In the language is life: the resistance of the ‘Ōlelo Hawaiʻi

In the language is life: the resistance of the ‘Ōlelo Hawaiʻi

Culture is the total way of life of a people, including heritage and performing identities. Its loss can be caused, among the other things, by the annihilation of a people’s belief in their environment, in their languages, in their past and traditions. When that happens, the colonial narrative and discourse become culturally hegemonic and will appear normative. By being displaced from the historical location on their land, the natives are reconstituted as someone to be ruled and managed.

This has been the modern history of the Hawaiian Islands since the United States military invaded the archipelago in 1883 and overthrew the previous constitutional monarchy. The Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians) lost sovereignty on their own ‘āina (land) which had provided them with material and spiritual nourishment. They have suffered depopulation, homelessness, social and political exclusion, impoverishment of health and educational systems. However, the Kanaka Maoli’s awareness of this loss and the connection with their kūpuna (ancestors) constitute powerful sites of resistance, because they haven’t allowed settlers to erase Hawaiian history and identity.

Since any colonial project is based on the coherence of experiences, one of the critical steps of the colonization of Hawai’i was the promulgation of a law that first banned the Hawaiian language (ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi) and then reduced it to the status of a foreign language. In particular, the law established English as the language of instruction for the government-recognized schools. Immediate consequences of that measure included the humiliation of those who continued to speak their ʻōlelo, the destruction and the deliberate undervaluation of Hawaiian culture and society, and the spread of the belief that only English-speaking individuals could succeed in the new society.

Princess Lili’uokalani of Hawai’i. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

In the expression of culture, language is not only a means of communication, it rather represents the most certain proof of the historical continuity of a group of people. I ka ‘ōlelo nō ke ola means “in the language is life”. To get a better understanding of these words, we could try to remain forcefully silent for a whole day. The result would be the exclusion from daily discussions, inability to share our thoughts, ask for something, and so on. We would be cut off from our own life for the whole day. So, when we lose our language (whatever it may be), we lose a piece of what we are and do. The continuation of the Hawaiian saying is I ka ‘ōlelo nō ka make, “in the language there is death”, meaning that words can heal and hurt. However, they refer also to the fact that when we stop speaking a language there is death (of the culture) but, when we use it as much as possible, there is life.

Hawaiian chiefs in traditional costume. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Splitting communities, their memory and identity, was, of course, part of the overbearing colonial project. During the 20th century, knowledge of ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi slowly diminished but it never ceased. Hawaiian resistance, kū’ē, has developed through writings, petitions, protests, and organized opposition to the abuses of Native civil and human rights. Language has been alive in their kū’ē, represented by privileging Hawaiian ways of thinking and doing. Gradually, attention to and promotion of the Hawaiian language increased but it was not until 1986 that the ban on schooling through Hawaiian was officially lifted.

Today, the ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi is still considered a critically endangered language by UNESCO. Native speakers number is around 2’000 at most, while the number of speakers who are fluent in the language is 24’000. The end of the fight is still a long way off but they are taking steps to reinvigorate their identity as Hawaiian people. And the ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi is an actual opportunity for them to convey their culture and humanity to the world.

With Tribalingual you help revitalize endangered cultures by learning their worldviews and languages. You can explore hidden stories and traditions, talking directly with our first-hand cultural experts, and you can prevent the disappearance of cultures that would deprive our humanity of its richness and diversity.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. A very interesting piece, but just as a matter of fact, surely, the US, accompanied by the British, entered Hawaii in the nineteenth century, not the twentieth, as is claimed in the piece above about Hawai’i.

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