story by Stu Dawrs
art by Alex Preiss
When twenty-three-year-old Elisha Loomis presided over the production of the first mechanically printed words ever put on paper in the Hawaiian Islands, he could hardly have foreseen the effect that day was to have on Hawai‘i’s future. The year was 1822, and Loomis, his wife and a second-hand printing press had arrived less than two years earlier, along with the first boatload of American missionaries to reach the Islands, in April 1820.
Loomis and his cohorts had spent their first twenty-one months in the Islands reducing the Hawaiian language to a written alphabet of five vowels and seven consonants, and the first page to come off Loomis’ Honolulu press that January day—ceremonially produced by Keeaumoku, a high-ranking Oahu alii—was part of an eight-page Hawaiian spelling primer. It was a small beginning, but by the time Loomis left the Islands in 1827, his press had produced more than 59,000 Hawaiian spelling books and roughly an equal number of religious pamphlets. By 1834, his successors had distributed 180,900 language primers, and more than 900 schools had been established in the Islands.
As it turned out, the missionaries’ introduction of an alphabet and printing to Hawaii had an effect far beyond their initial spiritual goals: It gave rise to one of the world’s largest bodies of indigenous writing, including a Hawaiian-language newspaper industry that covered the period from 1834 to 1948 via more than 135 distinct newspapers.
"When you look at the current boundaries of the first forty-nine United States, there are approximately 600 identified native communities, which, combined, have historically produced a few thousand pages of writing in their own languages," says Bob Stauffer, a writer and researcher who has worked with Hawaiian archival materials for more than two decades. "Now, look at the Hawaiian materials currently held in archives: There are approximately 120,000 pages of newspapers alone, which equates to approximately three million manuscript pages, or three-quarters of a billion words. And that’s just the newspapers; the number of government documents is similar, and there are hundreds of books and letters that have survived—add it up and you get somewhere in the range of 1.5 billion words of writing."
Taken together, these archives represent a body of knowledge so vast that its surface has barely been scratched by scholars—and, because it has never been fully indexed, it has remained largely unknown to the public. But Stauffer is one of a small army of researchers, archivists, Hawaiian language experts and others who are currently working to change all that, via a recently founded initiative known as Papahana Hooilina Olelo Hawaii (The Hawaiian Language Legacy Project). Organized by the Hawaiian social-services organization Alu Like—in partnership with a wide cross-section of educational and Hawaiian advocacy groups—the project’s task is massive: To preserve, index, publish and make widely available as much of this indigenous archive as possible.
To do so, two projects are underway: The first—the Hawaiian Language Newspapers Project—involves digitizing the entire 120,000 pages of Hawaiian language newspapers, which will create for the first time fully searchable indexes. The second, Ka Hooilina (The Legacy), is a journal of Hawaiian-language materials that will draw from a variety of sources, including government documents, newspapers, printed chants and educational materials published in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
As Ka Hooilina editor Kalena Silva points out, the project is especially important when one considers that Hawaiian oral traditions—and particularly the spoken language itself—went into decline over the course of the last century, and have yet to fully recover. "The journal is important because it provides a window in time, allowing us in the 21st century to view the world through the eyes of Hawaiian language writers of the 19th century," says Silva, who also serves as the director of Ka Haka Ula o Keelikolani—the College of Hawaiian Language at the University of Hawaii’s Hilo campus.
Stauffer adds that this body of work is particularly valuable to researchers because written language was introduced to Hawaii less than fifty years after foreigners first arrived in the Islands. "Take, for instance, the Navajo language," he says. "The Navajo alphabet wasn’t introduced until 350 years after contact, at which point the culture had been largely transformed. But in Hawaii, writings from the 1830s and ’40s were being produced by people living in rural areas, where there was still very little contact with outsiders."
As one example, Stauffer points to the land privatization process known as the Mahele (literally, "division"), which began in 1848. In order for people to claim lands from the Hawaiian government, they had to describe their property in writing. "There are roughly 40,000 pages of Mahele documents," Stauffer notes. "In the course of a couple of years, you get a snapshot that exists nowhere else in the world: A complete image of the material culture of the day, in terms of descriptions of the land and what existed on it."
Meanwhile, Silva points out that much of Ka Hooilina’s source material was originally intended for a wide public audience: "For example, [Samuel] Kamakau’s 1867 newspaper article series about the famous Oahu chief, Kahahana, reflects the great value 19th-century Hawaiians placed on knowledge of the lives of our alii. The 1892 newspaper listing of the key leaders in Ka Hui Aoao Lahui Liberala Hawaii (The Hawaiian National Liberal Party) is a roster of the leading patriots of that pivotal time in Hawaii’s history, and provides inspiration for Hawaiians today as the movement toward increased Hawaiian self-determination continues to gain momentum."
Silva also mentions an 1834 article describing an elephant that appeared in the first issue of the first Hawaiian newspaper, Ka Lama Hawaii. The story, he says, reflects Hawaiian readers’ desire to learn more about the world beyond the Islands’ shores: "Imagine what people of the time must have thought reading about this animal that was described as having a nose that served as both a hue wai (water gourd) and a pahi kaua hahau ikaika (sword able to deliver terrific blows)!"
Bringing such 19th century materials back to light has required extensive use of 21st century technology, particularly the Internet. When the project is complete, all of the Hawaiian language newspapers will be available online in fully searchable form. Meanwhile, an online version of the Ka Hooilina journal is set to include such added features as downloadable audio files of native speakers reading the text.
It’s an undertaking that, Silva says, will outlast many of those who are currently working on it; something that will take, at minimum, "decades" to complete. Even so, he maintains, the value of making these archives available is more than worth the huge amount of time and effort required. "For high school and college students learning Hawaiian as a second language—and to anyone, really, who is interested in learning about Hawaiian language, culture and history," Silva says, "the Papahana Hooilina Olelo Hawaii offers an absolutely priceless resource."
To view the Hawaiian Language Newspapers Project’s online "Hawaiian Nupepa Collection," go to nupepa.olelo.hawaii.edu. The online version of Ka Hooilina can be accessed at hooilina.olelo.hawaii.edu.