Native Intelligence: O‘ahu

In Their Own Words

Story by Lurline Wailana McGregor. Photos by Elyse Butler.

In the summer of 1822, the kuhina nui, or regent, of the Hawaiian Islands, Ka‘ahumanu, wrote a letter to her niece, Kamāmalu, who was then the queen of the kingdom. “Ua makemake makou ike ao palapala mamuli paha akamai,” wrote Ka‘ahumanu in elegant cursive. “We want literacy, it may make us wise.” Ka‘ahumanu penned the letter only two years after Protestant missionaries arrived in Hawai‘i, intent on spreading Christianity. The missionaries wanted Hawaiians to be able to read the Bible and, with the help of Hawaiian scholars, created a written Hawaiian language in a year and a half. The ali‘i (leaders) quickly saw the value of literacy and embraced it. Throughout the nineteenth century, all across the Hawaiian kingdom, the written word prevailed; many thousands of documents from the time have been preserved, including some two hundred letters that chiefs and monarchs wrote to missionaries between 1822 and 1887. But those documents have, until now, been locked away in archives.

Three years ago the organization Awaiaulu began work on a project to change that. Awaiaulu exists to bring Hawaiian historical knowledge into the present; it is the driving force behind the movement to preserve and promote the Hawaiian-language newspapers. Awaiaulu collaborated with the Hawaiian Mission Houses to digitize, transcribe, translate and annotate the ali‘i’s letters to the missionaries. Copies of all of the letters are now online, each with an English translation. Some thirty-five ali‘i are represented, some of them very well known(King Kalākaua and Queen Lili‘uokalani), others not so much (‘Umiokalani, Kana‘ina).

“We often tell history without looking at what Hawaiians said in their own words,” says Awaiaulu’s executive director, Puakea Nogelmeier, who directed the work of the translators. “It’s not that the history is wrong, it’s that it can be only a fraction, and these letters flesh it out.”

Hilina‘i Sai-Dudoit, a 17-year-old senior at the Hawaiian immersion school Ke Kula O Nāwahīokalani‘opu‘u, was a student intern and the youngest translator on the project. “Reading what they wrote was a real eye-opener,” she says. “You feel more connected to them when you read their words rather than just hearing their stories.”