Wednesday, November 12, 2008

'Olelo Hawai'i (Hawaiian Language)

Here is the Fun Fact I shared with my hula class last week:

This year is the 30th anniversary of the year Hawaiian was made an official language of the state of Hawaii. But in 1978, when the Hawaiian Legislature made that law, it was still illegal to teach in the Hawaiian tongue in public and private schools.

That English-only law had been on the books since 1896, a souvenir of the influence of the missionaries. Indigenous children were disciplined in school if they slipped and used their native tongue. As a result, even though Hawaiian was made an official language in 1978, less than 1 percent of the population could speak it.

The law was finally repealed in 1986, thanks to the founding three years earlier of 'Aha Punana Leo (Language Nest), a Hawaiian immersion preschool. The preschool concept spread rapidly from Kaua'i to other islands. The thirst of the Hawaiians to hear their language again caused lawmakers to reconsider the restrictive law.

Now Hawaiian immersion schools are common and the University of Hawaii has college- and graduate-level Hawaiian-only academic programs. Hawaiian-language songs are so popular that the Grammy Awards now have a special category for them. And the Language Nest preschool model is widely used by Native American tribes in an effort to revive their native languages that were in danger of becoming extinct.

My Fun Fact provoked a spirited discussion among my hula sisters. Those who had lived in Hawai'i could only nod sadly at the recollection that the original language of the islands was once forbidden by strict Christian missionaries from New England and their descendants. One Oregon woman was outraged and did not understand how speaking a language could be made illegal. A Hawaiian woman said to her, "Let me put it to you this way: it has taken this long for the United States to elect a black president." The outraged woman was not taking racism against the brown-skinned Hawaiians into account. Older Native Americans who were forced to attend boarding schools and adopt the English language and American clothes and customs would understand how the Hawaiian language and culture almost died out.

Hula halaus all over the world are doing their part to keep 'olelo Hawai'i alive by learning the dances, songs and chants of this beautiful language.

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