Hawai’ian Language: A Case Study in Native and Asian Intersectionality in the U.S.

Hawai’ian Language: A Case Study in Native and Asian Intersectionality in the U.S.

For every community, identity is very closely tied to language. This is especially true for those that have a migratory history of displacement, colonization, and forced migration. The dispersion can cause language death, a phenomenon that plagues many aging diasporic communities. This occurs when language fluency decreases so much that there are no longer any native speakers of the language, dialect, pidgin, or creole. Many other things are lost with the end of that lexicon, like expressions and concepts that define daily life. Many indigenous communities around the world are quickly working to create learning tools and dictionaries based on recordings and memories of elders. 

In the United States, First Nations and Indigenous people are leaders in this effort. Most particularly, Hawai’ians have battled for centuries against great odds to hold onto their linguistic traditions, which are sacred ground for honoring their native, Asian, and royal heritage. The effort to retain and preserve native Hawai’ian language, which derives from Polynesian, has been led by many activist culture keepers. Three of the most prominent among them include Princess Ruth Keelikokalani, Mary Kawena Puku‘i, and Larry Kimura, who have passed the baton over the last century to ensure that anyone living in Hawai’i today benefits from this cultural knowledge.  Here’s a brief history of their efforts:

Princess Ruth Luka Keanolani Kauanahoahoa Keelikōlani (1826-1883) was of royal inheritance, but her life was filled with loss paired with great wealth. As part of the family of King Kamehameha the Great, who consolidated the Western Pacific Islands of Hawai’i into a unified nation, she was raised in accordance with the deference given to both her maternal and paternal bloodlines. Her mother died giving birth to her, so she was raised by an adoptive aunt who ensured that she was well cared for. British arrival to the islands in 1778 caused many cultural changes to take root and very few of them sat well with the Princess. Although she was taught to speak English, she clung tightly to her native tongue, forcing anyone who spoke with her to acquire it or to employ an interpreter. According to Esoteric Curiosa, “In 1847 she was appointed to the Privy Council of Kamehameha III, and served… through 1855 in the House of Nobles. January 15, 1855 she was appointed to be the Royal Governor of the Island of Hawai’i, where she served until March 2, 1874.” A series of deaths in her family made passing on leadership convoluted and contested, but when she died in 1883 she was the wealthiest person in the Kingdom and owned a great deal of its land. The passing of such staunch defenders of the Kingdom significantly weakened defenses and ultimately contributed to U.S. annexation of the islands in 1893.

Mary Kawena Puku‘i (1895-1986) a.k.a. Mary Abigail Tui Kawena‘ulaokalaniohiʻiakaikapoliopelekawahineʻaihonua Wiggin was born in Ka’u in 1895 to a white father from Massachusetts and a native Hawai’ian mother who hailed from Chiefs and Chiefesses. As is customary, Mary was raised by her maternal grandmother, who orally passed down native language, religion, culture, and traditions to her. Mary’s coming of age developed concurrently with American formalization of control over the territory. In 1896, the Hawai’ian language was banned in state schools and adults who were children at that time recall being punished for speaking it. By the time she returned to her parents’ home at age nine, more mainlanders had come to the islands and the culture was shifting. She eventually reconnected with her New England roots, and was later sought by researchers at Vassar College to translate prayers, recordings, and other cultural elements from the islands. She eventually began writing under her own byline, publishing and co-authoring many books about Hawai’ian language and culture. Most famous among them was “Introduction to the Hawai’ian Language with the English-Hawai’ian, Hawai’ian-English Dictionary,” from 1943. She collected oral stories that formed an uncontested body of anthropological work and has helped current speakers and present-day scholars understand the rich linguistic complexity of native Hawai’ian speech traditions. 

Larry Kimura is considered the grandfather of the Hawai’ian language. Much has been written about this living legend, but his 2016 interview with PBS’ Long Story Short offers the best summary: “Larry Lindsey Kimura of Hawai’i Island grew up with a Japanese father and Hawai’ian mother. He was exposed to both the Japanese and Hawai’ian languages through each of his grandmothers, but it was the Hawai’ian language that he resonated with more. His lifelong passion for the language, and determination to keep it alive, is one of the reasons the Hawai’ian language is flourishing today…Dr. Larry Lindsey Kimura, associate professor of Hawai’ian language and culture at the University of Hawai’i at Hilo, is often called the grandfather of Hawai’ian language revitalization. And for good reason. The results of his dedication to perpetuating the language can be seen and heard across the islands through the ever-growing number of Hawai’ian language speakers. His interest in Hawai’ian language started when he was growing up in the 1940s and 50s in the ranching town of Waimea on Hawai’i Island. The only people who still spoke fluent Hawai’ian were his grandmother’s generation, and he sensed then that the language was on the verge of extinction.”  In the 1970s, he tried to teach himself the language and started a popular radio program to catalogue it by interviewing all the native speakers he could find. This preservation mechanism has since made it possible for many generations to bring the language back into use. Kimura and other activists eventually fought for mainstream Hawai’ian immersion, ultimately creating a curriculum and building the schools themselves. Today there are Hawai’ian language preschools, and students can get a degree in Hawai’ian language at all levels of higher education at the University of Hawai’i. Anybody can log onto Duolingo to learn, making the effort to recover this linguistic tradition not just the toil of those living on the islands today, but a collective effort that we all can take part in.

When a language is lost, many of its speakers’ beliefs and cultural memories also die with it. During AAPI (Asian American Pacific Islander) Heritage Month, it is important to review the historical intersectionality of Asian-Americans and the First Nations and Indigenous communities that inhabited the lands that we now consider the United States of America. Not only have layered colonizations affected these overlapping identity groups, but complicated histories have emerged around reclaiming those cultures. Even popularized symbols of Hawai’ian culture, like hula dancing, were once completely banned. The fact that these retentions still exist today is a credit to ancestral resistance. Now, technology and history have combined to facilitate the rebirth of the Hawai’ian language, and with it a critical re-examining of the diverse history of the American West Coast and the 137 islands that comprise the current state of Hawai’i.

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Nafeesah is a freelance writer and independent researcher with a particular interest in literature, gender identity, and diaspora studies within the global South. She graduated cum laude from Barnard College in 2006, earned a Masters of International Affairs from Columbia University in 2009, and completed the postgraduate program in Folklore & Cultural Studies at Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) in India in 2013. Nafeesah received her Ph.D. in Forced Migration from the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in 2019.


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