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Is the Hawaiian Language Dead or Alive?

Thousands more young people today speak ‘Ōlelo Hawai‘i (Hawaiian language) than did their counterparts 30 years ago. Or at least they’re schooled in it. But is that enough to revive a language?


(page 4 of 4)

The Rebirth of the Hawaiian Language a Timeline 


The State Constitutional Convention designates Hawaiian as one of the state’s official languages.



UH Mānoa initiates a B.A. in Hawaiian language and a companion degree in Hawaiian Studies.



The state Department of Education (DOE) receives money from the state to begin a comprehensive sequential program of instruction in Hawaiian language, culture and history in public elementary schools.



UH Hilo initiates a Hawaiian Studies degree taught in Hawaiian. It's the first time that Hawaiian has been used as a medium of government-funded education since 1895. 



A survey estimates that about 1,500 people remain in Hawai‘i who can speak Hawaiian fluently, fewer than 50 of them children.


1983 (continued)

Hawaiian-language teachers Ilei Beniamina, Hōkūlani Cleeland, Kauanoe Kamanā, Larry Kimura, No‘eau Warner, Koki Williams and Pila Wilson meet on Kaua‘i to discuss the dismal state of the Hawaiian language. They form a grassroots organization, ‘Aha Pūnana Leo Inc., “The Language Nest Corporation,” on Jan. 12.



The first Pūnana Leo preschool opens with 12 students in Kekaha, Kaua‘i.


A bill is submitted to the Legislature to provide Pūnana Leo with the same status accorded private foreign-language schools. Another bill to allow Hawaiian as a medium of education in Hawai‘i public schools is submitted. Neither bill passes.



Pūnana Leo O Honolulu opens in Kalihi. Pūnana Leo O Hilo opens. Inadequate funding results in strong parent participation via in-kind service. This develops into a hana makua, or “parent-participation,” component.



The Hawai‘i state Legislature passes bills removing legal barriers for Pūnana Leo and allowing Hawaiian as a medium of instruction in public schools. 



The Hawaiian Lexicon Committee is established to create words for current new concepts in the progression of time, with emphasis on the curriculum content of the Hawaiian Language Immersion Program.


The DOE opens the first elementary indigenous-language immersion classes in the United States, on a trial basis, at Keaukaha Elementary in Hilo, and Waiau Elementary in Pearl City.



The state Board of Education reviews the immersion program and deems it successful. Kula Kaiapuni is allowed to continue another year.


The Hawai‘i state Legislature passes the Native Hawaiian Education Act (NHEA). drawing attention to the high literacy rates of Hawaiians at the time of annexation and the sharp drop during the period of American control.



Eighty children on four islands attend preschool at Pūnana Leo.


The state Legislature establishes the Hale Kuamo‘o Hawaiian Language Center at UH Hilo to provide support and curriculum materials.


‘Aha Pūnana Leo receives funding through the U.S. Department of Education under Title IV.



President Bill Clinton signs the Native American Languages Act, sponsored by Hawai‘i’s Sen. Daniel Inouye, partly modeled on the 1987 Native American languages resolution of the Hawai‘i state Legislature.



Nearly 500 children, ages 2 to 11, are to be taught in Hawaiian in the academic year. The Board of Education approves continuation of the Kula Kaiapuni Hawai‘i program through grade 12 with one hour of English a day beginning in fifth grade.



The Department of Hawaiian Home Lands commissioners approve the site on Hawaiian Homes Land at Waimea, Hawai‘i, for Pūnana Leo O Waimea.


Hōkūle‘a returns from the South Pacific, and U.S. Customs agent Lyons Naone conducts his inspection in Hawaiian.



Four hundred children are enrolled in Kula Kaiapuni.


Hui Hi‘i Pēpē, a mother-infant play group, begins at the future Pūnana Leo O Kona site. Pūnana Leo O Kona expands to a full-day preschool.


Ni‘ihau families on Kaua‘i form Hui Ho‘ona‘auao O Nā Mākua and request Hawaiian as a medium of education for their children through sixth grade at Kekaha School. Parents boycott the public schools when the request is denied.



Children in Pūnana Leo are now at 155. Enrollment in DOE immersion programs for grades K-6 is offered at six schools, with more than 600 students. Enrollment in classes at UH Mānoa has risen to nearly 1,700 from 700 in 1989. State funds for immersion classes: $900,000.


1994 (continued)

Leokī, the first computer bulletin-board system operating in a Polynesian or Native American language, is established, and Kualono, the website of the Hale Kuamo‘o, debuts on the World Wide Web.


The deed with which the Navy conveyed the island of Kaho‘olawe to the state is written entirely in Hawaiian and the 6-and-a-half-hour ceremony on the former Target Island is conducted entirely in Hawaiian.


OHA runs a TV ad featuring several people speaking Hawaiian with English subtitles.



‘Aha Pūnana Leo assists Hilo Kula Kaiapuni families in renting a building for an intermediate/high school program to be named after the noted Hawaiian scholar and politician, Joseph Nāwahīokalani‘ōpu‘u. OHA provides a grant of $2.1 million to ‘Aha Pūnana Leo to purchase a permanent site near Hilo to house the Nāwahīokalani‘ōpu‘u program. Nāwahīokalani‘ōpu‘u becomes the first of three model school programs administered by ‘Aha Pūnana Leo in partnership with DOE and Ka Haka ‘Ula o Ke‘elikōlani.



Pūnana Leo enrollment reaches 219. More than 1,500 students are enrolled in Kula Kaiapuni. In addition, 1,800 people are taking Hawaiian language in public high schools.


The Board of Education approves Ānuenue Elementary on O‘ahu as the state’s first kindergarten-to-high-school total immersion site.


Gov. Benjamin Cayetano proclaims 1996 to be the “Year of the Hawaiian Language.”



Sixteen-hundred students are enrolled in public and private immersion classes, with 2,500 taking ‘Ōlelo classes in high school, and 2,500 are enrolled in college courses.


Ka Haka ‘Ula O Ke‘elikōlani College (at UH Hilo) begins its two-year master's program in Hawaiian Language and Literature, the first master's program focusing on, and taught entirely in, a Native American language. Twelve students enrolled in the first class.


Kahuawaiola Hawaiian Medium Teacher Certification Program at Ka Haka ‘Ula O Ke‘elikōlani College becomes the first teacher certification program conducted entirely in a Native American language.


1998 (continued)

‘Aha Pūnana Leo funds translation of the popular Netscape Web browser into Hawaiian, the first indigenous language to be used and only the second non-English translation completed independently of Netscape Communications.


The first edition of Māmaka Kaiao: A Modern Hawaiian Vocabulary is published by the Hawaiian Lexicon Committee.



The immersion program now encompasses 16 public schools with about 1,600 students and a $1.1 million statewide budget. 


For the first time in more than 100 years, a class of students educated entirely in Hawaiian from kindergarten to 12th-grade graduates. Five seniors graduate at Nāwahīokalani‘ōpu‘u and six at Ānuenue. All Nāwahīokalani‘ōpu‘u seniors also pass a university English composition placement examination.



Kamehameha Schools establishes a strategic plan that includes among its goals and priorities the cultivation, perpetuation and practice of ‘ike Hawai‘i, including the Hawaiian language. All Kamehameha students will be required to learn some Hawaiian.



Maui graduates its first immersion senior class from Ke Kula Kaiapuni Ki‘eki‘e ‘O King Kekaulike.



Kaua‘i graduates its first immersion senior class from Ke Kula Kaiapuni Ki‘eki‘e ‘O Kapa‘a.


The first M.A. degree in Hawaiian Language and Literature is awarded at UH Hilo, to Hiapo Perreira, marking the first time in the nation a student has received an M.A. in any Native American language.


Apple Computer introduces Hawaiian-language support into Macintosh OS X 10.2 (“Panther”), which includes a Hawaiian keyboard in all of its new computers and the ability to type ‘okina (glottal stop) and kahakŌ (macron).


The first Hawaiian-language classes are offered via the Internet, through Leokī (“strong voice”), taught by Ka Haka ‘Ula O Ke‘elikōlani to 14 students in seven states. Subsequent classes included students from more than 20 states, Japan, Switzerland and Germany.


2002 (continued

The Honolulu Star-Bulletin publishes Kauakūkalahale (“the rain of Honolulu”), the first Hawaiian-language column in a mainstream daily newspaper since 1949.



Ulukau, the Hawaiian Language Digital Library project, goes online, making available more than 100,000 pages of searchable newspaper archives, books, dictionaries, the Hawaiian Bible, Ka Ho‘olina academic journal and other source material in the Hawaiian language.


Bishop Museum’s Hawaiian-language newspapers project, Ho‘olaupa‘i, starts to digitize pages from 125 different Hawaiian-language newspapers published from the early 1800s to mid-1900s. The longest running was Ka Nupepa Kuakoa, in print from 1861 to 1927. It had a total of 125,000 broadsheet pages, or 1 million manuscript pages.



The UH Board of Regents approves UH Hilo’s first doctoral program, Ka Haka ‘Ula O Ke‘elikōlani’s Ph.D. in Indigenous Language and Cultural Revitalization.



Kalena Silva at UH Hilo estimates 6,000 to 8,000 Hawaiian-language speakers throughout the state, most under 30. There are now 19 immersion sites, with 1 percent of the state’s
180,000 public school students attending immersion programs, and 100 students majoring in Hawaiian at UH Hilo.


‘Aha Pūnana Leo institutes a program to support parents who are fluent in Hawaiian and using Hawaiian as the language of their homes before their children enter Pūnana Leo. This Hui Hi‘i Pēpē established at Nāwahīokalani‘ōpu‘u takes children of Hawaiian-speaking working parents as early as 6 weeks of age and cares for them entirely in Hawaiian. 


The UH Board of Regents approves offering an M.A. in Hawaiian and an M.A. in Hawaiian Studies at UH Mānoa.


Hawaiian is the only indigenous language in the U.S. that showed growth in the 2000 census.



About 1,800 K-12 students attend immersion programs. The 2008 graduating class had 66 students. 



‘Ōiwi TV partnered with Oceanic Time Warner Cable, Kamehameha Schools and ‘Aha Pūnana Leo to establish the first Native-Hawaiian-owned and -operated television station.



Two thousand students attend Hawaiian immersion programs in 16 public schools and six public charter schools.


Hawaiian-language educators petition the federal government to exempt students from English-language testing standards and other No Child Left Behind mandates. 



The total of immersion campuses statewide drops to 20; there are more than 450 graduates.



Today there are 11 Pūnana Leo preschools on five islands, as well as 20 elementary, middle and high school immersion schools statewide. Approximately 2,370 students are enrolled for fall 2013.


Scholars estimate that there are 10,000 people who speak the Hawaiian language fluently.


Sources: ‘Aha Pūnana Leo, Hawai‘i State Library, The Honolulu Advertiser, Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Spirit of Aloha, additional interviews by Constance Hale


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Honolulu Magazine August 2020