Ka Wai Ola

Review by Umi Perkins

The Power of the Steel-Tipped Pen
The Power of the Steel-Tipped Pen: Reconstructing Native Hawaiian Intellectual History
Noenoe K. Silva
Duke University Press, 2017

University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa Professor Noenoe Silva was my dissertation advisor and because of this I was aware of her long-term project, which was to map the contours of Hawaiian political thought in the late nineteenth century. In doing this work, she finds two writers to be instructive: Joseph Ho‘ona‘auao Kanepu‘u and Joseph Mokuohai Poepoe. Silva wastes no time in explaining her project. The first sentence in the book states: “the main purpose of this book is to further the project of mapping Kanaka Hawai‘i (Native Hawaiian) intellectual history.”

Much is made today of the need to read, translate, and most importantly, absorb the massive, and mainly untouched, archive of Hawaiian language newspapers. But this is a daunting task, like looking at the ocean one drop at a time. So it was in an earlier work – an article Silva wrote in The Hawaiian Journal of History with Iokepa Badis – that she created a framework within which to begin looking at the Hawaiian language newspapers. Silva and Badis cataloged the most prolific Hawaiian writers of the heyday of Hawaiian literature and the newspapers in which they wrote, organized by their political bent (some newspapers were written in Hawaiian but reflected a missionary or government viewpoint).

Photo: Noenoe Silva
Prof. Noenoe K. Silva

In the forward to Silva’s book, by the eminent and revolutionary Kenyan scholar Ngugi wa Thiongo, who gained renown among Hawaiian intellectuals for his idea of “decolonizing the mind,” he writes “the excavation of the intellectual history produced in the [Hawaiian] language is an integral part of the struggle for its continued being.”

Silva shows that, despite a consensus at the time that the race would go extinct, nineteenth and early twentieth century Hawaiian scholars were deeply aware of the effect of their work on Hawaiians in the future. Using what Silva terms “mo‘okū‘auhau consciousness,” Kanepu‘u had the astounding insight that “generations of Hawaiians in 1870, 1880, 1890 and 1990 are going to want [these mo’olelo and mele].” Kanepu‘u was looking ahead specifically to our time! Poepoe was likewise engaged in this work, looking ahead to future generations:

“In the early twentieth century, Poepoe could see the ongoing construction of what Ngugi wa Thiongo calls the cultural bomb being built before his eyes. The ‘psychological violence of the classroom’ was in full view and Poepoe was trying to defuse the bomb.”

Poepoe was from Honolulu, attended Ahuimanu (Saint Louis) and knew French, Latin and Hebrew. He established a school and then became a lawyer in a renaissance fashion typical of the Hawaiian intellectual elites in the nineteenth century. What set Poepoe apart from his contemporaries, in the end, was that after opposing the Bayonet Constitution (which stripped King Kalakaua and later Queen Lili‘iuokalani of political power) he supported annexation. Poepoe was virtually alone among his class in this, and he pleaded with others of his set to form an association that would “put the annexation fight behind them and work together for the good of the native people.” He asked why other educated Hawaiians like John Kaulukou, James Kaulia, Robert Wilcox and others couldn’t put their differences aside.

Joseph Kanepu‘u was born in 1824 on Moloka‘i. Silva seems to find it strange that he did not attend Lahainaluna with his mission school classmates, but he did receive a teaching certification upon moving to O’ahu. Kanepu‘u wrote for Ka Hae Hawaii, Ka Hoku o ka Pakipika and other newspapers. Unfortunately, he seems to have been shamed into silence in his last few years by commentators who claimed to know more than he.

Silva became well-known for uncovering the petitions against annexation – often called the “Kū‘ē Petitions” – a century after annexation. This find changed the narrative of Hawaiian complacency in the face of annexation, and showed that contrary to the view that Hawaiians did nothing to oppose it, they acted both violently (in the “counter-revolution” of 1895) and nonviolently to register their opposition. While about 700 Hawaiians took up arms, the vast majority resisted through nonviolence. This was documented in Silva’s first book Aloha Betrayed: Native Hawaiian Resistance to American Colonialism. In her new book, Silva notes that the government Nupepa Kuokoa was silent on the petitions.

Silva concludes “I hope this work will encourage other, similar studies recovering and analyzing our remarkable intellectuals. Kanepu‘u’s era has so far been almost entirely overshadowed by Samuel Kamakau’s extensive accomplishments. But Kamakau was only one of hundreds of Kanaka writers.” She also notes that thousands have received an education in Hawaiian studies and language and it is unacceptable to continue to writing histories of our people without attending to this archive. It remains for us to delve into this archive and continue the process of uncovering our history, which has been obscured by over a century of suppression.