It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that advocates took it upon themselves to revitalize the Hawaiian language — the ‘ōlelo — and rescind an age-old law that had made its use illegal in both public and private schools.
Academics and language practitioners, many of them from the University of Hawaii, were at the forefront of that effort, according to a UH press release.
In a matter of decades, Hawaiian grew from being spoken only by a few elders and those living on Niihau to an increasingly robust language that is heard in schools, the airport, even the streets.
And now it’s being featured at the prestigious Washington, D.C., Smithsonian Center for Folklife Festival as part of its “One World, Many Voices: Endangered Languages and Cultural Heritage" series.
The program, hosted in collaboration with the Smithsonian’s Recovering Voices initiative, UNESCO and the National Geographic Society, explores how languages from around the world embody cultural knowledge, identity and values. The series also highlights the role language preservation plays in sustaining cultural tradition.
The two other themes being showcased at the center include “Hungarian Heritage” and “The Will to Adorn.”
Most of the Hawaii delegation heading to D.C. is made up of UH Manoa, UH Hilo and community college students, faculty and staff. They’ll be presenting in lectures, “talk stories” and demonstrations involving poi-pounding, Niihau lei-making, Polynesian navigation techniques and music, chant and hula. Local performer and UH Hawaiian music Professor Aaron Sala is leading the delegation.
UH was the first public university in the U.S. to offer a master’s degree and, later, a Ph.D. in an indigenous language. It’s also the only university in which all of its community colleges offer a Hawaiian studies degree, according to the press release.
— Alia Wong