In early November, I was lucky to be asked to testify at a White House initiative on American Indians and Alaska Natives in Education at Russell Sage College in Troy, New York.

The initiative, created by President Obama as a platform for indigenous youth in America to speak of their experiences in the American educational system, is one of the first of its kind.

The men and women of the initiative visited many different states across the continental United States where they heard from many different native students on their experiences. I was one of those voices.


The author, right, in full regalia on Kamehameha Day.

Courtesy of Kai Markell

As a Native Hawaiian I have many concerns regarding indigenous people in education. My people and I struggle alongside other indigenous peoples and minorities in this and many other aspects of life.

Decades ago, the U.S. Congress instructed the Office of Education, since closed, to submit a comprehensive report on Native Hawaiian education. The report, entitled the “Native Hawaiian Educational Assessment Project,” released in 1983, found that Hawaiians scored below the national average on standardized achievement tests, were disproportionately represented in many negative social and physical statistics, and had educational needs that were related to our unique cultural situation. These include different learning styles and low self-image.

While these statistics were collected many years ago, recent statistics have not shown much change.

Native Hawaiian students currently rank among the lowest groups nationally in reading. Contrast this with the 19th century when Hawaiians had extremely high adult literacy rates, around 90 percent, according to reports in the Star-Bulletin and other publications. In my research, it became apparent that the current literacy rates among Hawaiians are very much in conflict with our traditional abilities.

My people are not stupid, we are not lazy and we are not incapable. And yet, the statistics don’t reflect this.

Why? There are many reasons: poverty, substance abuse and a chronic trivialization and degradation of our native traditions. Culture and language also play a role. (Many of these factors are connected, in one way or another, to what I consider to be the illegal overthrow of our kingdom.)

President Bill Clinton apologized for America’s acts while he was in office, but nothing much came of that. The Apology Resolution of 1993 may be hailed as significant by some, however it ultimately proved to be irrelevant and useless in bringing about any real change. The overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom didn’t only rob Native Hawaiians of their sovereignty and their kingdom; it stole those elements of identity from people of many other ethnic groups in the islands at the time.

Citizens of all ethnic backgrounds mourned the loss of their beloved kingdom at the hands of the United States, but Native Hawaiians lost the most. Hawaiians are displaced and disconnected from the land. Native Hawaiians make up much of the homeless population in the islands. Given that many of these homeless people hold jobs, it is clear that simply working harder is not the solution.

Most students and faculty there either cannot or will not learn to pronounce my name correctly. They have nicknamed me “Hawaii.”

The current focus of many Hawaiian families involves trying to survive. With a high cost of living, many families are living pay check to pay check, while every day more and more Hawaiians face the very real reality of homelessness or relocation.

In terms of education, Native Hawaiians are well below the national average when it comes to high school graduation rates and attending college, but also when it comes to higher education. (Native Hawaiians are disproportionately represented in education.)

Even in academic environments there are signs of stigma in relation to indigenous people, as I know from experience. While away in college in New York, I have repeatedly been told that I speak ‘pretty good English for a foreigner.’ Most students and faculty there either cannot or will not learn to pronounce my name correctly. They have nicknamed me “Hawaii.”

We need to dedicate more time, money, concentration and effort to the education of native peoples. Although programs exist — like Kamehameha Schools and the numerous charter schools that focus on Native Hawaiians and their education — a shortage remains.

The government has made it clear that education of Native Hawaiian peoples is not a priority. This is painfully apparent when funding for Native Hawaiian programs are drastically reduced or eliminated all together.

Change needs to occur, not only for Native Hawaiians, but for many indigenous peoples and minority groups.

I am becoming educated so that I can positively contribute to the fight for federal recognition, the survival of our culture and language, the return of our native lands and the survival of our race as a whole.

While the situation surrounding Native Hawaiians seems disheartening, or altogether depressing in many cases, it is not too late to right the wrongs.

Only when these problems are recognized and addressed can the healing process for my people begin. My hope is that I can improve life for all Hawaiians, including future generations. I want to be able to tell my children I did my best to contribute to the Lahui.

While the situation surrounding Native Hawaiians seems disheartening, or altogether depressing in many cases, it is not too late to right the wrongs.

Native Hawaiians and non-Native Hawaiians alike can come together to improve life for our people and reestablish our rightful place and status within Hawaii.

We will never give up and we will continue to strive for justice, equality and what is rightfully ours. Because Hawaii without Hawaiians or Hawaiian culture is not Hawaii at all.

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