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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Monday, June 7, 2004

The princess diaries

By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer

It may well be true that Princess Ruth Ke'elikolani's famously retrograde sensibilities have relegated her to the margins of Hawaiian history.

Princess Ruth Ke'elikolani was not a beauty by Western standards, and she resisted some of the outside influences of the 19th century, including use of the English language.

Ke'elikolani with Sam Parker, left, and J.H. Cummins. She was an adept land trustee and administrator, and built her own mansion, but refused to travel outside of the Islands.

Advertiser library photos

But as the latest installment of PBS' "Biography Hawai'i" series suggests, Ke'elikolani's fierce commitment to the native people, culture and language of Hawai'i — not to mention her administration of the massive land holdings that would eventually constitute much of Kamehameha Schools Bernice Pauahi Bishop Estate — make her an intriguing subject for contemporary scholars and an unlikely role model for Hawaiian activists.

In a bold move appreciative of Ke'elikolani's loyalty to her native language, the show's producers have prepared both English and Hawaiian-language versions of "Biography Hawai'i: Ruth Ke'elikolani." The half-hour shows will be shown back-to-back Wednesday starting at 8 p.m., and again on Saturday at the same time.

One of the least studied and least understood of the ali'i, Ke'elikolani was nonetheless one of the most powerful and influential women of her time. Descended from senior royal lines on both sides of her family (she was a great-granddaughter of Kamehameha the Great), she served as governor of the Big Island for 21 years and, by the mid-1800s, had become the richest woman in the Islands.

At a time when the Hawaiian population was being devastated by foreign disease and many Hawaiians were converting to Christianity, Ke'elikolani held tight to tradition.

She refused to practice Christianity. She refused to travel outside the Islands. In Kona, she chose to live in a large grass hut rather than the grand Western-style house on the same property.

And though she could understand English, she communicated exclusively in Hawaiian. In an interview segment from the program, University of Hawai'i professor Noenoe Silva characterized her stance as "resistance to Western imperialism and demands being made by the Western world that commerce and government should be conducted in English."

Ahead of her time

Over the years, the princess has been known as much for the tragedies she suffered as for her achievements. Her mother died soon after she was born. Her first husband died at the age of 22. All three of her natural children died young; the oldest, William Pitt Kina'u, at 17. Her adopted son, Leleihoku, the heir apparent to the throne, died of rheumatic fever.

'Biography Hawai'i: Ruth Ke'elikolani'
  • PBS
  • Wednesday, 8 p.m. (English) and 8:30 p.m. (Hawaiian)
  • Saturday, 8 p.m. (English) and 8:30 p.m. (Hawaiian)
"She was an ali'i in a time of great social change, an anchor in a time of great flux," said Kalena Silva, director of Ka Haka 'Ula O Ke'elikolani, the College of Hawaiian Language at the University of Hawai'i-Hilo. "She was able to make her way through all of the tragedies of her life because of her ability to tap into a wellspring of knowledge and appreciation of language and culture.

"She made tremendous contributions to political and social life in Hawai'i," Silva said. "And, we can see now, to our cultural life also."

Producer Joy Chong-Stannard said Ke'elikolani was one of the first people discussed when the biography series began.

"We wanted people who were not as well known but whose contributions made an impact on history," Chong-Stannard said. "We knew very little about Ruth, and there has been so little written about her. Yet there are many ways of looking at her — feminist scripts, cultural preservation, leadership position. She really was ahead of her time."

Information for the program was drawn from a variety of sources, including Hawaiian-language newspapers, letters, memorabilia and official records.

Series scholar Craig Howes, director of the UH Center for Biographical Research, compiled a 25-page chronology of significant events and transactions culled from court documents, wills, equity records, probate documents and other materials in the state archives to complement research done by Hawaiian scholars Kalena Silva, Noenoe Silva and Puakea Nogelmeier.

"Some of the things Craig brought out were eye-openers," said Nogelmeier. "The records showed that ... (Ke'elikolani) had a plan for long-term property management. She wanted to make sure the royal estates were maintained, that they were landed and funded, and not disbanded or watered down. That to me was big. She had real business and political acumen."

The team's research also seemed to confirm that Ke'elikolani was a reluctant photo subject. Fewer than a dozen photographs of her are known to exist.

This presented a significant problem for Chong-Stannard, who had to find other ways to keep the flow of visual material going. Fortunately, Ke'elikolani's bold, powerful face seems to invite reconsideration with every appearance on the show.

In fact, Ke'elikolani's appearance — a stark contrast to the finer, fairer ideals of beauty valued by the Western world — may have contributed to a historical underestimation of her accomplishments, a consideration that writer Victoria Kneubuhl addressed in the biography.

"It started to irritate me that the first thing out of people's mouths was something derogatory about her appearance," Kneubuhl said. "That reflects a lot on how women are judged on their looks and not their accomplishments or how they live their lives."

In one of her interview segments, Noenoe Silva connects the Western reaction to Ke'elikolani's appearance to the broader ways in which Silva says the West looks at native peoples, particularly women, and allows these perceptions to influence their overall estimation of who they are.

The difference of perspective was apparent in much of the primary source material, Nogelmeier said.

"English-language press saw her in two dimensions," he said. "But she was a more three-dimensional figure in the Hawaiian material. Hawaiians never mentioned her appearance."

In fact, Ke'elikolani was revered by the maka''inana, the common people, who saw royal authority in the demeanor Westerners regarded as imperious. Her reputation took on mythic proportions in 1881 when she appealed to the goddess Pele to stop a lava flow before it reached Hilo. After making an offering, the princess and her party spent the night in the path of the lava. When they awoke, the flow had stopped just short of them.

Found in translation

Kneubuhl said she knew virtually nothing about Ke'elikolani when she started the project.

"I knew who she was," she said. "I knew she had a big house, and that she was born in the 1820s. I think everybody knows a little about her, and would like to know more."

By the time she was ready to write the script, Kneubuhl knew far more about Ke'elikolani than she could tell in the time allotted.

"I felt bad," she said. "You can only scratch the surface in half an hour."

As it turned out, however, simply translating the script from English to Hawaiian would speak additional volumes about the things Ke'elikolani held valuable.

The task of translating the script fell to Kalena Silva.

"It was a challenge," he said. "When you translate something from one language to another, you have to acknowledge different ways of looking at things. I wanted to retain the Hawaiian perspective on Hawaiian topics."

Chanter Ka'upena Wong served as narrator for the English program. But for the Hawaiian version, producers wanted a studio-savvy woman with a rich, deep voice to evoke the spirit of Ke'elikolani. They found that in singer Ku'uipo Kumukahi.

With the accompanying video already timed to the millisecond, Kumukahi had to try to read the translated script in perfect sync. Add to that considerations of pronunciation, inflection and dramatic performance. "It's different than singing," she said. "You can't cut and paste in the studio. You have to start at the beginning and go right through to the end. If you get the very last word wrong, you have to start again."

Nogelmeier coached Kumukahi on pronunciation.

But Kumukahi said she had other support the studio.

"I was in there with my jacket and my copy of 'The High Priestess Ruth Ke'elikolani' (by Kristin Zambucka)," Kumukahi said. "In my mind, I knew it had to be perfect, perfect, perfect, and somehow I just felt a certain spirit there with me, helping me along that certain path."

Correction: Princess Ruth Ke'elikolani had become the richest woman in Hawai'i by the mid-1800s. Information in a previous version of this story yesterday was incorrect.