On Being Hawaiian: John Dominis Holt

#108 in the Moʻolelo series

In 1964, John Dominis Holt wrote “On Being Hawaiian,” the essay that catalyzed the nascent Hawaiian movement. In it, he grapples with his “sense of self” (the name of a chapter in his book Recollections):

Statistically I am part-Hawaiian; although I was reminded one night at a dinner party by a charming, mathematically astute lady, who descends from two prominent early missionary couples, that I am actually three-eighths Hawaiian by blood. All four of my grandparents were part-Polynesian …

 I am, in depth, a product of Hawaii–an American, yes, who is a citizen of the fiftieth State, but I am also a Hawaiian; somewhat by blood, and in large measure by sentiment. Of this, I am proud.

John Dominis Holt, “On Being Hawaiian”
The “Pacific lit set” 1983 – John Dominis Holt, center, Leialoha Apo Perkins to his right (with lei poʻo), Albert Wendt far right of picture (with lei), also pictured: Imaikalani Kalāhele, Joe Balaz, Wayne Westlake (with cap), Haunani Bernadino. This photo by Mark Hamasaki appears in the book Westlake, a collection of Wayne Westlake’s groundbreaking poems, edited by the poet Richard Hamasaki.

My mother knew Holt and was part of what could be called the “Pacific lit (literature) set.” Like Holt, she tried to blend the best of what both Hawaiian and Western cultures had to offer. In “A Sense of Self” (in Recollections) Holt grapples with this ambiguity:

David Malo irritated me greatly. In a course at Roosevelt High School I was introduced to Malo, Kepelino and Fornander (Kamakau had not yet been translated). I instinctively found Malo to be narrow in his views and limited in his understanding. He seemed to lack the aliʻi touch to be a true scholar of Hawaiʻi [! emphasis mine!].

John Dominis Holt, 1993, 199-200.

In other words, Holt was high brow. In a chapter entitled “Fort Street,” he spends much of the column inches on the opulent Holt estate in arid Mākaha (which I wrote about in Wahi Pana: Waiʻanae). Holt’s critique is elitist, and I wonder if he knew that Malo was a kaukau aliʻi? But Holt is not crazy, he of course had the presence of mind to see that Malo offered something nearly unprecedented as a bridge to the past:

There are marvelous composites of information in Hawaiian Antiquities dealing with many aspects of the old culture. In some respects, Malo is our greatest link to the past. But during that period of my life, opera intrigued and inspired me even more than my Hawaiian past[! again, emphasis mine!]

Holt, 1993, 200.

Holt was no sovereigntist*, although he had direct family connections with the royal families of Hawaiʻi as well as several European monarchies. He carries the name of Liliʻuokalani’s husband, the Royal Consort and Governor of Oʻahu John O. Dominis. Keep in mind that he was writing in 1964, when the question was not one of Hawaiian independence (or Federal recognition), but of the very survival of the lāhui.

Holt has been called the greatest Hawaiian writer of the twentieth century by Tom Coffman. His novel Waimea Summer was one of the only books to combine references to Greece, opera and pidgin. It captures paniolo culture and a bygone era. The Poetry Foundation recognized Holt’s contribution:

John Dominis Holt is recognized as one of the leading voices of the mid-century “Hawaiian Renaissance.” Descended from Hawaiian royalty and European ancestors, Holt navigated the competing claims of pedigree and genealogy in postcolonial Hawaii…

Poetry Foundation

Holt, who was blond as a child, struggled somewhat with his ethnic identity. This is most clearly shown in his short story “The Pool” about encounters at Kawela Bay and building his sense of Hawaiian identity diving with a Hawaiian mentor. Drawing on Holt’s reflections on sense of self, Brandon Ledward wrote “On Being Hawaiian Enough” (Hūlili, 2007):

*Or was he? An even greater shift toward Hawaiian identity could be surmised in the changing of the name of his publishing firm from Topgallant to Kū Paʻa Publishing.

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