Photo: Keiki at Kula Kaiapuni Kauwela enjoying in-person Hawaiian language learning
Keiki at Kula Kaiapuni Kauwela enjoying in-person Hawaiian language learning this summer - Photo: Anthony Pacheco

In 2014, Chelsa-Marie Kealohalani Clarabal sued the Department of Education and the Board of Education for the right to educate her daughters through ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi at Lānaʻi High and Elementary School. In a landmark decision, the Hawaiʻi Supreme Court ruled in August 2019 that the state has a constitutional duty to provide Hawaiian language immersion education in the public school system. The DOE recently announced that a Hawaiian Language immersion program will begin in the new school year for keiki in grades K-1. This article highlights the efforts made over the years by the kupa of Lānaʻi to support Hawaiian language learning for their keiki.

Growing up, Simon Tajiri didn’t have the opportunity to learn the Hawaiian language. For Tajiri, who was born and raised on Lānaʻi, this created a cultural disconnect.

“It was hard coming from Lānaʻi – it’s a small place – it was like we didn’t have a story,” said Tajiri. “But when I went to school on the continent, I started thirsting for knowledge; I missed home and wanted to learn more about Lānaʻi.”

Tajiri put his passion into action. He studied ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi and learned everything he could about Lānaʻi’s rich history. When he finally returned home in 2012, Tajiri began working for the Lānaʻi Culture and Heritage Center focusing on a cultural literacy program based on aloha ʻāina and Hawaiian language. His work attracted the attention of administrators at Lānaʻi High and Elementary School, and he eventually accepted a position at the school, where he now works as a Hawaiian Studies teacher.

“After learning more about Lānaʻi, I developed a deeper sense of self. I wanted our kids to have that connection and to feel proud of where we are from and who we are,” shared Tajiri.

Several years before Tajiri returned home, two other kumu ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi originally from Lānaʻi – Kaunaʻoa (Kaʻaikalā) Garcia and Kauʻi Spitalsky – had begun traveling to Lānaʻi during the summer and founded Kula Kaiapuni Kauwela ʻo Lānaʻi, a Hawaiian immersion summer school program. Over the years the program has grown; this summer about 34 keiki were enrolled.

“When I had first started teaching, I was only a first-year student in Hawaiian myself. I didn’t have much fluency,” said Tajiri. “During the regular school year, I looked to the Kula Kaiapuni Kauwela students as alakaʻi. The kids are really the ones leading this movement.”

Wanting to practice their culture and language at school, sisters Kamele and Mālie Clarabal asked Tajiri if they could oli before entering his classroom. At first, Tajiri was unsure how to respond, as it would be a massive adjustment for the rest of the student body. He denied their request.

But when the girls’ father asked if they could oli by themselves, Tajiri agreed. Every day, the two girls would oli before class. After a while, something wonderful happened – other students asked to join them. Today, haumāna still oli before beginning their school day.

Those tenacious and courageous sisters are part of a community of eager young Hawaiians on Lānaʻi who want the opportunity to practice their culture and learn ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi.

When Lānaʻi Elementary students Kapuailihia Calderon, Kapuahinano Ropa, and Kealiʻiokalani Pacheco expressed their interest in learning in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi, Tajiri and another kumu, Kaniala Forsyth, started a program to help them. Called He Huewai, keiki in the program met twice daily, four days a week, to learn ʻoli, hula, basic ʻōlelo, and moʻolelo of their wahi pana. He Huewai was a labor of love created by these kumu for their haumāna, and was never a formal part of the school program.

Kapuailihia Calderon attended a kula kaiapuni on Maui before transferring to Lānaʻi High and Elementary School and participating in He Huewai.

“While we understood the school didn’t offer Hawaiian immersion, it was still important that she learn in Hawaiian as much as possible,” said Kapuailihia’s mother, Kalae Chong. “That’s when Kumu Simon [Tajiri] stepped in. He made sure that as many of her lessons as possible were provided in Hawaiian – that was so helpful.”

The family eventually relocated back to Maui when Calderon was in second grade and re-enrolled her at the kula kaiapuni. Although the ʻohana has roots on Lānaʻi, they wanted Kapuailihia to be fully immersed in the language and culture, and it was easier to do that on Maui.

Kapuahinano Ropa’s tūtū, Ola Ropa, said that her granddaughter enjoyed learning from Tajiri and looked forward to attending class.

“Stickers were going up all over the house with the Hawaiian words for everything – on the window was the Hawaiian word for window – you know, little changes like that – it kind of forced us to be more engaged with the language,” smiled Ropa.

Ropa and her husband were learning alongside their granddaughter and wanted her to continue learning Hawaiian. She recalled an especially poignant moment after a He Huewai class.

“They had just finished a class on Google Meet. Kumu Simon said, ʻa hui hou!’ and he logged off. But afterwards I could hear the keiki talking and laughing in Hawaiian for about 15 minutes before saying goodbye. It was so awesome,” said Ropa. “I’m so proud of her to carry that on. We didn’t have that.”

He Huewai participant Kealiʻiokalani Pacheco, age 10, reflected on what he has learned saying, “when I know how to speak fully in Hawaiian, I can teach others so they can also teach others and we can have our ʻāina back,” he said.

Without the ability to practice ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi in a learning and teaching environment, it is challenging for students to further their knowledge and develop fluency. The Lānaʻi community has fought hard for their right to learn and perpetuate ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi on their island.

Kuʻualohapauʻole Lau has interned at OHA for four years. She recently graduated from UH Mānoa with BA degrees in communication and journalism.