When I attended the Kamehameha School for Boys in Hawaii, a commitment to service and community were values instilled in me. Being industrious and pursuing leadership roles were integral principles that nurtured academic achievement and excellence.
As Native Hawaiian students, we were made to understand that we had a responsibility to preserve our cultural heritage while succeeding in our careers and addressing the needs of our people.
Answering a call to service of country, I enlisted in the U.S. Army and served in the South Pacific during World War II. The GI Bill of Rights enabled me to pursue higher education. Intent on becoming a teacher, I attended the College of Education at the University of Hawaii and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Education, and later, a Master’s Degree in Educational Administration. I made this career choice to serve my community. I enjoyed my career as a teacher, vice principal, principal, and as a special assistant to the superintendent of education, serving public and private schools and rural and urban students.
In 1962, Iad the honor of naming a new elementary school where I was principal. Recognizing that schools are places of enlightenment where interests are sparked and young minds are shaped, I selected the name Pohakea, derived from the Hawaiian words, poha—meaning to give forth, and kea—meaning light.
As principal, I endeavored to develop a curriculum that incorporated culture as a way for children to understand the world around them and give meaning to their relationships with their environment, fellow students, families, and communities.
Previously, Hawaiian history and culture were treated as historic relics, and students were exposed only to the pageantry of Hawaiian culture. Older generations were punished for speaking Hawaiian in school. Thankfully these days have long passed. Today, students enjoy an education in Hawaiian culture, attributed to a movement in the 1970s known as the Hawaiian Renaissance, where the people of Hawaii unified to rejuvenate all things Native Hawaiian.
Not only are present-day students able to study the Hawaiian language, entire institutions are dedicated to teaching curricula in Hawaiian. We are privileged to have language immersion schools, beginning with preschool (‘Aha Punana Leo) and continuing through K-12 schools (Ke Kula Kaiapuni Hawai‘i) where students are taught every subject in the Hawaiian language.
Students are learning their core education in Hawaiian, with about 1,500 K-12 students enrolled in immersion schools. Students even go on to earn bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees in Hawaiian studies and language at the University of Hawaii.
Students learn about Hawaiian culture and history previously forgotten in the classroom. They learn the history leading to the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii and the country’s annexation by the United States, and statehood. They learn that Hawaii’s people, who descended from an oral tradition, went on to become one of the most literate nations. This education is enjoyed not only by Native Hawaiian students but by all keiki (children) of Hawaii.
It is encouraging to see students share in the love and appreciation for the unique heritage and rich traditions of Hawaii’s indigenous people. More often now, we are seeing how curricula and ways of teaching can be adapted to other Native communities that place a value on perpetuating indigenous language and ways of life.
Serving in Congress for more than 30 years, I am reminded of the life-changing opportunities that education provides. I am extremely proud to have brought the cause of the Native Hawaiians to a national level.
I look forward to working with my colleagues to advance priorities that are important to both the unique populations of the indigenous people of the United States and to our nation’s schoolchildren. Times are still changing, and we have a bright and prosperous future ahead, working together.
U.S. Sen. Daniel Kahikina Akaka is chairman of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee and the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, the Federal Workforce, and the District of Columbia. Akaka also serves on the Armed Services, Indian Affairs, and Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committees.