When William Wilson was a college student at the University of Hawaii in 1971, he noticed that the only people who spoke the Hawaiian language were elderly.

Wilson became part of a group of activists who helped push for legislation to support Hawaiian language revitalization, part of the broader cultural renaissance. They advocated for legislation that would allow Hawaiian language to be taught in schools, funding for immersion education and national legislation to support language preservation.

Now at age 71, Wilson is a professor at the University of Hawaii Hilo and on the steering committee of the National Coalition of Native American Language Schools and Programs. Today, he’s excited about a new initiative: Congress has agreed to spend $500,000 to create a new Native American Language Resource Center.

The center would share best practices for language preservation and curricula for Indigenous language immersion schools.

The program still hasn’t been permanently authorized and it’s not clear which organization would receive the funding and establish the center. U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, who introduced a bill last year to establish the center, says the process would be competitive.

An elementary student reads a book in class at the Nawahiokalani’opu’u Hawaiian Immersion School in Keaau, Hawaii, in 2016. PF Bentley/Civil Beat/2016

But both Schatz and Wilson said the initial funding could go a long way to helping not only promote the Hawaiian language but preserving Indigenous languages throughout the Pacific and beyond.

Every year, two Indigenous languages vanish, according to the United Nations, and more than half of all the languages in the world are expected to go extinct by the year 2100.

The U.S. is home to 175 Indigenous languages, all of which are endangered, Wilson said, down from about 300 languages previously.

“This is about developing expertise that can be used for Native communities that want to revitalize their language,” Schatz said of the center, adding that the Hawaiian language renaissance is a model for other communities.

An estimated 25,000 people speak Hawaiian at home, according to data from the American Community Survey 2015-2019. That number is in stark contrast to the estimated 2,000 people who spoke Hawaiian in 1983.

“There are not so many places and there are not so many Native peoples across this planet that have been so successful in taking a language that was almost gone and have breathed life into it in this way,” Schatz said.

‘We Need More’

The funding for the center is part of a multimillion-dollar infusion of federal funding for housing, education and other resources for Native communities that Schatz and other members of Hawaii’s congressional delegation have been advocating for.

The funding includes an extra $1.5 million for Native American language immersion schools and programs and $14 million for language preservation, up $1 million from previous years.

“Years of disinvestment and official policies of dispossessing people of land and culture and language cannot be fixed in one Congress but I don’t think we’ve ever made as much progress in a two-year period as we had in this Congress,” Schatz said.

Still, given the rate at which languages are disappearing, some argue the money is nowhere near enough.

Jonathan Osorio, dean of the School of Hawaiian Knowledge at the University of Hawaii, says that while the new federal funding is helpful, more investment is needed at both the federal and state level to ensure Hawaii students have access to quality immersion education.

It can be challenging for immersion schools to fill teacher jobs, and part of the problem is the need for better pay to make those positions attractive to Hawaiian-speaking prospects.

“We need more,” Osorio said.

Wilson agrees, but adds that it can be difficult to get funding at the federal level for language preservation in part because there are so many competing needs in Native communities.

He noted there are already 17 national centers to support foreign language learning in the U.S. and many of them have external funding from countries like France that want to promote their languages.

“Native Americans don’t have that type of support,” he said.

Progress Made

Since Wilson was in college in the 1970s, the Hawaiian language revitalization movement has grown in leaps and bounds. Today, Hawaii offers standardized testing in Hawaiian and the state has the only university that offers a Ph.D. in Hawaiian and Indigenous language revitalization, Wilson said. People who want to learn Hawaiian can practice on Duolingo or play Wordle in Hawaiian.

There’s even a university theater program in the Hawaiian language. Ākea Kahikina, a graduate teaching assistant, says the program is enabling him to put on a comedic play next month that tells the story of members of a local Hawaiian family who are about to read the will of their matriarch when a relative from the mainland shows up and complications arise.

Hawaiian language dictionaries line the shelves at Kalama Intermediate, a Hawaiian immersion school on Maui. April Estrellon/Civil Beat/2020

The play raises questions about what role language and diaspora play in Hawaiian identity, how differing access to learning the Hawaiian language affects communities and how language can sometimes be used as a way to police identity, similar to blood quantum.

“The language, yes, absolutely is the heart of the people but in this current time it’s easy to get lost and forget about the other things that make us who we are as people apart from the language,” Kahikina said.

The play would have been unthinkable decades ago — the language was banned in schools after the U.S.-backed overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom, and Hawaiian-language immersion schools didn’t start up until 1987.

Wilson says one of the most significant achievements of activists’ multi-decade advocacy was the passage of the Native American Languages Act in 1990. The law created a U.S. policy to “preserve, protect, and promote the rights and freedom of Native Americans to use, practice, and develop Native American languages.”

The term Native American often refers only to Indigenous people in the U.S. mainland but this piece of legislation specifically embraced Pacific languages, using the term “Native American Pacific Islander,” to include the languages of Indigenous peoples in U.S. territories as well as Native Hawaiian, Alaska Native and American Indians.

That inclusivity was important to Wilson, since he was born in Hawaii when it was still a territory and he remembers what it was like to lack the congressional vote that statehood provides.

Wilson hopes the new center could similarly help communities in U.S. states, territories and beyond, and dreams of regional centers that can serve as resources for Native communities who want to save their languages but don’t know where to start.

“It takes a lot of time to bring back a language,” he said. “Lots of people don’t understand how difficult it is.”

Civil Beat’s health coverage is supported by the Atherton Family Foundation, Swayne Family Fund of Hawaii Community Foundation, Cooke Foundation and Papa Ola Lokahi.

Help power our public service journalism

As a local newsroom, Civil Beat has a unique public service role in times of crisis.

That’s why we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content, so we can get vital information out to everyone, from all communities.

We are deploying a significant amount of our resources to covering the Maui fires, and your support ensures that we can pivot when these types of emergencies arise.

Make a gift to Civil Beat today and help power our nonprofit newsroom.

About the Author