Hawaii’s Forgotten Native-Language Newspapers Are a Treasure Trove of Climate Data

There were once more than 100 native language newspapers in circulation in Hawaii that chronicled daily life on the islands. As early as 1834, the newspapers supplied native Hawaiians with news, current affairs, opinion, and, importantly, information about extreme weather events.

In 1871, an intense hurricane struck the islands of Hawaii and Maui, causing catastrophic damage. The newspapers reported on the destruction, traced the likely path of the storm, and documented the impact on Hawaiians.

“The streaming of the wind was similar to 5,000 steam whistles set off at one time,” reported the paper Ke Au Okoa. “The rain continued from morning til night. At 11 o’clock, the waters rushed swiftly and the lowlands were flooded, sweeping everything that was in their paths. The damages were great concerning the koa trees and the grapevines.”

In 1893, a group backed by U.S. troops illegally overthrew Hawaii’s monarchical government and, shortly after, passed a law mandating all schools teach their classes in English. The Hawaiian language fell into decline, and, as a result, the native-language newspapers faded first into obscurity, then completely ceased to exist. Records of the 1871 hurricane were consigned to dusty archives and its devastating impact on the islands all but forgotten by Hawaii’s residents.

But in the early ’90s, Puakea Nogelmeier, PhD, a professor of language at the University of Hawai‘i, discovered that the archipelago’s libraries and museums had hoarded its old newspapers. Realizing their historical and cultural value, he started the painstaking process of translating and digitizing each article.

Read more: Future Human

Hawaiian Language Revival Used as Model for Other Indigenous Languages

Advocates of endangered languages gathered at the University of Hawaii at Manoa this month for the fifth International Conference on Language Documentation and Conservation. The conference included a field study of Hawaiian medium language schools — public schools where the curriculum is taught entirely in Hawaiian — in Hilo, Hawaii, to see what lessons can be applied to saving other languages. Advocates came from Okinawa, Japan; Singapore; Australia; New Zealand; Canada; and several states, according to the University of Hawaii.

“The Pūnana Leo preschools continue until today based on the simple rule: If you speak only in Hawaiian to the children, they will begin to speak it back to you,” Larry Kimura, associate professor of Hawaiian language and Hawaiian studies at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo, told NBC News.

“When the [state Department of Education] allowed its first two probationary ‘Hawaiian immersion’ sites, the department was very frank in stating that they had no qualified teachers and no Hawaiian curriculum to support the program,” he added. “The Pūnana Leo responded that we would take up that responsibility.”

Read more: NBC News

Can texting teens save a threatened Hawaiian language?

To stay alive, languages must be used. It helps if they are hip, too, says Amy Kalili, a native Hawaiian.

Six decades ago, Hawaii’s native tongue was close to vanishing with only a few dozen youngsters left speaking it.

Scared of losing their lingo, islanders led a “cultural renaissance” in the 1970s and 1980s by teaching children the dying tongue, Kalili said. Nowadays, schools educate 3,000 students a year in Hawaiian. But to cement these gains it must keep up with the times.

“For languages to survive, kids have to speak it. Therefore it needs to be cool. They have to be jazzed about it,” Kalili, 44, told Al Jazeera.

“They have to see it on television and use it on their iPhones and computers. It’s important for their psyche that they speak a language of capacity.”

Read more: Al Jazeera