Hawaiian professors help with language preservation

Reprinted with permission from Muskogee Phoenix
By Julie Hubbard
Phoenix Staff Writer

TULSA, Okla. – The couple credited with salvaging the Hawaiian language is now helping another culture revive its dying language.

Kaunanoe Kamana and William H. Wilson, professors of Hawaiian studies and language at the University of Hawaii-Hilo and founders of “Aha Punana Leo”— immersion preschools throughout Hawaii that teach kids to be fluent speakers — were in Tulsa recently giving tips to a group of Cherokees so they can save their vanishing language.

“It’s very important to have our language,” Kamana said. “It’s the core of identity and culture.”

Through their revitalization efforts, 2,000 kids are fluent Hawaiian speakers. And now, the Cherokees, who have no fluent speakers under the age of 40, are using this model to beef up their programs, building a four-year degree program with Northeastern State University in Tahlequah to offer Cherokee language teaching degrees and eventually expand their immersion schools.

In the early 1800s, missionaries went into the string of small Pacific islands known as Hawaii. The newcomers formed schools that taught the native language, and eventually more than 100 Hawaiian-language newspapers were established.

“At one time we had the highest literacy rate in the country,” Kamana said. “But when our government was overthrown, laws were established to break up the culture.”

In 1896, American businessmen created a bill dictating that English be the official language of Hawaii and that it should be the language taught in schools. Hawaiian language lessons ceased — until Kamana and Wilson came along.

“So what caused this resurgence?” Wilson asked. “There was this Hawaiian renaissance going on in the early ’70s. People wanted to be Hawaiian more.”

Wilson and Kamana had just graduated from the University of Hawaii, which taught classes in Hawaiian but didn’t offer it as a degree program.

“No one was graduating speaking it fluently,” Wilson said.

So Kamana and Wilson stepped in and led a rebirth movement. They started a radio program in Hawaiian. They and a core group of college students started working with fluent elders, even living with them to immerse themselves in the language.

Wilson and Kamana decided to speak Hawaiian at home, without using any English. Then they had a son, whom they raised to speak only Hawaiian.

“Then we wanted our children to go to schools that taught Hawaiian,” Wilson said.

And they found others wanted it, too, so they started an immersion preschool.

“The first one failed because teachers didn’t push the language,” he said.

But they tried again. They called it “Aha Punana Leo,” meaning “language nest.”

Due to growing demand, the first public immersion school started in 1984 in the community of Kekaha. In 1987, after pushing lawmakers, a bill was passed to require bringing the language back into schools. From there, a middle school and high school were started. The community started speaking the language and parents even took classes to speak to their children, Wilson said.

“We were even shocked to see the progress,” he said.

Although many, including officials of the Department of Education, thought kids at the immersion school would fall behind in English, kids there began testing out higher than those in the other public schools, Wilson said.

Hawaii now has 12 immersion pre-schools and a host of public schools. Some who have graduated from high school have gone on to get a language teaching degree from the University of Hawaii-Hilo, he said.

“It (revitalization) can happen,” he said. “We worked with the people who wanted it and went from there.”

Cherokee Tribal Couniclor Johnny Keener says the Cherokee language started to taper off in the 1940s when schools and employers told American Indians they should speak English to be successful. And now, 64 percent of the roughly 240,000 Cherokee tribal members have never learned Cherokee. Only 4 percent of Cherokees use the language in their homes, according to a 2002 study.

“Our goal is 50 years from now to have 80 percent (fluent) speakers,” said Wyman Kirk, a strategic planner for the tribe. “If this is just the Cherokee Nation wanting this, it will never happen. We need the Cherokee language in the schools and in the communities.”

Through a federal grant, the tribe is working with the Eastern Band of Cherokees in North Carolina, the Hawaiians, the University of Kansas Anthropology and Linguistics Department, the University of Oklahoma Anthropology Department, Northeastern State University, the Cherokee Nation Child Development Center, Lost City schools and members of the community to rekindle the language.

The Cherokees have two immersion preschool classrooms and a kindergarten class at Lost City and are networking with other rural schools to someday offer the classes. The Cherokee Cultural Resource Center, which is overseeing the language revitalization, has created the Cherokee lexicon, a dictionary of more than 7,000 Cherokee words, which should be released soon.

Fluent speakers soon will be able to get formal training to teach, just as teachers of foreign languages do.

NSU is partnering with the tribe to offer a bachelor of education degree for Cherokee language teachers within the next year, said Kay Grant, NSU dean and associate professor of education.

“It’s only logical that NSU should be the one to step up,” Grant said.

The tribe also is offering language classes in the community and on its Web site, even drawing interest from people in Russia and the former Czechoslovakia, Kirk said.

Other initiatives include offering bonuses to Cherokee Nation employees who learn to speak the language and using Cherokee on road signs and in tribal health clinics.

“It’s going to happen — we’ll find a way,” Dusty Delso, Cherokee Nation executive director of education, said of reviving the Cherokee language. He said the experts are there, the interest is there, and now is time for action. “We have to find that core group of people who are dedicated and make it happen.”

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