When it comes to artistic expression on the islands of Hawaii the first thing that many people think of is hula dancing and extravagant luau feasts. But, what many people don’t know is that the Aloha Islands have a history rich in the art of storytelling, which has helped to shape the literary developments that are so prominent in current culture of the islands.
Power of Words
To the Polynesians who first inhabited the Hawaiian islands, knowledge was a sacred spiritual power, or a manifestation of mana, that had to be protected from all but those who were considered worthy to use it. For this reason, the Polynesians didn’t develop a written language for fear that the power of knowledge would spread uncontrollably to the common people, who would misuse it.
In the past, Hawaiians believed that words held a spiritual power all their own, which transmit knowledge. The kahuna pule, or high priests, would pray for spiritual guidance, which would only be granted if the words were delivered perfectly. The Hawaiians believed that as long as words were only spoken, then their powers could be limited to a chosen few. But, if words were written their mana would be available to anyone.
The Hawaiians changed their beliefs about literacy with arrival of Western culture on the islands. Soon, the Hawaiian chiefs discovered that being able to read would help them to better understand the power of the foreign culture that was arriving on their islands. The Christian missionaries who arrived in Hawaii in 1820 established schools throughout the islands which the native islanders were required to attend. By 1828, around 37,000 islanders had learned how to read, and education and learning had become celebrated throughout the islands, with graduation being a time of great festivity. With two-fifths of the population educated by 1834, it was believed that Hawaii had the highest literacy rate in the world at that time period.
Famous Hawaiian Authors
With the rise of literacy throughout the Hawaiian Islands, many authors with roots in the islands have emerged into the literary world. Here are some of Hawaii’s most popular authors, all of whom have made invaluable contributions to Hawaiian literature:
Kiana Davenport – born in Honolulu, HA; wrote novels that explored aspects of life as a Polynesian in Western society
Tara Bray Smith – was born in Hawaii; wrote several article about the islands
Lois-Ann Yamanaka – a Japanese American poet born in Molokai, HA; wrote literary works concerning Asian-American families and the local culture of Hawaii
Because words contained so much power in the Hawaiian culture, oration was an important part of the islands’ literary history. Before the Hawaiians made use of the written word, the islanders used oratory performances to recount the historical events, as well as to relay stories and poems. Storytelling, or kukahekahe, and oratory, ha’i’okeki, were performed for entertainment, as well as religious ceremonies, to relay family history, to praise chiefs and rulers. Hawaiian chiefs would hold formal meetings, during which orators would come and perform courtly addresses, giving praise to the chief. This often took place before the giving of gifts, which along with the oration of high praise, could be a way for the gift giver to apologize.
Entertainment was also a reason to give elaborate orations. The skilled orators and poets would perform for the communities, speaking of heroic feats of the past. The skill of an storyteller was marked by his ability to precisely relay the story without omitting any detail, and the audiences could be very critical. Master orators were able to speak for hours at a time, adding dramatic creativity to their word-perfect performances.
The extent of the memorization and recitation may be inconceivable to some, especially stories like those of the legendary Kamapua’a, which required sixteen hours of exact recital. After the Christian missionaries began exposing the people to religion and literacy, they were awed by some of the Hawaiians who could recite whole books of the Bible shortly after learning how to read.
Because much of Hawaiian history and literature relied on the memorized spoken word of the kahuna, who acted as living libraries, much of Hawaiian history has been lost. But, with the introduction of literature to the islands, the mana of words has increased beyond what the early Polynesians could have imagined, creating an eternal link to Hawaii’s rich and fascinating history.