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  • The Power of the Steel-Tipped Pen: Reconstructing Native Hawaiian Intellectual History by Noenoe K. Silva
  • David A. Chang (bio)
The Power of the Steel-Tipped Pen: Reconstructing Native Hawaiian Intellectual History by Noenoe K. Silva Duke University Press, 2017

IN THIS MUCH-ANTICIPATED WORK, Noenoe K. Silva builds a methodological and theoretical foundation for the reconstruction of Native Hawaiian intellectual history. Through a study of the Hawaiian-language works of Joseph Ho'ona'auao Kānepu'u and Joseph Moku'ōhai Poepoe, two writers active in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Silva traces an intellectual practice of using the Hawaiian past to speak to the present and future needs of the Hawaiian people (Kānaka 'Ōiwi). Moreover, she demonstrates the power of this practice by enacting it herself. The result is a compelling and erudite book whose linguistic and methodological range demonstrates that dedication to Indigenous futures is deeply rooted in Native Hawaiian intellectual history.

In her path-breaking 2004 study, Aloha Betrayed: Native Hawaiian Resistance to American Colonialism, Silva directed scholars to the rich archive of Hawaiian-language newspapers. It was in these newspapers that Kānepu'u, Poepoe, and other intellectuals published their work. In the new book, Silva wisely eschews a broad overview of Native Hawaiian intellectuals through time. Instead, Silva chooses depth, and readers will be glad she did.

Writing about Kānepu'u and Poepoe, Silva both describes and enacts what she calls "mo'okū'auhau consciousness" (4). Mo'okū'auhau is a term commonly glossed as "genealogy." The consciousness she describes relates it to another key term in Hawaiian life and Hawaiian studies, kuleana, which encompasses the English-language concepts of right, responsibility, role, and duty. Silva describes mo'okū'auhau consciousness as "a certain mode of thought and action" in which writers "drew on their ancestral knowledge and accepted and carried out the kuleana to record it" for Native Hawaiians of their own time and "in the distant future" (6).

Silva tells us that Kānepu'u and Poepoe were teachers in the broadest sense. Kānepu'u was a classroom teacher in the Hawaiian Kingdom's schools, and over his career Poepoe was a classroom teacher, lawyer, newspaper publisher and editor, and legislative representative in the kingdom. At a time when missionization and foreign-style schooling had largely displaced the learning of mele (songs) and mo'olelo (stories), Kānepu'u, Poepoe, and [End Page 208] other Hawaiian intellectuals preserved this literature and taught Kānaka the interpretive and critical skills needed to engage with it. Silva emphasizes that they foresaw that future generations of Kānaka (including those of our own day and beyond) would need this knowledge.

Following an introduction, Silva dedicates a three-chapter section to each of the authors. She begins with Kānepu'u. Born around 1824 on Moloka'i, he "was among the first generation to take the oral traditions and create literature from them" (22). Silva focuses on Kānepu'u's works from the 1860s and 1870s. Through analyses of the literary devices he deploys, Silva demonstrates how Kānepu'u skillfully taught his readers and also instructs her own readers in the skill of reading such texts. Silva dedicates a chapter to Kānepu'u's extensive serialized geography of the world, an 1877 work that critically commented on the political economy of late nineteenth-century Hawai'i, where haole (white Americans and Europeans) were coming to command land, wealth, and power. Here, she develops a theme that runs through the book: the centrality to the Hawaiian intellectual tradition of aloha 'āina, "a complex concept that includes recognizing that we are an integral part of the 'āina (land) and the 'āina is an integral part of us" (4).

Silva then examines Poepoe's life and work and the way that his expressions of aloha 'āina changed due to changed circumstances. Poepoe was more than a generation younger than Kānepu'u. Born in 1852 on the island of Hawai'i, he faced the full onslaught of American colonialism and had to navigate the troubled waters of the politics of annexation. Silva's tracing of his political engagements is...


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pp. 208-209
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