Federal Native Funding

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Photo: Brendon Kalei'aina Lee

The week of April 4 is National Library Week. This makes me think of the fact that the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi had close to a 95% literacy rate with over 70 Hawaiian language newspapers in publication.

The Hawaiian Kingdom was the most literate country in the world. This was accomplished in less than 50 years by a native population with no Indigenous written language. Native Hawaiians’ use of oli and mele helped to propel their learning curve in the written word and it was this fact that the missionaries used to help get the population literate. It was also this fact that the provisional government of Hawaiʻi used to destabilize the native population after the overthrow.

There is instance after instance of political leaders during this time period stating the way to “Americanize” the native population was to eliminate the Hawaiian language. Even former trustees from Bishop Estate had been known to agree with the sentiment that the way to keep Native Hawaiians compliant was to deny them their language. For nearly the first 80 years of Kamehameha Schools’ existence, Hawaiian language was not even taught.

With the Hawaiian renaissance of the 1970s came a resurgence of the Hawaiian language. The birth of Pūnana Leo, followed by the Hawaiian immersion programs and eventually Native Hawaiian Public Charter Schools, have all helped to normalize the once nearly extinct language.

When I graduated from Kamehameha in 1987 few students took Hawaiian as their language requirement. Today you can hear our ʻōlelo makuahine throughout the halls on campus.

While the Office of Hawaiian Affairs provides substantial funding for Native Hawaiian Public Charter Schools, it is the United States Congress that provides the majority of funding through the Native Hawaiian Education Act. This act needs to be reauthorized by Congress regularly as, unlike Native Americans or Alaskan Natives whose funding is guaranteed through the Indian Education Act, Native Hawaiians are not recognized as an Indigenous people of the United States. This is where the term that has so much friction behind it comes from: “federal recognition.”

The irony of this is those Indigenous peoples whose educational funding is protected by their recognized status by the federal government are looking to Native Hawaiians and how we have not only brought our language back but that it is now thriving. The other irony behind “federal recognition” is that many Native Hawaiians are against it because they believe that the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi is being illegally occupied by the United States of America. This is ironic because they believe this is a “fake state.”

If the United States left Hawaiian shores tomorrow, why would recognition as an Indigenous people matter? It would not. How would being recognized by the United States prevent Native Hawaiians from continuing to seek its independence? It would not. What does the Native Hawaiian people being recognized as an Indigenous people have to do with the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi? Nothing. Did you have to be Native Hawaiian to be a citizen in the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi? No, you did not.

While we continue to have these conversations about whether to be federally recognized or not, I am grateful for our congressional team in Washington, D.C., that continues to fight for the reauthorization of the Native Hawaiian Education Act, Health Act, and other federal programs, and the continued appropriation of funds for these programs to help Native Hawaiians. Mahalo senators Hirono and Schatz and congressmen Case and Kahele.