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Preserving the Language of Aloha.


From language immersion schools to hula and ukulele classes, devoted inhabitants of the Hawaiian Islands are dedicated to the protection and perpetuation of their indigenous language and age-old traditions

Hawaiians were certainly not the only indigenous people who reclaimed their traditional culture in the 1970s. Among others who forged a cultural revival were the Maori of New Zealand (Aotearoa) and several First Nations communities in North America. But one could argue that no group created a bigger splash than the Hawaiians.

The launching of Hawaii's ocean-going canoe Hokule'a in 1975 captured the public's imagination. Designed as a replica of the vessels their ancestors sailed to populate the islands of the Pacific, the Hokule'a demonstrated in its first voyage to Tahiti the feasibility of navigating vast distances guided only by the stars, ocean currents, winds, and other elements of nature. A point of pride for Hawaiians, it was like a validation of their ancient legends. More than that, it signaled a revitalization of deep-rooted traditions and a cultural reawakening that persists to this day.

Visitors, too, bask in the warmth of Hawaii's ancient but still vibrant culture. Who can resist a welcoming "Aloha!" as an islander slips a profusion of fragrant blossoms over one's head? Genuine hospitality, symbolized by the flower lei, is just one endearing feature of Hawaiian culture.

Other attributes, such as generosity, spirituality, harmony, reverence for nature, strong family ties, and respect for ancient legends and traditions find their expression in Hawaiian music, chanting, and hula, and the Hawaiian language is intimately interwoven with the whole.

"The appeal of the hula is universal," says Cy Bridges, kumu hula (teacher) and Director of the Polynesian Cultural Center on Oahu. This quintessential Hawaiian art form, with its rhythmic movements and graceful gestures, has spread from an isolated archipelago in the Pacific, to Asia, Europe, and throughout the Americas.

Bridges, who has consulted for hula halau (schools) in both Mexico and Japan, observes that at one point, the number of hula halau in Mexico City rivaled the number of such schools in Hawaii. "When you turn on the radio and hear 'Hawaii Calls'--the language and beautiful songs--it's haunting," he says.

Recently "Uncle Cy" helped judge the popular "Hula o Na Keiki," or children's hula competition, at Maui's Ka'anapali Beach Hotel. "The keiki are preserving a very important part of our culture," he says. "Any passing down of culture should start with young people."

His fellow judge, kumu hula "Uncle Ed" Collier, alludes to the important link between language and hula. "Hula is not just movement," he says. "The words are the most important thing. You need the words in order to do the choreography."

The late Dr. George Kanahele, recognized as "spiritual father of the Hawaiian renaissance," would concur. In his book Ku Kanaka (Take Pride), written in 1979, he declares, "One of the most fundamental givens of a culture is its language, and no culture can long survive, let alone achieve a renaissance, without its language being spoken and understood."

Given this awareness, perhaps it is not surprising that Hawaiians have taken on what may be the most complex and daunting task of all: the challenge of bringing back from the brink the very language that encodes their ancient culture.

For centuries the Hawaiian language had served as the vehicle by which history, genealogy, and mythology had been preserved and passed on to younger generations. When missionaries from the United States introduced reading and writing in the 1820s, King Liholiho sent out emissaries to teach Hawah'ans the new literacy skills.

Schools were based on the model of the traditional halau hula (hula schools), and students chanted syllables (hakalama) as an aid to learning reading and writing. During the 19th century, the publication of Hawaiian-language newspapers and books attested to a literate society among the indigenous population.

But several factors--an influx of foreigners, misguided educational policies, and the ascendancy of English--took their toll on the language. Later a form of "Pidgin," or Creole, arose between Hawaiians and the contract workers imported from China, Japan, Portugal, and the Philippines. The coup de grace occurred within two years of the annexation of Hawaii by the United States: the 1896 legislation that restricted the use of languages other than English in the schools meant that Hawaiian was abolished as the medium of instruction.

By the mid-1900s, Hawaiian seemed poised to follow the sad trajectory of the many indigenous languages that have ceased to function as living languages. Only the elders still communicated in their native tongue, while the number of fluent speakers among children younger than eighteen had dwindled to a few dozen.

Determined to reverse the slide, activists formed organizations dedicated to the perpetuation of the Hawaiian language. In 1978 one major hurdle was overcome: in recognition of the cultural and linguistic rights of the people of Hawaii, a state constitutional convention passed a law that re-established Hawaiian as an official language. Hawaii thus became the only US state to adopt a native language as one of two official languages.

Meanwhile, New Zealand's Maori, likewise concerned about the demise of their native language, created "language nests"--family-oriented centers where elders supply the indigenous language model for infants and young children. Drawing on the history of their own 19th-century Hawaiian language schools as well as the language nests of their Polynesian cousins, Hawaiians established their first native language immersion preschools in the 1980s.

At Punana Leo o Maui, winsome tots clamber about the playground equipment, then file into bright, stimulating classrooms. Three to four months into the school year, they're chatting in Hawaiian. The three-to-five-years-olds are grouped by age for lessons that may involve acquiring new vocabulary, or practicing skills, or learning to read from a chart filled with consonant-vowel syllables reminiscent of the hakalama of the 19th-century Hawaiian schools.

Director Kili Namau'u explains that Punana Leo are true immersion preschools, with age-appropriate social and cognitive skills taught through the medium of Hawaiian language. Parents attend language classes to support their children's language learning. From the first Punana Leo in 1984, she says, the immersion schools have expanded to eleven throughout the state.

Since 1987, children educated in Punana Leo preschools have been able to continue in Hawaiian language immersion programs in the public schools, where English language arts is introduced in fifth grade. In fact, it is now possible to pursue an education in Hawaiian from pre-school through graduate studies.

Namau'u's daughter Kiani Yasak has done just that. After graduating from University of Hawaii Hilo with a major in Hawaiian Studies, she now teaches in the Hawaiian language strand at Kalama Intermediate School. Recently, her students joined those from two other classrooms as they perfected a Hawaiian song in three-part harmony for an upcoming performance.

Their diligence paid off: Kalama Immersion students took first place in the 39th annual "Na Mele" (song) competition. A group of students from Molokai High School won the Hawaiian language award. lake the Huia o Na Keiki, the Na Mele o Maul competition seeks to perpetuate Hawaii's unique culture and heritage.

One welcome outcome of the immersion classes is the high level of scholarship attained by students--equal to or better than students in English-only programs, with the added benefit of a second language and a strong cultural foundation. Approximately 80 percent of immersion students have gone on to college.

The academic rigor evident in the Hawaiian immersion classes carries over to the Hula o Na Keiki. The young participants are judged not only on their interpretation of the dance, but also on their mastery of chanting and language skills. During interviews with the judges' panel, they discuss their intensive preparation and demonstrate understanding of the cultural significance of costumes and adornments.

The competition started modestly enough in 1990 with an evening's worth of performances. Now Hula o Na Keiki takes place over a weekend, with one day devoted to hula kohiko (traditional), and a second day to hula 'auana (contemporary). Arts and crafts demonstrations and workshops, local food, and live entertainment complement the hula competition.

After the judging, "Uncle Ed" Collier praised the young performers. "All did well as always," he said. "All worked hard, but we have to have winners." Among the kane (boys) that honor went to Alexander Kawika Guerrero, a poised seventeen-year-old senior who started dancing hula when he was six. "I was lucky starting early," he says. "I've only seen hula get bigger. It's my lifestyle; I will most definitely continue."

For the wahine (girls), sixteen-year-old Kamalani Kawa'a raised expectations when she addressed the judges in Hawaiian. "I speak English and I speak Hawaiian because it's my culture," she says. "I was born into it. My morn is a language teacher." Her mother, Luana Kawa'a, has been a teacher in Hawaiian immersion programs as well as a kumu hula.

Both Kamalani and Alex downplay the competitive aspect of their performances. "There's a lot of support among the contestants, a lot of camaraderie," says Alex. Adds Kamalani, "We compete, yes, but it's about showing our love for hula."

But Cody Pueo Pata, award-winning vocalist, composer, kumu hula, and educator, acknowledges that the "slight competitive nature of skilled Hawaiian practitioners means that all strive to achieve high levels of accomplishment ... so, naturally, each year the bar is raised and we see more and more compositions of traditionally styled poetry being composed and presented ... It's a beautiful evolutionary process."

The fact that hula survives at all--especially hula kohiko--can be attributed to Hawaii's King David Kalakaua. Even as 19th-century Hawaiians adopted the prayers and practices of a new religion, the missionaries banned native chants and hula. Had it not been for the intervention of the music-loving King Kalakaua in the 1870s, they might have succeeded. "Hula is the language of the heart," he declared, "and therefore the heartbeat of the Hawaiian people."

A week-long festival and hula competition, Hilo's Merrie Monarch Festival, honors Kalakaua. On Oahu, the King Kamehameha Traditional Hula and Chant Competition offers competitions for male, female, and mixed groups in hula kahiko and hula 'auana. Renewed interest in all things Hawaiian has resulted in an abundance of festivals celebrating food, sports, arts and crafts, music, and, of course, hula.

Though much work remains to be done, Hawaii has become a model for other indigenous groups seeking to restore their language and traditions. And true to their cultural values, Hawaiians appear happy to share their successes.


Joyce Gregory Wyels is a California-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Americas. Special thanks to the Hawaiian Tourism Atuthority (HTA) for use of their photo archives to illustrate this article. ----------Please note: Some tables or figures were omitted from this article.
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Author:Wyels, Joyce Gregory
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1U9HI
Date:May 1, 2012
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