Issue 15.5: October/November 2012

The People's Champion

Story by Ronald Williams, Jr.
Photo courtesy Oberlin College Archives


The flames race upward into the night sky, the intense heat wrestling with the Ohio autumn chill. The university band competes with the noise of a roaring crowd. Amid the cacophony, one young man stands quietly, thoughts drifting to a rocky beach, a schoolhouse and a tiny church more than four thousand miles away in Kohala, Hawai‘i. John Wise had left his beloved Islands two years before, traveling by steamship to San Francisco and then by train to the campus of the Oberlin Theological Seminary near Lake Erie. But on November 19, 1892, there was no place he’d rather have been: The crowd was chanting, “Wise, Wise, Wise,” in honor of his performance in an unlikely football victory over the University of Michigan Wolverines. It was the end of a dramatic Cinderella season, and John Henry Wise was at the center of it.


Newspapers noted Wise’s immense strength, reporting that he was “able to run with three men on his back without noticing the extra weight,” and referred to Wise and his fellow lineman “Jumbo” Teeters as “two of the biggest men ever seen on a football field.” Football was quickly becoming a dominant pastime on college campuses across the country, and this young Hawaiian was one of its rising stars. It was a stardom that he would carry throughout an illustrious career as a rebel, statesman and scholar.



John Henry Wise was born on July 19, 1869 in Kapa‘au, a small town at the northern tip of Hawai‘i Island, to a Hawaiian mother and a German father. He was recognized early as an exceptional student and was afforded the benefits of the best that the mission-led education system in Hawai‘i had to offer. He mastered English, rhetoric and carpentry as a resident at the Hilo Boarding School under the Rev. William B. Oleson. When Oleson was chosen as the first principal at the newly founded Kamehameha School for Boys in Honolulu, he selected Wise to be among the inaugural class of 1887 and later recommended him to Oberlin.


Wise had always been athletic and outgoing as a young man—he played left field for the champion “Kamehameha Nine” baseball squad—and at Oberlin he was recruited for their first football team in 1891, becoming likely the first Native Hawaiian to play collegiate football in America. Few of the players had any prior football experience, however, and in their first season the team struggled to win two of its four games. The 1892 season was a different story. Wise and his teammates dominated their opponents, earning the squad—and Oberlin—national recognition. Their victory over Michigan capped an undefeated season in which they twice shut out Ohio State (40-0 and 50-0) and collectively outscored their opponents 262-30.


This incredible turn of fortune was largely due to a skinny, bespectacled recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania law school. He’d planned on life in an office until a fateful accident—he was struck by lightning—left him nearly blind and unable to practice law. Looking for inspiration, he turned to football; he’d played center at Penn and wanted to try his hand at coaching. Full of new ideas, he began implementing revolutionary changes in strategy at Oberlin. Wise’s coach, Johann Wilhelm Heisman, better known as John Heisman, went on to become a legend of the game; every year since 1935 the nation’s top collegiate player has been awarded the Heisman Trophy. The 1892 football season under Heisman was an incredible experience for Wise, empowering him to face the daunting challenges that would characterize his career. His first test would be soon in coming, for John Wise had been sent to Oberlin, quite literally, on a mission.



In Hawai‘i, Native Hawaiian membership in the churches of the ‘Ahahui ‘Euanelio o Hawai‘i (Hawaiian Evangelical Association) was declining. These were the Protestant churches that had sprung up following the first American mission to Hawai‘i in 1820, and Native Hawaiians had joined them in large numbers. Now, however, a Native Hawaiian leader was needed to spark a new ‘Eaunelio Ho‘eu‘eu (Evangelistic Revival). Wise—an intelligent, well-spoken future pastor—seemed to be the perfect candidate. He had been sent to Oberlin, which at the time was a center of American evangelical revivalism, as part of his final preparations. But the mission grew complicated: The island nation that Wise left in October 1890 was very different from the Hawai‘i to which he would return almost three years later.


The young seminary graduate arrived back in Honolulu in June 1893 to a nation in turmoil. Queen Lili‘uokalani had been overthrown, and Hawai‘i was being run by an oligarchic executive council. After learning that many within his church administration had taken part in the overthrow, Wise didn’t take long to choose sides. His decision to join the resistance movement was foreshadowed in his last letter home. As he prepared to leave the school and the country where he’d spent the past three years, Wise wrote, “I love Oberlin and the idea of coming home nearly breaks my heart. I pray for her prosperity and if I could help her in the coming years, she will have my right hand. But above my love for Oberlin + America I have that love for my own Hawaii.” Soon after returning, Wise openly and actively opposed his church’s administration. The Rev. Charles Hyde declared, “John Wise, whom we have been educating at Oberlin for 3 years at a cost of over $2000, has been doing nothing but advocating restoration and associating with royalists.”


Wise became a key member of the resistance, helping plan a January 1895 attempt to restore Queen Lili‘uokalani to the throne by force. When the uprising failed, over three hundred royalists were arrested. On February 5, 1895, Wise was tried under martial law. Unlike several other detainees, he refused to testify against his compatriots and pleaded guilty to “misprision of treason”—that is, knowing of a treasonous plot and failing to inform the government. He was sentenced to three years’ hard labor. Throughout the following year, groups of Native Hawaiian women, many of them wives of the prisoners, submitted petitions for pardons and held prayer vigils outside the prison gates. The minority government, still threatened by near-constant rumors of both political and military attempts to restore the queen to power, attempted to engender goodwill by releasing groups of pio kalai ‘aina (political prisoners). Wise, though sentenced to a shorter term than many who were freed, remained behind bars. He was part of a final group of eight prisoners released on New Year’s Day 1896.


Wise settled in Honolulu, marrying Lois Kawai and starting a family that would eventually include ten children. He put his former training to use by becoming a pastor at the independent Ka Makua Mau Loa Church, but events soon drew him back into the political spotlight: In 1898 the United States annexed Hawai‘i, a controversial move many regarded as illegal. In the changing political landscape, Native Hawaiians sought to maximize their political influence, an effort Wise joined in 1900. In August of that year, in an effort to attract Native Hawaiian voters to the Democratic Party, Wise wrote in the Hawaiian-language newspaper Ke Aloha Aina, “O ka aoao Kalaiaina Kemokalaka, oia no ka aoao o Kalivilana, ke mea i hooikaika e hoihoi ia mai ka nohoalii o Hawaii nei” (The Democratic Party is the party of Cleveland, who tried to restore the Hawaiian monarchy). Ka poe Repubalika (Republicans), he wrote, were “ka poe nana i aihue ke Kuokoa o Hawaii” (the ones who had stolen Hawai‘i’s independence). As time passed and the status of second-class “territorial” citizens failed to significantly improve, Wise and many others shifted their allegiances. Wise would eventually serve in leadership positions for all three of the major political parties of the era: Independent Home Rule, Democratic and Republican, always as an advocate fighting for the rights of native people.


In 1915 Wise was elected to the Hawai‘i Territorial Senate as a Republican, and it was in this capacity that he left perhaps his greatest yet most controversial legacy. In 1919 he introduced legislation that sought to assist Native Hawaiians, whose populations had been in decline for more than a century, to become “progressively self-supporting” by setting aside lands for homesteading. He joined Prince Jonah Kuhio Kalaniana‘ole as part of a Hawai‘i Legislative Commission tasked with persuading the US Congress to enact the plan. In Washington, DC, Wise testified about the need to set aside homesteads: “The Hawaiian people are a farming people and fisherman, out-of-door people, and when they were frozen out of their lands and driven into the cities they had to live in the cheapest places, tenements. Now, the only way to save them, I contend, is to take them back to the lands and give them the mode of living that their ancestors were accustomed to and in that way rehabilitate them.” With the successful passage of the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act of 1921, two hundred thousand acres were set aside for homesteading. That land, now called Hawaiian Home Lands, remains vital to Native Hawaiian families to this day. That success came at a heavy cost, however. Because the commission had no vote in Congress and little direct political influence, Kuhio and Wise were forced to make painful concessions, including giveaways to the business interests that already dominated Hawai‘i’s economy. More significantly, the legislation defined a Hawaiian as someone with 50 percent or more Hawaiian blood; this “blood quantum” legally defined who was and was not Hawaiian, a definition that caused divisions within the Native Hawaiian community that persist to this day.



Wise retired from politics in 1925 and took up the quiet life of a farmer on Moloka‘i, where he raised pigs and grew taro. A new passion, however, soon drew him back to Honolulu. Having worked so tirelessly to shape Hawai‘i’s future, his new focus was its past. Wise was a recognized authority in a variety of traditional practices including la‘au lapa‘au (herbal medicine), ku‘i a lua (combat) and ‘olelo Hawai‘i (Hawaiian language), and he became a leader in the efforts to preserve the disappearing knowledge of his kupuna (ancestors). In 1926 Wise was hired by his alma mater, Kamehameha Schools, to head the recently founded Hawaiian-language department and lecture on Hawaiian culture. In the same year, Wise was also hired by the University of Hawai‘i as its secondever professor of Hawaiian language.


Wise died of pneumonia on August 12, 1937, at 68 years of age. His funeral services were held at Kawaiaha‘o Church, the “Church of the Ali‘i (chiefs),” in Honolulu, where two kia‘i (guards) from the Royal Order of Kamehameha stood over his body throughout the day. At a meeting soon after his death, the University of Hawai‘i, which he helped found by sponsoring the bill that created it in 1919, named the school’s athletic field Wise Field. Few recall his name on campus today; Wise Field was torn up long ago.


Wise’s life seems to present a jumble of contradictions. He was born half native and half foreign. He embraced Christianity while honoring the ancient akua (dieties). He worked diligently to master English and fought passionately to preserve his native tongue. Yet his life was a response to and a reflection of the challenges he and his people faced, challenges that exist today. In his time, John Henry Wise met these challenges head-on, embracing the future while staying rooted in the past.