Updated: Jun 16, 2022
Unwritten Literature of Hawaiʻi An Introduction
Keone Nunes and Glen Grant
First published in 1909 by the Bureau of American Ethnology, Unwritten Literature of Hawaiʻi, The Sacred Songs of the Hula, has been an invaluable resource to historians, anthropologists, cultural specialists and all devotees of Hawaiian hula, lore and culture who seek an accurate and authentic window to the past. This book is a tribute to the foresight of Nathaniel B. Emerson and the resilience, strength, and on-going endurance of the Hawaiian culture as revealed through his unnamed Hawaiian informants.
The title "Unwritten Literature" refers to the oral traditions that were the foundation of transmuting information through generations in Hawaiʻi. The perpetuation of information over time is essential to social continuity within any society When written
language is available to a group, the collective body of knowledge is stored in books, documents and archives. In a society which transmits knowledge based upon oral traditions, every elder in effect becomes an essential repository of the history, language, culture and religious values of the culture.
Persons who rely solely upon the written word sometimes mistakenly believe that oral cultures have a faulty ability to pass on information, that each person responsible for the information changes the facts in the retelling. In ancient Hawaiʻi, as in other Polynesian societies, the telling of traditions was critical to continuity with the past and to survival in the future. Therefore, Hawaiians realized that listening was equally as important as speaking if the traditions were to accurately survive. Listening skills were thus part of the training for those chosen to receive and impart information. Unlike in a literate society where most individuals rely more on the written word than memory to recall important facts, events or appointments, in the traditional oral world, listening and memorizing are highly articulated skills.
The creation of the written Hawaiian language in the 1820ʼs was one of the essential goals of the American Protestant mission as a means of weakening these older sacred traditions, which in their view smacked of paganism. The word of God as revealed in the Scriptures was for the missionary a concrete, irrefutable and incontrovertible truth that transcended time and place. To translate the Old and New
Testaments into the Hawaiian language helped to make these holy words accessible to potential native converts. The widespread effort by missionaries and Christianized aliʻi (chiefs) to teach reading and writing in the Hawaiian language between 1820 and 1870 resulted in more than 50 percent of the native population becoming Christians, with the attainment of a 75 percent native literacy rate. At that time, a 75 percent literacy rate was heralded as among the highest in the world behind only Scotland and New England.
The rapidity with which Hawaiians assimilated a written culture must be accredited in part to their heightened listening and memorization skills. The early missionary schools primarily utilized a rote method of learning, based upon simple primers with long lists of words and short sentences. Due to the lack of books, students often needed to share their small booklets, requiring many to simply memorize their studies. At the yearly school examinations or hoike, students from all island district schools would demonstrate their literacy skills by reciting their lessons-often from memory.
Perhaps the best example of the power of memorization among Hawaiian learners was the blind man who was called Bartimea. By Reverend Hiram Binghamʼs account, Bartimea had a young assistant continually read to him long passages of the Bible. To the astonishment of the missionaries, the blind man would then recite these passages back without error! While the new written culture would eventually
undermine the proficiency of learning within the oral tradition, the early successes of literacy in Hawaiʻi was a direct result of a people trained to listen and recall the spoken word with accuracy.
As is true within any oral tradition, when a kupuna (elder) dies, a library has burned to the ground. By the mid-nineteenth century, many such libraries had perished in the islands, as the Hawaiian population quickly declined from between 300,000 to 1,000,000 in 1778 to 40,000 by 1890. Recording the oral traditions and lore as perpetuated by the kupuna became the task of many Hawaiian and haole (foreign) historians. Notably, David Malo and Samuel M. Kamakau were among Hawaiian scholars who interviewed those elderly individuals born before the arrival of Captain Cook. Their sources assisted these early native historians in compiling the first collection of oral histories of ka poʻe kahiko (the people of old), based upon ancient oral traditions. Maloʼs Hawaiian Antiquities and Kamakauʼs Ruling Chiefs of Hawaiʻi are invaluable source, of information on Hawaiʻi before 1778. Among the haole researchers who similarly collected oral traditions was Abraham Fornander, Thomas Thrum, and W. D. Westervelt.
Among the more interesting haole chroniclers of the Hawaiian oral traditions was Nathaniel B. Emerson, the son of missionary Rev. John S. Emerson, who came to the Islands in 1832. Born at Waialua, Oʻahu, on July 1, 1839, Nathaniel first attended Oʻahu College (Punahou) in Honolulu before returning to the United
States for his college education at Williams College, graduating in 1865. His college career was delayed for two years, while he served in the Union Army during the American Civil War. He received wounds at the battles of Fredricksburg and Chancellorsville, and at Gettysburg an exploding shell tore off the back of his cap. Miraculously, Emerson was uninjured. Following graduation, Emerson took medical courses at Harvard University and the College of Physicians and Surgeons of New York. He received his medical degree in 1869, practicing in New York until 1878, when he was invited to return to the Hawaiian Islands as an inspector of the governmentʼs stations for those islanders inflicted with Hansenʼs disease (leprosy).
Emerson also had an avid interest in the history and folklore of Hawaiʻi. A charter member of the Hawaiian Historical Society and the Polynesian Society of New Zealand, he published three books, including Unwritten Literature of Hawaiʻi, Pele and Hiiaka and a translation of David Maloʼs Hawaiian Antiquities. His fact-gathering was largely from interviewing native informants about the dances, chants, songs and stories they shared from their own oral traditions. His extensive handwritten notebooks, contained in the archives of the Hawaiian Historical Society, are an unpublished treasure-trove of oral materials of which Unwritten Literature of Hawaiʻi is only a sampling.
Over a period of two decades, Emerson documented, often for the first time in written form, many chants, songs and traditions that were once given
orally to students of the sacred dances. His foresight to record this material at a time when many of the repositories of ancient knowledge were passing away is evident in the intricate documentation of hula as was given to him by his informants, and from the chants, dances, and ceremonies that he was privileged to witness. Many of these chants, dances, and ceremonies were once an integral part of the presentation and practice of hula.
By his own admission, the effort to find informants willing to share the knowledge of hula, song and poetry was Emersonʼs most difficult challenge. "To catch this literary guide, this kaka-olelo," he wrote, "and then to yoke him in to the required task, is an effort that requires all the wisdom and diplomacy at oneʼs command. Such people in these days are both scarce and unwilling. The kahu of a kingʼs bones is hardly more secretive of his charge than some of these poetical kahus of the literary treasures long since entrusted to their keeping." Fortunately, Emerson was able to locate those few individuals who were willing to "unearth so much of the unwritten literary wealth stored in Hawaiian memories."
As a son of missionaries, Emerson would perhaps be suspected of slanting the songs and dances he collected to justify his parentsʼ generationʼs fervent attempt to suppress such traditions. After all, he wrote in a time when the hula was still being publicly condemned by its critics as a "heathenish dance," unfit for civilized society. Emerson did embrace many of
the prevalent misconceptions of indigenous people as being "simple," "primitive" or "noble savages." He often described the Hawaiians as "children of nature," "more free and spontaneous than the more advanced race to which we are proud to belong." Yet the ardent affection with which Emerson pursued his research belies the so-called racial truisms of his Anglo-American superiority or noblesse oblige.
Hula as described by Emerson was not the lascivious, gross idolatry perceived by his missionary parents, but the poetry of a race that transcended cultural differences and distances with the voice of human passion, joy, fear, triumph and love. Correctly stressing that hula, song and chant was the opera house, library and cultural center for the Hawaiian people, Emerson extolled the "unwritten literature" of Hawaiʻi for its celebration of the love of nature and deep humanity. "The mystery, beauty, and magnificence of the island world appealed profoundly to their souls;" he wrote of the people of old. "In them the ancient Hawaiian found the image of man the embodiment of Deity; and their myriad moods and phases were for him an inexhaustible spring of joy, refreshment, and delight."
Acknowledging that errors had been made by his missionary ancestors in their odious view of Hawaiian song and dance, he further stressed that, in his work, a "correct" view needed to be perpetuated. While the missionaries may have had "purity and moral character" of high esteem, they lost the opportunity to know the souls of the very people they attempted
to proselytize. The missionary Emerson remarked, "utterly failed to penetrate the mystery, the 'truth and poetry,' of the Hawaiian mind and heart." This powerful perception of the failures of his missionary parents freed Emerson to collect an invaluable record of oral traditions that saved these treasures from extinction.
Unfortunately, much of the ancient hula and chant recorded by Emerson has become either rare or lost altogether within contemporary halau hula (learning places of dance). In modern Hawaiʻi, dances such as the hula kielei, muʻumuʻu, kolani, kolea, niʻau kani, ʻohe, pa hua, kilu, hoʻonana, kiʻi, ʻoniu, and many others found in this book are not taught. Most of these dances are not part of the regular repertoire of many hula schools. During the renaissance of the Hawaiian culture in the mid-1970ʼs, Unwritten Literature was one of the few written resources available to the public concerning Hawaiian dance and chants. Students of hula would often use this book to supplement the teaching they received in the halau hula. Unwritten Literature became an invaluable part of the personal libraries of many serious students of hula or Hawaiiana. With this new printing of Emersonʼs text, perhaps this important collection of Hawaiʻiʼs oral tradition, can again provide a foundation of understanding that can be used in conjunction with modern hula masters to bring to life many of the chants, dances, and traditions that have been silent for too long. Although the language and writing style that Emerson employed may
be considered by some to be antiquated, the scope and the amount of information collected has not been matched by any other publication. As we are on the doorstep of another century, Unwritten Literature still remains one of the best sources of information on hula and chant ever published.
For those who do not dance or chant, these oral traditions give meaning to Emersonʼs insight to the intricate weave between the Hawaiian soul and hula:
The hula meant very much to the Hawaiian. It included in itself so large a part of what was to him the best of lifeʼs dole; it was such a unique and significant attempt on his part to realize his dreams and aspirations, that one cannot wonder that it came to include in itself much of the best and choicest thought and uttered emotion of the Hawaiian people.