Hawaiian Immersion Graduation


            As was often true with colonialism, the missionaries deemed languages of the “heathens” to be coarse, base, unintelligible–forbidden, even. Use of one’s native tongue was disallowed, and use thereof was punished. In result, languages came near to extinction, as happened here in Hawaii. When missionaries arrived in the islands, they began their insurgence by forcing the islanders to speak English. In the 1970s, efforts were made to regenerate the speaking of Hawaiian. It is quite a beautiful language, rich in subtleties and nuance. There is a lilt to what is said, and the words seem to flow through the listener as a gentle breeze. All traditional Hawaiian language–story, history, genealogy, daily communication, chants, edicts–was spoken and not written.The written Hawaiian alphabet, a white man’s invention, has only thirteen letters.There are few consonants and many vowels: a, e, i, o, u, h, k, l, m, n, p, w.  As is true in English, the sound of the letters and words changes with intonation. A slight change of intonation can alter the meaning of the word, such as in this example: lolo means brain, while lo’lo’ means idiot. Contrastingly, “Hawaiian articulation is based very largely at the back of the tongue, while that of English is nearer the tip” (The Compilers, Handy Hawaiian Dictionary).

            I lived and taught on Maui during the 2002-2003 academic year. I taught at Maui’s newest high school, King Kekaulike. KKHS is a beautiful school, spanning 50 acres on the gentle north slope of Haleakala, Maui’s volcano. The school sits at about 2,000 feet above sea level; it’s vista is the world-famous North Shore. From my room, I could take in the day’s surf and could see past Maui’s edges out into the Pacific. King Kekaulike is an Hawaiian Language Immersion school. Five of my students took all of their other subjects in Hawaiian and came to me for, as one of them said, English as a Second Language (I taught standard Senior English).Immersion students are required to speak Hawaiian at home as well, and it truly is the chosen language for them. The pride they hold as members of this amazing take back tradition program is something they exude. Immersion begins in Kindergarten and continues until graduation. At the end of Senior year, the participants graduate the immersion program as well as walk for regular old American style high school graduation. I was personally invited to the ceremony by Kamaka, Ululani, Kapeka, Jasmyn, and JoAnna. A great honor–I was one of a handful of teachers there, and none other was invited by all of the graduates. The ceremony took place on May 25th, in the KKHS gym. The invitation was bilingual, but the program was in Hawaiian, as was the whole ceremony.

            The gym was decorated with ti & palm leaves, ginger flowers, and pandanus mats, in simulation of a traditional dais. The graduating students stood on a platform, the boys in black pants and white shirts and the girls in shifts of unbleached cotton. On the right of the stage sat the elders, in traditional robes, and in front of the stage to the right the parents, also barefoot and in traditional robes. In front of stage left at the administrators, barefoot and dressed by gender–men in black pants and white shirts and women in mumus. The Hawaiian way is to go barefoot. Shoes, again, were forced onto feet by missionaries–to the extent that acacia trees were imported from Africa because they drop thorns, which were seen as a way to make the Hawaiians wear the shoes. Ironically, it seemed to me, the black pants and white shirts the graduating boys wore are were missionary-style.

            The ceremony began with children from each lower grade of the immersion program chanted. I have no idea what was said, but it was all done with much feeling and pomp. Then the graduates chanted. After, they danced a hula in honor of their parents. Next, the previous year’s graduates came forward and danced the hula of the myth of Maui who stole the sun to give his people more time to work and play.

            After the opening chants and hula, the graduating students were wrapped in a symbolic cloth by their kumu (teacher), while she sang. Each student was wrapped individually, and quite ceremoniously, in a pale yellow under-cloth (the boys took off the white shirts for this part) and then a pale green top cloth, which had been stamped with the class tattoo. For each graduating class, the kumu creates a special design that incorporates the number of students graduating–in this case, nine. Each student has the design inked as a tattoo on his or her shoulder as a proud sign of the life-long unity, a pledge of sorts, of the group.

            Once the students were wrapped and instructed by kumu, the rite of passage segment of the ceremony occurred. It was pretty intense to watch, and I can only imagine how the kids felt. Actually one fainted and had to sit down for a bit. For each student, one at a time, the parents came up and put their arms in a circle around the child. In this position they chanted down the family genealogy–this is a big deal in Hawaii, as bloodline was an important factor in all facets of traditional life. Traditional Hawaii was a monarchy. Lineage kept the blood-lines pure in terms of social rank and ruling order. Also, knowing one’s lineage was a form of society introduction, a moniker of status and breeding. In the day of kings such as Kamehameha or Kekaulike, any visitor to an island was required to chant this information, and should the chief not like what he heard (the chant possibly elucidating an enemy in the lineage), he’d simply kill the visitor. As white people first came to the islands, they also were expected to do the same. Unable to do so, were thought odd, crude, coarse, base, or unintelligible because they could not chant down their ancestry. Therefore, they were called haole, a term that now means white foreigner and sometimes carries the connotations of a racial slur, but in traditional times meant “of no breath.”

            Afterthe parents chanted they placed a haku, which looks like a Grecian crown of leaves, on the child’s head and presented him or her to the audience. After the parents had acknowledged the student’s place in the family lineage, the kumu told each student of his or her responsibilities to family, community, and the land. The students each listened with serious attention. Then, the kumu and the students walked out of the gym, singing.

            Outside, we all gathered round to hug the students and give leis. Commonly, a lei is a flower necklace, but contemporarily, for a celebration such as this graduation, they are also made of all things: money, candy, toys. By the time I got to one girl she had so many leis on that her head was covered and she was using her arms to collect the leis that we continued to hang on her.

            After the usual hugging and tears, the crowd dispersed, some to family barbeques, some–spectators such as myself–left to continue their day. As I walked to my car, I remembered the words of Ululani, one of the day’s graduates who is continuing her love of Hawaiian language by training to be an Immersion teacher, “Languages speak us, we do not speak them.” 



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