Kumulipo – Part 3

#132 in the Moʻolelo series. Appropriately, I think, I began this series with a post on Kumulipo. This post is the third in a sub-series on Kumulipo – see the second post, Hoʻi I ke Kumu: Kumulipo Revisited, here.

I grew up knowing about Martha Beckwith. My mother was trained in folklore, a small academic field, and Beckwith had an endowed chair in the field at the prestigious Vassar College. As a Kumulipo scholar herself, it was only natural that my mother would look up to Beckwith, especially since she was extremely knowledgable across Pacific island cultures. But in her American Quarterly article “Moʻokūʻauahu vs. Colonial Entitlement in English Translations of the Kumulipo,” Brandy Nālani McDougall casts some doubt on Beckwith’s translation and even suggests that, in its undercurrents, it is a project of colonial erasure.

By comparing the two translations, McDougall suggests we can better understand the meaning behind the oli that is so central to Hawaiian culture. As a widely-published poet, McDougall is well-situated to this task – her book is entitled Finding Meaning. McDougall, quoting Liliʻuokalani’s commentary on her own translation, suggests that:

Rather than articulate political reasons for the translation, Lili‘uokalani emphasizes Indigenous historical and cultural preservation as her motives:

There are several reasons for the publication of this work, the translation of which pleas- antly employed me while imprisoned by the present rulers of Hawaii. . . . The folk-lore or traditions of an aboriginal people have of late years been considered of inestimable value; language itself changes, and there are terms and allusions herein to the natural history of Hawaii, which might be forgotten in future years without some such history as this to preserve them to posterity. Further, it is the special property of the latest ruling family of the Hawaiian Islands.

Liliʻuokalani in McDougall, 2015.
Queen Lili’uokalani

McDougall conducted background research on Beckwith herself, and found (and this was unknown by myself and presumably to my mother as well) that Beckwith had an academic chair funded secretly by the Alexander family, one of whom was a close friend. The Alexanders, of the Big 5 company Alexander and Baldwin, are implicated by their benefitting directly in the post-overthrow regime. W.D. Alexander wrote what became a standard Hawaiian history text in the Kingdom, then turned around and rewrote the history, “backstabbing” his previous employers Kalākaua and Kamehameha V, in my view. But Beckwith is also connected with Lorrin A. Thurston, and so becomes more suspect.

McDougall goes on:

Without access to Lili‘uokalani’s translation, Beckwith’s translation and commentary go unchallenged and unchecked by non-speakers of ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i, which at this time includes the majority of Kānaka ‘Ōiwi who have been products of English- dominant schools for nearly five generations. To the degree that readers are put in the position of relying on Beckwith, they are distanced from the politically resistant spirit of Lili‘uokalani’s translation and from seeing how the Kumulipo underscores Hawaiian sovereign governance amid the Hawaiian movement for independence.

Brandy Nālani McDougall, American Quarterly, 2015.

Undertaking a difficult project of locating resistance in a translation, McDougall found the following surprising line:

Though I did not find many overtly political references within Lili‘uokalani’s translation, there is one excerpt, which more than others, that blatantly reflects Lili‘uokalani’s anger and her positionality as a dispossessed sovereign. Later in the fifth w ̄a, Lili‘uokalani translates the following passage from the original Kal ̄akaua version:

Hanau ke Po‘owa‘awa‘a, he wa‘awa‘a kona Hanau ke Po‘opahapaha, he pahapaha laha Hanau ke Po‘ohiwahiwa, he hiwahiwa luna Hanau ke Po‘ohaole, he haole kela

Hanau ke Po‘omahakea, he keakea ka ‘ili

The Poowaawaa was born, his head was uneven.
The Poopahapaha was born, his head was flat and spread. The Poohiwahiwa was born, he appeared noble.
The Poohaole was born, he became a haole (foreigner). The Poomahakea was born, his skin was fair.

Born were the peaked-heads, they were clumsy ones

Born were the flat-heads, they were braggarts

Born were the angular-heads, they were esteemed

Born were the fair-haired, they were strangers

Born were the blonds, their skin was white

McDougall, 2015.
The Kumulipo: A Hawaiian Creation Chant by Martha Beckwith

This line evokes the accounts of Hawaiians at the time of Cook’s arrival, that they had “angular heads … white skin.” The translation of Kumulipo was done while Liliʻu was imprisoned in ʻIolani Palace, and thus must have been an act of resistance. But Liliʻu is nothing if not subtle and gracious and as with her autobiography, finding such resistance is not as easy as one would think.

McDougall ends with a modern interpretation of Kumulipo – a poem of the same name by Jamaica Heoli Osorio, a former student of mine and daughter of Jonathan Kamakawiwoʻole Osorio, Dean of the Hawaiʻinuiakea School of Hawaiian Knowledge at UH Mānoa. While reading the poem “Kumulipo” for Barack and Michelle Obama at the White House in 2009. Osorio:

begins with the devastating question, “What happens to the ones forgotten?” and continues:

the ones who shaped my heart from their rib cages
i want to taste the tears in their names
want to trace their souls into my vocal chords so that I can feel related again because i have forgotten my father’s own grandparents’ middle names forgotten what color thread god used to sew me together with

Using a lowercase to humble herself in relation to her ku ̄puna in the poem, Osorio illustrates how in a colonized space where genealogies are not valued and preserved, there is always the threat of forgetting.

Osorio in McDougall, 2015.

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