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Ancestry of Experience

A Journey into Hawaiian Ways of Knowing

Leilani Holmes

Publication Year: 2012

As Hawaiians continue to recover their language and culture, the voices of kupuna (elders) are heard once again in urban and rural settings, both in Hawai‘i and elsewhere. How do kupuna create knowledge and “tell” history? What do they tell us about being Hawaiian? Adopted by a Midwestern couple in the 1950s as an infant, Leilani Holmes spent much of her early life in settings that offered no clues about her Hawaiian past—images of which continued to haunt her even as she completed a master’s thesis on Hawaiian music and identity in southern California. Ancestry of Experience documents Holmes’ quest to reclaim and understand her own origin story.

Holmes writes in two different and at times incongruent voices—one describing the search for her genealogy, the other critiquing Western epistemologies she encounters along the way. In the course of her journey, she finds that Hawaiian oral tradition links identity to the land (‘aina) through ancestry, while traditional, scholarly theories of knowing (particularly political economy and the discourse of the invention of tradition) textually obliterate land and ancestry. In interviews with kupuna, Holmes learns of the connectedness of spirituality and ‘aina; through her study and practice of hula kahiko comes an understanding of ancient hula as a conversation between ‘aina and the dancer’s body that has the power to activate historical memory.

Holmes’ experience has special relevance for indigenous adoptees and indigenous scholars: Both are distanced from the knowledge agendas and strategies of their communities and are tasked to speak in languages ill-suited to the telling of their own stories and those of their ancestors. In addition to those with an interest in Hawaiian knowledge and culture, Ancestry of Experience will appeal to readers of memoirs of identity, academic and personal accounts of racial identity formation, and works of indigenous epistemologies. A website (www.ancestryofexperience.com) will include supplementary material.

33 illus

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication, Acknowledgments

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pp. xiii-xiv

As I began to write this book, I discovered that two voices were emerging from my “self”— often speaking simultaneously. I realized that in the furthest reaches of my memory, these two voices have always existed. I thought back and found that many times in my life I acted on the intentions shaped by one or the other, but not necessarily by both of these voices. One voice seemed to hold the shape of my rising and falling breath...

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pp. 1-2

This book is about my attempts to understand how certain Hawaiian kūpuna (elders) talk about knowledge and transformation. It is about how their knowledge led me into my Hawaiian ancestry, which, for most of my life, I believed I would never find...

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1. Searching Through Texts Texting Memory

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pp. 3-35

I did not meet my birth mother, and she seems to have kept my birth secret from everyone, so no “true” memories of my birth are given to me. Throughout my childhood I did have a recurring dream...

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2. Viewfinders View from Outside

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pp. 36-65

During a stay in Hawai'i, I found the name of a burial place in Nu'uanu and tried to connect with somebody there. I was returning to San Diego soon, and nobody had answered my calls yet. Between errands, I stopped at a pay phone to call one more time...

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3. Dig Up Our Voices Kalo and Her 'Ohana

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pp. 66-100

Shortly after my dream about the mist rising, I began to prepare to do preliminary field work on O'ahu. Initially I planned to observe, record, and transcribe Hawaiian cultural events. I also planned to tape and transcribe interviews...

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4. We Will Manifest Aunty Limu and Aunty Lau

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pp. 101-134

Usually when I went to Hawai'i, I would contact Aunty Limu, a kupuna who had taught me language, 'ukulele, and lauhala in San Diego, and who was now living on O'ahu. When I got in touch with her this time...

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5. Place of Confluence Tutu 'Ohi`a and the Ka'ai

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pp. 135-166

Another kupuna who shared her knowledge with Kalo in a spirit of complete, unconditional acceptance was Tūtū 'Ōhi'a. Kalo interviewed Tūtū 'Ōhi'a...

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6. The Ancestry of Experience: Ha'ina The Experience of Ancestry: Kaona

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pp. 167-204

Wayne Keona Davis sent me information about my ancestors, describing who they were and what some of them had done in the past. He was brief, saying that he didn’t want to overpower me with too much...

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Conclusion: Bones and Voices

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pp. 205-206

I close my eyes for a moment, as I write the last page of this book. My ancestors are with me momentarily, just behind me. These are not souls I can connect to in this world, yet their presence is more deeply felt than that of many people I talk to every day...

Appendix A: Cast of Characters

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p. 207-207

Appendix B: A Hula for Aunty Mena

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pp. 208-210


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pp. 211-222


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pp. 223-226


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pp. 227-230


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pp. 231-249

Back Cover

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pp. 250-234

E-ISBN-13: 9780824837723
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824831295

Publication Year: 2012

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Hawaii -- Civilization.
  • Oral tradition -- Hawaii.
  • Holmes, Leilani, 1952-.
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