By Burt Lum
Scattered amongst museum shelves and forgotten archives sits a treasure trove of Hawaiian history. Much of this material is in the form of the original Hawaiian language newspapers, letters, photographs and pictures, that span nearly 114 years, from 1834 to 1948. These documents remained relatively untouched until Dr. Puakea Nogelmeier launched a movement to translate this cultural resource. It is through this repository that the Hawaiʻi EPSCoR ʻIke Wai project seeks to understand the traditional and indigenous knowledge of water.
I had the pleasure of attending a recent presentation of the Institute of Hawaiian Language Research and Translation (IHLRT) where Dr. Nogelmeier, Director of IHLRT, opens his presentation with the title: “Ka wā ma mua, ka wā ma hope: The time before helps illuminate the time now and the time to come. Using the time in the past to inform the present and the future.” He then goes on to explain the motto of the Institute, “Mahi ʻIke Hawaiʻi” or “Cultivate Hawaiian Knowledge,” a motto that guides the Institute’s efforts. He continues with a story of how the Hawaiians, upon contact with the Missionaries, saw the value of literacy and proceeded to learn and document life in Hawaiʻi during the 1820’s and onward.
The missionaries, working with the Hawaiians created an alphabet system called pīʻāpā and according to Nogelmeier, “It was so close to the spoken word that a fluent speaker in Hawaiian could read and write in a matter of 18 hours.”
The Aliʻi of the time recognized the value of this technology and the move to spread literacy across Hawaii occurred at an incredible rate. Kauikeaouli, Kamehameha III, the King of Hawaiʻi from 1825 to 1854, proclaims in 1825 when he took the throne, “He aupuni palapala koʻu. Mine will be a nation of literacy.”
Then in 1834 the printing press begins to churn out the first Hawaiian newspaper and the publishing of Hawaiian newspapers blossoms and continues uninterrupted until 1948. It is estimated that during this period over 125,000 pages of paper, each the size of a typical Wall Street Journal, was printed and the amount of text generated on each page is about four times as much as what is currently printed on the front page of the Star-Advertiser.
This is estimated to be about 1.5 million letter-size pages of historical information. The newspapers at that time were collectively embraced by the Hawaiian community as a repository of knowledge. But throughout the Territory period, the first half of the 20th century, there was a strong push to adopt English as the primary language and the Hawaiian newspapers eventually vanished.
Generations passed, Hawaiʻi became the 50th State and the Hawaiian language was nearly lost to the antiquity of time. Not until the 1970ʻs and the resurgence of Hawaiian culture and literacy did the pendulum start to swing the other way. In the 1980s, Hawaiian language immersion schools began, ensuring that a new generation of students could become native speakers.
But as Nogelmeier puts it, “Language fluency doesnʻt always equal continuity. Thereʻs a whole body of knowledge that the new learners didnʻt have access to.” This cultural knowledge resided in the 114 years of newspapers that remained in library stacks and museum collections. It was now the early 2000ʻs.
A number of projects that married technology, language and people power made most of the archival cache accessible, at least on a basic level. This progress has enabled organizations like Sea Grant and Joint Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research (JIMAR) to support text searches of historical documentation on topics like fishing techniques, coastal management, weather and climate patterns.
JIMAR, a joint institute between NOAA and the University of Hawaiʻi, funded a search for articles on weather and climate. The search identified 4000 articles in the archive.
The search was refined to the year 1871 which told of a storm that made landfall in East Hawaiʻi Island near Hilo and followed a path along the north coast of Waipio and Kohala and continued on westward through Maui and the Molokaʻi. This gave weather researcher direct evidence of a category 3 hurricane that impacted the island of Hawaiʻi.
The Hawaiian newspaper transcription work that was started at Awaiaulu and other projects now continue in a new direction at the IHLRT. IHLRT is now tasked with locating and translating historical resources and building the next generation of Hawaiian language translation scholars.
One project underway between IHLRT, the Department of Oceanography, Sea Grant and the Pacific Islands Climate Science Center (PICSC) is an effort to research El Nino climate patterns in Hawaiʻi. Kilika Bennett, a Master degree candidate at the Kawaihuelani Center for Hawaiian Language tells me, “We chose the (search terms) ʻuwīʻuwī and moiliʻi fish because like the ʻalalauā, the runnings of these fish were recorded in the newspapers and were associated with the same Hawaiian omen (namely that if an abnormal abundance of these fish were seen, it was thought to mark the coming death of an aliʻi). So we wanted to know if in a similar fashion their runs were also tied to El Nino events.”
Bennett said, “Several articles found during our searches for these fish terms also mentioned fish kills (iʻa pae) which is another indicator of El Nino events. We looked up articles for humidity (ikiiki) because El Nino in Hawaiʻi often result in wetter summers and therefore humidity during the summer is another indicator.”
The current translation process at IHLRT involves conducting a preliminary survey of the articles in the database, then mapping out the scope of the project to determine the historical and cultural context. The translation process then goes through review iterations with language mentors like Nogelmeier. Once approved, the final translation and report are conveyed to the customer, in this case SOEST and PICSC.
The Hawaiʻi EPSCoR ʻIke Wai project is also engaging IHLRT to research historical and traditional cultural reference to groundwater in the two study areas of Pearl Harbor on Oʻahu and Hualālai on Hawaiʻi Island. Two graduate researchers have been funded to review articles and other resources in the Hawaiian-language repository. Nogelmeier tells me a typical word search might include a pairing of place (ahupuaʻa) and water-word, for example Manana + pūnāwai (water spring).
By researching the historical archives, Nogelmeier says, “I think those (articles) speak to the worldview of water from the past. How do we connect that up to today and really help the science folks not be strangers in this world. It humanizes and socializes the sciences.”