Accessibility links

Breaking News

Hawaii Awards First Degree Completed in Native Language - 2002-06-08

The University of Hawaii's Hilo campus has just awarded the first master's degree completed entirely in the Hawaiian language. It's the latest example of two decades of resurgent interest in indigenous language and culture on the Islands.

Every night, even when her family has invited guests for dinner, six-year-old Kalehua Ontai reads her homework to her mother.

Kalehua is reading a story about cooking and sharing. Hawaiian is her first language. Her father, Kala'i Ontai, says he and his wife never made a conscious decision to speak it at home. They just did, and he was shocked by the results.

"I remember her first word, when we were in the doctor's office, the doctor was trying to examine her and she turned to me and she said 'hapai, hapai'. She started yelling 'hapai hapai', 'hapai' means 'carry, carry me'. I was just taken aback, I was like, wow, she's speaking." Kalehua and her little brother and sister are among several thousand Hawaiian children enrolled in language immersion schools. They study reading and science, math and music, all through the Hawaiian language. Mr. Ontai, a musician and composer, says this wasn't an option when he was a schoolboy.

"I remember when I was in preschool, all the way up until third grade, I took Japanese. Because I went to a private school and I was one of the few Hawaiians there in the private school," he explains. "And Japanese language was offered in the afternoons. So my parents said okay, Japanese is going to be the second language that you need to know. And you know what? I took four years of that and I don't remember one thing."

Mr. Ontai didn't learn Hawaiian until he was in high school. In fact, from the time the United States annexed Hawaii in the late 19th century up until 1987, it was against state law to teach Hawaiian in the public schools, except as a foreign language. The ban stemmed from an 1868 federal government report that said having too many languages led to a disruptive society.

That official view was never accepted by the Hawaiian public, and in 1984, three years before the language ban was overturned, a group of parents and activists set up their own Hawaiian language preschools.

Today, the preschools are run by a nonprofit organization called Aha Punana Leo, which means "Language Nest." From the start, the kids and their teachers spoke only Hawaiian in the classrooms. The organization also encouraged parents to speak Hawaiian to their children at home. Keiki Kawai'ae'a was one of the first Punana Leo parents.

"Our generation, those that are now in their mid 30's probably to late 50's, that generation is the generation whose parents were not raised with the language," she says. "Our parents were the 'Gap Generation.' Our grandparents, the majority of them, were speakers. Well, the majority of them have gone already, and they did not teach their children."

But some children of the 'Gap Generation' went out of their way to learn the language. In the 1950's, when Larry Kimura was growing up on a ranch on the big island of Hawaii, he listened to his older relatives talking. By high school, he decided to start tape recording interviews with some of them.

"I knew this was the means to try and keep the language preserved, and I was very anxious to start doing that," he says. "As a matter of fact, I tried to find a tape recorder. I finally found one, my brother-in-law had this huge Sony tape recorder from his days in the army and I asked him would you please lend this to me. And he did."

By the time he reached college, he had a smaller recorder, and he was still taping his elders.

In 1974, Larry Kimura talked to 90-year-old Kaka'e Kaleiheana about what it was like growing up on Kaua'i Island at the turn of the century. He broadcast that conversation, and others he recorded, on his college radio show.

Larry Kimura says some listeners saw his show as a good opportunity to practice their Hawaiian. But he says his tapes were more than a tool to learn the language.

"It was not just verbs and pronouns, and all of that, no. It was to make the connection to our culture. Knowing that it is a very important link, because there are many, many values and perspectives, ways of looking at things that are very different through the language."

Mr. Kimura now an anthropology instructor at the University of Hawaii sees the language as a connection to Hawaii's Polynesian ancestry, a vehicle for learning the history of the islands, and their religion and music.

Students enrolled in Ka Haka 'Ula O Ke'elikolani, the University of Hawaii's College of Hawaiian Language, begin each class with a ceremonial welcoming chant.

University officials say their school is the only taxpayer-supported college in the United States offering degree programs taught entirely in an indigenous language. There are efforts at the federal level to provide money for this sort of program, but College Director Kalena Silva says the Hawaii state government already recognizes the importance of the financing the culture.

"I don't know of any other state that has two official languages. We have Hawaiian and English. I don't know of any other state that has a Native American language as an official language of that state. Our constitution requires the promotion of Hawaiian language and culture. So, that, I think, is a definite plus in that it allows us to refer back to that constitution and the official status of our language in seeking legislation that helps to support what it is we are doing."

That's quite a change from 25 years ago, when Hawaiian was banned in the public schools. Today, some commercial radio stations even feature a word of the day in Hawaiian, and public radio station KIPO in Honolulu broadcasts regular Hawaiian language newscasts.

Musician Kala'i Ontai began speaking only Hawaiian at home seven years ago, when his wife became pregnant. Now, he understands the lyrics to the Hawaiian songs he's been singing since he was a child.

"I was playing music, not even knowing what I was singing about," he says. "Sometimes I would be playing a song and it's a deep love, emotional song, and I'm just singing it like it's a school alma mater or something. I think Hawaiian people really affected and moved deeply by their language."

Mr. Ontai says whatever path six-year-old Kalehua and his other children follow, he hopes their language will help guide their steps. And if they choose to become a doctor or a lawyer or college professor, maybe they'll even write their Master's theses in Hawaiian.