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.