This month’s columnist is my nephew, ʻUmi Perkins, PhD, who teaches Hawaiian history at the Kamehameha Schools and Political Science at the University of Hawaiʻi.
“If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about the answers.” — Thomas Pynchon
On August 6th, 1843, the newspaper Ka Nonanona reported on the ending of the five-month overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom:
I ka la 26 o Iulai, ku mai la ka moku Manuwa Beritania, Dublin kona inoa. O
Rear Adimarala Thomas ke Alii. He alii oia maluna o na moku Manuwa Beritania a pau ma ka moana Pakifika nei. I ka loaa ana ia ia ka palapala no Capt. Haku George Paulet, ma ka moku Vitoria, a lohe pono oia, ua kau ka hae o Beritania ma keia pae aina, holo koke mai no ia e hoihoi mai
ke aupuni ia Kamehameha III. Nani kona aloha mai i ke alii, ea!
On the 26th day of July, a British battleship anchored here; Dublin was its
name. The captain [Alii] was Rear Admiral Thomas. He is the head [alii] of
the British Pacific fleet. In his taking of the documents of Capt. Lord George Paulet of the ship Victoria, he listened fairly [to how Paulet] raised the flag of Britain in this archipelago, [and] decided quickly to return the government to Kamehameha III. Amazing is the love of the alii for [the] sovereignty [ea]!
It was at this time that Kauikeaouli (Kamehameha III) made the statement that became the Kingdom’s motto: “Ua mau ke ea o ka ʻāina i ka pono,” or “The sovereignty of the land is perpetuated in righteousness.” It is obvious that Kauikeaouli’s statement is about the return, or perpetuation, of sovereignty. How is it that most people came to think that this saying, now the state motto, was merely a poetic statement about the “life of the land?”
The field in philosophy called “epistemology” deals with the question “how do you know what you know?” This is a question we should all be asking ourselves when it comes to Hawaiian history, because it is this history that tells us how we got where we are as a society. In 1922, the California historian Ralph Kuykendall came to Hawaiʻi tasked with writing Hawaiʻi’s history. The best-known of his works is The Hawaiian Kingdom, three volumes covering 1778 to 1894. While he was diligent (it took the better part of thirty years), Kuykendall did not have a doctoral degree and could not speak Hawaiian. He thus did not reference any of the 100 Hawaiian language newspapers, some of which were still in print in his day. As Professor Noenoe Silva shows, in doing this he missed critical aspects of Hawaiian resistance against the overthrow and annexation.
As a Hawaiian history teacher, I often wonder how people in Hawaiʻi learned their history, because there are serious structural problems in the delivery of Hawaiian history in schools. To name only one example, to become a certified Social Studies teacher, you’d have to pass the Praxis test, which is very demanding in a number of topics, none of which is Hawaiian history. So if a teacher was able to pass that test, it’s unlikely – not impossible, but unlikely – that they would have a deep knowledge of Hawaiian history. And the reverse is also true: if you spent your time learning Hawaiian history, as a young teacher you’d be hard-pressed to pass that test. Structural problems such as these result in a society that really doesn’t know, and thus has not come to terms with, its own history.