Local Connections: Malika Dudley and Hilo

Local Connections: Malika Dudley and Hilo
Pila Wilson
Pila Wilson
Kahealani Naeole-Wong
Kahealani Naeole-Wong

By Malika Dudley - bio | email

HILO (HawaiiNewsNow) - Our next "Local Connection" takes us to the Big Island. Our own Malika Dudley is from Hilo, a town that has recently been going back to its roots.

Since the Hawaiian language program started at UH Hilo, enrollment has increased 10-fold. And that was just the beginning. Here's Malika's story...

I have a lot of great memories here at the Edith Kanakaole Stadium. My graduation from Hilo High School was here, but one of my fondest memories is watching my little sister Melanie dance hula at the Merrie Monarch Festival.

Since I was a keiki, one of the positive changes in Hilo has been the revitalization of Hawaiian language and culture.

It started in the 70s, with Edith Kanakaole at the helm.

At the time, Hilo was still a small, sleepy town. Sugar was still king, and the population was nearly half of what it is now.

Hawaiian language was only spoken by elders, and was headed toward extinction.

"There was a Hawaiian renaissance and there were a group of kupuna here in Hilo who was very active," said UH Hilo professor of Hawaiian, Pila Wilson. "They started a Hawaiian language organization.

One of the main leaders was Edith Kanakaole. She was actually hired here as a faculty member and taught for a number of years.

The University of Hawaii at Hilo has been a leader in the movement ever since.

It was the first to offer a teacher education program in Hawaiian, master's degree in Hawaiian language and literature, and still the first and only Ph.D. program for indigenous language and culture revitalization in the world.

"Our focus is application in the community, so we want our students to be highly skilled in academia, but to serve the community as their first priority," said Wilson.

The seed that was planted in Hilo grew into a tree with far-reaching limbs.

Hawaiian language teachers from the program in Hilo take their knowledge across the island, and "giving back" is a recurring theme.

In Ke'a'au at Kamehameha Schools' Hawaii campus, they start early.

"The service learning we have starting from kindergarten all the way up through, so just developing that sense you know that kuleana that you have in this resurgence of Hawaiian language and culture; your kuleana to be stewards of the land," said Kahealani Naeole-Wong, Kamehameha Schools Elementary School principal.

The school opened in Keaukaha in 1999, then moved to its current location in 2001.

Hawaiian language and culture lessons begin in kindergarten too, while Hawaiian history and contemporary Hawaiian issues are mandated at the high school level.

The school also uses Hilo and its surrounding communities as laboratories for learning.

"Our island is just a living classroom from mauka to makai," said Naeole-Wong. "So huaike to places like Punalu'u and restoring native plants there; reforestation projects in Ke'e as well as restoring alkaline ponds; research out in Waipio...so really applying the best of what we learn in the classroom, and being able to get outside and apply that in different culturally significant places."

Hawaiian immersion schools are also thriving with an infant and toddler program, three preschools, and three middle and high schools.

Math, science and even Japanese are all taught in Hawaiian. And they do it well. All three passed No Child Left Behind.

"At the highest rank, and there were only five other schools on the island that passed the No Child Left Behind at that rank," said Wilson.

With that kind of success, enrollment is at capacity. When you visit Punana Leo, you understand why.

Keiki as young as six weeks are immersed in the Hawaiian language, toddlers speak fluently and parents like Kekoa and Pele Harman bring it full-circle by speaking Hawaiian in their homes.

"We started off as students learning Hawaiian language, but it became a way of life," said the couple.

I asked their three-year-old son, Kaumualii, "Is Hawaiian hard?"

"Speaking Hawaiian is easy," he responded.

So there you have it. All you have to do is listen to the proof. And to think it all started in sleepy Hilo, with a few kupuna with big dreams.

"More and more to not have people look at us like we're a novelty, that's to me a sure indication that Hawaiian is making a comeback," said the Harmans.