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Cultural decline can be reversed

Special to Kalamalama by Meilinda Soerjoko


‘O ka Olelo ke Ka’a o ka Mauli: Language is the fiber that binds us to our cultural identity

The Hawaiian spirit of aloha has been severely tested by two centuries of European contact, as is demonstrated in Then There Were None, an award-winning documentary by Elizabeth Lindsey Buyers and HPU journalism instructor Martha Noyes. The film bears witness to native Hawaiians becoming exiles in their own land and to the decline of the Hawaiian people and their language.

Temuera Morrison
Photo by Chris McDonough

Temuera Morrison, one of the stars of New Zealand’s 1994, the multi-award-winning film Once Were Warriors, believes that, culturally, Hawai‘i is heading for the same fate as the Maori culture of New Zealand. Morrison, who played Jake Heke in Once Were Warriors and who was on O‘ahu in November for the Hawai‘i International Film Festival (HIFF), finds numerous parallels between the Maori and Hawaiian cultures. Both Polynesian languages are closely related to Tahitian. Both have a long tradition of long-distance ocean crossings by canoes; both share Tahiti as a “motherland.” Both have had to fight for survival, to resist being robbed of their cultural identities and their homelands.

Morrison recounts that during World War II the Maori language was used as a secret code for New Zealand soldiers to pass on messages. Like the Navaho language used by the U.S. military, Maori was a disappearing language so rarely used, and by so few people, that it was impossible for the Germans or the Japanese to recognize, let alone translate it. Morrison would than have people fast forward five decades to find that today there is a generation of 22-23 year olds in New Zealand who are both bicultural and bilingual in Maori and English.

Morrison, who used to work at the Department of Maori Affairs, believes that this renaissance was due to the success of Kohanga Reo (language nest), a Maori language immersion program that started in 1982. The success of Kohanga Reo at kindergarten level prompted the program to branch out to primary and eventually intermediate and high school levels. According to Ministry of Maori Development census results, in 2001 one in four Maori could speak the language, as could 30,000 non-Maori. Nearly half of Maori language speakers were under 25 years.

Morrison also stated that there are no more pure Maori left in New Zealand, apart from the very few in a remote part of the North Island in Urewera. Due to continual European migration, in 1900 there were only an estimated 42,000 full-blooded Maori left in New Zealand. Today, there are about 530,000 people of Maori descent, barely 15 percent of New Zealand’s population.

This compares to what is happening in Hawai‘i today. When Cook first visited Hawai‘i in 1778, there were 500,000 pure Hawaiians. Then There Were None informs us that there are about 9,000 full-blooded Hawaiians today, and demographers have predicted that by 2044 there will be no single person left of exclusively Hawaiian ancestry.

Hawaiian was once spoken by all ethnic groups born in Hawai‘i. However, the Kingdom of Hawai‘i was overthrown in 1893 and following the annexation of Hawai‘i by the United States in 1898, the use of the Hawaiian language was entirely banned in both schools and government. There are only about 1,000 native speakers left, most of them Ni‘ihau residents. So, the Maori language is alive and well, even though there are almost no full-blooded Maori left in New Zealand, but in Hawai‘i, despite its 9,000 native Hawaiians, only a fraction of the population speaks Hawaiian. Why the large gap?

Seeing the success of Kohanga Reo, Hawai‘i used it as a model for the Punana Leo (language of nests) Hawaiian language immersion program to be established at kindergarten level. A Maori graduate of the University of Hawai‘i, Tamati Reedy, became head of the New Zealand Office of Maori Affairs and returned to Hawai‘i to talk about the success of Kohanga Reo. As a result of this exchange of cultural ideas, Punana Leo was born in 1983.

Unfortunately, Punana Leo did not follow the same path as its pioneer, nor did it meet the same success. Despite the fact that Hawaiian was deemed an official language, there were still regulations about its usage in Hawai‘i schools. It was only in 1987 that the Hawai‘i legislature permitted the usage of Hawaiian in schools.

Currently, there are approximately 2,000 students, ranging from pre-school to high school, enrolled in education programs conducted only in Hawaiian.

A culture cannot live without its language. Morrison believes that we who can do so today must take action for the survival of the Hawaiian language and thus its culture. It is easy to sell the image of the native Hawaiian to tourists and investors, but survival of the Hawaiian culture does not depend on them. Whether or not the true essence of Hawaiian culture will remain alive, through aloha and the Hawaiian language, depends on this generation and the next.



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