February has been designated Mahina ‘Ōlelo Hawai‘i, Hawaiian Language Month, to honor Hawai‘i’s mother tongue. The following article highlights our rich legacy of nūpepa Hawai‘i, Hawaiian- language newspapers.
The first Hawaiian language newspaper Ka Lama Hawaii was printed on the printing press at Lahainaluna Seminary on Maui in 1834, marking the beginning of an era where the nūpepa Hawai‘i, Hawaiian language newspapers, were an important medium for dialogue and discourse in the Kingdom.
More than 100 nüpepa Hawai‘i were published between 1834 and 1948, the year when Ka Hoku o Hawaii, the last Hawaiian language newspaper of the time period, ceased publication. Scholars have noted that this body of writing amounts to more than a million pages of text.
Today, nūpepa serve as a primary source of information, capturing all aspects of life in Hawai‘i andbeyond during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Announcements of births, marriages, divorces and deaths were recorded in the nūpepa, as were political decrees and new laws. Shipping lists, deeds of ownership and legal claims were included. Also featured was serialized literature, including European tales such as “Tarzan,” “Romeo and Juliet” and “Beauty and the Beast.” These were published alongside mo‘olelo Hawai‘i: “Lā‘ieikawai” and “Keaomelemele.” Indeed, several newspapers carried the mo‘olelo of Hi‘iaka and Pele. Poetry in the form of mele inoa (name songs) and kanikau (dirges) were published, as were Christian or Hawaiian maxims and even jokes. Some of the liveliest discussions in the nūpepa are found in the letters to the editor: There was no subject off limits and it was not uncommon for conversations to be drawn out for months at a time.
The variety of topics covered by the nūpepa reflect a population deeply interested in global affairs and changing society. Foreign news, which took two weeks to arrive in Hawai‘i by ship in the 1800s, was included in almost every publication. The people of Hawai‘i were informed global citizens reading contemporary accounts of the American Civil War, the Siege of Plevna, the Russo-Turkish War of 1877 and Abraham Lincoln’s presidential election.
Most importantly, nüpepa are a repository of the diverse writings of Kānaka Maoli, who published understandings of their own history and culture. Noted contributors, such as Samuel M. Kamakau, David Malo, John Papa ‘Ī‘ī and Stephen L. Desha, would publish articles which would eventually become cornerstone publications for future generations,including Ruling Chiefs, Hawaiian Antiquities, Fragments of Hawaiian History and Kamehameha and His Warrior Kekūhaupi‘o, respectively.
Hawai‘i’s literacy rate remained high for decades in the 1800s, in large part because newspaper reading wasdeeply-rooted in daily life. Many küpuna born around the turn of the century said they learned how to read from newspapers and there are countless stories of people traveling from miles away to join with other villagers to read the newspaper. Mary Kawena Pukui tells of how her own porch served as a reading room and she would read the newspaper to the people in her village of Nā‘ālehu in Ka‘ū, Hawai‘i.
Today, we are tremendously fortunate to have our original nūpepa Hawai‘i being cared for by various archival institutions in Hawai‘i, the U.S. and around the world. Although they have been made increasingly accessible digitally at places like nupepa.org and the Papakilo Database, there is an urgent necessity to re-digitize the newspapers with technology that will improve readability, create a new image repository, and digitize and preserve nüpepa that have not yet been captured.
It is with the greatest appreciation that we thank all those who work tirelessly and sincerely to support these continued efforts in nūpepa preservation and accessibility. E ola mau ka ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i!