Native Hawaiians Are Confronting the Legacies of “Indian Boarding Schools”

On May 11, the Department of Interior issued a Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative investigative reportThe first official accounting of the hundreds and thousands of federally-funded institutions that worked for generations to culturally adapt Indigenous children to white American norms.

The report names seven institutions from Hawaii that meet the criteria for being considered boarding schools. This is surprising as scholars and Native Hawaiians have never considered these schools to be part the same system as Indian-boarding schools.

Hawaii’s inclusion in the report is complicated in a number of ways. It raises long-standing issues about federal recognition of Native Hawaiians. They have a different legal and political status to federally recognized Native American tribes with their tribal governments.

Many Native Hawaiians do not see the Department of Interior as having appropriate jurisdictionMany support a full restoration from the United States of Hawaiian independence. The report also noticeably makes some significant errors in reference to Hawaii — such as designating one school as located at “Kawailou.” There is no such place as “Kawailou.” This is likely a misrecognition of an actual place, Kawailoa. Further, it is not clear how much or who among the Hawaiian communities was consulted when the report was written.

Despite these issues, the report might provide an opportunity for Native Hawaiians as well as the general public to learn more and to grapple with the legacies associated with the institutionalization in Hawaii of Hawaiian children in the 19th and early 20th centuries. This history in Hawaii is strikingly similar to Native American contexts.

I know this because I am a Native Hawaiian historian who, for the last several years, has been trying to find out everything I can about the histories of the government-run Kawailoa Training School for Girls and the Waialeʻe Training School for Boys, both of which are named as boarding schools in this new report, with the former being listed in the report as the “Industrial and Reformatory School for Girls (Maunawili, Koʻolaupoko)” and the latter being listed in the report as “Industrial and Reformatory School (Waialee, Waialua).”

I came to this research because my tūtū (grandma), Lilia Awo, worked as a housemother at the girls’ school later in its history, from roughly the 1960s. From family stories of her experiences there, and after coming across an interview of a young girl who was a ward at Kawailoa in the 1930s, I really wanted to know what the origins of these “schools” were and what role they played in repressing Hawaiian culture and dispossessing Hawaiians from their land.

My research involves records at the Hawaii State Archives, as well as both English and Hawaiian-language newspapers. My research has revealed a complex history going back to the Hawaiian Kingdom. According to the archives, 1865 was the year that the first reformatory opened. The reformatory was initially viewed as a progressive measure to prevent youth who had committed petty criminal acts such as theft or truancy, from going to prison. It was assumed that they would develop relationships with adult criminals and continue down a dangerous path.

Though still an independent country at this point, the Hawaiian Kingdom was under pressure to prove it was a “civilized” equal to Western countries. White settlers advised monarchy to their own advantage as white-owned sugar plantations boomed. In 1893, a group of sugar plantation owners overthrew Hawaii’s Kingdom and established their own government. The overthrow was not authorized by the U.S. Federal government. However, the overthrow was approved in 1898. the U.S. annexed HawaiiIt was officially made a U.S. territory by the United States in 1900.

According to the federal report, the territorial government intensified colonial efforts in dispossessing Native Hawaiians of their land. In 1903, the reformatory moved to Waialeʻe on the rural North Shore of Oʻahu from its first location in the outskirts of Honolulu. Boys continued to be sentenced to what was now called the Waialeʻe Industrial School for Boys, for crimes like stealing or skipping school, according to my research in the Hawaii State Archives. This location was close to sugar and pineapple plants, where the boys who remained at the school were often sent for work., effectively uncompensated, as part of their “training.”

The opening of a separate correctional facility for girls took place around the same period. Girls were usually sentenced for perceived sexual transgressions, called “waywardness” or “immorality.” This stark, gendered difference in the way young women were criminalized is intimately tied to Hawaii’s colonization. Precolonial views about gender in Hawaii stressed balance and complementarity and not patriarchy.

The girls’ school also eventually moved to the country in 1929, at Maunawili on the windward side of Oʻahu, where girls did agricultural and domestic work to support the running of the school. According to my research at the state archives, the aim was to make the girls laundry workers or maids. This training is very similar to the roles that many Native American young girls were forced into at boarding school.

Native Hawaiians have made up the majority population of these government-run institutions throughout history. They weren’t the only ones there. Hawaii’s immigrant communities, brought in to provide more labor for the sugar plantations, were also represented in smaller percentages, including Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino, Puerto Rican and Portuguese immigrants, among others.

I suspect that the multiethnic character these places have is one of the reasons they are not compared with Indian boarding school, which was largely populated only by Native Americans. usually from many different tribesin an effort to weaken tribal affiliation and kinship ties. Also, the fact that the government-run institutions only took in children convicted of crimes rather than targeting Native Hawaiian kids wholesale puts them in closer alignment with other industrial and training schools in the continental U.S. targeted “delinquent” children of many races.

The federal report notes that there were schools like these in Hawaii as well as the training schools. Kamehameha Schools(still-operating, private school for Native Hawaiian children, founded by the will a princess from the Hawaiian Kingdom) and missionary schools that implemented similar programs.

While many Kamehameha Schools alumni have been publicly debating their alma mater’s inclusion in the federal report, I hope the related but also distinct histories of the training schools These institutions are not to be ignored. These institutions forced children to be separated from their families for years or even decades. This was a lot more like Indian boarding school. Kamehameha Schools.

The period when Hawaii was a U.S. Territory (1900-1959), has been often portrayed as benign. Native Hawaiians, who supposedly celebrated Hawaii’s founding in 1959, allegedly did not resist. This is a starkly different view of the time if you pay more attention to these institutions. Given the ease with which a family might lose their child for years due to a petty violation of the law, or for girls, even the mere suggestion that they improperly “associated with boys,” the presence of these “schools” were likely a powerful damper on more widespread resistance to U.S. colonialismDuring the territorial period.

We are yet to fully understand the intergenerational effects of this history. There are many broken family ties and cultural understandings of oneself. Native Hawaiians are still in large numbers today. As our people begin processing this history and this report, it is clear that we have much to learn from, as well as much to mutually assist Native American, Alaskan Native, Indigenous communities in Canada who have been directly addressing this history for a longer duration.

Although I don’t pretend to know the answers to these legacies and that it must be a collective process of healing, I hope my ongoing research on these institutions, which includes an oral history project currently in the planning stages, can contribute to this effort. For whatever we call them, and I am increasingly convinced that “boarding school” is much too gentle a word for them, I hope the inclusion of Hawaii in this report can bring greater awareness to both the damage these institutions wrought and the Hawaiian people’s resilience.