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Na Puka Kula: Hawaiian Immersion Graduates


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Some of the first graduates of the Hawaiian immersion schools have been out on their own in the adult world for a few years now. We caught up with four of them for their reflections on the schools, the language and their futures.

As part of the  Hawaiian culture program at Nawahiokalaniopuu, students grow taro and sweet potatoes.

photo: joshua fletcher

“Hawaiian, it was like a flame that went out, then psshw,”  Kuuwehi Hiraishi makes a sound of a gas burner igniting, “it came back.” She’s referring to her own Hawaiian language proficiency after returning to the Islands from the Mainland, going from hardly speaking the language to using it regularly in her work. But she might as well have been speaking about the language as a whole. In 1984, Hawaiian was on the brink of extinction, with about 2,000 speakers, mostly elderly; fewer than 50 of the speakers were 18 years or younger.

To turn this around, educators launched Hawaiian immersion schools, where students are taught all subjects in Hawaiian. From the first immersion elementary school in 1987, the program has grown to 20 campuses statewide. Today, there are more than 450 graduates, Hiraishi included, who have been out in the real world long enough to have some distance from the experience. How has it influenced their lives since? Would they send their own children?

After graduating, Kuuwehi Hiraishi worked as a Hawaiian language news reporter and is now with the Hawaiian Home Lands Trust.

photo: elyse butler and matt mallams

Kuuwehi Hiraishi

Graduate of Ke Kula O Nawahiokalaniopuu in Keaau, Hawaii Island, class of 2001

Kuuwehi Hiraishi, 28, was one of 12 in the third graduating class of Nawahi. “Your parents always live vicariously through you,” she says, on why they enrolled her. “They were college students in the ’70s, [during the] Hawaiian Renaissance, trying to find themselves as Hawaiians. They saw this as a great opportunity to instill that in me, without me having any say in it,” she laughs.

With the pressure of being the oldest (her two younger sisters would subsequently attend Nawahi) and a self-proclaimed nerd, she worried that her education would not prepare her for a successful career. She watched as classmates pulled out, they and their parents unwilling to take a risk on an educational experiment, one that didn’t even have certified teachers at the time. Think of how hard it is to find a good math or chemistry teacher; then think of how hard it is to find one fluent in Hawaiian. “The administrators who started the movement were so passionate and they knew that it would work,” Hiraishi says. “But when you’re in it at the time, you’re not sure if all the worries and all the doubts that you hear in the community are actually going to play out.”

When she got to Seattle University, though, she found “the transition wasn’t hard at all, other than silly little things like calling teachers kumu. I was amazed it was easier in ways. When I took language in college, I felt like I could easily catch on. Especially Japanese. I was just able to think a different way easier.” Though English was her first language, when she was giving oral presentations in Japanese, unexpectedly, Hawaiian would fill in the gaps.

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