A few years ago, a question piqued Kahikinaokalā Kūkea-Shultz’s young mind. What varieties of kalo could survive best in brackish water? Kahikinaokalā’s goal was to help figure out how to adapt lo‘i to better handle the effects of climate change and sea level rise.
Like thousands of students across the state, Kahikinaokalā set out to answer inquiries about his surrounding world through his school science fair project. But unlike most of his peers, Kahikinaokalā explored his question as his ancestors did: through ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i.
Kahikinaokalā is something of a trailblazer, like the first one to dip his toes into the lo‘i water to test its temperature. His sixth grade project the year prior, in 2015, was the first to ever be produced in ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i that qualified for the Hawai‘i State Science and Engineering Fair. His lo‘i project, which he did in Hawaiian as well, also qualified for the state science fair in his seventh grade year.
Since then, a trend has emerged. Hawaiian language has begun to push its way into youth scholastic arenas long reserved only for English. Since Kahikinaokalā’s project in 2015, at least one Hawaiian language science project has advanced to the state science fair. This April, four projects qualified for states. Moreover, Hawaiian language projects were allowed to compete in this year’s Hawai‘i History Day State Fair without translation, the first time in the contest’s 29-year history. In addition, two elementary students from Kualapu‘u Charter School became the first Hawaiian language immersion students to ever qualify for the VEX IQ Robotics Tournament in Kentucky.
Pōhai Kūkea-Shultz, a Hawaiian language advocate and the mother of science whiz-kid Kahikinaokalā, said that Hawaiian language belongs in these competitions, equally with and alongside English, because the state Constitution recognizes ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i and English as a co-official languages of the state.
“If Hawaiian is an official language, then we should be able to use it in every single context possible,” she said. “It shouldn’t just be a law that looks cool but does not have actual use in practice.”
She added: “While there is still much work to do to normalize the Hawaiian language in all aspects of our lives, this recent trend gives us a moment to pause, reflect on the Hawaiian immersion community’s accomplishments, and celebrate the fact that because our children speak Hawaiian, they can advance to the highest levels of achievement in all of their endeavors. The biggest victory of all, then, is the recognition that Hawaiian is not something that holds us back, but rather, it is the vehicle that enables every member of our community to bring their dreams to fruition.”
Kamana‘opono Crabbe, OHA CEO/Ka Pouhana, said that these haumāna (students) are showcasing the possibilities of ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i in the 21st century. “The broader community is beginning to recognize what Native Hawaiians have always known: that ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i is viable in school, government and business, as well as everything else in between,” he said.
While once spoken throughout Hawai‘i by Native Hawaiians and foreigners alike, ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i was considered to be nearly extinct by the 1980s, when fewer than 50 fluent speakers under the age of 18 were left. A major reason for the deterioration in the use of Hawaiian language was an 1896 law that required English instruction in Hawai‘i schools. In practice, this law functioned to ban students from speaking ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i.
Efforts to preserve the language over the years have included ‘Aha Pūnana Leo’s Hawaiian language immersion preschools, the Hawaiian language programs of the University of Hawai‘i system and the Department of Education’s Hawaiian Language Immersion Program (HLIP), also known as Ka Papahana Kaiapuni. HLIP was started in 1986 to revitalize the Hawaiian language by establishing the next generation of native speakers through the public school system. Today, HLIP is offered at 23 schools and educates more than 2,000 students in kindergarten through the twelfth grade.
In April, OHA officials and Sen. J Kalani English presented certificates of recognition to the four student’s whose ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i projects qualified for the state science fair. OHA also presented the students each with a $100 award and a pōhaku ku‘i ‘ai (stone poi pounder).
Neal Atebara, past president of the Hawai‘i Academy of Science, said that the students at the state science fair are “the best of the best” and come to celebrate their year-long exploration of Hawai‘i, not just scientifically but culturally as well.
“That’s why for the third year we are pleased to have students giving their scientific presentations in ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i. It’s wonderful because that is only something we can do in Hawai‘i,” Atebara said. “[These Hawaiian language students] explore the natural world and have a full understanding of it along with the cultural implications. It’s a very deep understanding of the world around us – which is what science is.”
Just a few days after the state science fair, seven Hawaiian language projects from 12 students from Ka ‘Umeke Kā‘eo Charter School competed in the Hawai‘i History Day State Competition.
Aiko Yamashiro, executive director of Hawai‘i Council for the Humanities, which hosts History Day, said that the students at Ka ‘Umeke Kā‘eo entered a number of projects into their district fair on Hawai‘i Island, without English translations.
As a result, the council deviated from the National History Day guidelines and created a new category just for ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i. OHA and Kamehameha Schools Publishing presented the winners with awards.
“We congratulate Ka ‘Umeke Kā‘eo and their haumāna for leading us in this momentous change in our program,” Yamashiro said. “Hawai‘i is like nowhere else in the world, and we are honored and humbled by these students and all their supporters for helping us grow and asking us to rethink what it means to do history in Hawai‘i.
Dorian Langi, a retired Kahuku teacher who has helped with history day for 20 years, said hearing the students do their projects in Hawaiian brought tears to her eyes. Langi was hānai’d by her grandparents on Moloka‘i and said that her grandparents belonged to the generation that was discouraged from speaking Hawaiian.
“[My grandparents] were both educators and would constantly remind us that we needed to speak English at home, so we could do well in college,” she said. “So when I heard those kids at History Day, it touched my soul. It felt like bringing in family. Bringing back the culture we had lost for so long. It brought History Day to a higher level in Hawai‘i.”