Tomorrow, June 11th, is a State holiday in Hawai‘i. It is Kamehameha Day, the day we celebrate the man many believe to be the greatest king ever to rule our islands.
Kamehameha the Great was king between 1782 and 1819, and he is respected most for uniting our islands, and establishing the Kingdom of Hawai‘i in 1810.
We haven’t been a monarchy for over a century now, but the legacies of our monarchs live on, their stories told with admiration and reverence — yet another way good will survive within our values; we remember our best parts, so we can share them. We also want to claim our good, being able to say, “Yes, yes, this is us, KĀKOU.”
The Kingdom of Hawai‘i: 88 years in history
Prior to 1810, the Kingdom of Hawai‘i included the inhabited islands of Oʻahu, Molokaʻi, Lānaʻi, Kahoʻolawe, Maui and Hawaiʻi (the Big Island).
The islands of Kauaʻi and Niʻihau were ruled by Kaumualiʻi, and residents there take much pride in pointing out their islands have never been conquered. King Kamehameha twice prepared a huge armada of ships and canoes to take the islands by force, and twice he failed; once due to a storm, and once due to an epidemic “which littered Kauaʻi beaches with bodies.” In the face of the threat of a further invasion, however, Kaumualiʻi decided to join the kingdom without bloodshed, and became Kamehameha’s vassal in 1810, ceding the islands to the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi upon his death in 1824.
Forty years later, Elizabeth Sinclair purchased Niʻihau in 1864 from the Kingdom of Hawai‘i for $10,000 in gold coins: Her family had sailed to the islands from the Pacific Northwest in search of a new homestead, and the Scottish homemaker, farmer and plantation owner supposedly chose Ni‘ihau over Waikīkī and Pearl Harbor! Private ownership of Niʻihau has been passed on to her descendants, the Robinson family.
Queen Lili‘uokalani was the last reigning monarch of the Hawaiian islands. She felt her mission was to preserve the islands for native residents, however she was deposed by the advocates of a Republic for Hawai‘i in 1893. She would be forced to give up her throne five years later, when Hawai‘i was annexed to the United States in 1898.
— A summary taken from several Wikipedia pages and verified with my own collection of Hawaiian history books
Held firm, by ancestry, heritage, and tradition.
Kamehameha Day has always struck me as a day when it is simply good to remember one’s own history in the islands, remembering as one can. It is NĀNĀ I KE KUMU — a way we will “look to our source.” The older I get, the more there is to remember, and to think about. There is more to tell, and more good to perpetuate.
The more interesting the history — as is the history of our monarchy — the better the story! Hearing Kamehameha’s story over and over again in my life, has caused me to think of my own life in the same way — as a story, hopefully one that my descendants will love telling in the distant future too. Lifestyle can change, and constantly will, yet sense of place has a way of staying rooted in ancestry, heritage, tradition, and our very colorful ethnicity here. We don’t replace those things as much as we add to them; they represent our abundance.
While growing up in Hawai‘i, I thought of myself as more American than Hawaiian, as I daresay most Baby Boomers in our islands do. I was born in the Territory of Hawai‘i, and was in kindergarten when my home became the 50th State, and we lived on O‘ahu then, where a more cosmopolitan lifestyle was taking root, and rapidly. When we looked toward the ocean, we’d see Pu‘uloa from our house — Pearl Harbor. “The old men” of our neighborhood wore war stories like honor badges, and would talk about the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor all the time, to impress on us what it had meant to them, and should mean to us. All us kids had a story we’d heard from our grandfathers. If asked, we were expected to tell it with reverence, no detail left out, especially one of any ‘OHANA connection.
The future raced to the moon, and waged a Cold War.
One of my clearest childhood memories is of watching my science teacher cry when John F. Kennedy was assassinated. She was a Catholic school nun, black habit and all, and I had never seen one of them cry before. I remember her saying something like, “I so want you children to visit the moon!” and I had to ask my parents what she was talking about when I got home. She never actually told us Kennedy had died, just that something very sad was happening. At first we all just stared at her, watching her cry, shocked into silence. One by one, we started to cry too, because it just seemed like the right thing to do. Even the boys teared up. She sent us out into the playground saying class was over for the day, and we stayed there until it was time to go home, but nobody played.
As my brothers and I waited for our parents to pick us up, we hoped we weren’t at war. This was a time my dad had talked about the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 — a lot. My grandmother too: She’d say that this was one of our problems in being Americans now, that we inherited bigger grudges and other fights which hadn’t started out being one of our fights. My parents would usually remind her that no one wanted to fight, and they’d send us out of the room, respecting her need to talk about it (my grandmother was a Russian immigrant).
My parents were teenagers when World War II ended, and my dad fought in the Korean War (1951-1953) before returning home to make my mom his bride. They had courted before he left: My mom would always tell us kids that our being born was their gift, that we got him to be different from his wartime struggles, and got him to be whole again, the way she once knew him, and that was what ‘OHANA did — family made you whole.
Dad served in the Viet Nam war as a civilian when I was in high school, and he relocated our entire family to Subic Bay in the Philippines to help with the war effort from there, and until the last of our American troops left Viet Nam in 1973. As you can imagine, I went kicking and screaming at the prospect of leaving all my high school friends behind, but like it or not, I was to be an American patriot same as my parents were. During my school breaks I candy-striped in the hospital on base, and I’d listen quietly to the stories of the POWs who had made it to us for care; part of my responsibilities was simply to let them talk, receiving it as well as I could. All of the kids in high school had jobs somewhere on base within the U.S. civil service program, for there would be nothing else for us to do whenever school was out of session. Subic Bay only existed for the war.
Once we graduated we were shipped home to relatives or to college. We could not stay. My parents and younger siblings would stay three years longer than I would, and while I missed them terribly, there was quite a bit home in Hawai‘i keeping good grasp on my attentions, at work, in college, and as part of the local community.
A Cultural Renaissance, round 2. Our values survive.
The Second Hawaiian Renaissance is generally considered to have started in 1970, drawing from similar cultural movements in the late 1960s and early 1970s (so-called to reference an earlier reexamination of Hawaiian arts and culture under King David Kalākaua in the late 1800s). In my own recollection of it, this Renaissance moved quite slowly and tentatively at first, and mostly flourished in Hawaiian music and dance those years. Fairly new to the country still, we largely liked being Americans, though we were increasingly careful about actually saying so out loud. What was the PONO way to do both, seize both opportunities, and be the good Hawaiian people we felt we could be?
So much turmoil. Even for me, living in Hawai‘i all my life but for that brief stint in the Philippines, and in a Hawai‘i still steeped in Renaissance thinking (a movement which has grown more fervent and certain), it is hard to imagine that we were once a monarchy, under the rule of the amazing Kamehameha the Great.
I would study more about Kamehameha as an adult, particularly in regard to leadership. How could I possibly learn about ALAKA‘I, the Hawaiian value of leadership without knowing more about Kamehameha the Great?
In Pauahi, Story of the Kamehameha Legacy, author George Hu‘eu Sanford Kanahele writes,
“No one surpasses Kamehameha the Great in leadership, historic achievement and lasting impact, or in having a transcendent vision for his people. He personified many of the qualities and skills that his people esteemed from ages past: physical prowess, fighting spirit, excellence and achievement, industry, integrity or pono, courage, discipline, wisdom and intelligence, or na‘auao. He demonstrated abiding faith in the sacred traditions, yet understood the forces of change; he brought about political stability and national unity; he maneuvered the ship of state skillfully through the turbulent seas of Western technology and commerce. Giants among men are recognized everywhere, so it is no wonder that this “Ka Liona o ka Pākīpika” or “Lion of the Pacific,” as Joseph Poepoe, the early twentieth century Hawaiian historian called him, has been ranked by foreign visitors and writers alongside Alexander the Great, Napoleon Bonaparte, and general Marquis de Lafayette.”
An exceptional accounting of King Kamehameha’s story can be read online at the Pacific Island National Parks’ site: Hawai‘i’s Greatest King, Kamehameha. Author and park ranger Greg Cunningham includes the story of how “Kamehameha might never have become king except for a twist of fate.”
Learning more will always add to a story. It becomes easier to see our heritage everywhere I look, and today, Kamehameha Day and the ways we will celebrate it is one of those reliable, and undeniably comforting times.
I do wish that all of you reading this could be here to celebrate with us. I will be outside most of tomorrow ignoring my phone and my computer, drinking in my sense of place, and enjoying this amazing place I call home. The child Kamehameha, was born only 36 miles from where I live, and you can imagine the celebration there! This is the story they proudly tell:
Kamehameha the Great fulfilled the prophecy of the birth of a male who would become the greatest of all chiefs in Hawai‘i. Kamehameha was born in the North Kohala area of Kokoiki, around 1753. Because of the prophecy, he was seen as a threat to current rulers.
Word went out to find and kill the baby, but the Kohala community conspired to save him. The future King was carried on a perilous journey through Kohala and Pololu Valley to Awini, a mountain area where he was raised until age 13. The village names of North Kohala commemorate events of that historic journey.
After he came to power, Kamehameha knew he could always count on Kohala to be loyal and help him, because they had been dedicated to him from the moment he was born.
In 1795, the prophecy came true as Kamehameha conquered the islands and united them in peace, becoming King Kamehameha I. Many Hawaiian residents in the area can trace their ancestry to the King.
North Kohala is proud of its connection to the King and reveres him as both leader and ancestor. This reverence is visible in the loving care with which the Kamehameha statue in Kapa‘au is maintained, and in the grassroots effort that creates a full day of ceremonies each Kamehameha Day.
— From Kamehameha the Great: A Rich Legacy in North Kohala