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Native Hawaiian group receives $85k grant to revitalize Hawaiian language

LIHU‘E — Native Hawaiian organization Papahana Kuaola has received a nearly $85,000 grant from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs as part of a multi-organizational effort to revitalize ‘olelo Hawai‘i, the Hawaiian language, from keiki to kupuna.

Historically Hawai‘i’s primary language, ‘olelo Hawai‘i was banned from being taught in schools in 1896 by the Republic of Hawai‘i’s governing body, three years after the overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom.

With punishments for students speaking Hawaiian and educational institutions even discouraging use of the language at home, ‘olelo Hawai‘i’s prominence soon plummeted across all spheres of public life.

This trend would continue for most of the 20th century, until a late-1960s resurgence in cultural pride and identity spurred a renewed interest in embracing Hawaiian culture — and, in particular, the Hawaiian language.

Even while ‘olelo Hawai‘i became an official language of the state in 1978, it wasn’t until 1986 that the ban on teaching the language in school was lifted.

“A lot of people don’t realize that, up until fairly recently, it was illegal for the Department of Education to teach Hawaiian language in school,” said Keoua Nelsen, project manager at Papahana Kuaola. “We’re really talking about just 40, 50 years ago.”

Nelsen continued, considering this shift as likely the most significant for the ‘olelo Hawai‘i’s modern-day resurgence.

“It was when it became legal for the language to be taught in the public school system that we see what I believe is the second renaissance of really growing the language,” he said.

Still, that growth has been slow. According to a 2007 study, only about 2,000 native Hawaiian speakers exist. Additionally, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) still classifies ‘olelo Hawai‘i as a critically endangered language — the agency’s most extreme classification for a surviving language.

With the Hawaiian language still threatened, much of kanaka maoli culture is threatened as well. Nelsen summarized this stuggle with a Hawaiian proverb: “I ke ‘olelo no ke ola, i ka ‘olelo no ka make” — or in English, “In language there is life, in language there is death.”

“I believe we really couldn’t start to understand our cultural practices unless we revived our language,” he said. “In the language, culture and cultural practices live and thrive. That’s why, to me, normalizing the use of Hawaiian language becomes very important.”

O‘ahu-based Papahana Kuaola — one of several organizations involved in OHA’s program — is working with 10 Hawaiian families in approximately 40 weekly classes to teach foundational skills and
lessons on ‘olelo Hawai‘i across multiple generations. Making use of the organization’s 63-acre Kane‘ohe property, much of the lessons are meant to be immersive and hands-on, tying in Hawaiian language with cultural practices.

“Whether it’s stream restoration or identifying native plants and things like that, (we’re) kind of making it a more living type of lesson versus a classroom setting,” Nelsen said. “The focus will be, of course, with the parents and the grandparents, so that they can take these skill sets and reinforce them in the home with their children and grandchildren.” Ultimately, OHA intends to gather data from Papahana Kuaola’s project, as well as similar projects conducted by other organizations across Hawai‘i, in order to create a report on the state and use of ‘olelo Hawai‘i. With this guide, OHA intends to better inform future efforts to further revitalize the Hawaiian language.


Jackson Healy, reporter, can be reached at 808-647-4966 or
Source: The Garden Island

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