Issue 14.2: April - May 2011

Hawai'i's Folklorist

Story by Adrienne LaFrance
Illustration courtesy University of Hawai'i Press (© 2007)
In the early twentieth century, Martha Beckwith authored seminal texts on Hawaiian culture, texts that are still widely used -- and are now being re-examined.
It was from a small theater in Poughkeepsie, New York, some five thousand miles from Honolulu, that in the 1920s Martha Beckwith stormed out of a “genuine Hawaiian hula” show after scolding the impostors for staging it in the first place. As the story goes, Beckwith—a folklorist and anthropology professor at Vassar College who had spent the majority of her adult life studying Hawaiian culture—was thrilled when she saw advertisements for the hula show in the college town and insisted a friend join her. But when the vaudeville performance began, Beckwith was irate to find the dancing girls from Manhattan knew nothing of authentic hula.


“This is unscholarly,” she whispered to her companion, according to a 1951 Christian Science Monitor article about the incident. “I must protest.” Her friend begged her not to make a scene, but Beckwith could not remain quiet. She stood up from her seat in the middle of the theater and spoke: “In the interest of truth, I must denounce this performance.” The audience began to titter around her as she went on. “It has nothing about it that in any way represents the true hula except the skirt, and even that is artificial. You are being taken in.”


By this time the crowd had worked itself into a racket. Audience members jeered at Beckwith for the interruption: “Sit down!” “Go ahead, old lady! Tell us about the hula!” Beckwith, undeterred, raised her voice above the din, still attempting to inform the audience about hula until the stunned girls onstage continued their performance. At that point Beckwith motioned to her companion. “We will not stay for such an unscholarly performance,” she announced. And they left the theater.


This tale and others like it perfectly capture Beckwith’s spirit, say those who know her story. “She was just a feisty, feisty woman,” says Julia Morgan, a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at the University of Hawai‘i who has studied Beckwith. Certainly the tale does more to convey Beckwith’s passion than the few photos of her that remain. On the Vassar College website she appears calm and rather plain. There is light in her eyes, though her smile is so slight that it barely marks a dimple on one cheek.


In the small theater that day, before a rather appalled audience, Beckwith presented herself as an authority on Hawaiian culture—a role she would take on throughout her life and that is the basis of her legacy. Today, Beckwith is referenced in everything from folklore journals to Hawai‘i guidebooks, and volumes from the scholarly body of work she left behind are available everywhere. More than half a century after her death, Beckwith’s books earn top reviews on, and she’s often described as being the “definitive” source on varied Hawaiian cultural topics. But Beckwith’s work is not without controversy as scholars dig into her past and struggle to understand her motivations.


Beckwith was infatuated with Hawaiian history, and her writings about Hawai‘i are detailed and visceral. She describes small boys lighting kukui (candlenut) torches, feats of surfing, the beating of kapa (barkcloth) and feasts of eels wrapped in banana leaves. She writes of rainbows resting on heiau (temples) and torrential rain washing rivers of red clay into the Pacific.


Though born in Wellesley, Massachusetts in 1871, Beckwith moved with her family to Maui when she was a very little girl. Later she graduated from Mount Holyoke, back in Massachusetts, and taught literature at several women’s colleges throughout New England. It wasn’t until she was in her 30s that she began studying anthropology. She was a protégé of legendary anthropologist Franz Boas at Columbia University; later, at Vassar, she became the first person to chair a folklore department anywhere in the country.


Beckwith was enthralled with the stories people tell one another. She spent decades attempting to unravel some of the deepest and most sacred elements of Hawai‘i’s oral traditions, but she also delighted in the more frivolous trappings of daily life in vastly distant cultures. In the 1920s, for example, she meticulously recorded the singsong superstitions passed down for decades by American girls in schoolyards. She tracked everything from superstitions that have long since outlived her—such as it is bad luck if a black cat crosses your path—to those that now seem a bizarre relic of the time in which they were repeated: If you are unlucky at cards, walk around your chair three times to change your luck; if you drop a dishcloth, a stranger is coming; if you sew on Sunday, you will have to take out every stitch with your nose when you get to heaven.


Beckwith traveled the world, conducting anthropological fieldwork in Jamaica, India, North America and beyond. But her love of Hawai‘i drew her back to the Islands again and again. One of the works for which she is best known, Hawaiian Mythology, begins with a celebration of her memories of a childhood “spent within the sound of the hula drum at the foot of the domelike House of the Sun on the windy island of Maui.”


Beckwith’s fieldwork in the Islands also culminated in her translation of the Kumulipo, Hawai‘i’s epic creation story. The ancient and revered chant, passed down through generations, tells the story of how the world came to be and traces the genealogy of the Hawaiian people. After decades of work, Beckwith published a translation of a written version in 1951, when she was 80 years old. Beckwith herself spoke Hawaiian fluently, but she sought much help in translating the Kumulipo: She relied on a number of manuscripts and on Hawaiian interpreters like David Malo Kupihea, Daniel Ho‘olapa and Pokini Robinson. Ultimately, she explained in her introduction to the sacred text, she gave final authority on the work to Mary Kawena Pukui, an esteemed scholar who taught and studied Hawaiian history and culture for decades.


But Beckwith’s work does not exist in a vacuum. She was a non-Hawaiian attempting to tell the story of the Hawaiian people in the aftermath of the 1893 overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom and during a time when much of Hawaiian culture was being ripped away. Beckwith lived through this tumult and had ties to it. She was the grandniece of Lucy Goodale Thurston, one of the first missionaries to settle in Hawai‘i, and her closest companion was Annie Alexander of another famous missionary family.


“Annie Alexander was also the niece of W.D. Alexander, who was a professor at the University of Hawai‘i,” says Brandy McDougall, who teaches Hawaiian literature at Kamehameha Schools. “Shortly after the overthrow, in 1894, he ran a series in the Commercial Advertiser [a New York newspaper] used as propaganda to discount any political decisions that were made by the monarchy. Basically, it was to add to the legitimacy of the provisional government. He made some pretty public statements about the Kumulipo. In particular he called it ‘vile.’”


According to Beckwith and Annie Alexander, their friendship had nothing to do with politics. Alexander had been a childhood classmate of Beckwith’s sister, Mary, and a 2001 biography of Alexander by Barbara Stein recounts the summer when a relationship blossomed between Beckwith and Alexander on a ten-week camping trip through Northern California and Southern Oregon in 1899. The pair shared an interest in botany, bird-watching and geology, and both loved being outdoors. On horseback they trekked some six hundred miles to Crater Lake, taking photographs, collecting plant specimens and sleeping under the stars along the way. Later, Alexander funded Beckwith’s folklore research at Vassar College, and Beckwith dedicated her translation of the Kumulipo to Alexander.


Beckwith was a young woman when haole businessmen in Hawai‘i removed Queen Lili‘uokalani from her throne. While under house arrest in ‘Iolani Palace, Lili‘uokalani translated the Kumulipo from the Hawaiian version that her late brother, King David Kalakaua, had transcribed. Today the queen’s translation is available— but just barely. The University of Hawai‘i at Manoa sometimes stocks the slender bound copy that was published by a small California-based printer in 1978. ‘Iolani Palace has Beckwith’s Hawaiian Mythology displayed prominently in its basement gift shop, but not Lili‘uokalani’s Kumulipo. The owner of a rare-book store in Hanapepe says he’s never seen Lili‘uokalani’s Kumulipo cross his shelves, never even knew it existed, though he regularly gets copies of Beckwith’s translation.


“Beckwith’s translation is still the most widely taught,” says McDougall. “The queen’s translation is all but forgotten, ironically. I think it’s largely because of who is publishing. Beckwith’s translation has wider distribution. It’s Beckwith’s version they’re teaching at the university.”


But Hawaiian scholars like McDougall are now emphasizing the extent to which Beckwith altered the chant’s meaning. They say she simplified translations of Hawaiian words, thus obliterating some of the allusions in the ancient chant. McDougall also points out that Beckwith, in her introduction to the Kumulipo, gave little recognition to Lili‘uokalani’s translation and that Beckwith characterized the Kumulipo differently from the way that Hawaiians did, writing that it should never be looked at as a historical text.


“Beckwith as a figure has been held up so high for so long that she was largely unquestioned,” says McDougall. “It’s important for us to question.”


Vassar College, too, points to some of the issues Beckwith’s work raises. In the school’s online encyclopedia, her legacy is characterized as “ambiguous,” mostly because it is plagued with many of the troubling scars that much early anthropological writing bears. “Almost all early anthropology contains a racist undertone; the words ‘savage’ and ‘pre-historic’ usually pepper the rather condescending descriptions of the cultures under investigation,” the Vassar Encyclopedia reads.


“Beckwith’s work certainly employs this kind of vocabulary, but because she spent more time collecting and translating than commenting, it is less prevalent. Moreover, despite her condescension, her great affinity for folk tale and folk culture is always present in her scholarship.”


Beckwith died at 88, in January 1959, and was laid to rest on Maui in the same Makawao cemetery where her family is buried; Annie Alexander’s grave is there, too. Her great affinity for folk tale and folk culture persisted to the end: She spent her final years traveling, collecting and classifying Hawaiian herbal remedies. She would lose herself in her work, forgetting the time and missing appointments. “She could sit for hours almost motionless except for moving a pencil or tapping a finger,” wrote Katharine Luomala, a longtime anthropologist at the University of Hawai‘i. Beckwith herself often described anthropology and folklore as a hobby because she enjoyed it so. Ever curious, she summed up her sentiments in a June 1937 New York Times book review she wrote on another folklorist’s work about the Islands. “If it is in a people’s songs that their hearts speak,” Beckwith wrote, “it is in their tales that we may best understand their life and thought.”