WASHINGTON — Funny how history creeps up on you.
It has been some 40 years since a movement brought about a renewed focus on Hawaiian language and music, hula, ocean wayfaring, discussions of Hawaiian identity and sovereignty, and reclaiming sacred land like the island of Kahoolawe.
People called it the movement, the struggle, the Hawaiian Renaissance.
Leading academics now say Hawaii is past due for major exhibits and collections to record and preserve photos, documents, letters to newspaper editors, filmed footage, T-shirts and other artifacts from that era and the contemporary sovereignty movement it spurred.
“It’s been a generation since this renaissance has happened, and you have a new generation now coming forward and assuming leading roles in the community and business and politics,” said Davianna McGregor, one of the founding members of the University of Hawaii’s Ethnic Studies Department. “So much of what we have now in terms of a flourishing language, Kahhoolawe itself being rescued, even accomplishments in the political realm, entitlements that Hawaiians have recognized in terms of access rights — the new generation takes it for granted because they haven’t gone through the struggle to gain these rights, to have the culture be recognized.”
As a member of the Protect Kahoolawe Ohana, McGregor challenged the military’s use of the island for live-fire training. Even as war protests were organized across the country, it was a time when standing up to the federal government — a major source of revenue and employment in the state — was discouraged in Hawaii.
“When we started, people were still remembering people who had challenged the military or were accused of being communists or were red-baited and ostracized, and there was still that kind of stigma to being an activist,” McGregor said. “Coming out of a very conservative Cold War era to challenge the military industrial complex was to set yourself outside of the dominant norm. It wasn’t easy.”
There are some ways in which aspects of the Hawaiian Renaissance are already being formally remembered. The Smithsonian had a temporary exhibit about Kahoolawe that passed through Hawaii museums about a decade ago. Bishop Museum’s renovated Hawaiian Hall has a small section devoted to Hawaii’s modern cultural renaissance. The University of Hawaii’s Hamilton Library is collecting archival materials from Kekuni Blaisdell, a leading figure in the sovereignty movement. Neither UH nor Bishop Museum provided interviews for this article.
But even these earnest attempts amount to “not very much” compared with the scope and impact of the movement itself, said Jonathan Osorio, a Hawaiian studies professor at UH.
“There really isn’t anything that looks at this as an important kind of series of events or epoch, and certainly nothing approaching a collection that you could name,” Osorio said. “It’s the question of people basically suddenly realizing how important it is. If you look for instance, Australia museums have already now begun exhibits on the stolen generation efforts (to forcibly remove Aborigine children from their families) that were conducted by the Australian government and the eventual apology. That (2008) apology was really recent, yet they have that archive and they have those displays all ready to go. It’s just a question of what you value.”
Sen. Daniel Akaka was a young boy in Hawaii in the late 1920s and early 1930s, an era when his Hawaiian heritage was seen as something to be hidden and forgotten.
“When I was growing up, we didn’t have the Hawaiian language in Hawaii schools,” Akaka said. “My parents spoke Hawaiian but I was discouraged from learning it. They thought that I should learn English the best I can, and not Hawaiian. There was a stigma associated with being a Hawaiian during my childhood.”
Decades later, Akaka — whose as yet unsuccessful attempts to pass federal Hawaiian-recognition legislation has made him a controversial figure in the sovereignty movement — watched his own children’s connection to their ancestral culture blossom in the 1970s.
“Things were so different,” Akaka said. “Culture became celebrated, so one of my sons, Danny, took advantage of those opportunities. Today he is fluent in Hawaiian and teaches visitors and residents alike about Hawaiian history and culture… I think of (slack-key guitarist) Gabby Pahinui and those groups that really brought it on so that today there are so many young people who are interested, and who are playing Hawaiian type of music. Another son of mine, Alan, is at a Hawaiian school in Hawaii, teaching steel guitar.”
Akaka said it is critical to “remember, preserve and celebrate” the modern renaissance in Hawaii, and at least one director at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., agrees with him. Franklin Odo, chief of the library’s Asian Division, grew up in Hawaii. He points to the library’s limited collections related to contemporary Hawaiian history as one of its major deficiencies — not just with regard to the Hawaiian Renaissance, but also the period that preceded it. After all, in order to fully appreciate the movement, one must also understand what led to it.
“Labor unions, sugar stuff, business, entrepreneurial history,” Odo said in an interview with Civil Beat. “The haole oligarchy. How do you get a small minority of people who manage to retain control over such a long period of time? All of it. Collecting archives that deal with the sovereignty movement or the Hawaiian Renaissance from the ’70s to the present.”
Odo acknowledges the irony of the federal government’s library housing a collection of materials that record, in part, the United States role in overthrowing the Hawaiian Kingdom.
“It’s Congress that did it!” Odo said. “But I think, you know, otherwise it’s going to disappear.”
UH’s Osorio agrees, and points out that despite Hawaii’s complex relationship with the United States, even those who want to restore Hawaii as an independent nation understand the library’s value. For example, it was the U.S. National Archives that housed historically invaluable petitions showing that tens of thousands of Hawaiian people opposed Hawaii’s annexation to the United States in the late 1890s. Those petitions were rediscovered in the archives a century after they were drafted.
“Honestly, I think that everybody sort of understands that one of the really huge boosts to the movement came as the result of a discovery of the petitions that were held there,” Osorio said. “Had they not held them, we wouldn’t have those today.”
The question is: Which institution is the best equipped to handle and preserve materials from the modern Hawaiian Renaissance? While local access to the collections is essential, national institutions like the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian have more resources and arguably better protections than many Hawaii institutions — recall the heavy rains that have caused water damage to books at Hamilton Library in recent years, for example.
There is also a relative dearth of Hawaii and Asia Pacific American histories portrayed in national institutions (it was just two months ago that the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery unveiled its first-ever major exhibit of contemporary Asian American portraiture).
“It’s really important to have folks really paying attention to this at places like the National Archives or the Smithsonian, the Library of Congress,” said Odo. “So we have lots of catching up to do.”
Osorio pointed out that, in cases where Hawaiian history does appear in institutions outside of Hawaii, there is also a significant amount of correcting that needs to be done.
“In an attempt to see Hawaii as this place where native people once had a thriving and wonderful and almost heathenistic kind of existence that got replaced by the United States, it’s almost always simplistic,” Osorio said. “I think the vast majority of people in the world have no clue that we actually built our own democratic government with voting and legislatures and everything, and that’s what the United States took, not some idyllic little paradise in the middle of the sea.”
One recent example is the Smithsonian’s proposal to include Hawaii in a story of native peoples at the Museum of the American Indian.
“What I pointed out was (that) something like that doesn’t belong in the Museum of the American Indian because we’re not Indian,” Osorio said. “If the Smithsonian really wanted to capture what was actually valuable about the American possession of Hawaii, they should really look a the social movements that have been a part of this place since we were a territory. I think the things they should really memorialize in an American museum (are) the incredible labor movements that basically resulted in the rise of the Democratic party in the 1950s, the sovereignty movement over the last 30 or 40 years here.”
One of the challenges, UH’s McGregor says, is also to catalogue history without dismissing an ongoing and evolving cultural movement as “over.”
“The concern is not just forgetting it but relegating it to some archive,” McGregor said. “The attitude of, ‘Oh yeah, it’s an artifact of history now. It’s all well and good what you guys did but what it takes to manage an island is different than what it takes to manage a struggle to stop the bombing.'”
The fact that Hawaii’s cultural struggle, though evolved, continues, is also part of the reason that many of those with firsthand knowledge of the renaissance say they haven’t stopped to formally reflect on it.
“There’s so much that still challenges the ongoing revival for the culture and the protection of sacred places,” McGregor said. “That’s why it’s important to retell. Realizing that some of the same challenges are there, just more subtle, not as blatant, more insidious, the way Hawaii’s resources are being co-opted. So it’s like, what are the lessons learned? How are those lessons relevant to having Hawaii be really a sustainable place and keeping Hawaii Hawaiian. I don’t mean just for Hawaiian people but the quality of Hawaii is Hawaiian — the culture, the people, the resources.”