HILO, Hawaii -- When we flew into Hawaii, what struck us was how far this string of islands is from the mainland, and we had the sensation that, "This place does not belong to America."
At the entrance of a Hawaiian high school, youths greeted us with chants, which rolled across the land like strong waves, much as their ancestors did for visitors. All visitors are greeted this way, and this is how they begin their school day, with words and traditions that the elders once guarded to avoid governmental persecution.
We had just visited a sacred site, the fishing village of 93-year-old elder and healer Papa Henry Auwae, who told us how people came from the other islands to pray at Lapakahi and were greeted with chants. For the youths at Hilo, it was as if just the sound of their language made them proud. Many of them have been learning in a Hawaiian immersion program since preschool.
While the mainland takes pride in limiting itself to one tongue, Hawaii now has optional immersion programs in its schools in which students are taught curriculum in the native language of the Kanaka Maoli, otherwise known as Native Hawaiians. The program is based on the Hawaiian belief in "ohana," or family, which is a foundation of their culture. "Hawaiian must be embraced as the language of the family in order to survive," writes Kauanoe Kamana, one of the original creators of the Punana Leo Emerson program.
Up until 1986, it was illegal to teach the language. Today, Hawaii has two official languages, English and Hawaiian. Now, many traditions are being recovered. Hawaiians hold regular family reunions to identify ancestors and descendants of the original people of the islands. Traditional healers, such as Papa Henry, are being integrated into the health system. Author Malcolm Naea Chun terms all this part of the creation of a people.
This rebirthing of native culture is occurring as the state commemorates the 100th anniversary of the illegal U.S. annexation of Hawaii on Aug. 12, 1898. It also coincides with the Hawaiian sovereignty movement, whose demands range from reviving the monarchy to restitution. As a result, a sacred island that was used for military operations has been reclaimed, and there are other challenges to military maneuvers on other islands. Land tenure for native Hawaiians, who are eligible for an allotment if they are at least 50 percent Hawaiian, is an ongoing struggle.
In efforts to thwart the sovereignty movement, the state has attempted to define what sovereignty should mean. Recently, hula elders successfully held a 24-hour vigil, drumming all night outside the legislature to defy a proposed autonomy bill created by an Anglo state legislator and without the input of elders.
In 1993, President Clinton issued an official apology to the people of Hawaii, saying that the United States had illegally seized control of the nation. This apology is now the basis of a legal challenge before the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that since it was an illegal action, Hawaiian kingdom law should be the law of the islands.
Like many indigenous peoples, Hawaiians continue to ponder the meaning of sovereignty. Often the question is posed as the reclamation of lands and self- governance. But at its core is the quest for spiritual autonomy, freeing the soul from the psychological implications of oppression and cultural loss. Sovereignty leader Dr. Richard Kekuni Blaisdell, who cites these as among the key reasons for the detrimental health and social conditions of his people, echoes the sentiments of many elders: "We're not asking for sovereignty. We have it. It's in our bones. It's always been there, right from the beginning. We just have to live it."
One cannot examine what sovereignty means without understanding the lesson of legacy, the legacy of aggression against this former nation, the legacy of imposed institutions and systems of thinking, such as the church, capitalism and the U.S. government and the legacy of their forebears' resistance to all of this.
That's what makes the youthful chants so significant: They both create a legacy and keep it alive. As one youth told us: "The language is now part of our life. It is our responsibility." To paraphrase one educator, this will help history be what it will be.
COPYRIGHT 1998 UNIVERSAL PRESS SYNDICATE
* Both writers are authors of Gonzales/Rodriguez: Uncut & Uncensored (ISBN 0-918520-22-3 UC Berkeley, Ethnic Studies Library, Publications Unit. Rodriguez is the author of Justice: A Question of Race (Cloth ISBN 0-927534-69-X paper ISBN 0-927534-68-1 Bilingual Review Press) and the antibook, The X in La Raza II. They can be reached at PO BOX 7905, Albq NM 87194-7904, 505-247-3888 or XColumn@aol.com
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