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Schatz listens to concerns of Native Hawaiian leaders

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz took testimony Thursday from seven Native Hawaiian community leaders in East Hawaii, at Hale ‘Olelo, the College of Hawaiian Language at the University of Hawaii at Hilo.

Schatz, a Hawaii Democrat and chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, led a hearing called “Upholding The Federal Trust Responsibility: Funding and Program Access For Innovation In The Native Hawaiian Community.”

According to a statement from Schatz, as chairman, he’s presided over the biggest federal investment in American history for Native Hawaiians — more than $270 million in direct funding for housing, education, health care, food and agriculture, broadband, and culture and the arts.

“The Native Language Resource Center Act is something that we’re working on,” Schatz said. “The Native American Housing and Self-Determination Act (NAHASDA), which provides resources to the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, is a real priority. And we’re also coming up on the next appropriations cycle, the next budget cycle. And I want to try to get more money for Native Hawaiian health and education programs.”

Presenting testimony were: Namaka Rawlins, alaka‘i (senior director) of Hale Kipa ‘Oiwi at ‘Aha Punana Leo; M. Kahealani Nae‘ole-Wong, po‘o kula (head of school) at Kamehameha Schools Hawaii campus; Keiki Kawai‘ae‘a, Ph.D., director, Ka Haka ‘Ula O Ke‘elikolani College of Hawaiian Language at the University of Hawaii at Hilo; Amy Kalili, partner, Pilina First LLP; Luana Kawelu, president, Merrie Monarch Festival; Noa Kekuewa Lincoln, Ph.D., advisor, Hawai‘i ‘Ulu Cooperative, president, Mala Kalu‘ulu Cooperative and associate research professor, University of Hawaii; Kuha‘o Zane, creative director, Sig Zane Designs and SZKaiao &Kalaimoku, and board of directors, Edith Kanaka‘ole Foundation.

Rawlins, a leader in Hawaiian language immersion education, called Native Hawaiian Language Medium Education “a huge success,” and urged continuation of funding.

“I would venture to say that it is the most successful educational effort for Native American children aged 0 to 18 in the United States,” she told Schatz. “Our hope is that your Committee on Indian Affairs, which has been so important to our overall effort to this point, will be able to help us address the maintenance and development issues for future generations.”

Nae‘ole-Wong’s testimony contained both sobering statistics and a hopeful tone for the future.

“Among all Native Hawaiian students in public schools, 62% are economically disadvantaged, with East Hawaii (74%) and West Hawaii (72%) having notably higher percentages,” she testified. “This is consistent with findings showing that East Hawaii has the largest percentage of Native Hawaiians living in poverty.”

She also pointed to education steeped in Hawaiian language and culture as a way forward.

“Within a generation of 25 years, we see a thriving lahui where our learners achieve post-secondary educational success, enabling good life and career choices,” Nae‘ole-Wong said. “We also envision that our learners will be grounded in Christian and Hawaiian values and will be leaders who contribute to communities, both locally and globally.”

Kawai‘ae‘a said UH-Hilo’s College of Hawaiian Language is “seen as a standard foreign language and foreign area studies program” but lacks “the resources that such foreign language and area studies programs receive, including any of the 15 federally funded National Foreign Language Resource Centers.”

“The lack of such support, not to mention the support of foreign governments, severely hampers our ability to reach the full potential of our various Native Hawaiian and other Native American programs,” she said. “We, therefore, very much appreciate the work you, Sen. Schatz, and the Senate Indian Affairs Committee have put into the bill to establish Native American Language Resource Centers.”

Kalili, a longtime TV producer, writer and host, said the perception of the Hawaiian language “as a thriving, living language that should be used in all sectors of Hawaii” is critical to the success of educational programs.

“It’s imperative that we support the use of ‘olelo Hawaii” in domains such as media,” she said.

A former executive director of ‘Aha Punana Leo, Kalili testified that many of the early Hawaiian language immersion learners are “well into their careers,” with “higher-paying positions not in spite of, but of their fluency in Hawaiian and the perspective and world view that comes with that.”

Lincoln pointed out Hawaii’s food dependence, importing 85-90% of its food supply, the underfunding and byzantine bureaucracy of the state Department of Agriculture and that federal funding usually overlooks Hawaii’s small farmers, most of whom have less than 50 acres in production.

“The farm bill inherently subsidizes much of the large-scale commodities in the market, skewing the price of food to support highly processed wheat and corn products, and fundamentally placing all other agricultural forms and products at a disadvantage,” he said. “Improved support for ‘specialty crops’ and rural development would aid in supporting diversified, small producers.”

Zane mentioned a litany of endeavors he’s involved in with Sig Zane Designs and the Edith Kanaka‘ole Foundation, including GPS mapping of some areas in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park using ancient chants as a guide to locations. He thanked Schatz for wearing a Sig Zane aloha shirt.

And Kawelu provided a history of the Merrie Monarch, from its humble beginnings with King Kalakaua lookalike contests to the Olympics of Hula, with an estimated 750,000 viewers on statewide TV and more than 30 million worldwide online.

“The Native Hawaiian community on the Big Island is doing extraordinary work and the thing that I can do to be the most helpful is try to provide federal resources so that they can do more of it and share it across the state and across the country,” Schatz said afterwards.