Hula Power

Saving at-risk languages from Hawai’i and across North America

By:
Heather Amos

Candace Kaleimamoowahinekapu Galla  uses the Hawaiian language in every email, opening with aloha and ending with na’u (‘mine’; equivalent to the English letter closing ‘yours’) or mahalo (thank you).

“It’s about finding spaces to use the language,” says Galla, who obtained a bachelor’s degree in Linguistics, a master’s in Native American Linguistics, and a doctorate in Language, Reading and Culture, all at the University of Arizona.

In the city of Hilo, where she worked at the University of Hawai‘i’s Ka Haka ‘Ula O Ke‘elikōlani College of Hawaiian Language, she saw language being strengthened in a variety of ways. She heard children using it in stores. Her first college-wide meeting was three hours long and conducted entirely in Hawaiian.

The college has a mandate to conduct all its business, academic and administrative, in Hawaiian. In 2010 it graduated its first native Hawaiian Ph.D. student to defend her entire dissertation in Hawaiian — an impressive feat considering that the language almost went extinct 30 years ago.

In the 1980s, there were only about 2,000 people who still spoke Hawaiian fluently — the inevitable result of an 1896 ban on using the language as a medium of education in schools. In 1978, Hawaiian was recognized as an official language; in 1986, the ban was repealed and a revival movement was born.

Today, there are about 10,000 fluent Hawaiian-language speakers throughout the islands. “Hawaiian is often used as a successful model of language revitalization,” says Galla.

Galla, who is an assistant professor in the Department of Language and Literacy Education at the University of British Columbia’s Faculty of Education, grew up on a sugar plantation in Ka‘ū, Hawai‘i. Neither of her parents spoke Hawaiian. It wasn’t until she was in the seventh grade at the Kamehameha Schools in Honolulu that she began to formally study her language and culture.

Galla was surprised at Kamehameha to find that she knew more Hawaiian than she had realized. Although her mother, Leiola Aquino Galla, doesn’t speak Hawaiian, she is a kumu hula (master hula teacher), and Galla had endured mandatory hula lessons, learning the dance movements, the songs, the history behind the songs, and their interpretation. Through learning hula, Galla found, she had also learned a great deal of the Hawaiian language.

“Hula was always part of my life but it wasn’t until I began learning (Hawaiian) at school that I began to appreciate it and my mom’s teachings,” says Galla.

“People may interpret that we do hula for entertainment purposes but it means much more. Hula and mele[songs and chants] are a tribute to what has been carried forward from generations past. They have withstood the factions of colonization and the test of time.”

After high school, Galla moved to Tucson to attend the UA. It wasn’t until she got involved in the American Indian Language Development Institute (AILDI) at UA that she discovered the field of language revitalization.

“I realized that indigenous communities all over the world were experiencing something similar to what happened with Hawaiian,” says Galla. “It is a way to connect what was going on in my home state to the rest of the world.”

Since then, Galla’s research has focused on the role technology and computers play in helping revive languages, something she hopes to work on with First Nations language learners and speakers in British Columbia.

“Hawai‘i is unique because there is only one indigenous language,” says Galla. “Many other states, territories, and provinces, like B.C., are home to many indigenous languages, making it a challenge to implement equal resources for each language.”

Last winter, Galla taught a class of 21 students who were learning 13 languages, many of them British Columbia First Nations’ languages. Although she doesn’t teach the languages herself, she introduces students to the resources at their disposal.

“Many indigenous communities incorporate technology into their efforts to preserve and revitalize languages. In our class, students accessed archived and online resources and worked directly with community members.”