- The Power of the Steel-Tipped Pen: Reconstructing Native Hawaiian Intellectual History by Noenoe K Silva
Noenoe K Silva's recent book, The Power of the Steel-Tipped Pen: Reconstructing Native Hawaiian Intellectual History, offers a master class on how to use an archive. Drawing on the corpus of newspapers written and published by Kānaka Maoli in the nineteenth century, Silva tracks the contributions of two prolific figures, Joseph Ho'ona'auao Kānepu'u and Joseph Moku'ōhai Poepoe, across their political, intellectual, and literary lives. To do so required the painstaking effort of reading through voluminous pages of sources written in 'ōlelo Hawai'i (Hawaiian language) in fragile newsprint, not only to locate Kānepu'u's and Poepoe's works across decades and different publications—which have not yet been fully indexed—but also to read these works within the context of the publications in toto. Such a methodology exhibits the indelible marks of Silva's background in librarianship, with meticulous attention paid to the placement of articles in specific paper layouts, the broader influences of Honolulu's publishing industry, and how implicit debates about Hawai'i's future operated across documentary space and time. The result is an exquisite account of cultural preservation in a time of great political uncertainty, as the pressures of US settler colonization exerted increasing force on Hawaiian culture, monarchial rule, and everyday life as the twentieth century drew near.
This mode of cultural preservation—whereby the publishing of mo'olelo (stories, histories) and accompanying editorials help us to know the worlds of our kūpuna (ancestors)—comprises what Silva theorizes as mo'okū'auhau (genealogical) consciousness: that the chronicling of ancestral knowledge in Hawaiian-language newspapers were meant as much for us now as they were for readers then. Foreseeing the impending erosion of language and intellectual history signaled by events like the forced signing of the Bayonet Constitution in 1887 and the unilateral annexation of the Hawaiian Kingdom by the United States in 1898, writers like Kānepu'u and Poepoe took pains to record the hi/stories that embed Kānaka Maoli within their pae 'āina (archipelago) in their native tongue, thereby producing a blueprint for Hawaiians to reconstruct the intellectual and embodied landscapes necessary for today's decolonization efforts.
Those familiar with 'ōlelo Hawai'i will know its complexity. Words printed in the newspapers without diacritical marks become ambiguous signifiers; translations of single words do not produce neat English analogs but often require multiple overlapping concepts to get at their author's meaning. And so Silva does provide quotes in both languages so that nuance is not lost. While readers who do not possess fluency in Hawaiian may be challenged by its prodigious use—keywords necessary for analysis will be accompanied by an English translation at first mention only—they will grasp easily enough the important reasons [End Page 550] why the text is so pointedly bilingual. Rather than water down the intellectual legacy of the archive, Silva allows the passages to continue speaking for themselves in what I interpret as an act of generosity and humility: rather than assert her own translations as definitive, she allows readers the opportunity to produce their own interpretations of works that are filled with kaona (hidden or double meaning), assonances, and references beyond our present comprehension. In this way, she fulfills her kuleana (rights, responsibility, obligation) to maintain the liveliness of Hawaiian knowledge while also perpetuating the political efforts of nineteenth-century writers. Just as Kānepu'u and Poepoe saw themselves as epistemological bridges between the past and the future, Silva takes on that same role for The Power of the Steel-Tipped Pen.
The book is structured into two main sections, with the first focusing on Kānepu'u and the second on Poepoe. Each part comprises three chapters, providing an overview of...