Magazine Feature

The Tip of the Spear

Hawaiian language educators reclaim a cultural legacy.

On the gym floor of Näwahïokalani‘öpu‘u School there is a painted emblem. It is a circle pierced by the tip of a spear, encircled by the words Kü Maka Ihe Laumeki, "Here is the serrated spear for all to see!" This is the spear of Hawaiian language revitalization.

Our family has been at the very tip of that spear in the movement to develop a Hawaiian education system. When we met in the 1970s, it was a time of great change in Hawai‘i. Young people were questioning and rebelling against the establishment, and at the center of it all was a renaissance of all things Hawaiian — things that had long been suppressed. At that time, almost no one born after 1920 spoke the Hawaiian language fluently.

We joined other young people learning Hawaiian at the University of Hawai‘i, and with our young teacher, Larry Kimura, we learned the language from surviving elders through camping trips, parties and a weekly Hawaiian radio talk show, as well as through classwork. The elders told us that what had killed the Hawaiian language was the English language schools. Their parents and grandparents had attended Hawaiian language public schools under the Hawaiian monarchy and passed the language on to the next generation. With annexation by the United States, Hawaiian medium schools had been banned and replaced with English medium schools. Those who attended the English schools did not pass on the Hawaiian language to their children.

The effect of contemporary English language schools on immigrant children was equally clear to us. In public places we would see parents speaking to their children in Ilocano, a Filipino language, only to hear the children reply in English. Hearing the children speaking to each other in English was even more heartbreaking. We wanted our children to use the language, to speak to each other in Hawaiian and not relegate Hawaiian to a language they spoke only to their parents.

In 1983 — when our son was 2 and our daughter was a newborn — we joined a group of fellow teachers in starting a nonprofit organization called the ‘Aha Pünana Leo Inc., to address the question of Hawaiian language schools. A visit from a Mäori who had studied Hawaiian with us served as a catalyst. We were inspired by his success in persuading the New Zealand government to allow for the opening of language "nests," where fluent Mäori speakers interacted all day long with young children and babies to pass on their threatened language. He used his position as head of the New Zealand Office of Mäori Affairs to meet with the state Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA), where he called upon Hawaiians to do the same thing. Although start-up funding from OHA did not materialize, we moved ahead using tuition monies and small local grants.


Legal Barriers

Our biggest obstacle was not funding; it was an 1896 ban on the use of Hawaiian as a medium of public education. This legal barrier remained in place in spite of a 1978 state referendum passed to reestablish Hawaiian as a constitutionally recognized official language.

Indeed, the official status of Hawaiian was used against us, since a state agency decision deemed Hawaiian not to be a foreign language — and thus not covered by a state law that allowed day care programs using foreign languages to be exempt from requirements for certified teachers. The requirement for certification, including a college degree, was impossible to meet because the majority of remaining fluent speakers of Hawaiian had the least exposure to English. In order to overcome these barriers, Kauanoe obtained early childhood certification and took leave from her university position. In addition, we enrolled the Native speakers in college Hawaiian language courses to show that they were in a program leading to a degree — a temporary solution since they would not have been able to pass the English language courses required of university students.

At the same time, we and other parents went to the state legislature to change the laws. After three years of lobbying — the emotional battle culminated in a six-hour hearing with supporters and detractors lined up on opposite sides of a large hearing room — all legal barriers to the use of Hawaiian in public and private schools were removed.

One of our strategies for achieving support for Hawaiian language education was to force the issue of values. The education establishment claimed that academics were the highest value, and they asserted that their standards could only be achieved in English. We countered that the highest value was the right of families to maintain and develop Hawaiian as the dominant language of their children while cooperating with the state's public interest in compulsory school attendance. We also argued that Native Hawaiians were at the bottom academically in the English schools, and that the establishment failed to deliver high academics for Native Hawaiians after nearly 100 years of schooling. The establishment's major achievement was the extermination of Hawaiian among children.

Although we asserted the value of cultural survival, we also vigorously pursued the highest academic standards possible in our program. We had certain advantages. Parents were committed to this program and were willing to do anything to make it succeed.

Furthermore, Hawaiian has a phonetic writing system that is largely standardized and used throughout the state by the English-speaking population. A method of teaching little children to read and write Hawaiian by means of syllable combinations was also recognized as part of Hawaiian tradition by küpuna (grandparents and ancestors). Using the basic syllabary, children and teachers created their own stories and books — something that we were forced to do, as no learning materials existed in Hawaiian for young children. We later learned that we were utilizing the "whole language" method.

After our initial success, the hard reality of our struggle returned when the state Department of Education (DOE) refused to implement the new public education law. Children from the first Pünana Leo language nest in Honolulu were sent to a transitional bilingual education program with immigrants who had just arrived in Hawai‘i.

"I was furious," said Keiki Kawai‘ae‘a, the mother of a child who was placed in the transitional bilingual program. "How dare the Department of Education and this teacher treat my daughter as if there was something wrong with her that needed to be fixed!"


Resourceful Resistance

At our children's Pünana Leo in Hilo, families decided to boycott the public school system. We held kindergarten in Hawaiian at the Pünana Leo and maintained that our school provided a public education in Hawaiian for the state DOE in accordance with the law -- whether they wanted to carry out the law or not.

The following year, with the assistance of state Sen. Clayton Hee, we were able to convince the state DOE to open two pilot kindergarten and 1st grade classes taught in Hawaiian. We were told that the DOE would pay the teachers, but no funds would be provided for books because "Hawaiian is an oral language." In response, the ‘Aha Pünana Leo provided the books, through translation and creation of original materials, but many more obstacles persisted. A DOE-funded evaluation of the program focused not on Hawaiian language skills but on English, which was not taught in the class and would not be. The DOE believed that learning in Hawaiian would retard the children's development of English skills. To the contrary, the children’s knowledge of English flourished as a result of regular exposure to English-speaking children outside of school, public interactions and television.

The Department of Education finally enacted a policy in 1992 allowing the program to be taught entirely in Hawaiian, with English introduced as a subject of study in 5th grade and taught as a course every year thereafter. Shortly after this policy was passed, one of the students won the state English poetry contest. Our students then outperformed Hawaiian students from their same community on the English portion of the SAT. Subsequently, high school students were admitted to take concurrent English medium courses at the university. There they also passed an English composition qualifying examination that English-only-speaking Native Hawaiian students have found difficult to pass.

When the DOE program began, students were in a single classroom in a school otherwise taught and administered through English. We wanted the students to play sports in Hawaiian, order food in Hawaiian, interact with the registrar and principal in Hawaiian — nothing less than total equality with the services available in English.

The Department of Education finally agreed to these goals. The first such sites were to be in Honolulu and Hilo. In Honolulu, an old elementary school was converted into a K–12 site, but in Hilo, where we live, the DOE made no efforts to carry out the commitment.

The parents called a meeting and decided to take action again. Everyone donated $20; for some parents even that sum was difficult. The ‘Aha Pünana Leo took that money and a rainy-day fund and rented space in an old building in downtown Hilo. We named the school "Näwahïokalani‘ öpu‘u," after a prominent Hawaiian language newspaper editor, politician and teacher of the Hawaiian monarchal period from Hilo.


A Permanent Home

Although the state recognized these students as public school students, we had great difficulty obtaining any resources other than teachers and some furniture. One major task was finding a permanent site for the school. We found an abandoned private school, offered at $2.1 million. Without delay the ‘Aha Pünana Leo set out to purchase it. When banks turned down the organization for a loan, the ‘Aha Pünana Leo approached the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. OHA also determined that even a long-term, no-interest loan would be an improper risk, but support was approved in the form of a grant.

Parents pitched in over the summer to fix the leaky roof and deteriorated rooms, and by fall 1994 the students moved in. The DOE agreed to provide teachers and materials on a per-student basis. For the rest, the ‘Aha Pünana Leo scraped together bits and pieces through donations. Over the next few years Näwahïokalani‘öpu‘u grew into a full intermediate/high school college-preparatory program. It is now the laboratory school for the College of Hawaiian Language at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo.

In May 1999, Näwahïokalani‘öpu‘u held its first graduation ceremony, conducted entirely in Hawaiian. In that first class was our son, Hulilauäkea Kepo‘i‘ula Kamanä Wilson, and four others. A symbolic spear was used at the ceremony. Students wore traditional Hawaiian clothing. Rather than a band and applause, the ceremony was marked with reverent silence, punctuated by symbolic chants and hula performed by members of the student body.

In a special place of honor in the audience of 500 were the lead classes from every Hawaiian medium school in the state — 11 in all, interconnected with a system of 11 Pünana Leo preschools and together serving some 2,000 Hawaiian-speaking children. These students were there to be recognized for being the tip of the spear for their communities. They were there as a testament, showing that the spear had finally puka —"pierced through its mark"— and emerged for all to see: Kü Maka Ihe Laumeki.

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