NHC Perspectives: Humanities, NEH, and Oceania

November 8, 2019

Aloha, and welcome to all my many humanities colleagues to the 2019 National Humanities Conference.

Having arrived here in Honolulu, like most of you, through a series of long-haul flights, I am particularly struck by the theme of this year’s conference: “Roots and Routes: Navigation, Migration, and Exchange in the 21st Century.”

For me this calls to mind Georgia O’Keeffe, who accepted a commission by the Hawaiian Pineapple Company (now known to us as Dole) to travel to Hawai’i in 1939 to produce artwork for an advertising campaign. Yet the flowers O’Keeffe painted from her nine-week stay were not in fact native to Hawai’i, but had migrated from Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands, by canoe with Polynesians, to cultivate new roots in the Hawaiian islands.

I think of the late Poet Laureate W.S. Merwin, who spent the last four decades of his life in Maui, where he restored a former plantation to an original rainforest. It was from Hawai’i that Merwin published one of his most acclaimed volumes of poetry, aptly titled Migration, and synthesized western epic poetry traditions and Hawaiian chant for The Folding Cliffs, his novel-in-verse of nineteenth-century Hawaiian history and legend.

And I think of Mark Twain, who spent four months in Hawai’i as a stringer for the Sacramento Union in 1866, reporting on the death of Princess Victoria Kamamalu and the eruption of the Kilauea crater. It was these months in Hawai’i and the observations he brought back to the mainland that launched young Samuel Clemens’s career on the lecture circuit and inspired early works like Roughing It. Twain’s fondness for Hawai’i was such that, although he never returned, he spoke longingly of relocating to what he knew as the “Sandwich Islands.” Of his first encounter with Honolulu he wrote: “The further I traveled through the town the better I liked it. Every step revealed a new contrast—disclosed something I was unaccustomed to.”

NEH grants have helped preserve and disseminate accounts of individuals like Mark Twain and Georgia O’Keeffe, whose exchanges with Pacific history and cultures generated new fruit upon their return to the contiguous United States. And they have helped promote, preserve, and advance the study of the cultures, languages, history, and literatures firmly rooted in the lands of our hosts—Hawai’i, Guam, Northern Marianas, and American Samoa.

NEH grants underwrote a new permanent exhibition at the Iolani Palace on “Points of Contact” that I hope you will have an opportunity to see during your stay in Honolulu, and aided development of Kani’aina, a digital repository for spoken Native Hawaiian recordings and transcripts at the University of Hawai’i, Hilo.

Grants to Humanities Guåhan and the Northern Marianas Humanities Council have supported initiatives to foster ecological literacy in Guam and public forums in the Northern Marianas on the effects of migration on the cultures and democratization of the islands. And they have supported emergency recovery efforts to safeguard collections at the Jean P. Haydon Museum documenting Samoa’s history, culture, and natural history following the 2009 tsunami that flooded the museum. This is on top of the amazing work our state and territorial partners do through locally rooted programs, from an online oral history of Guam’s women veterans and student poetry contests to National History Day competitions and family reading programs like Motheread/Fatheread.

I look forward to seeing and speaking with many you as we navigate the next few days of panels, working groups, and lectures. Whether the route you have taken here is long or short, you will, I know, come away from this week with much to reflect on.

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