Monday, March 11, 2013

Okinawa Independence #6: Critical Metaphors

The representative from Hawai'i at the Island Language Revitalizaation Forum this week at Ryukyu University is Noelani Iokepa-Guerrero. She is both a professor at University of Hawai'i, Hilo but also Program Director for the Punana Leo Hawaiian Medium preschools. She is very much involved in the training of Native Hawaiian teachers and the perpetuation of the immersion school programs that have been created there over the past 30 years. Her presentation at the conference was "Hawaiian Language Revitalization: 30 Years of Lessons Learned" and it laid out the approach to teaching the language that Native Hawaiians have developed.

In the early days of their revitalization efforts they simply translated materials from other languages and other contexts. This proved ineffective and so efforts were made to create a curriciulum that was rooted in Native Hawaiian language, history adn culture. As a result of this they came to develop 5 key lessons or insights. These 5 simple points helped them go from less than 40 speakers to 4500 speakers in just 3 decades.

The lessons she outlined are not unique to the Hawaiian context. In fact if you look at the way other people, including Chamorros are mapping out their own route to revitalization, the structure is very similar. But what made her points powerful was the metaphors that she used in order to give social and emotional meaning to the system. Here are the 5 lessons that she offered:

1. E ho'i ka piko. 'O ke kauha ma mua, ma hope ke kukulu.
Return to the source. The foundation first, then the building.

2. I ka 'olel no ke ola.
In language there is life.

3. 'Ike aku, 'ike mai: kokua aku, kokua mai, pela ka nohona 'ohana.
Family life requires an exchange of mutual help and recognition.

4. I maika'i ke kalo i ka 'oha. He lala au no ku'u kumu.
The goodness of the taro is judge by its offshoot. I am a branch of my tree.

5. Ma ka hana ka 'ke.
Through action one learns.

In truth, each of these are somewhat commonsensical, anyone who wants to revitalizae a language might come to similar conclusions and a simialr arrangement. But part of the power is the metaphors that Noelani and other Native Hawaiians have used to give life to these abstract ideas. I don't want to overstate this point since there is no code, no secret for metaphoric envelopment. It is not as if you say something in the right way, all the world will follow.

There is a way to using metaphors that are local or that people accept as part of the fabric of their lives. Noelani uses the taro to make her point because it is something that has long been an essential symbolic part of Hawaiian culture. For Chamorros, stuff such as the latte, the sakman, the karabao, the church all can make a similar connection. If you use a metaphor that isn't considered to be home-grown the results can be weird. Today if you were to use metaphors of snow and winter on Guam most people would accept it simply because our imagined boundaries are so Americanized and globalized to the point where we expect our experiences to match the way others experience things. That is of course why my daughter Sumahi, while only seeing snow in movies and books, tells me every Christmas, "malago' yu' lumi'e' niebes! Sa' dipotis ayu gi Christmas!" Several generations ago this sort of desire would have been strange and foreign. Chamorros who made this claim would have been laughed at by others for attempting to become something they clearly weren't. Attempting to live someone else's life, and celebrate someone else's holiday.

At the same time, using these sorts of metaphors can turn off people. Some people, especially those who don't "feel" that they embody very well any ethnic identity, they may reject this sort of metaphoric illustration. The rejection doesn't have anything to do with the truth or the cultural connection, but more so the way they don't feel connected to that representation. They feel outside of that metaphor. It may seem quaint, exotic, weird, old to them and so to try to make your point in a way that is too cultural or too culturally appropriate can make your articulation less effective. For your average young person today, what would seem more effective in terms of making them more invested and more interested in learning Chamorro? Latte stones or Hello Kitty? Para i haga-hu siempre Hafa Adai Katu.

The creation of these metaphors for your political points is fun. It is one of the things that keeps me active in terms of writing and researching. Even if you constantly make similar points there are always new potential metaphors waiting for you that you can use to give your points meaning and consistency. My problem however is that I tend to use metaphors that are more for my interest and my pleasure as a writer and therefore may just put people off because of how weird or nonsensical they might seem.

For example, last year I wrote an article that discussed Guam's political status through the use of the lyrics to the song "Hotel California" by the Eagles. For most this would be a ridiculous thing. The Eagles probably didn't know anything about Guam when they wrote it and certainly have never admitted to writing it about Guam, and so how you could ever use it to talk about Guam? Metaphors can have meaning because of their origin, as in they share the same source as what you are talking about, but they can also have relevance because they share the same structure. Or the foreign and unrelated metaphor can provide a way of looking at something very familiar, in a new and strange way, which can hopefully allow more room for critical thinking.

In my talk for example I used the metaphor of "self-immolation" in reference to how Chamorros after World War II tried to destroy themselves in cultural and linguistic terms. Self-immolation is lighting yourself on fire, and so as I imagined generations of Chamorros degraded their own culture, language and ancestors, it appeared to me as if they were literally killing themselves. Suicide is a metaphor I used in my Masters Thesis in Ethnic Studies to talk about Chamorro perceptions of decolonization, but in this context it was too simplistic. I used immolation instead because of the way that a fire can sometimes be something you celebrate or dance around.  Something that brings life to the world around it. After World War II Chamorros were not forced to give up aspects of themselves, but gleefully chose to. They were proud and happen to. When I say self-immolation, in my mind I see postwar Chamorros excitedly and eagerly lighting themselves on fire, and then clapping and dancing as they destroy themselves.

Neither of these metaphors are really palatable or inspiring to people. They may make the point I want, but they also can appear to be too blunt or too cutting.

For Noelani's presentation, she found an inspiring balance. She provided a host of metaphors that were both locally relevant and appropriate, but also communicated to even non-Native Hawaiians, the structure of her argument. At the conclusion of her speech she gave a metaphor that should be the goal of all seeking language revitalization, "The Never Wilting Flower." 

After you use the five pillars to nurture a child who is fluent in their language and comfortable in their culture, you come to the end of the process. You do not undertake this project for the individual child, but you do it for the position the child represents. Languages survive and thrive because they are used and because they are passed on. You do not teach the child for themselves, and you do not just teach them the language itself. You try to instill in them that sense of responsibility, so that when the time comes they will pass the language on again. The child you are nurturing is every child today and ever after. So long as you take these tasks seriously it will truly be a flower that never wilts.

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