On November 10, 2011, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs voted to pass an official resolution titled Encouraging Banks and Credit Unions Operating in the State of Hawaii to Incorporate the Native Hawaiian Language In their Automatic Teller Machines. In 2012, the Hawai‘i Tourism Authority joined OHA in the advocacy and a deal was struck with the Bank of Hawaii, Hawai‘i’s second largest bank. Why is this important?
During the 1800’s the Hawaiian population was decimated by epidemic diseases from which Hawaiians had no immunity such as smallpox, chicken pox, and so forth. The Hawaiian population dropped from 450,000 to less than 40,000. Because Hawaiians practiced an oral tradition of transmitting knowledge, the population loss was a catastrophic rupture of cultural transmission. Of all the cultural elements that were impacted, the most serious was losing so many for whom Hawaiian was their first language. It triggered a long decline in the language as the ranks of native speakers began to disappear and the language was brought to its knees. It did not help that Hawaiian language was replaced by English as the language of instruction in the schools, and many Hawaiians were punished for speaking it.
Fast forward to the 1940’s which is when I joined the lost generation of Hawaiians. Our parents were eager to have us assimilate into the American mainstream. So, even if they could speak the language, as did my parents, they refrained from teaching their children because they had been convinced that the best thing they could do for their children is to make them good English-speaking Americans. The language seemed to all but disappear. Efforts at revival were scoffed at. The language was judged as without a useful purpose in everyday life. Thank God for the commitment and passion of a few impassioned language leaders like Larry Kimura, Pila Wilson, Puakea Nogelmeier, and a score of others who began a strident advocacy for Hawaiian language education. Soon the language revival was spiraling upward.
But one thing kept nagging at me. The notion that Hawaiian had no useful purpose still persisted. I asked myself what can we do that would position the language into the mainstream of daily life in a way that gave it relevance. Suddenly a light went on in my head and an ATM machine appeared! Fast forward to the OHA resolution. It is a major commitment to re-program an ATM because each machine has to be serviced one at a time. But the Bank of Hawaii did not flinch. A huge mahalo to Peter Ho and the Bank of Hawaii for the leadership in showing such great respect for Hawaiians and our language. In a few years when a young native-speaking Hawaiian goes to an ATM and selects the ‘Ōlelo Hawai‘i button from among the other mainstream language choices, it will not occur to him or her that their existence was once less equal to others or that their language less relevant.