Larger than life
The 30th anniversary of Hawaiian language immersion programs is being celebrated in epic proportions
When people talked about Hawaiian education 30 years ago, most thought of it as taking hula classes and listening to Hawaiian music, longtime Hawaiian educator Pulama Collier said.
But that changed with the rise of Hawaiian language immersion programs, or kula kaiapuni, across the state.
“Now when we speak of Hawaiian education two generations (later), moving from myself to my students and my children, they have such a different perspective on what Hawaiian education is,” Collier said.
Hula and music are still an integral part, but language has grown to be a necessary component, said Collier, who teaches at King Kekaulike High School and is also involved with the Hawaiian language immersion program at Kalama Intermediate School.
On Thursday, Collier and the students of Kalama Intermediate celebrated the unveiling of a new mural on campus that honors 30 years of Hawaiian language education. Kalama, Kekaulike, Hana and Molokai schools are participating in three of the 10 murals that are being painted statewide as part of the celebration.
“Hawaiian language was not easily accessible in school during my generation, so to see it used in this generation is really special to me,” said John “Prime” Hina, founder of the nonprofit 808 Urban that is creating the murals hand-in-hand with the community. “As I learn more about the language, there is a greater appreciation for the high level of intelligence that understanding and speaking the Hawaiian language commands.”
Use of the Hawaiian language in schools was outlawed in 1896, according to the nonprofit ‘Aha Punana Leo, which was created in 1983 with the goal of bringing back the language.
In 1985, as the first students graduated from Punana Leo preschools, ‘Aha Punana Leo sought to overturn the ban. After the first attempt failed, the nonprofit, supporters and parents formed a boycott school in Hilo. Then in 1986 came success — the state Legislature passed a bill allowing Hawaiian language instruction in public schools. By 1987, language immersion classes had begun in Hilo and Pearl City, and Punana Leo O Maui opened in Wailuku.
Collier, who’s been a kumu kaiapuni with various immersion programs since 1992, said schools had to lobby the state every year to continue Hawaiian language education to the next grade. Slowly, the programs grew from kindergarten to elementary to middle and finally high school.
“We had to lobby and send letters to have one more year, one more year,” Collier recalled. “The parents and teachers and students of the first class were actually opening it up to . . . having immersion be a staple in the DOE.”
Thirty years later, there are now 23 public and charter schools — including 10 in Maui County — that make up Ka Papahana Kaiapuni, the Hawaiian Language Immersion Program under the state Department of Education.
Last year, The Living Legacy Series, a project that centers on creating murals around the islands, launched Ke Kanakolu to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Hawaiian language immersion. From August to May, 808 Urban is partnering with local artists to create 10 murals on five islands.
Molokai High’s mural was completed in January, while Kalama Intermediate’s mural followed in April, and Hana School’s mural is scheduled to finish by May 12, Hina said.
Each mural tells a piece of the story of Kalapana, a young boy whose father, Kanepoiki, is killed after losing a battle of wits against Kauai chief Kalaniali’iloa, according to “The Living Legacy Series.” His bones are used in Kalan-iali’iloa’s chiefly residence. Kalapana, hoping to avenge his father’s death, learns all he can about ho’opapa, the art form of wordplay, or battle of wits. With his superior knowledge of the land — from the winds to the rains to the plants — Kalapana defeats the Kauai chief and brings his father’s bones home.
“It’s like the same thing as these kids,” said 808 Urban co-director and artist Laetitia Kealia Kukui Mahoney. “The language was banned but now it’s been alive for 30 years, and that’s like (these kids are) bringing back the bones of their kupuna, of their ancestors.”
Each mural starts with manalima, “the power of our hands,” a process that allows students and members of the community to decorate the wall with painted handprints, Mahoney explained.
Next comes the pilialoha stage, in which the colors are washed together using water from the area — Upcountry rainwater in the case of Kalama. The handprints are “the DNA of the people; water is the DNA of that place,” Mahoney said. Last comes the kilo, or observation stage, during which the artists consult with teachers and the community on the design and meaning of the mural.
Hina said the murals have gone beyond Kalapana to tell the stories of the communities involved. Molokai High’s mural recognizes both Kalapana’s knowledge of the land as well as the stories of the area by depicting rain and locally grown plants like sweet potato, as well as the giant that was said to live behind the high school. The mural at Kalama tells the story of Makawao and its forests, with the words of a chant the students use to ask for permission before entering a classroom, Hina said. It also depicts a mo’o, a nod to Maui’s “deep connection to our mo’o (dragon) guardian stories,” Hina added. Mahoney said Hana’s mural will depict Moku ‘Ola, an island in Hilo Bay that was supposed to be part of Maui but was separated during the demigod Maui’s attempt to pull the islands together.
Collier said she’s hopeful for the future of ‘Olelo Hawai’i. The students that graduated from the first immersion programs now have kids of their own who attend immersion schools. Now the community is helping the language grow beyond the state school system.
“With the koko or without the koko . . . to be able speak, and not just speak but to learn and become proficient in the language of our beloved land, builds your sense of identity, Collier said. “It builds your sense of meaning and significance and connectivity to our place.”
* Colleen Uechi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.