Read this article in ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi

Ask that question to any player on the Roosevelt High School football team. Most of their answers will probably be fairly straightforward.

To compete under the bright lights in front of a roaring crowd. For their teammates. For their school. For the love of the game.

But for 11 of the players, the answer may be more complicated.

That’s because these students don’t attend Roosevelt. They’re actually from Ke Kula Kaiapuni ʻo Ānuenue, a small school in Pālolo where only Hawaiian language is spoken on campus. Ānuenue is one of 28 Kaiapuni or Hawaiian immersion schools whose goal is to save ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi, the native language of the Hawaiian people, which just 40 years ago was on the brink of extinction.

These young men, like many other Kaiapuni athletes and their families throughout the state, make tremendous sacrifices to remain at their schools to perpetuate their native language.

Many spend much of their day commuting from their homes to the few Kaiapuni campuses on their island. For example, seven of the Ānuenue football players are from the Leeward side; they leave before sunrise to head east for school in Pālolo, backtrack west to Roosevelt for afternoon practice, and then return home late in the evening.

In addition, Kaiapuni athletes often play for other schools’ teams because their own student bodies are too small to support their own squads. Ānuenue hasn’t been able to field its own football team since 2016.

The challenges of these Kaiapuni students raise the question of why it is so difficult to receive a Hawaiian language education. Why aren’t these schools better resourced? And, maybe most importantly, what are the federal and state governments’ moral and legal obligations to revive ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi when they long supported the language’s eradication for their own benefit?

So, why do these Kaiapuni football players wear another school’s jersey, and sing another school’s alma mater?

Senior offensive lineman ʻIolani Enoka said that while he’s appreciative of the opportunity to play for Roosevelt, not suiting up for Ānuenue is certainly difficult. But he understands what’s at stake.

“It’s important to perpetuate what was taught by our ancestors,” he said. “It’s important that we ʻōlelo, to pass on this knowledge to the generations to come.

“Without the ʻōlelo, there is no lāhui.”

The Soul of Hawaiʻi is its Language

ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi represents the lifeblood of the Hawaiian people. It has recorded our history and traditions since time immemorial. It binds us together as part of a single lāhui (nation), and also to nearly every geological and biological feature of our ancestral lands.

As such, ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi has stood as a substantial barrier to the West’s aim to control the islands and its resources since the first foreigners set foot in Hawaiʻi. Central to the efforts to colonize Hawaiʻi was the need to supplant Hawaiian with English in all aspects of society. Ground zero for this effort quickly became the classroom.

Hawaiian language was the primary medium of instruction for the first decade of the kingdom’s public school system. By the 1850s, however, the kingdom’s Department of Education began to implement “English mainly” policies that forced Hawaiian language out of the classroom. This was accomplished, in part, by directing significantly more funding to English schools. As a result, the better-resourced English schools attracted more and more Native Hawaiians.

The seismic consequences of the shift away from ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi education were not lost on ʻŌiwi leaders. Kekūanāoʻa, father of Kamehameha IV and Kamehameha V, said in 1864:

The theory of substituting the English language for the Hawaiian, in order to educate our people, is as dangerous to Hawaiian nationality, as it is useless in promoting the general education of the people…[I]f we wish to preserve the Kingdom of Hawaii for Hawaiians, and to educate our people, we must insist that the Hawaiian language shall be the language of all our National Schools, and the English shall be taught whenever practicable, but only, as an important branch of Hawaiian education.

Any hope for Hawaiian language to regain footing in Hawaiʻi’s education system was dashed with the illegal overthrow of the kingdom in 1893. The American-backed business interests that led the coup, however, were unable to persuade the U.S. Congress to immediately annex Hawaiʻi.

So they established the Republic of Hawaiʻi and prepared Hawaiian society to join America. University of Hawaiʻi law professor Troy Andrade wrote that key to this initiative was an 1896 law that mandated English instruction in schools.

Although the law did not, on its face, forbid the use of the Hawaiian language in public schools, the intent of the new legal regime was clear: Hawaiʻi needed to appear more American and the easiest way to do so was to annihilate the Hawaiian language. Those now in power believed that English could be used as a weapon to drive Hawaiians away from their culture, spirituality, and practices, and as a tool to assimilate Hawaiians into “a new era of social development[.]”

The impact of the law was devastating. In 1880, 150 Hawaiian language schools, called common schools, were in operation. Six years after the adoption of the English-only mandate, not a single Hawaiian language school remained. Hawaiians faced corporal punishment for speaking the language at school and on playgrounds. By 1980, fewer than 50 minors spoke the language fluently. The next generation of speakers was holding on by a thread. Intervention was required to save ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi.

Ola Ka ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi

The movement to revive the Hawaiian language became a pillar of the 1970s Hawaiian Renaissance when Native Hawaiians began to reconnect with their cultural heritage. This momentum culminated in 1978, with the adoption of constitutional amendments requiring the state to provide a Hawaiian education program in public schools and the designation of ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi as a co-official state language.

When Hawaiian language advocates started the first immersion preschool in 1984, the strategy was clear. If the language nearly died because it was extricated from classrooms, the language would need to be revived by reclaiming that space. The first Kaiapuni class graduated in 1999.

Today more than 3,300 students are enrolled in Kaiapuni schools on six islands. But the nearly 40-year-old Kaiapuni movement still faces significant challenges.

The “Kaiapuni Dilemma”

The 2022 season not only brought ʻIolani Enoka’s high school football career to a close but it also marked the end of an era for Roosevelt’s offensive line. The 6’1”, 270-pound center/guard has played every down for the Rough Riders since his freshman year.

In many ways, ʻIolani’s education is a collision of two legacies for his ʻohana. Both of his parents’ families (the ʻĀinas on his mother’s side; the Enokas on his father’s) are deeply rooted in Hawaiʻi’s local football scene. In addition, the two families have strong connections to the Hawaiian community and share the trauma of colonialism, with their native tongue having been ripped from both of their moʻokūʻauhau at least a full generation ago.

The prospect of sending their youngest child to an educational environment where English is all but absent weighed heavy on the Enokas.

“I had serious issues with it,” said Clem Enoka, ʻIolani’s father. “All parents have anxieties and fears that if they send their child to Kaiapuni they won’t speak English well. When my child goes to college, am I doing them a disservice? Are they going to be at a disadvantage?”

When ʻIolani started at Pūʻōhala Elementary’s Kaiapuni program, the teachers made time to explain to Clem that his son would be proficient in both English and Hawaiian.

“They lived it,” he said of the kumu. “Those were the little influences along the way that kind of make you go, ‘okay.’”

But the “Kaiapuni Dilemma” always lingers. As children get older, the allure of opportunities outside of Kaiapuni grows stronger. By middle school, many families pursue educational pathways that can hone their children’s extracurricular interests. In addition, local families widely accept the dubious presumption that academic potential and post-secondary success are best realized at private schools. There’s also the convenience of attending district schools, which are closer to home and have better facilities.

State Office of Hawaiian Education Director Kauʻi Sang said that student attrition affects Kaiapuni schools across the state. She pointed to a few statistics. There are 309 kindergarteners enrolled in Kaiapuni schools this year, compared to only 102 seniors. ʻIolani Enoka’s Ānuenue class started with 64 students in kindergarten; only 18 will graduate with him this year.

Ānuenue Poʻo Kumu (Principal) Babā Yim said some Kaiapuni families have to decide between their child’s future success in a sport, which can lead to collegiate and professional opportunities, and saving their native language.

“That’s a really tough predicament for families,” he said.

The Enokas considered sending ʻIolani to another school, but they worried that he would lose his Hawaiian fluency. And Ānuenue’s small school culture was a good fit for ʻIolani.

“This school is different compared to non-Kaiapuni schools,” ʻIolani said. “We are all ʻohana. When there’s a conflict between students, we can hash that out. I think it’s better that the school is small. It’s more personal. We can talk to the kumu. Since I started in Kaiapuni, I want to finish in Kaiapuni.”

Fix What You Broke

The last few years have brought about a reckoning of sorts for the federal and state governments with respect to their kuleana to ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi.

In May 2022, the Department of Interior (DOI) released a report acknowledging that for more than 150 years the U.S. used education to forcefully assimilate native youth to “sever the cultural and economic connection between Indian Tribes, Alaska Native Villages, the Native Hawaiian Community, and their territories.” The report found that this was “intentional and part of that broader goal of Indian territorial dispossession for the expansion of the United States.” The DOI specifically recognized that the U.S. claimed Hawaiian lands at the same time public policies were suppressing ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi. The department has committed itself to a process of healing as well as advancing native language revitalization.

In 2019, the Hawaiʻi Supreme Court issued a landmark decision, ruling that the State has a constitutional obligation to provide “reasonable access” to Hawaiian language immersion education. The court found that the Kaiapuni program is “currently ʻthe only realistic course of action’ to revive the language” and that “providing reasonable access to an immersion program is not ‘the gold standard’ for language revitalization, but rather ‘the minimum standard.’”

What “reasonable access” means is still unclear. Since the court ruling, however, three new Kaiapuni sites have opened with one more slated to start next year. But for many in the community, the state and federal government must do much more.

“From a moral perspective, most cultures teach that if you cause harm, you have a moral obligation to make things right as best as you can,” said Daylin-Rose Heather, staff attorney for the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation. “Here, government action led to the decline in the Hawaiian language, and the government now carries a moral duty to enable the language’s revival.”

Heather said that the government’s duty to the Hawaiian language shouldn’t be measured by bare minimum requirements but against what is available to students seeking an English education.

“Kaiapuni students should not be forced to choose between a Kaiapuni education and their athletic pursuits,” she said. “While one can’t help to feel immense pride for the families that continue to prioritize Kaiapuni education in the face of inequitable hardship, this is coupled with incredible sadness that Kaiapuni student-athletes are asked to sacrifice in ways that students in other publicly funded schools are not. For students wanting a Hawaiian immersion education, it is often not a choice between preferred Kaiapuni schools, but rather determining whether a student is able to access a Kaiapuni education, and related educational resources and opportunities, at all.”

For the Enoka ʻOhana, the struggle of supporting their son through 12 years of immersion was worth it.

“We understand that the closest way to be connected to who you are is through the language. So that’s why we thought if there is anything that we could do for our children it would be to give them that gift of being connected to their kupuna, to the ʻāina,” said Nāmele Enoka, ʻIolani’s mother. “[Sending ʻIolani to Kaiapuni] was scary for us. But we’re glad that we did because now that ʻIolani’s a senior, we get to see the fruits of him going to Kaiapuni.”