Posted in: American Vocabulary

Shifting Tongues

By | February 9, 2015

With the sun making its way over the Ko’olau Mountains and onto the shores of Waikiki, it is a perfect day in tropical paradise. As she leaves behind the local island pidgin dialect of her home, a young girl catches a streetcar to school, where she will learn not only to dress like her American classmates but to speak, read, and write “properly” as well. The image of paradise, so often seen through the lenses of tourists’ sunglasses, hides the political and cultural trauma that has faced native Hawaiians for the past 50 years.

Sitting in my grandmother’s Honolulu home 70 years after the fact, I ask her about her high school days during the 1940s. “Did anyone in high school speak Hawaiian?” As she recalls her days at St. Andrew’s Priory School, an Episcopalian school for girls, she speaks only of English classes, one for grammar and one for literature. English was by law the standard of learning in Hawai’i at the time.

“It was like [the Hawaiian language] never existed. When I look back, quite a number of us were Hawaiian or part-Hawaiian. Out of 60 girls [in the graduating class], most of my friends were all part-Hawaiian.”

The common narrative that emerges as many Hawaiian families recount this era is similar to my grandmother’s. How could the once-thriving indigenous language of Hawai’i come to a seeming nonexistence even amongst the aboriginal people themselves?

While the Hawaiian language is extant today, it is difficult, if not impossible, to discuss its nature as a critical element of islands’ culture without acknowledging its history of suppression. From the 19th century onward, both the indigenous culture and the polity of the Hawaiian Kingdom were correspondingly under fire from foreign powers.

The Anti-Hawaiian Campaign

My alma mater, The Kamehameha Schools, speaks to this dynamic. Upon its founding in 1887, its first principal, William Oleson, banned the use of the Hawaiian language. In a 2004 speech, former Kamehameha teacher Kawika Eyre described the nature of the linguistic oppression at the school’s Kaiwi’ula campus. “The anti-Hawaiian campaign at Kaiwi’ula was relentless,” he said. “Non-stop. For decades. Every teacher was to be a teacher of English. Every incentive was offered, every tactic tried: slogans, ‘Better English Weeks,’ … off-campus passes, free periods … [even] an ‘English holiday’ for anyone caught not talking ‘native’ for a month.” This was but one of the first institutionalized means of oppression against the Hawaiian language, one that preluded the eventual banning of Hawaiian in all Hawai’i schools.

While this campaign against the Hawaiian language was considerable, it was but one aspect of the way in which native Hawaiians were disenfranchised in their homeland. They were also losing their nation on the political front.

Oleson’s pedagogical actions at Kamehameha regarding the Hawaiian language were consistent with his political actions that same year. He was part of the committee that penned the Bayonet Constitution of 1887, a document that restricted the monarchy’s power and instituted property and income requirements to vote, largely excluding native Hawaiians. The Constitution was then forced upon King David Kalakaua under duress, marking what some call the beginning of the insurgency against the Hawaiian monarchy. What Eyre describes as an “anti-Hawaiian campaign” at Kamehameha had political parallels in the government sector as well.

The Bayonet Constitution of 1887 allowed the legislature and monarch’s cabinet, largely made up of non-native businessmen and lawyers, to override the monarch’s executive decisions. Additionally, the new constitution instituted voting requirements: $3000 worth of property and an annual income of $600. This excluded many native Hawaiians and much of the local Asian population, while granting suffrage to American and European resident aliens that met the property and income requirements.

The committee pushing the Bayonet Constitution was known as the Hawaiian League, a group of mostly Americans and Europeans that sought to suppress the native vote and increase their political power for their own economic interests. The motive? Sugar. American sugar plantation owners and exporters could maintain their economic leverage with their upper hand in voting power.

Political restructuring in favor of American businessmen and cultural suppression were two central colonial tactics that have left haunting legacies today. As Oleson’s actions at Kamehameha and with the Hawaiian government suggest, there was no difference between the dispossession of the Hawaiian Kingdom and the suppression of the Hawaiian language.

In 1893, a group of foreign conspirators—some of whom had been integral players in writing the Bayonet Constitution—overthrew Queen Lili’uokalani. The event is often seen as the apex of political turmoil in Hawai’i. With the help of U.S. marines, this group, known as the “Committee of Safety,” seized control of the government, imprisoning the queen and proclaiming an end to the Hawaiian monarchical system. Imprisoned in her palace, Lili’uokalani abdicated her throne to a provisional government in the hopes that no Hawaiian blood would be shed. But in 1896, the newly-proclaimed Republic of Hawai’i banned the Hawaiian language in all schools.

Two years later, the United States declared Hawai’i annexed by joint resolution, and the laws of the Republic of Hawai’i—including the ban on the Hawaiian language—were applied to the new Territory of Hawai’i. The outlawing of the Hawaiian language in the school system would last until 1986. Further, the monarchy never returned, and the American occupation persisted.

The late 19th century saw a dramatic rise in the number of Christian churches and schools in Hawai’i. St. Andrew’s Priory in Honolulu (pictured) was one of the earliest schools at which students were required to speak English at all times. Hawaiian was banned in all Hawai’i public schools in 1896.

The late 19th century saw a dramatic rise in the number of Christian churches and schools in Hawai’i. St. Andrew’s Priory in Honolulu (pictured) was one of the earliest schools at which students were required to speak English at all times. Hawaiian was banned in all Hawai’i public schools in 1896.

“Therefore, Do Not Be Afraid”: Language as Political Resistance

This is a story of the adversities that accompany cultural oppression and political injustice, but this is not entirely a story of victimization. Hawaiians used the language as a powerful tool to counteract the political and cultural injustices they faced at the turn of the 19th century. Hawaiian-language newspapers played a significant role in publishing anti-annexationist sentiment. In 1895, there were as many as 13 newspaper presses publishing on a regular basis.

The newspaper Ke Aloha Aina, privately owned by James Kauli’a, a prominent anti-annexationist, printed and disseminated a speech Kauli’a had given at a rally:

“No laila, mai maka’u, e kupaa ma ke Aloha i ka Aina, a e lokahi ma ka manao, e kue loa aku i ka hoohui ia e Hawai’i me Amerika a hiki i ke aloha aina hope loa.”

“Therefore, do not be afraid, be steadfast in love for the land and be united in one thought, to protest forever the annexation of Hawai’i to America until the very last Hawaiian patriot.”

Many Native Hawaiians employed their language as a means of active resistance. For example, in the 1897 Ku’e Petitions, 38,000 out of 40,000 total native Hawaiians, signed a petition in opposition to annexation. The petitions, presented in Hawaiian and English, were used in an appeal to the U.S. Congress, but to no avail.

The Hawaiian language would also become a key focal point in the revitalization of Hawaiian culture and the growing Hawaiian sovereignty movement born outof the Hawaiian Renaissance of the 1970s. While there were key individuals that fought for the survival of the Hawaiian language in the early 1900s, such as Mary K. Pukui and Samuel H. Elbert, it was not until the latter half of the century that institutional victories began to take place for Hawaiian language. The Hawaiian Renaissance of the 1970s brought about a sense of empowerment for native Hawaiians through the revival of Hawaiian music, dance, voyaging techniques, natural resource awareness, and a growing Hawaiian sovereignty movement, all of which inherently involved a return to the Hawaiian language in some capacity.

Perhaps the largest language revitalization effort was that of Aha Punana Leo, a preschool immersion program that was founded in 1983 in the hopes of returning the Hawaiian language to the classroom as a mode of instruction. Yet no bill allowing Hawaiian language education in grade schools was passed until 1986, after several years of advocacy. In the wake of Aha Punana Leo’s work, elementary, middle, and high school immersion schools arose in the 1990s. Now, as Hawaiian makes its way into primary, secondary, and higher education, many are hopeful that the language will not only survive but also permeate everyday life.

The Hawaiian language seems more present than it was when my grandmother went to high school, but its future is uncertain. As professor of Hawaiian Studies at the University of Hawai’i Hawaiian Studies professor C. M. Kaliko Baker states in an interview with the HPR, “It is not that the language is no longer dying, it is that the language is just not dying as quickly.” Today, out of Hawai’i’s population of roughly 1.4 million, only a quarter of Hawai’i’s 1.4 million people speak a language other than English. Of those, about six percent speak Hawaiian, compared to the hundreds of thousands that once spoke the language fluently in the 19th century. The struggle to ensure the survival and growth of the Hawaiian language remains an uphill one.

Most recently, Harvard’s undergraduate foreign language requirement has been at odds with the Hawaiian language. In 2012, Leshae Henderson, a fluent Hawaiian speaker and alumna of the Kamehameha Schools, entered Harvard as a freshman. Having taken six years of Hawaiian language during her time at Kamehameha, she hoped to test out of the college’s foreign language requirement, a common procedure done by those proficient in another language before entering Harvard.

Despite repeatedly appealing to Harvard’s administration, Henderson was denied the opportunity to test out. One justification was that the language did not have a significant body of literature despite the large archive of Hawaiian language newspapers from the 1800s.

When I entered Harvard College a year later, I too inquired as to how I could fulfill my language requirement with Hawaiian. I was informed that Harvard could not identify a university-affiliated individual to write and administer a proficiency exam. In several instances, however, Harvard has provided language instructors for individual students in languages not regularly offered at the College, including Danish and Indonesian; thus the school would seem to have sufficient resources to cater to students from any number of linguistic backgrounds.

Yet another year passed. We garnered support from Harvard alumni and offered suggestions to help the College produce a Hawaiian-language proficiency exam. Only after collaborating with linguistics and language professors from Harvard and the University of Hawai’i, respectively, did the administration allow for the fulfillment of the requirement with Hawaiian.

The university’s reluctance to grant credit for the Hawaiian language did more than create friction with current students; it resonated with a genealogy of historical oppression in educational institutions. The university’s resistance spoke not only to elements of cultural stifling but also to the language’s inextricable significance in past political tumult. If anything, this most recent altercation with the Harvard administration has turned a spotlight to the warranted an enduring effort to keep the Hawaiian language off the list of extinct languages—a list that, according to John Wilford of The New York Times, grows by about one language every two weeks.

The stubborn fight to sustain indigenous languages, from the Maori in New Zealand to the Wampanoag in Massachusetts, is a reflection of why these languages are so significant. According to the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis of linguistic relativity, different languages indicate differences in experience and thought. As such, the nonreversible loss of indigenous languages is a tragedy that represents the death of unique worldviews.

Similarly, says Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania English professor Frederick White, “Such language loss represents burned bridges to cultural knowledge and practices that, once the language is dead, can never be recovered.” This irretrievable loss of language is critical to indigenous identity and culture, which is simultaneously tied to political well-being. The Hawaiian language, as a paramount component of Hawaiian identity, has been central to its survival.

After returning home, I was again sitting beside my grandmother as she said, “I wish I could have learned Hawaiian back in my day.” She knows, sadly, that it is too late for her generation. But the fight is not over for the tongues of Hawai’i’s children.

Image credit: Flickr / Camerin Castro 

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