How the Hawaiian Language Got to Harvard College

How the Hawaiian Language Got to Harvard College

Kamehameha Schools grads now attending Harvard College are, from left to right, Leshae Henderson (Harvard ʻ16, KS ʻ12), Nākoa Farrant (Harvard ʻ18, KS ʻ14), Kaipo Matsumoto (Harvard ʻ17, KS ʻ13), Kyle Yoshida (Harvard ʻ18, KS ʻ14).


Recognition of ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi at Harvard College is setting a precedent indigenous languages at an Ivy-League institution.

Written by Kaipo Matsumoto for Civil Beat on November 12th, 2014

I could say that this article started the day I set foot on Harvard’s campus in the Fall semester of my Freshman year, but that would be a lie — that would be to overlook the generations of linguistic trails already paved for me.

The push to get ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi (Hawaiian Language) accepted in fulfillment of Harvard University’s undergraduate foreign language requirement has certainly been the recent struggle of the past three years; however, the presence of Hawaiian Language on Harvard’s campus today is preceded by several generations: a documented 106 years even.

On Nov. 4, 1908 a young Hawaiian man wrote his father a letter, “He Leta Mai ka Aina Mamao Mai.” The “aina mamao,” the distant land referenced was Cambridge, Massachusetts. The young Hawaiian, a youth named Jack, was a pioneer of sorts — he was a student at Harvard University. Jack’s letter to his father at home in Hawaiʻi was published in Ka Hoku O Hawaii, a Hawaiian Language newspaper later that month.

Aside from American politics and football, Jack also had other things on his mind. In his letter he goes on to tell his father, “ua makemake au e hoike aku imua o na kumu ‘Aole au ka Hawaii e haule ihope o na keiki haole. O ka makahiki mua no ko’u makahiki nui o ka pilikia, a maa iki aku hoi i ke anu o keia aina.”

“I want to display for the teachers, that I am not the Hawaiian who will fall behind the haole students. The first year was the year I had many difficulties, but I have become a bit accustomed to the cold of this land.” (translated by Noelani Arista, Assistant Professor, UH Mānoa, Department of History).

Upon my arrival at Harvard, I was greeted by the “cold of this land”— yes, the physical temperature but also a coldness from Harvard administration. I struggled to find a place for the idiosyncrasies of my own identity — of the place in which I grew up and hope to return.

More specifically, I found difficulty in finding a place for the language I sought so fervently to revive in my own family while growing up in Hawaiʻi. While the Hawaiian Renaissance did much for the Hawaiian culture in the community during the 1970s, I am yet the first to speak Hawaiian in my family in four generations.

The move to get Harvard to accept Hawaiian in fulfillment of its foreign language requirement was rekindled most recently when Leshae Henderson (Harvard ’16) inquired about the matter her Freshman Fall (2012). To no avail, she received the response that Harvard was unable to find a university affiliated individual to create and administer a test of language proficiency.

A year later, I entered the college as a first year and joined the effort. Similarly, another year went by in which emails were exchanged, conversations with faculty were had, letters were written, and still the request for a test did not bear any useful results. All of this said, there was indeed a precedent set by David Forman (Harvard College ’88), current Director of the Environmental Law Program at the Richardson School of Law.

During his time at Harvard College in the ’80s, he had communicated with administration for seven weeks before successfully fulfilling his foreign language requirement with Hawaiian, having taken Hawaiian during his four years of high school in Hawaiʻi. Even with mention of this precedent, Leshae and I had been left without an avenue for similarly fulfilling our requirement for well over a year, in Leshae’s case two years.

As I returned to college for my sophomore year, I welcomed two incoming freshman from Hawaiʻi, Nākoa Farrant and Kyle Yoshida, both of whom had taken Hawaiian in high school and were seeking to fulfill their own foreign language requirements with Hawaiian. After explaining the situation to them, we finally received an email at the end of September informing us that a Hawaiian Language proficiency test would be administered to us in October. The written test was made by Professor Kekeha Solis at UH Mānoa, and the oral test was administered vis-á-vis Skype under the supervision of Professor Maria Polinsky of Harvard’s Linguistics Department.

The push for Harvard’s recognition of Hawaiian has in some ways happily come to an end as we now have a test with which we can fulfill our
language requirement but in other ways this achievement has shed light on a larger issue: the place of Hawaiian Language on an institutional level.

The significance of having Hawaiian recognized in an institution such as Harvard despite being an official language of the “State of Hawaii” speaks to the continued push to have Hawaiian implemented on other institutional fronts. As recently as Feb. 14 of this year, Hawaiʻi news headlines read, “State driver’s license test will soon be available in Hawaiian” as seen in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser (Kelleher).

Hawaiian Language is one of the two official languages of Hawaiʻi, and as such would assumingly be given equal power on an institutional level. As seen in the recent aforementioned headline, this is apparently not the case as it is still an issue being addressed in 2014.

Of course, it is also my hope that Hawaiian is not the sole exception to the inclusion of indigenous languages here at Harvard as many of my Native American classmates also have yet to see their native languages accepted here to fulfill the foreign language requirement.

Even that of the Wampanoag language on whose land Harvard’s infrastructure was built has yet to be used. Of course, the “foreignness” of this language is also brought into question given that the use of the Wampanoag language in Massachusetts precedes that of the English language, which today is accepted as a “non-foreign” language. Indeed, Hawaiian Language at Harvard is but a microcosm of the larger issues that face indigenous languages in America. It is obvious that there is still a long way to go.

The recognition of Hawaiian by Harvard College is significant in that it has allowed us students to fulfill our curricular requirements. However, as this issue has gone on, we’ve realized that this has been less about getting college credit and more about seeking institutional validation for our beautiful language, this unique worldview. In 1908, Jack’s use of his mother tongue at Harvard was perhaps painted in a different light as its civility
was questioned and its nature likely associated with that of inferiority. Today, however, Hawaiian has been returned to campus in a different capacity: one of opposition to historical oppression and that of celebration as we hold a weekly Hawaiian Language table at an upperclassmen dining hall every Monday evening.

Harvard like many institutions of higher learning has made a move to augment the diversity of the student population, stressing the idea of inclusion, of embracing the subsequent diversity of its students. Notwithstanding, it took three years, formal and informal conversations with Harvard administrators, and a significant amount of time and emotional effort to bring about the recognition of Hawaiian Language at this Ivy-League institution.

This has been the foremost “extracurricular” activity of my life. This has been an extracurricular endeavor that has paved a path leading to curricular and even larger ramifications for us currently here at the college, for those Hawaiian speakers who are to enter the college in the future, and for those like Jack who have come and gone long before us. My only question now is, “Which native language is next?”

ʻŌiwi TV reaches across generations, socio-economic statuses, and geographic locations as the sole media venue where the Hawaiian language, culture and perspective thrive. Through Digital Channel 326, ʻŌiwi TV reaches over 220,000 households across the entire State via Oceanic Time Warner Cable’s network. Through its website, mobile, and social media venues, ʻŌiwi TV is reaching Hawaiians everywhere and engaging a generation of Hawaiians that expect to access anything and everything from anywhere at anytime.


  1. kapulani Torres 8 years ago

    It is sad that our keiki have to argue the validity of the hawaiian language in the white mans school system when their own homeland political system cannot recognize the hawaiian language in a driver test a test which has been translated into koren,chinese ,Philippino and chuuck years ago.where do we as a people who can be traced back to before kamehameha stand in the land of our kupuna.

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