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<b>Backyard Bounty</b><br>Skylar Suiso, nephew of Hawai'i's
Vol. 15, no. 3
June/July 2012


Peerless and Alone 
Story by Ronald Williams Jr. 

Historians tend
to be a pretty inconspicuous bunch. In our celebrity-infatuated culture, rarely do they become famous during their lives. In old Hawai‘i, however, mea kü‘auhau (historians) were highly respected. History for Hawaiians was more than an academic pursuit; it was a matter of survival. When Polynesian voyagers arrived in these Islands nearly two millennia ago, one of the most important tools they carried with them was their knowledge of the past, held in their memories and shared through oral tradition. The accumulated experiences of their küpuna (ancestors) were critical in helping them flourish in new lands. “I ka wä mamua, ka wä mahope,” goes a familiar ‘ölelo no‘eau (proverb): “In the future is the past.” For those first Hawaiians, there would have been no future without the past.


Early Hawaiian historians chronicled the lives of great ali‘i nui (high chiefs) and akua (gods) orally, with oli (chants)— some over two thousand lines long and taking hours to recite––and mo‘olelo (stories, myths, histories). When American Protestant missionaries brought literacy along with the Bible in the early nineteenth century, Native Hawaiians took to the new tool with a passionate enthusiasm. Within two generations the Islands’ native population was almost fully literate. A robust native-language press developed, and the dozens of Hawaiian-language newspapers read throughout the Islands became an invaluable repository of Hawaiian history, culture and knowledge. The writings of authors of this period are responsible for much of what we know today about Hawai‘i’s past. The most prolific and perhaps the greatest of these writers was Samuel Kamakau.


In detailed and riveting accounts, Kamakau set to print many of today’s most well-known stories of old Hawai‘i, including the rise of the great Hawai‘i Island chief Kamehameha and the battles he fought to unify the Hawaiian Kingdom. Kamakau’s historical knowledge was broad, and his writings ran the gamut from ancient medicinal practices—such as ways to induce pregnancy among women who had been unable to conceive (hanau keiki ‘ole)—to descriptions of Milu, the dark, terrifying afterlife devoid of ancestors.