hawaiiA native of Hawaii, President Obama once wrote, “The opportunity that Hawaii offered—to experience a variety of cultures in a climate of mutual respect—became an integral part of my world view, and a basis for the values that I hold most dear.”

Obama’s birthplace is not only a crossroads of cultures, it is a state rich with its own indigenous traditions, language, and culture. Though suppressed for many years, native Hawaiian culture is experiencing a revival, as this generation seeks to preserve it for the future.

In the minds of most Americans, Hawaii—the 50th state—is a tropical paradise and a global vacation destination. We are well aware of its stunning natural beauty, world-famous beaches, and the leis and hula skirts tourists take home as souvenirs. But what do we know of its history? Besides the attack on Pearl Harbor, which triggered U.S. involvement in World War II, few Americans know much of the native people and their history—including the years of conflict at the heart of Hawaii’s journey to statehood.

May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, offering a great time to explore the overlooked time in Asian-American history and celebrate the resurgence of the native language and culture of America’s Pacific Islanders. 

Overthrow of Hawaii’s monarchy spurs culture change and sparks widespread protests

Though Polynesian people had been living there for centuries, Hawaii was “discovered” by British explorer James Cook in 1778. Traders, merchants, and immigrant workers flooded in, resulting in an overwhelming Western influence to the Hawaiian Islands, causing a transition from subsistence farming to a cash economy and an unfortunate loss of tradition.

In 1893 U.S. businessmen overthrew the monarchy of Hawaii and established a Republic. Five years later, despite widespread protests and fierce opposition, the Islands were annexed as a territory by the United States.

Western missionary education stripped Hawaii of its native language

The influx of Westerners included missionaries who were determined to educate the Hawaiians, including teaching them to read and write. In order to do this, they needed to give the Hawaiian language a written form. Unable to distinguish between many of the sounds in the Hawaiian language, the missionaries gave Hawaiian names and words very different sounds and appearances from their original spoken form. Hawaii’s capital, for example, became “Honolulu” instead of the original “Honoruru.”

The native language changed dramatically and irrevocably. And when the monarchy was overthrown, the new government banned the speaking or teaching of the Hawaiian language in any public school. This suppression of the Hawaiian language would last for nearly 100 years.

Resurgence of language and culture for native Hawaiians

In the 1970′s, however, a renaissance of the Hawaiian culture—and a renewed respect for the native language—emerged. In 1978, Hawaiian once again was made an official language of the State of Hawaii. Shortly thereafter, schools were again allowed to teach the language.  Immersion programs, which emphasize instruction in Hawaiian and focus on native language, history, and culture, also began to develop. In 1990, the United States government established a policy recognizing the right of Hawaii to preserve, use and support its indigenous language. The year 1996 was proclaimed the “Year of the Hawaiian Language.”

The renewed interest in the study and use of the Hawaiian language in schools, in government, in music and media continues today as Hawaiians of all backgrounds seek to preserve native culture for future generations.