When Jonathan Osorio attended Kamehameha Schools in the 1960s his native tongue, Olelo Hawaii, wasn’t an official part of the curriculum.

Hawaii had just become a state a few years prior, in 1959, and Kamehameha Schools, despite its reputation today as a bastion of Hawaiian language and culture, was part of a century-long campaign to assimilate the islands’ Indigenous people into an American society dominated in large part by white privilege.

Few of Osorio’s cohorts had little more than a rudimentary understanding of Hawaiian, he said.

Those who did tended to hail from Niihau, Hawaii’s “Forbidden Island” off the coast of Kauai that has banned most tourism and whose residents developed their own unique dialect while remaining isolated from much of the outside world.

Hawaiian flags on the lawn on opening day of the Legislature at the Capitol.
Native Hawaiian boarding schools were the subject of a wide-ranging investigation by the U.S. Interior Department. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

“When I was a boarder there it wasn’t nearly as oppressive as it had been in earlier years,” said Osorio, who’s now the dean of the University of Hawaii’s Hawaiʻinuiākea School of Hawaiian Knowledge.

For example, in the 1930s a female student had been expelled for dancing a standing hula. By the time Osorio arrived all that was left was the “veneer of our culture and our Hawaiian-ness.”

“What Kamehameha Schools was doing, like any other American boarding school, was instilling in children white American values,” Osorio said. “The expectation was that the more of an American you could demonstrate yourself to be in terms of speaking English, adopting American values and knowing American history, the more you were liked and rewarded by the school.

“The students who spoke pidgin or, god forbid, Hawaiian, or didn’t like having the screens on their windows had a much rougher time.”

Kamehameha Schools is one of seven Hawaii institutions named in the “Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative Investigative Report,” a damning new study from the U.S. Interior Department that details the insidious and often brutal ways in which the federal government used Native American boarding schools to subjugate the country’s Indigenous people and steal their land.

The other Hawaii schools cited in the report include the Hilo Boarding School, the Industrial and Reformatory School, Lahainaluna Seminary, Mauna Loa Forestry Camp School and Molokai Forestry Camp School.

Kamehameha Schools issued a statement about the report, saying it was continuing to try to better understand its own history and improve its operation. But it but did little to address the actual substance of what occurred in its boarding schools.

“Grappling with the contradictions and internal conflicts of our own colonial history, we continue a process of transforming over time to serve and uplift our communities through Hawaiian culture-based education. Critical to this transformation is our own examination of the historical issues so we can better know our truths, engage in healing processes, and empower our communities,” the statement said.

Jonathan Osorio, who’s the dean of the UH School of Hawaiian Knowledge, experienced first hand life in a native boarding school. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat/2018

The Interior Department launched an investigation into the nation’s Native American boarding schools last year after the remains of hundreds of children were discovered at similar Indigenous institutions in Canada.

The resulting report, which was released last week, is just the first installment in what is expected to be an ongoing inquiry into one of the darker corners of American history.

The department’s investigation found that between 1819 and 1969, the U.S. government operated more than 400 boarding schools across 37 states, including Alaska and Hawaii, and that 19 of the institutions accounted for the deaths of more than 500 children.

So far, the Interior Department has discovered marked and unmarked burial sites near at least 53 different schools.

“As the investigation continues, the Department expects the number of recorded deaths to increase,” the report says.

Much of the report focuses on the experiences of Native Americans on the mainland who at times were hunted down like “wild rabbits” and subjected to beatings, lashings and starvation all while being stripped of their culture, from the way they dressed and wore their hair to forbidding them to speak in their tribal language.

The report makes clear — using the government’s own records — that such tactics were baked into federal policy. According to one excerpt from a 1969 Senate report on Native American education:

“Beginning with President Washington, the stated policy of the Federal Government was to replace the Indian’s culture with our own. This was considered ‘advisable’ as the cheapest and safest way of subduing the Indians, of providing a safe habitat for the country’s white inhabitants, of helping the whites acquire desirable land, and of changing the Indian’s economy so that he would be content with less land. Education was a weapon by which these goals were to be accomplished.”

The report details Hawaii’s own unique history with the U.S. government and business interests that ultimately overthrew the kingdom and forced Native Hawaiians to part with much of their land. The report also addresses the ways missionaries embedded themselves in the Native community to “promote Calvinism and claimed civilized practices.”

As the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions told its emissaries in the 1800s:

“You are to aim at nothing short of covering those islands with fruitful field and pleasant dwellings and schools and churches, and of raising up a whole people to an elevated state of Christian civilization.”

While Hawaii’s Native children were spared much of the systemic brutality and bloodshed that occurred on the U.S. mainland, the report explains the many ways they were forced to give up their land, their language and their culture to outsiders seeking to profit from the islands.

At the Hilo Boarding School, for instance, boys were forced into manual labor and had to follow a strict military regimen that included uniforms, drills and rifles.

King Kamehameha III and Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop, who founded Kamehameha Schools, tried to save their culture by creating their own educational systems, but those efforts were thwarted by the overthrow and annexation of the islands, resulting in a decades long ban on the Hawaiian language being taught in public schools in favor of English.

“When you’re talking about what happened in Hawaii you’re talking about something fundamentally different from what happened on the mainland and that’s just a historical reality,” Osorio said. “It doesn’t make what happened here better. It just makes it less physically violent.”

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, chair of the Indian Affairs Committee, was unavailable for an interview to discuss the Interior Department’s report.

In a joint press release with Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the ranking Republican on the committee, he said he intends to hold oversight hearings to address what he described as a “shameful legacy” and “terrible injustice.”

Honolulu City Councilwoman Esther Kiaaina, who is Native Hawaiian, said she hopes the new report will open the door to more possibilities for reconciliation with the federal government. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2015

“As Native communities across the country have long known, U.S. policy directly led to the forced assimilation, family separation, and deaths of Native children through federal Indian boarding schools,” he said.

Honolulu City Councilwoman Esther Kiaaina, a Native Hawaiian who used to serve in an appointed position within the Interior Department under President Barack Obama, said she’s glad Hawaiians were included in the latest investigation.

But like Osorio, she said it’s important to distinguish between the trauma suffered by her people and those who were on the mainland.

“What happened to our brothers and sisters on the mainland was atrocious and our hearts break for them,” Kiaaina said. “The federal government needs to make amends with that specific part of history and the legacy of that.”

Hawaiians, too, need reconciliation, she said, and she hopes President Joe Biden and his administration will take the necessary steps to provide it.

“Where do we stand right now?” Kiaaina said. “How are we going to strengthen the relationship between the federal government and the Hawaiian people?”

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