E ola i ka  'ōlelo Hawai'i: Hawaiian language immersion a constitutional right

Nov. 25, 2019

Contributed by Kamehameha Schools Senior Policy Analyst Ka‘ano‘i Walk

The language of a people is an inextricable part of the identity of that people. Therefore, a revitalization of a suppressed language goes hand in hand with a revitalization of a suppressed cultural and political identity.

On August 13, 2019, this opening statement set the foundation for the Hawaiʻi Supreme Court’s (Court) landmark decision which held that the state must take all reasonable efforts to provide access to Ka Papahana Kaiapuni – Hawaiian language immersion – education.

We celebrate the illuminating rise to literacy of our people through the innovative leadership of the aliʻi in the 19th century, however, our Islands also contain a darker history that includes the purposeful suffocation of Hawaiʻi’s aboriginal language to near extermination. Three years following the U.S.-backed illegal overthrow of Hawaiʻi’s independent nation government, a law was passed declaring English as the medium and basis of instruction for both public and private schools throughout Hawai‘i.

While the language appeared to be on the verge of extinction, the 1978 Hawaiʻi State Constitutional Convention codified both Article XV, Section 4 (Hawaiian as an official state language) and Article X, Section 4 (State shall promote Hawaiian culture, history and language) in the State Constitution in hopes of turning the tide. Furthermore, through the advocacy and education efforts of mānaleo (native speakers) and ʻAha Pūnana Leo, Inc., ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi was successfully reintroduced into the classroom. Today, there are 18 Kula Kaiapuni, or Hawaiian language immersion program, public schools statewide in addition to six Hawaiian language immersion public charter schools with grades spanning from pre-kindergarten to 12.

In 2014 on Lānaʻi, the Clarabal ‘ohana anxiously awaited the opening of a Kula Kaiapuni at Lānaʻi High and Elementary School. Although there was tremendous support from the island community and school to establish a Kula Kaiapuni that school year, the immersion program ultimately was not established, and instead, a long-term substitute teacher was hired to offer supplementary instruction in Hawaiian language, history and culture.

Without access to a true Kula Kaiapuni education, the Clarabal ‘ohana turned to the courts for relief. Central to the issue in the suit is the family’s claim that the State Department of Education had breached Article X, Section 4 of the consitution to provide a Hawaiian education program in public schools because they failed to establish a Kula Kaiapuni on Lānaʻi that the keiki could enroll in.

The State maintained that the classes offered on Lānaʻi (including standard Hawaiian history and supplemental Hawaiian instruction) were sufficient to “contribute to the revival of ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi.” However, this was refuted in court documents submitted by Professors William O’Grady, professor of Linguistics at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, and Kīʻope Raymond II, associate professor of Hawaiian studies at UH Maui College, which stating that the program offered on Lānaʻi would not revive the language – immersion education is the minimum standard, and it is absolutely necessary to preserve ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi.

In its momentous opinion, the Court stated that Article X, Section 4, in alignment with the intent of the framers, was adopted for the express purpose of “reviving the Hawaiian language.” More specifically, the Court found that “providing reasonable access to a Hawaiian immersion program is an essential component of any Hawaiian education program reasonably calculated to revive and preserve ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi, and it is thus required by article X, section 4.”

Paul Nahoa Lucas, KS legal senior counsel and author of “A Dictionary of Hawaiian Legal-Terms,” explained that, “In reversing the lower court, the (Court) stated that the DOE’s teaching of a Hawaiian Studies course as a substitute for an immersion program was unacceptable.”

Furthermore, the State’s goal must be to revive and preserve ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi and the culture when weighing what additional reasonable actions are needed to provide access.

The lower (circuit) court must determine whether or not the State took all reasonable measures to provide access to a Hawaiian immersion program to the Clarabal keiki on Lānaʻi. According to the Court, reasonable steps may include:

  • Providing greater financial or other incentives to attract immersion teachers to Lānaʻi;
  • Furnishing transportation for a teacher to commute to Lānaʻi;
  • Using multiple instructors to share teaching duties;
  • Partnering with community members knowledgeable in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi;
  • Modifying school days or hours of instruction to accommodate the availability of a teacher; and
  • Adopting any other alternative method of providing access to a Hawaiian immersion program.

“This is a historic decision because it is the first time that the Court has interpreted the legal effect of amendments made to the State Constitution in 1978 to strengthen Native Hawaiian government programs and customary practices,” said Lucas.

As affirmed by our CEO Jack Wong last year, as keepers of Pauahi’s promise to her people, uplifting and continually strengthening our identity as a Native Hawaiian organization is among our highest priorities. An extremely important part of upholding this promise “is to embrace learning, speaking and eventually re-normalizing ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi, from our haumāna on our campuses and in our communities all the way to our employees.”

ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi is, and will always be, the language of our beloved home.

E ola kākou i ka ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi. Let us all find healing through Hawaiʻi’s mother tongue.

Kamehameha Schools Senior Policy Analyst Ka‘ano‘i Walk provides analysis of the Hawaiʻi Supreme Court’s landmark decision, which held that the state must take all reasonable efforts to provide access to Ka Papahana Kaiapuni – Hawaiian language immersion – education.

Walk, left, and KS Legal Senior Counsel Paul Nahoa Lucas discussed the Clarabal case ruling at a recent Pū Paʻakai forum with KS employees.