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Rediscovering ‘Ōlelo Hawaiʻi after its generations-long ban in schools

Jerry Santos, right, performs with Henry Kapono at Hawaiʻi Public Radio on Aug. 15, 2017.
Hawaiʻi Public Radio
Jerry Santos, right, performs with Henry Kapono at Hawaiʻi Public Radio on Aug. 15, 2017.

Wednesday is the first day of Mahina ‘Ōlelo Hawaiʻi, or Hawaiian Language Month.

The Hawaiian language was banned in schools starting in 1896, and “was not heard in schools for four generations,” according to the state Department of Education.

As part of our continuing project with the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa's Center for Oral History, we focus on the evolution of the use of Hawaiian from the experience of someone who was punished for speaking it in school — through the way the language changed the professional life of local musician Jerry Santos.

Ethnic studies professor Ty Kāwika Tengan picks up the story with Lani Lopez Kapuni and Santos.

Lani Lopez Kapuni was born in Kīpahulu, Maui in 1915. When she was 5 years old, her mother passed away and she went to live with her grandmother who spoke fluent Hawaiian. Starting school at age 6, she quickly learned that if she spoke Hawaiian at school, she would be punished — pulling one weed for every Hawaiian word she spoke.

Kapuni: We just were really, fully into Haole lifestyle. Fully. Because I remember when I go school, I used to talk in Hawaiian. In between the English there's always couple of words of Hawaiian. So get this Haole teacher. Eh, she make us pull weeds, you know, if we say Hawaiian. This Haole teacher, I tell you.

Interviewer Warren Nishimoto: You had to speak all English.

Kapuni: All English. Completely English. No Hawaiian.

Nishimoto: You couldn't even say like, "pau."

Kapuni: No. That's where our pilikia. Pau, you cannot say pau. And there's one word that I'll always, I don't know, it's a habit. Of course, now I old so I don't use it. I always say, "Ia." I said, "Oh, call ia you," you know. I always used that word. And so after school I gotta go, I gotta pull how many words that I said that whole day. If it was 10 words, well, 10 weeds. If 100 words, 100 weeds. But I dare not go home and tell my tūtū, you know. Because they were trying to stop us, not to speak Hawaiian in school.

Jerry Santos, the lead singer of the Hawaiian music group Olomana and a composer of Hawaiian language songs, graduated from the Kamehameha Schools in 1969. He talks about his reconnection with the Hawaiian language after high school.

Santos: The more I was around Hawaiian language, the more I was around people who were using Hawaiian language and speaking about it and finding references to things that I was curious about, the more I realized that this was also a path that I needed to go down. So, it opened the door to Hawaiian language, specifically Hawaiian history. I read the Queen's story when I graduated from high school and certainly that had great effect on me and how I perceived things because up until then, we didn't know anything. I didn't know anything about this history. We weren't taught it in school. You know, now it's — we see a whole generation of people who know their language. They know where they came from. And they're a little more secure in themselves. Unless you understand Hawaiian from some context of grammar, it's hard to take the words and put them all together, especially if it's the newer stuff. The old stuff, when people wrote stuff, you know, they were so exquisite at how they used their language. But that for me has been the best part of the learning is being able to sing songs and know exactly not only what you're singing, but what is the kaona of what it is that you're singing.


This oral history project is supported by the SHARP initiative of the National Endowment for the Humanities through the American Council of Learned Societies.

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