Talk Story with Keala Ching
It wasn’t so long ago that studying the Hawaiian language, olelo Hawaii, wasn’t a widely encouraged undertaking.
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Article published Sunday says “[Hawaiian] language had been suppressed for decades, with an 1896 law that banned education through Hawaiian widely seen as a pivotal part of the language’s decline.”
That’s a frequently heard but badly misleading explanation of what happened. It perpetuates nasty implications of racial oppression, serving only to elicit resentment or even hatred. Let’s correct the record. A webpage at
provides extensive citations from two books by UH scholars John Reinecke (Ph.D. dissertation 1935) and Albert J. Schutz (1994), confirming the following points:
In 1862 Kamehameha IV addressed the Kingdom legislature “…it is important to change all Hawaii’s schools to English speaking schools, and I once again put this forth to all.” In 1882 the Kingdom’s Board of Education adopted the policy that in the growing number of schools where English was the language for teaching all the subjects, the students should be forbidden to speak any other language even among themselves because total immersion is best for language learning. By 1892 (when Lili’uokalani was still reigning monarch) 95% of all the government schools were already using English as the classroom language for teaching all the subjects (thus the 1896 law had almost no effect on stifling Hawaiian).
By 1896 the majority of kids in Hawaii were children of Japanese, Chinese, or Portuguese plantation workers. The 1896 law was aimed at ensuring that Hawaii’s kids would master one language they all could speak. English was chosen rather than Hawaiian because it was already the dominant language in commerce and government. It was expected that Hawaii would soon become part of the U.S., and all kids born in Hawaii (including Chinese and Japanese) would thereby become U.S. citizens who would need to speak English to be successful. The 1896 law affected only government or private “schools” which wanted to be certified as meeting the law requiring that all kids must attend “school.” But parents and community groups were free to establish after-school or weekend academies where other languages could be used — Hundreds of such academies were established where Japanese history and culture were taught using Japanese language. Hawaiians could have done that but chose not to because they wanted their kids to become fluent in English. Most Hawaiian parents insisted their kids speak only English even in the home.
Thus we see that the 1896 law was the natural outgrowth of English-only school policies adopted by sovereign Hawaiian monarchs; English was already the language of instruction in 95% of government schools while Lili’uokalani was still in power; the 1895 law was not adopted to suppress Hawaiian language but to require Asian, European and Hawaiian kids to learn English as the one universal language everyone could speak; and the law allowed private after-school academies which could use whatever language they wished to perpetuate whatever culture they preferred.