Aia i Hea ka Lāhui Hawaiʻi: The History of 19th Century Kānaka Civic Engagement

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Photo: Hema Watson

By Hema Watson, Grade 12 Hālau Kū Mana Public Charter School

Hawaiian language newspapers, moʻolelo, and other published material reveal the depth and breadth of kānaka civic engagement in the 19th century. Kānaka Maoli had to be part of law-making because they had to hold onto the sovereignty of their kingdom and survive as a lāhui kānaka with limited resources on an archipelago.

The existence of kānaka has been challenged by more than geography, however. Elements that work toward our extinction have grown more assertive through time.

To combat those elements in the 19th century, kānaka were politically savvy, taking the best of western and Hawaiian knowledge, and wielding them to stay alive. Noelani Goodyear-Kaʻōpua said, “Kānaka of the 18th and 19th centuries were active agents, negotiating turbulent periods of cultural and political change, fighting to assert our humanity, our distinctiveness, and our independence.”

Another way that kānaka stayed civically engaged was by utilizing the newspapers.

From 1834 to 1948, some 100 Hawaiian language nūpepa, the equivalent of over a million pages of typescript, were printed in Hawaiʻi. These nūpepa, which helped to preserve our history and moʻolelo, and are the backbone of contemporary research and understanding, were the mainstay of 19th-century kānaka civic engagement.

Noenoe Silva notes that kānaka used the nūpepa to “communicate, organize, and support each other over the years of struggle with the foreigners who had come to exploit their land and labor and to subjugate them, and through the traumatic years that saw a depopulation of genocidal proportions.”

Other ways that kānaka stayed civically engaged were through poʻe aloha ʻāina, such as luna makaʻāinana Joseph Nāwahī and George Washington Pilipō, even Emma Nāwahī, James Kaulia, Prince Jonah Kūhiō Kalanianaʻole, and all our mōʻī and mōʻī wāhine.

They invigorated our lāhui kānaka and forever changed the course of Hawaiian history. In particular, Kauikeaouli Kamehameha III was a visionary when it came to government reform, land law, and the preservation of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi. During his 30-year reign, he secured the necessary treaties for international powers to recognize Hawaiʻi as a sovereign nation, created the Māhele and, in turn, the Kuleana Land System, and helped to elevate the literacy of our lāhui to unprecedented levels.

As the very same koko that flowed in our kūpuna of the 19th century flows in us, so can a similar commitment to aloha ʻāina begin to take root in us and thrive! E ola mau o ka Lāhui ʻŌiwi o Hawaiʻi!


This is the first of three articles dedicated to telling the story of the past, present, and future of kānaka civic engagement in Hawaiʻi by Hema Watson.