Saving the Hawaiian language

LIHUE — Hawaiian language immersion schools received good news from lawmakers last week, as five senators introduced a measure to preserve endangered Native American languages such as olelo Hawaii.

Sens. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Jon Tester (D-Montana), Mark Heinrich (D-New Mexico), Heidi Heitkamp (D-North Dakota) and Tom Udall (D-New Mexico) introduced The Native Language Immersion Student Achievement Act, which would create $25 million in grants to support Native American language immersion programs.

“This is awesome for us because just the support (is) really needed,” said Kaleimakamae Kaauwai, pookula or principal of Kawaikini New Century Public Charter School in Lihue. “There’s always need for translating because there’s still not a whole lot of resources in Hawaiian.”

The grant program totals $5 million a year for five years. According to the measure, grants can be awarded to Native American tribes, tribal organizations, tribal colleges and universities, and public or private schools to establish or expand existing immersion classes for students from preschool through post-secondary levels.

Kaauwai said including Kawaikini, there are three other Hawaii public charter schools on Kauai — Ke Kula Niihau O Kekaha, Kanaka and Kanuikapono — and 34 total in the state. Kawaikini has about 130 students from kindergarten through 12th grade, he said.

“Preserving the language helps us to know who we are, where we are in this world and our connection to other people,” Kaauwai said.

Pua Rossi-Fukino, instructor of Hawaiian language and studies at Kauai Community College, said the measure will benefit all Hawaii residents.

“It looks like something that’s going to be really positive, especially for those who want to acquire their native tongue and learn more about it,” she said. “To have an opportunity such as this that will help support people learn their language, it will be for the betterment of all — not just Native Hawaiians, everybody who lives here.”

Rossi-Fukino, who has an average of about 15 students per class per semester, said getting funding for immersion schools and Hawaiian language learning can be difficult.

“Having this bill be something that could open the doors and bring more funding, open more possibilities for people, I see it being very positive,” she said. “Any steps forward is something, even if it’s a small step, is definitely a positive.”

Schatz said the bill would build on immersion schools such as Nawahiokalaniopuu on the Big Island.

“Immersion schools in Hawaii have shown us that if we incorporate culture, traditions and language into education, we can preserve Native languages, improve student outcomes and lift Native communities,” Schatz said in a statement.

Rossi-Fukino said she finds the funding for Hawaiian language ironic since an 1896 law, which was lifted in 1987, banned the teaching of the language in public schools.

“It just caused a ripple effect: families stopped teaching it, families stopped sharing it because they were not supported,” she said. “What happened in 1896 was that (a U.S. policy) banned the practice of Hawaiian language, the teaching of Hawaiian language in public schools, and they took away the funding to the people who wanted to continue that.”

Rossi-Fukino said the incorporation of the 1896 law led to Hawaiian speakers rarely sharing the language. She added that her family is an example of that.

“My great-grandmother was a native speaker and she was an educated woman, but she was a native speaker of olelo Hawaii and a speaker of English and she refused to teach Hawaiian language to my grandmother,” she said. “My grandmother had to go and learn her own indigenous language from somebody else outside of the household. In turn, she herself didn’t teach it to my father. My father had to go to other ohana and learn his language. Luckily, I was in the era where it was a good thing to share your language.”

According to 2010 Census data, around 24,000 people speak Hawaiian in the U.S. and 16,000 speak the language in the state.

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