I never thought I would see two of my greatest interests blended into a single show: hula and news.
But next month, hundreds of hula lovers will gather at the Hawaii Theatre to watch some of the best hula dancers in the world perform original dances and chants based on actual news stories from the more than 100 Hawaiian language newspapers.
Kumu hula Patrick Makuakāne will present the show called Ka Leo Kanaka (the Voice of the People) May 9 and 10.
Makuakāne grew up in Kaimuki where he graduated from St. Louis High School. His halau is based in San Francisco where his show about news has already played to sold-out crowds at the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre.
Makuakāne’s show honors his friend Puakea Nogelmeier’s effort to transcribe and put online the news reports from the Hawaiian language newspapers, which flourished here from 1834 until 1948.
Hawaiian language scholar Nogelmeier points out that by 1840 Hawaii was one of the most literate societies in the world, and nowhere was this love of reading more visibly played out than in the Hawaiians’ newspapers.
Hawaiians didn’t just read their newspapers, says Nogelmeier, they engaged in interactive dialogue by writing the editors countless letters to correct inaccuracies or add information to news stories. They got involved just like today’s readers of Internet news become engaged when they post their opinions in the comments sections.
Nogelmeier and his project manager, Kauʻi Sai-Dudoit have dedicated more than 10 years to their quest to digitize 75,000 pages of newsprint — fascinating reports which until now had largely been forgotten, stuffed away in archives.
The Hawaiian language news reports featured everything from detailed information about divorces (including naming the other woman the husband was seeing on the side) to beautiful, original chants honoring Kamehameha I.
Nogelmeierʻs goal is to make the Hawaiian newspapers accessible and searchable on the Internet by everyone from scholars to news hounds.
Nogelmeier is a professor of language at the University of Hawaii. He also is an award-winning songwriter and now is known to many bus riders as the voice they hear alerting them to next stop. Sai-Dudoit is a researcher, history scholar and documentary filmmaker.
Nogelmeier sees the Hawaiian newspapers as a priceless written repository of what Hawaiians were thinking as their society rapidly changed from a kingdom to a constitutional monarchy to a territory of the United States. Hawaiian language newspapers existed until 1948.
Even to this day, the early Hawaiians’ literacy remains unknown to many. Maile Meyer, the owner of Native Books/Na Mea Hawaii, says when she opened her business featuring books of interest to Hawaiians, a Hawaiian educator asked her: “Why do you want to sell Hawaiian books? Hawaiians don’t read.”
Kumu Hula Patrick Makuakāne
Nogelmeier says Hawaiians were remarkable in their eagerness to embrace reading after the New England missionaries and the Hawaiian royalty encouraged literacy.
When he took the throne in 1825, Kamehameha III urged his people to learn to read. He said. “My nation is a nation of literacy. Therefore, chiefs and commoners, you should all learn to read and write.”
It is interesting that the Hawaiian aristocrats wanted everyone to read, not just the upper classes.
Nogelmeier says Hawaiians were so enthusiastic about reading that many of them could read books upside down and sideways so they could share a the book with its owner who was reading it right side up. Printing presses of the day could not keep up with the demand for books.
Kumu hula Makuakane says he decided to help Nogelmeier by providing volunteer labor after he learned that only two percent of the native Hawaiian newspapers had been translated and published.
“Puakea and Kauʻi were so passionate about the project,” said Makuakāne. “It was infectious. I totally got it. I thought, oh my god there is so much more left to do. It isn’t even funny.”
The way the project worked was that 2,500 volunteers from all over the world signed up in 2011 to type exactly what they saw on a newspaper page into a file to be made into a searchable unit on the internet. Volunteers could type as many pages as they wanted but were not asked to translate. Because of their effort, a total of 16,000 pages were digitized and are now available online for all research projects. In addition, 59,000 pages are available online in computer typescript.
Makuakāne said he went to each of his seven hula classes and urged each dancer to help even if the dancer only had time to transcribe one page.
“I really pumped it up and the people got interested,” said Makuakāne.
His 300 dancers in San Francisco ended up transcribing 1,194 pages. That was more than any group that volunteered to help, including the entire Kamehameha Schools complex.
Makuakāne says when the dancers of his halau, Nā Lei Hulu I Ka Wēkiu, perform here next month they will be dancing and chanting stories about breaking news in old Hawaii with an especially deep understanding.
“They have been fully impacted by the new information they helped unearth when they transcribed the pages. They worked so hard on this project. They will be bringing every hour of their effort into the dances.”