For four generations, beginning in 1896 after the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom, the Hawaiian language was banned in Hawaiʻi schools.
But on Friday at the high school commencement ceremony for the five graduates of Ke Kula ‘O ‘Ehunuikaimalino in Kealakekua, ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi was all that was spoken.
The graduates of West Hawai‘i’s sole Hawaiian language immersion school also did not wear traditional caps and gowns. They were barefooted and attired in Sunday-best with the boys in collared white shirts and black slacks and the girls in white dresses.
They received kīhei (a traditional Hawaiian wrap), which was tied on them by principal Jessica Dahlke. A lei hulu (feather lei) made by the students was presented to them and tied around their necks. And, a lei po‘o was placed on their heads.
The graduates performed kahiko (ancient) hula and were joined by classmates for a number of songs at the ceremony held on a baseball field below Konawaena High School and attended by family, friends and fellow schoolmates, kindergarten through 11th grade.
“I feel like we’re watching the baby birds fly,” Dahlke said. “It’s exciting to see them on their journey and looking forward to seeing what happens next and how they bring these values and skills into their future.”
Each graduate: Honey J.K. Freitas, Kamakakane Hanoa-Valera, Levi M. Perreira-Bean, Pomaika‘i Santana-Keka and Lyric M.N. Tagavilla, presented a geneology chant before taking a seat on a stage in front of the audience. They chanted names of their relatives going back as far as five generations.
Guardians of each of the five were invited up when they received their diploma.
The keynote speaker was Kaho‘okahi Kanuha, who was part of the first class that started ‘Ehunui 29 years ago. After sixth grade, he transferred to Kamehameha Schools.
“To me, it’s is a big deal as we saw five kids graduating with the ability to speak Hawaiian going out into the community,” Kanuha said. “That’s a few more than we had before.”
Kanuha said students of ‘Ehunui are more prepared for the world as they read and write English, as well as speak Hawaiian.
“Being able to live in a Hawaiian world is necessary to keep Hawai‘i, Hawai‘i,” he said.
Through their education in Hawaiian studies, Kanuha said the graduates know who they are as Hawaiians.
The school was named after ʻEhunuikaimalino, who was a Chief of Kona during the reign of Kauholanuimahu.
Friday was a proud day for many, including Perreira-Bean’s grandfather, Kawaikapuokalani Hewett, who flew in from O‘ahu to see him graduate.
“The perpetuation of the Hawaiian language is important,” said Hewett, an award-winning musician. “I can speak to them in the language I grew up with.”
Hewett was going to college at a time when the Hawaiian language was still banned from public schools. Nevertheless, he continued his Hawaiian studies at the University of Hawai‘i’s Windward Community College.
“Regardless of what people said, I was able to use the knowledge of my ancestors and I continue to speak ʻōlelo Hawai‘i,” he said.
Welu Bean, Perreira-Bean’s mother, said this is her first son to graduate. She said the Hawaiian language immersion school has given her son the knowledge of where he comes from.
“Identity is the most important foundation to give a child,” she said.
Perreira-Bean said he’s excited to start the next chapter in his life and get a job in construction.
Sophia and Pernell Hanoa celebrated the graduation of their grandson, Hanoa-Valera.
“It’s so emotional,” Sophia Pernell Hanoa said. “His journey is just beginning. It’s awesome because the school has perpetuated Hawaiian lifestyles and beliefs. It grounded him.”
Pernell Hanoa said his grandson’s ability to speak fluent ʻōlelo Hawai‘i fills a gap.
“We’ll fill in the rest as cultural practitioners and what it is to be and live as a Hawaiian,” he said.
Hanoa-Valera plans to attend Advanced Training Institute in Las Vegas to become a mechanic. He plans to continue to share the Hawaiian language with his family so they, in turn, will share it with whoever they want “and just bring it back to life.”
Santana-Keka is excited he’s completed the high school journey and is headed for Santa Barbara City College in California, where he will study environmental science, run cross country and play volleyball for the school.
Santana-Keka plans to perpetuate the Hawaiian language by sharing knowledge about Hawai‘i and will try to speak it as much as he can when he’s not in the islands.
Freitas didn’t think she would make it to graduation because she didn’t start at the immersion school until the last quarter of eighth grade.
Hawaiian language is only spoken from kindergarten to sixth grade. After that, the language is spoken half the time, with English and advanced math and sciences taught in English. Freitas said she had to learn ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi on her own with another kumu (teacher).
With a sense of pride, Freitas said she wants her future kids to learn the language: “The Hawaiian language is power to all of us.”
Freitas plans to apply to Arizona State University and will work at Four Seasons to save money for her education.
Tagavilla said she and her fellow seniors went through a lot this school year, mourning many family deaths.
“I can say we stuck together as a big family, and I learned a lot from them and I’m grateful to be with them,” Tagavilla said.
The COVID-19 pandemic was also challenging for the five graduates. With in-person learning on hiatus to avoid the spread of the virus at schools, students were forced into a virtual classroom. This resulted in setting the students back academically. They had to work extra hard to make sure they had all the credits needed to graduate.
“I’m glad we had that experience because it definitely shaped us,” Tagavilla said. “We did a lot of work this year and definitely all paid off today.”
Tagavilla will be starting work as a park ranger at Pu‘uhonua o Hōnaunau State Park in South Kona. She also hopes to come back to ‘Ehunui as a substitute teacher.
With the students now graduated, Dahlke said the hope is that the kids walk two worlds.
“We want them to remember the values and remember the culture and remember their roots of Hawaiian language, but walk in the rest of the world as well,” the principal said. “We want them to have the academics to compete on that stage while maintaining the intensity of ʻōlelo Hawai‘i.”
High school graduation ceremonies on the Big Island will continue through the weekend and into next week. Click here for more information.