Note/preface: The Volcano Art Center in Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park is hosting NIUHI-SHARK, a fine art exhibit February 16 – March 24. This exhibit honors Kamehameha The Great in both paint and prose with original paintings created by Carl F.K. Pao, paired with selections from the book Kamehameha–The Rise of a King by Kāwika Eyre. In the following piece, the author reflects on the significance of Kamehameha’s life, as well as our stories:
2019 marks the 200th year of the death of Kamehameha the Great. His beloved wife Kaʻahumanu is said to have tattooed the exact date on her arm: May 8, 1819.
The ʻai kapu was broken in 1819, which freed men and women to eat together. Later that same year, Chief Kekuaokalani-Kamehameha’s nephew who had been entrusted with the great god Kūkāʻilimoku by his uncle-fell with his wife Mānono on the battlefield at Kuamoʻo, in a last and valiant attempt to defend the gods and kapu system that foundational to Hawaiian life from time immemorial. 2019 is thus a year of reflection and emotion.
The commemorative exhibit will feature Carl’s artwork paired to key excerpts from the book. His paintings will provide the visual base line experience of the event. Original drawings created for the stories by artist Brook Parker will also be exhibited with the prose, providing a fascinating contrast between two artists who are very different in their styles. On April 8, the exhibit will move to the East Hawaiʻi Cultural Center for Merrie Monarch Week, a bustling time for a usually sleepy Hilo.
Why, you might ask, use paint and prose to honor Kamehameha the Great? Carl and I will answer in a heartbeat: Because paint and prose are the pillars of our stories!
As Kamehameha is depicted to say at the end of Kamehameha–The Rise of a King and his final thoughts to his people: “It is by our stories that we live! Without them we grow blind, we grow deaf, and finally we die in despair. Tell our stories over and over. They hold our dreams and our destiny. And stories untold will never be told again.”
In addition to the artwork and prose excerpts, the events will feature appropriate protocol and panel discussions presenting different perspectives on the life of Kamehameha, in particular his complex relationship with the Kaʻū chief Keōua, who often ends up holding the short stick of history. Paint and prose, protocol and conversations then can provide cultural, historical and educational experiences-and a hope for healing.
Some backstory on that last sentence: when I started teaching at Kamehameha in 1989, I was stunned one morning when, mentioning a Kamehameha feat to my 10th graders, I was met with a low moan of boos from the back row. I sat down and we talked. Turned out these were all boarding students from Kaʻū. Young men who were the descendants of rugged Kaʻū warriors. They had grown up with stories about their beloved chief Keōua–cousin, rival and, by their account, victim of the very Kamehameha I was just acclaiming. I soon learned from my students that they knew next to nothing of the very chief whose name his great-granddaughter Pauahi had bestowed upon our beloved school, and whose great feats had provided the economic basis for their education. This was, of course, no fault of theirs. It is the responsibility of teachers and school administrators to provide appropriate and relevant school curriculum.
As I now review that experience, I am reminded of several quotes that later came my way and confirmed that all schools in occupied Hawaiʻi were, and to some extent still are, teaching colonized content. These quotes are forever imprinted in my mind and provide fuel for the work I do as a teacher:
Nainoa Thompson, said to Kū‘ē Pono leadership students at KS-Kapālama in 2011, “Hawaiians were not expected to succeed. They were expected to fail. And that expectation became part of who I was… I grew up wounded, hurt, conflicted about the larger role and its disconnect and devaluing of things Hawaiians. That created rage. I primarily saw it in schools. My K-12 education led me nowhere to understand my past or my history or my culture.”
Sam Kaʻai said in Hawaiki Rising, “Hawaiians knew something was wrong. They knew that Hawaiian kids were okay until the third grade and all of a sudden in the fourth grade when they started to teach them social history and they started to collapse and not make it. Because some guy in a silk stocking and powdered wig is not the father of OUR country. Because Daniel Boone is not OUR hero. We had our heroes, but nobody was singing about Hawaiian heroes. Everybody was singing of some other hero. So you did not belong to that society.”
With that manaʻo and the boos of my students in mind, I began to write, joining with so many other practitioners: navigators, dancers, chanters, farmers, speakers of Hawaiian, artists, paddlers, kumu of our keiki and many more–all who were working to reclaim Hawaiian knowledge and the stories of this land. Increasingly, our children reflect this renewal of knowledge.
Now, in most classrooms, our haumāna know what a kōlea is. They know the names of our aliʻi, the stories of our wahi pana, our sacred places. They are growing kalo and learning to kuʻi. They are singing the songs of this place and these heroes, in the first language of this land, including all three verses of Hawaiʻi Ponoʻī, whose refrain reminds us to defend Kamehameha “me ka ihe”—with the spear. The spear of paint and prose.
David Kāwika Eyre taught Hawaiian language at Kamehameha Schools for 23 years and has authored seven books. His book Kamehameha—The Rise of a King won a Palapala Po‘okela Award for excellence in Hawaiian culture, a Nēnē Book Award, a Moonbeam Children’s Book Award and a Read Aloud America selection award.
> February 15: Hale Hoʻomana Volcano Arts Center opening
> February 16-March 24: Exhibit at Volcano Art Gallery
> April 6-28: Exhibit at East Hawai‘i Cultural Center in Hilo
> May 4-5: Exhibit in Honolulu at Hawai‘i Book and Music Festival