independent nations outside of the United States. Hawaiʻi 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 Hawaiʻi State Legislature and that took years of lobbying, testifying, and public support before it was finally abolished. This was just one of many battles that continue to be fought.
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 ʻAha Pūnana Leo (“Nest of Voices”) is celebrating 30 years of active effort to revitalize Hawaiian language, and today operates 22 schools throughout Hawaiʻi, promoting a multi-generational 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 UH Mānoa’s College of Education echoes this precept in its teacher training.
—Adapted from a University of Hawaiʻi news release