The Hawaiian Language Ban

#116 in the Moʻolelo series

In the mail last night came a box. At first, my wife thought I was surreptitiously buying things on eBay. But it was from the publisher W.W. Norton and it was two copies of the book When the Light of the World was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through, edited by Joy Harjo, the Native American poet who is the current Poet Laureate of the United States. Many months ago, Iʻd received a letter asking my permission to reprint one of my mother’s poems in this collection – the first comprehensive collection of native poetry. I’d forgotten that it was from W.W. Norton, a major publishing house.

In her poem “Ka ʻŌlelo,” Brandy Nālani McDougal writes of the 1896 Hawaiian language ban. Her stanzas recall the wā of Kumulipo:

ʻelua

Like the urchin leaves, pumping its shell

as its many spines let go, turn to sand,

my great-grandfather’s Hawaiian words fell

silent, while his children grew, their skin tanned

and too thin to withstand the teacher’s stick,

reprimands demanding English only.

The ban lasted until 1986,

after three generations of family

swallowed our ʻōlelo like pōhaku…

Brandy Nālani McDougall, “Kā ʻŌlelo,” in When the Light of the World was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through, Joy Harjo (ed.), WW Norton, 2020.

The Hawaiian language ban, which McDougall herself points out in her book Finding Meaning, was actually an “English mainly” policy, not technically an outright ban on ʻōlelo. It held that English was to be the primary medium of instruction in public and private schools (not the only medium). But it may as well have been. As we have seen with Hawaiian immersion schools, full immersion is nearly the only way to get the language to sink in – the “English mainly” policy was immersion in reverse.

The ban was prefaced, one could say, at, of all places, Lahainaluna in 1868! An article in Kuokoa entitled “Hawaiian Language Banned at Lahainaluna” asked whether “Hawaii [was] to become a state of the United States?”

We have heard through a letter from one of the students at the College [Lahainaluna was not a high school until the twentieth century], “The teachers and students have decided to ban the speaking of Hawaiian, and instead to speak English [namu kawalawala] all the time; and should anyone speak in Hawaiian, he will be made to work.” Is what we hear correct?

How sad for children to be denied their mother’s milk, and fed only cow’s milk. They will end up malnourished, for the nourishment God prepared for them is better than all other foods. How tragic is it for the youth to be denied speaking the language of their parents. What is this big push to acquire the English language [olelo haole]? Is it to prepare them to become Americans when Hawaii joins as a state of the United States as is being rumored about? Is that the idea at Lahainaluna?

attributed to SP Kalama, Kuokoa, March 7, 1868. Accessed from nupepa-hawaii.com (Kuwada)

It is important to note that 1896 is during the period of the self-proclaimed Republic of Hawaiʻi. The law read:

Nāhoa Lucas notes that while the 1896 ban did not explicitly ban Hawaiian, it meant that Hawaiian language medium schools would not be recognized (accredited) by the Department of Education. It contributed to a decrease in Hawaiian-medium schools from 150 to zero in 1902. It is also important to note that Hawaiian parents often wanted their children to learn English at school because they could learn Hawaiian at home, and the decline in Hawaiian medium schools began before the ban.

Pila Wilson and Kauanoe Kamanā relate an account of Hawaiians grappling with the change in language from 1906, a change which, it was claimed, was “in the interest of the Hawaiians themselves:”

It was as if, far from becoming truly bilingual, the youth of the early twentieth century were simply becoming less lingual. And without language, it is difficult even to think.

McDougall continues in her poem, that ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi:

holds the song my grandfather longs for

most, as he remembers his father’s voice,

and regrets not asking him to speak more

Hawaiian, so that he may have the choice

to offer words in his inheritance,

knowing his ʻohā will not be silenced

Sources: Paul F. Nāhoa Lucas, “E Ola Mau Kākou I ka ʻŌlelo Makuahine: Hawaiian Language Policy and the Courts,” Hawaiian Journal of History, vol. 34 (2000).

Brandy Nālani MacDougall, “Ka ʻŌlelo,” When the Light of the World was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through, Joy Harjo (ed.), New York: W.W. Norton, 2020.

William Wilson and Kanoe Kamanā, “ʻIn the Interest of the Hawaiians Themselves:’ Reclaiming the Benefits of the Hawaiian Medium Education,” Hūlili: Multidisciplinary Research on Hawaiian Well Being, vol. 3, No. 1 (2006).

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