By Zenaida Serrano
Advertiser Staff Writer
Tucked away in a narrow room at the Bishop Museum, 85-year-old Pat Namaka Bacon spends hours on end listening to voices from Hawai'i's past — a melodic flow of native tongues sharing vivid memories of life in the Islands long ago.
For more than a decade, Bacon has listened to these oral histories on more than 100 audiotapes, transcribing and translating the Hawaiian recordings into Hawaiian and English manuscripts to make available to the public. There are hundreds more to transcribe.
"What I'm doing, I will never finish," Bacon said, sitting among a foot-high stack of files and notes on her desk. "I'm just scratching the surface."
The Bishop Museum last month honored Bacon, the hanai daughter of late Hawaiian scholar Mary Kawena Pukui, with the Robert J. Pfeiffer Medal for her dedication to the advancement of Hawai'i's cultural heritage.
Bacon, who first joined the museum in 1939, now serves as its senior adviser for cultural affairs.
Bacon followed her hanai mother's footsteps in working at the museum. Pukui began translating Hawaiian writings into English for the museum in 1928.
The transcriptions Bacon is working on are largely the results of her mother's efforts. Pukui recorded the Hawaiian-language oral histories statewide throughout the 1950s and 1960s.
"Her mother was the Hawaiian presence in the museum — brought up Hawaiian, open to and understanding of lots of different Hawaiian traditions and practices — but also very open to seeing how changes come about," said Betty Lou Kam, vice president of cultural resources at the museum. "Auntie Pat is like that. She gives the museum its Hawaiian presence."
While those who work with Bacon say she is one of the museum's treasures, the soft-spoken Manoa resident is humble about her contributions. "Our grandma (Pa'ahana Wiggin) said, 'You don't put yourself over this person or that person. They know what they know; we know what we know,' " Bacon said.
LIVING THE CULTURE
During a recent walk-through tour of the museum's oldest building, Hawaiian Hall, Bacon made her way through a group of schoolchildren studying artifacts housed in the koa display cases.
"It's nice to see that they're interested," said Bacon, who stands barely 5 feet high and wasn't much taller than the visiting students.
Bacon's dedication to preserving the Hawaiian culture for future generations stems from her mother's influence.
"She was passionate about things Hawaiian," Bacon said.
Bacon learned early on her mother's commitment to perpetuating the native language and hula.
"When we went anywhere and she would see a flower or tree or something, she would say, 'This is the English name and this is the Hawaiian name,' so the next time we went by, I had better know it," Bacon said, laughing.
"And if I didn't remember, I had to go and look it up. So soon I remembered things, because I was tired of looking things up."
Bacon's formal hula training began when she was 13, when she joined her mother for sessions at the home of noted hula master Keahi Luahine. "She told me we were going there for (hula) preservation and it was not for entertainment," Bacon said. "So our focus was always on getting this information and keeping it intact for the next person who might be interested in it."
Puakea Nogelmeier, a Hawaiian language professor at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa, calls Bacon a wonderful resource and role model.
"Her mother worked to make her the repository, and that was not just for hula, the language and the quirks of the language, but of just traditional practice, what is the Hawaiian way," Nogelmeier said.
Bacon's work area is past heavy metal doors in a restricted wing of Paki Hall. She's surrounded by metal cabinets with index cards and black-and-white photographs, wooden bookcases filled with videotapes, and early 20th-century wooden trunks. Other than the faint whirring of an air conditioner, the room is quiet, and with its sweet mustiness, smells like an old library.
Her desk is neat, with a pile of folders, a few reference books (including a Hawaiian dictionary and "Place Names of Hawaii," books her mother helped compile), a telephone, tape player and magnifying lantern. But there's no computer. Her work has and will always be done with pencil and paper — it's a system that has worked just fine for decades.
"I don't know how to run a computer," Bacon said.
Wearing a lavender dress with purple flowers, and a rosy shade of lipstick, Bacon's face brightens up as she recounts memories of museum life, recollections as colorful as her childhood.
She began her stint at the museum when she was 19 years old, working as a telephone operator and bookstore employee.
"World War II broke out when Dr. Buck (Peter Buck, the museum's third director) was director, and so we all had to go around with our gas masks," she said. "The people from the Army would come every now and then, and we'd have a practice (putting the masks on)."
The employees' attempts were less than graceful, Bacon recalled.
"One of the fellows shook his head and said, 'You all will be dead before you got your gas masks on.' We were just clumsy, I guess," she said, laughing.
Bacon left the museum in 1945 to start a family, then returned in 1959 and eventually became secretary of the anthropology department. Today, the museum has 236 full- and part-time staffers; back then, it was a little more than 100, Bacon said.
"During Dr. (Alexander) Spoehr's time (as the museum's fourth director), we didn't have a restaurant here, so we all brought our own sandwiches," Bacon remembered. "Out on our courtyard, we had a hau tree growing, so there were two benches and everybody brought their lunches. ... We all sat out there, from the director down to the janitor, whoever wanted to, and it was like one big family."
Bacon has worked under five of the museum's nine directors. Through the decades, Bacon has witnessed the museum's many controversies, including claims to old artifacts. But she knows better than to get involved.
"I keep out of it," she said.
Bacon finds her work satisfying, knowing she's carrying on her mother's endeavors. And Bacon has no intention of quitting any time soon.
"As long as I have my cookies in the jar," she said, pointing to her head and laughing.
Reach Zenaida Serrano at email@example.com.