Princess Kaʻiulani, Jim Bartels and ʻŌʻiwi

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 I thought I’d give a personal story about how this princess made me rethink certain aspects of Hawaiian identity including my own.

Back in 1998, I conceived to write something on her 100th death anniversary the following year for ʻŌʻiwi Native Hawaiian journal. I was already finishing a piece on King Kalākauaʻs world tour for that journal but I felt people needed to be reminded about Princess Kaʻiulani. Like many Hawaiians, I had these preconceived romanticized picture of Princess Kaʻiulani–the young woman with the hauntingly deep dark brown eyes. The editor of ʻŌʻiwi at the time, a woman of great ability who was also taken from our community too young and too soon, Mahealani Dudoit, approved the idea but she said that the piece needed to be turned in within two weeks due to editing and publication deadlines. The next day, I went up to see the great historian Jim Bartels who was curator of Washington Place at that time and told him about my piece and asked for his thoughts about the Princess. He rocked in his heels and said “Well well well. Most people think of her as a barbie doll princess. When you write this piece, I think you need to go beyond Zambucka and figure out something else about her. Something to make people think beyond the lovely portraits. When youʻre done, I want you come back and tell me what you learned about her.”

Since there was a deadline and I was juggling university classes, I was at the State Archives religiously before and after school pouring over primary sources, looking at photo albums, and going through everything the State Library had her and those who wrote about her. Princess Kaʻiulani was slightly older than I at the time when she passed away. She was in exile for almost a decade and while she enjoyed Menton, the Bailiwack of Jersey (not New Jersey but old Jersey in the UK) , and the She was about to get married to Prince Kawānanakoa. Then she died. Zambucka and others claim she died of a broken heart. But the woman I began to know was vibrant, full of life, active, and determined. I began to stumble upon early newspaper accounts of her death and how she struggled in bed for weeks and she had plans for a political career for herself. She was not just “the hope of the monarchy” but she had hope that although her Throne was stolen, she wanted to push back and do as much as she could for her people. But that sense she had of duty before self, the lāhui before self, was a deep feeling I could relate to and felt a kinship with.

Then there was her being biracial. Some people in “Celtic” circles make much of her Scottish heritage. The Princess indeed was familiar with her fatherʻs heritage but she never directly called herself part-Hawaiian nor part-Scottish. She did not consider herself “hapa”. She was the 167th generation from Papa and Wākea. Her uncle was the elected king of Hawaiʻi and her aunt was a ruling queen. But above all, she was a Hawaiian. Nowadays, Hawaiians like to say things like “Iʻm 49.3% Hawaiian” while there are non-Hawaiians who insist that “pure Hawaiians” no longer exist. For the Princess, the term hapa meant that a person was confused. You can embrace all the communities you belong to, but never forget the land that fed you. She did embrace European cultures–I mean she spoke Latin, French and German and a bit of Irish Gaelic afterall–and her Scottish heritage while she was exiled in the UK but again, she knew who she was. While communities tried to claim her as their own and people tried to tell her who she was, she tried to remain true to who she knew she was ignoring the labels and identity projections people had of her.

She also had a bit of fun at it. While she talking to a reporter who was totally ignorant of Hawaiʻi in Washington, the reporter asked how she was adjusting to the technological progress of the US such as all the lights. She responded that she was adjusting to the gas lighting of the city because in Hawaiʻi, they had electricity. Another reporter asked her a question about whether Hawaiians were cannibals like what happened to Cook, she replied that if Hawaiians were indeed cannibals, it would make sense for the US to leave Hawaiians alone, wouldnʻt it?

But she also had a deep feeling about the wrong that was committed not only as a princess but as a Hawaiian. Most people do not realize how she tried to negotiate with the Republic of Hawaiʻi that she would drop her claims to the Throne and would even endorse the Republic providing that the Republic not pursue annexation to the United States. After the Us formally took over Hawaiʻi in 1898, Princess Kaʻiulani campaigned for voting rights for Hawaiians and citizenship for not just Hawaiians but for everyone born in Hawaiʻi. People need to remember that Native Americans at that time did not have voting rights outside of the reservation and were not considered US citizens. The fear of Queen Liliʻuokalani and Princess Kaʻiulani was that the new Territory might do the same to the Hawaiians as what was being done to Native Americans. She fought against it so that every Kanaka Maoli could vote. She also understood world events and most people donʻt realize that she attended meetings in support of the independence movements in Cuba, the Philippines and Puerto Rico while she was in New York.

I returned to Jim Bartelʻs office to report back to him what I learned three weeks later. “So young man, what did you learn about Princess Kaʻiulani” was his first words to me as I entered. I sat down and said “I learned about a new friend”. Curious, Jim Bartels smiled and asked what did I mean. I replied that “the princess was the kind of friend who could dress up and speak about the social responsibilities of government institutions in German while munching on fried fish and poi. Perhaps the titah bun came from her. She didnʻt reject being who she was, but made it her own. She wasnʻt the barbie doll princess that people imagine, but she was one of our own. She was our friend, a friend that 100 years later we still miss.” Jim Bartels nodded approvingly and said “The Peopleʻs Princess.”

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