The present state constitution begins with the words, “We, the people of Hawaii, grateful for Divine Guidance, and mindful of our Hawaiian heritage and uniqueness as an island State …” while Article XV Section 4 states that “English and Hawaiian shall be the official languages of Hawaii, except that Hawaiian shall be required for public acts and transactions only as provided by law.”

As an official state language, ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi or the Hawaiian language, is an important and inseparable part of Hawaii’s heritage, yet it continues to be ignored as a living language by state and county offices, as well as many public hospitals and public educational facilities. There is a misconception that simply saying “aloha” pays tribute to the Hawaiian language and heritage.

But the Hawaiian language is much more than “aloha” and “mahalo.” It is much more than a bumper sticker or slogan.

My late grandmother, who was a manaleo, a native speaker, likened the Hawaiian language to a fine piece of Hawaiian kapa upon the fingers — beautifully and laboriously constructed with a texture like no other.

It has a rich vocabulary and has one of the largest literary bodies of work of any indigenous language in the world. There are 1.5 million pages of texts in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi, the Hawaiian language, that describe Hawaiian epics, history, chants and songs, world history, scientific translations, medical texts, linguistic treatises, Bible stories and even works retelling Ivanhoe, Mary Queen of Scots, King Arthur, Hang Tuah, and Amaterasu.


A Hawaiian banknote for $5 from 1839 shows how quickly Hawai’i embraced literacy after an alphabet was created to express the Hawaiian language in 1826.

Boston Banknote Company via Wikimedia Commons

After 1822, Hawaiians developed a literary culture, and in the 19th century, only two places in the world had universal literacy: Scotland and the Hawaiian Kingdom. With the Second Hawaiian Renaissance that began in the 1970s and the re-emergence of the Hawaiian language after 1986 as a living, breathing language of the Hawaiian soul, everyone who calls Hawaiii home should cherish the Hawaiian language like a feather lei upon the head. To paraphrase a quote from George Kanahele, the Hawaiian Renaissance should be embraced by everyone — Hawaiians and non-Hawaiians alike — and that Renaissance includes our Hawaiian language.

The Hawaiian language not only is part of our heritage but by learning Hawaiian, we open a door to other Austronesian languages, particularly Polynesian languages like Marquesan, Tahitian, and Māori. There is use for learning Hawaiian if one wants to understand other indigenous peoples in the Pacific. The Hawaiian language centers Hawaiʻi within our roots in the Pacific, and it’s useful, too, even outside of Hawaii.

But these are facts seem not to translate to lawmakers, to those in public services, and members of the television media, particularly male news anchors. Multilingual services at the state and county levels have failed to offer Hawaiian translations. For example, the Hawaii Office of Elections has translations of ballots and election related materials in Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, and Ilocano. But when a Hawaiian recently asked for a translation into Hawaiian, they had none. The State Office of Language Planning under the Department of Health has translations in Ilocano, Vietnamese and several Micronesian languages, yet nothing in Hawaiian.

By not having materials available in Hawaiian but in other languages, one wonders if there is still a de facto policy of language discrimination or linguistic assimilation—both of which are prohibited under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

This lack of concern for Hawaiian language speakers also has an effect on public hospitals and public schools. The highest concentration of Hawaiian language speakers (both native and secondary speakers) are on the islands of Niihau, Kauai, and Hawaii, but while public schools and public hospitals on those islands offer information in Ilocano, Vietnamese and Micronesian languages, nothing is offered in Hawaiian — again, one of our official languages. Whenever multilingual materials are available in any state or county office or agency, the Hawaiian language must be also made available.

By not having materials available in Hawaiian but in other languages, one wonders if there is still a de facto policy of language discrimination or linguistic assimilation — both of which are prohibited under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which the U.S. government supports and is committed to. It is extremely shameful that the KTA Superstores seems to have made more of an concerted effort to make Hawaiian a visible public language than state, county and other public services.

In Aotearoa (New Zealand), nearly every government agency, government building, government website, government signage, and government seals are bilingual in English and Māori in an effort to affirm the Māori heritage of that land. When will this happen in Hawaiʻi? When will we see “Papa Ola” along the building signage of “The Board of Health or see “Kalana o Kauaʻi” being used alongside “County of Kauaʻi” in letterhead? People might say that these are superficial things, but they are not.

Hawaiian language speakers have been growing, mainly due to immersion and charter schools and Hawaiian Studies programs. Given the dark history of what happened to Native Hawaiian language speakers after 1895, seeing Hawaiian in public will encourage more people to learn Hawaiian and help to re-affirms the state’s constitutional and fiduciary duties to the kanaka maoli (Native Hawaiian) people, as well as to our Hawaiian heritage as articulated in the state constitution. This includes agencies like the Department of Hawaiian Homelands. They, too, should have material in the Hawaiian language and should utilize the funds from the Native Hawaiian Rehabilitation Fund to help revitalize and support the Hawaiian language, particularly on the Hawaiian homesteads and by those businesses who lease Hawaiian homelands.

The visibility of the Hawaiian language must be more than seeing words like “aloha” and “mahalo.” It must become a matter of living public policy, in line with the state constitution and our history.

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