Dr. Umi Perkins | Culturised Podcast with Host Makani




Makani: Hey what's up?  Howzit.  Aloha. Welcome to Culturised.

This is where we get to come hang out with some friends, special guests and everyday Hawaiians that are perpetuating culture somehow in their life.  We're going to get right into it.  My guest joining me today, I've known this brother since we can remember high school days. We were boarders at the oldest school west of the Mississippi.  We'll find out what school that is and I'm pretty sure we can have an entire show that's just the things we got into at that high school anyway.  He's a graduate of that high school and also Harvard.  Received a PHD in political science from the University of Hawaii Manoa, teaches Hawaiian history at the Kamehameha Schools, is a lecturer at the Matsunaga Institute of Peace and Conflict Resolution at UH Manoa.  A former Fulbright Scholar, his research focuses on Hawaiian land tenure. He's got over 50 publications written for the Nation Hawaii Review the Contemporary Pacific and many other publications.  He's a regular contributor to of course, Ka Wai Ola, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs newsletter. Co-wrote the screenplay for the feature From the Islands, and of course my very good friend and fellow boarder.  Ladies and gentlemen, Dr Umi Perkins so of course with CDC, we're gonna always it's a cultural show, I'd give it on you but that's for you. 

Dr Umi Perkins: Mahalo

Makani: Mahalo for being here.  Lei kukui, as we know, the kukui lei that everybody sees represents knowledge.  The kukui is the light and that's knowledge that you have. So local culture every time, we see each other, you meet somebody new, Or we don't know each other... "What high school you went?" 

Dr Umi Perkins: Well let me preface it by saying, I, often get

“Oh, you went to Kamehameha, right? Do you remember this and this?” And I always say, "Don't be sacrilegious, Lahainaluna, oldest school in Hawaii."

A lot of people think Punahou is the oldest but, Lahainaluna is 10 years older, 1831.

Makani:  Isn't it funny how, do you always feel good when somebody

does that, oh you went to Kamehameha? And in another show, I was talking about all my comments my friends, I always say, "You're welcome", and they're like:  "What do you mean?" I said if not for Lahainaluna, education wouldn't be here.  But do you get that a lot? People assume Kamehameha, Punahou, Iolani, and when you, what, what do they what is their reaction when you say Lahainaluna?

Dr Umi Perkins: Some people say where is that? And I have to say uh... in Lahaina, Maui.  But then they think you know I'm from Maui but being a boarder, you know that makes for some confusion. But yeah, it makes for a really unique uh experience, we have you know growing up uh culturally. I always think of Lahainaluna as kind of the industrial Hawaiian experience. I mean yeah, we had mālama ʻaina growing food on the farm but we were, I hate to say it, spraying DDT in the 80's on those crops.

Makani: People never believed me people never believed that we were mask-less.  We had jeans and a t-shirt on and that big huge canister of DDT.

Dr Umi Perkins: Steel toe boots though.

Makani: Steel toe boots. Can’t forget those.So, Lahainaluna, if you didn’t know, is the oldest school west of the Mississippi and it's the only public boarding school, pretty much in America right and you and I had the opportunity. Being originally from Lanai, every male in my family went there. So, I went.  You guys at the time were living where? Before high school.  Before we met.

Dr Umi Perkins: Yeah, so we had gone when I was nine, my whole family, we've moved to the south pacific to Tonga, the kingdom of Tonga.  So, I lived there for almost 60 years. Tonga is a very, very slow place.  Maybe like Lanai. It's a great place and I'm very fortunate to have lived there.  But um, not a great place for a teenager looking for excitement.  So, Lahainaluna is a way for us to come without our parents. To come back and my grandmother went to Lahainaluna.

Makani: Right, I was going to say so for both of us, there's this lineage that we had. It was one of those things that parents and grandparents were like well, that's where you're going to have to go.

Dr Umi Perkins:  There was no way to go to Kamehameha because of the application window so Lahainaluna just made sense when we started to think about it.

Makani: I know that you're at Kamehameha now. So, this is the question, “If you had that choice in your adult life now.  Where would you have chosen?  Lahainaluna or Kamehameha?”

Dr Umi Perkins:  I think about that a lot. You know, Lahainaluna, academically is not one of the top schools.  But when I think about the discipline that we got in the boarding department. I credit that with a lot of the things that I've been able to see through to completion. I mean a lot of people start PHD’s and don't finish. That takes a lot of endurance, so I kind of credit being able to finish while working and having a family to two things:  Lahainaluna and distance running. I think both of those things gave me a lot of stamina to be able to kind of follow it through to the invention.

Makani: That's what I like that you say that because Lahainaluna was a huge part of my adult life. A lot of people think it's weird for when I say how much I've brought with me from high school. But I don't think they realize that we lived in it. So, let's talk about that. Your professional life now.  Do you see there moments when you go like…we were talking about earlier like, whoa!  That I got my PHD because I was a distance runner and I knew what it meant to finish things? Do you share that with your kids?

Dr Umi Perkins:  It's one of those things where sometimes I'll tell them that I'm one of the few people in my generation who can say, “You know my day, we had it hard.”  Because most people our age it's kind of like, oh I used to have to stand up and turn the channel by hand and that's about it.  Life was pretty easy. But for us, I mean, 20 hours a week working. The name Lahaina means cruel sun, right.  It was like brutal, digging ditches, making sprinkler systems you know.

Makani: I like to think that's why we went another way. I'm thinking man, we were building things. We were digging holes. We were picking fruits. We were taking care of swine and collecting slop. I'm thinking wait, maybe we better go that educational route and not dig holes for the rest of our life. Is that what kind of, I mean, were you on that route already.

Dr Umi Perkins:  When I think about Lahainaluna and then what I do now, I think the big connection is this idea of tradition. We were pretty strong into the traditions.  Going up to the puʻu paʻupaʻu and visiting David Malo's grave.  David Malo is the greatest Hawaiian scholar of all time in my opinion and he's buried up there. He wanted to be away from the encroachment of the western sort of ticking things over and it never did reach up to the top of that mountain. Then singing Yonder Lahaina mountains on the top. I mean those traditions.  Again,  it was kind of a little bit industrial but between that and living in Tonga. Because Tonga was kind of like Hawaii in the 1880s,  in the 1980s when I was there.  They had horses and carts. The constitution of Tonga is basically borrowed or plagiarized from the Hawaiian constitution of 1852 in the kingdom. So, it was like living in Hawaii a hundred years earlier and between that and the Lahainaluna kind of traditions it's almost predestined for me to become a Hawaiian history teacher. Thats how I think of it now, in retrospect and you're never going to know these things at the time that they're happening. You know you just want to do other things that teenagers want to do but you're learning your lessons.

Makani: I like the fact that that these things that we've learned and were doing in Lahainaluna that affect us today which now brings us to today.  What have you been focusing on? Recently, you've got publications you've been writing.  I always love going to your facebook, Moolelo Hawaii What are you focusing on recently?

Dr Umi Perkins:  I like to intertwine all my projects so, I teach high school kids but I noticed when I had open house that the parents would come and they would say, “ I wish I could be in your class.” The students rarely say that, so I started to catch on that adults are actually the ones who are interested in Hawaiian history. So, kind of on a whim, I started this small little Hawaiian history group on facebook and it grew without me putting in any effort into. It's just short of 5000 members now. Thatʻs not like gangnam style but for something academic that's absolutely huge. So the interest is there.  I have my blog which I started again, on a whim.  As a joke, I called it the Umiverse.

Makani: You've had it how many years now ?

Dr Umi Perkins:  It started in the very end of 2011.

Makani: You were blogging before blogging was blogs.

Dr Umi Perkins:  Oh it was. It was still kind of a new thing.  I just wanted another venue for my ideas and then that one took off.

Makani: Is that one culturally based? Thats just, that's more of you.

Dr Umi Perkins:  It's me in all the aspects but um a lot of the readership is interested in Hawaiian history. I wrote a review of Downton Abbey once and nobody read it.  They don't care what I think about Downton Abbey, but when I wrote five misconceptions of Hawaiian history...that one had 2 000 views in a day.  It's almost 200 000 views over the years.

Makani: Thats what I want to talk about, in a few.  Right after this break, I want to talk about some significant Hawaii timeline things that happened in Hawaii that made us or brought us to where we are today.  Can we do that?

Dr Umi Perkins:  Yeah.

Makani: Of course the Hawaiian history timeline is huge. Is there certain points in the timeline that stands out to you? Or that you teach your kids that not a lot of people know? Even Hawaii, but outside of Hawaii that made us who we are today? Iʻll leave that up to you. Where would you want to start?

Dr Umi Perkins:   Yeah, when you thinks about things that influenced us today, you have,  it sort of draws you into these what-if scenarios. Like what if? So, this happened what if something else had happened ? I think one of the most interesting what-if scenarios in Hawaiian history is dealing with Queen Emma.   So, in there,  I don't know if a lot of people know,  but Hawaii had elected monarchs.  King Lunalilo in 1872 and King Kalakaua in 1874 were both elected, and in that election in 1874 Kalakaua was running against Queen Emma.  Now the first political party in Hawaii was actually the supporters of Emma. It was called the “Emma-ites” or sometimes called the “Queen-ites”.

You know first of all, “Why is Queen Emma running to be queen if she's already queen?” She's running to be the monarch, the actual head of state. She's queen by virtue of being married to Kamehameha the fourth so she's a widow of the king. It seems the new research coming out is saying that she actually had the popular support and if there had been a popular election, she would have won. But there wasn't. The constitution called for an election only of the legislature

Makani: Wow

Dr Umi Perkins:   Kalakaua , won with a vote of 39 to six and the big what if question to me is, “What if Emma had won?”  And if she had the support,  just not in the legislature because Kalakaua was seen as more amenable to sugar 

Makani: Wow

Dr Umi Perkins:  If Emma had won, she was much more pro-Brittsh and so there would have been less American influence in that period. There had already been strong British influence under Kamehameha the fourth and fifth and that would have probably continued on.  She was a quarter English herself. She was raised in the church of England, so there's all this English influence. England had already signed a treaty saying they'll never take over Hawaii, so you can draw your own conclusion.

Makani: What if we would be sitting here with British accents?

Dr Umi Perkins:  Quite possibly.

Makani: Which is bizarre to me. I didn't know that.

Dr Umi Perkins:  Yeah

Makani: So that's a huge!  So this happened in what years in Hawaii?

Dr Umi Perkins:  1874.  The first elected monarch he dies.  He had tuberculosis,  so he reigned for only 13 months. There's quickly another election and Kalakaua ends up having a long reign after that. He reigns longer than Emma lived but then...I'm very pro Emma. My wife is the principal of Saint Andrewʻs priory which she founded along with queen's hospital so Emma's a major, major figure to me. That is not appreciated quite as much as she should be. 

Makani: From there, are there other things that stick out? I like how you put it, the “what ifs”.  The “what-ifs” in history. What are the things in history, on our timeline that would actually in that terms make us not what we are today? Which is crazy. We could be having British accents. “What if?”  What other things that you see historically that could have changed us drastically?

Dr Umi Perkins:  Ah. So, the other big one that stands out. There's a character that I'm always fascinated with.  His name is Albert Kūnuiākea and he was the son of Kamehameha III,  but illegitimate. His mother was not Kamehameha the third's wife. She was the daughter of John Young and so he could have been king and that would have changed things.

Makani:  Okay hold that. I want to get into that because it's the first time I'm hearing that.

Dr Umi Perkins:  So when I think about it, he's born two years before Kamehameha the third died. Albert Kūnuiākea is his name. That's a pretty radical name if you think about it. It's a god of war.

Makani:  I was just gonna say.

Dr Umi Perkins:  So he's not the heir to the throne.  The young chief who becomes Kamehameha the fourth, Alexander Liholiho is heir to the throne.  But if you think about it, Albert is the grandson of Kamehameha the first.  I mean he's very much in a direct line.  But because the missionaries had come in with this idea of illegitimacy which never existed before, he's not in the line for the throne. If he had been, he would have been he would have been Kamehameha the fourth. So, he would be Kamehameha the fourth from 1854 and he lived until 1903. So, we'd have had a king on the throne for 40 years at the time of the overthrow. If you have this older strong male monarch who's been on the throne so long. Does it make the overthrow less likely in 1893 than when you have Liliʻiu on the throne? The sugar growers wanted Liliʻu because they thought a woman won't be as strong. They ended up being wrong about that but there's all these “what-ifʻ scenarios.

Makani:  What's crazy to me, the influence even back then.  

Dr Umi Perkins:  Oh Yeah.

Makani:  Itʻs in a monarchy,  but then you're thinking wow, how political is it. So the politics in the monarchy was heavy?

Dr Umi Perkins:  In fact there was a Hawaiian political party that wanted a republic. They wanted a president.  Robert Wilcox was the head of that party, the liberal party. And so you had Hawaiians who opposed the queen in a way. But when she was overthrown they ended up fighting to reinstate her.  That's the rebellion in 1895. 

Makani:  So what if...I'm just thinking about it right now. In your opinion, in your manaʻo, If he was king at the time of the overthrow, Do you think it would have happened? Or he would have just said, “You know, I'm killing all you.”

Dr Umi Perkins:  It's really hard to say. I think it you could safely say it makes it less likely because he's the grandson of Kamehameha the first is on the throne

 Makani:  So you already know...

Dr Umi Perkins:  Authority, his right to rule is unquestionable.

Makani:  Thatʻs Crazy.

Dr Umi Perkins:  But, for the illegitimate aspects 

Makani:  That's a huge “what if”.  I didn't realize that that could have changed the whole entire trajectory of who we are today. I mean it's far.. W, that's unreal.  Moving on with history, one last thing, another thing that would have changed who we are.

Dr Umi Perkins:  Well I think we should get into the area that I've done the most research in. As mentioned it was land tenure as my area.  My dissertation was on the kuleana act and I think what a lot of people don't know about that, the common received wisdom is that that led to the loss of land.  The privatizing land in the mahele in 1848 which created the system that we still live in today, led to the loss of land but actually what that system did was embed the rights to land for makaʻainana, and that's what we saw on Kauai with Mark Zuckerberg.  He has to fight all these heirs who still have claims in that land in his 700 acre parcel.  So, it's very, very relevant today.  Something that goes back to 1848-1850.

Makani:  Is it just more difficult to fight it today? Did they have palapala? Did they have paper back then that said, “Hey, I am the heir” or as we know as we're in an oral society or a culture.  I mean how do they prove that?

Dr Umi Perkins:  No. They did have paper but some of the lands were named by name only not by maps.  So you had to get a survey done and that cost um the cost was prohibitive for some. But, the main problem is there's so many heirs to those to those lands and you know, you might be a 1/400th heir to land.

Makani:  So, we could never even know. I mean, so how much land is there right now, that yeah....

Dr Umi Perkins:  No, you have to do the research parcel by parcel. There's a guy in Lahaina who actually got his land back from Pioneer Mill.  Yeah so he's the one,  whenever people ask him how did you do it?   He says,  “Do your homework”.  So hold onto the land tenure system and fight.  The rights are there, they're embedded in there even today. 

Makani:  Wow, so that's something most people don't know. Quick question as we slowly wrap up, when you grew up learning culture, being in the culture, even Tongan culture and Hawaiian culture, how do you see culture today?  I mean being practiced?  In your manaʻo and in your thoughts. Is it too much? Is it too little? Is it, what do you think?

Dr Umi Perkins:  Yeah I'm very encouraged by the Hawaiian renaissance which started in the early 70s. It's still stronger than it's ever been really and so the way I think about it is that it's sort of like the base of the pyramid if like.  The people, Hawaiian people are building up that base. The pinnacle might be sort of like the rulership but the base has to be there and that's the culture.  That's institutions and education.

Makani:  You heard it from Dr Umi.  It's all about the culture and how your culture rises. Stay risen.


Makani:  Welcome back to culturised. 

Sitting with my good friend Dr Umi Perkins.  You guys are in for a treat. We got the extended version right now.  You want to see more of it?  Check out our youtube channel. We want to get right back into land tenure.  That's what you studied and we're talking about lands here back from the mahele.   How much does that affect us even today?

Dr Umi Perkins:  Yeah I think a good jumping in point is this gate that we see on the public access to the beach in Kailua. That is a blocking of access rights right.  So the PASH ( Public Access Shoreline Hawaii) decision said in 1995 that there should be open access to mauka and makai,  the ocean and the mountains. Gates like that are as far as I can tell, absolutely illegal. But that's one part of what they call native tenant rights and the other part of native tenant rights is actually in the mahele. In the constitution of 1840.  The right to get a fee simple property which is way way beyond access rights. That's how Hawaiians initially got these lands that they call kuleana lands. Part of what I've said in my research is that the access rights have sort of overshadowed the more fundamental rights to get fee simple title. Then the question is, “What was the deadline for doing that?”  That's a that's a very difficult question because it was pushed all the way back into 1909.  In the territory they're still doing these granting out of kuleana rights and giving free land to Hawaiians. It's essential.

Makani:  Just  to say they were giving free land to Hawaiians and look at us today. We're just we like we got to fight tooth and nail. We got to go through courts we got to withdraw.  It's really bizarre to me and we can go on and on about that but Um, it's amazing of the things you hear and the revelations of land tenure and how easy it should be right,  and it's not .

Dr Umi Perkins:  Yeah I think the fundamental thing is, why is it free land?  And the reason is that, in the constitution it says the land is owned by three classes,  the King, the Chiefs, which is really described as konohiki, are managers and the makaʻainanana or what they call the hoaʻaina. And so together they own all the lands. So why did they get it for free?  Because they already own it and that's a fundamental thing that a lot of people don't don't really understand. It's not giving away land,  it's dividing out the interest in the land that you're already the partial owner of. That's what the mahale was.  

 Makani:  It's always going to intrigue me. Something else that intrigues me history teacher, we know how we were taught history growing up.  Elementary through high school.  Today as a Hawaiian specific Hawaiian history teacher and a  kanaka,  how how do you think Hawaiian history is being taught today? Not just in Hawaii,  but you know outside of here. Thoughts on that?

Dr Umi Perkins:  Oh outside of here...that's a whole lot. Yeah. I don't want it's easy,  to just criticize. I should say kind of at the outset that the state of Hawaii, much to its credit requires Hawaiian history in the public schools.  That's something they didn't necessarily have to do. Every public school student gets a Hawaiian culture kind of class in fourth grade.  They get a Hawaiian kingdom in seventh grade and then they get modern Hawaiian history in 9th grade and sometimes 11th.  The only issue then is getting qualified teachers in those positions because that's considered social studies. To be a social studies teacher you have to pass the praxis test and that's a very broad social studies test. You got to do economics and US history and world history and no Hawaiian history.  Itʻs like a catch-22. Either you can pass the praxis or you know Hawaiian history. It's pretty unlikely that you're going to know both.  You can if you just sort of learn over the years but a 24 year old coming out of university is unlikely to be able to do both of those things.  So they're stuck.

Makani:  How do you change that?

Dr Umi Perkins:  Well,  one part that I've done. I was fortunate and it was kind of an honor to be put as the Hawaiian History lead on writing the new standards. Their standards are rewritten it wasn't myself alone but there was a group of us. You know that's one piece of the puzzle. The next puzzle, the next piece is curriculum.

On that front I'm on sabbatical right now from Kamehameha.  You know a lot of people say,  “I'm on sabbatical”,  when they got kicked out of something or they got fired.  But I am really on sabbatical to write a Hawaiian history textbook. We're pretty close to a contract with publishing. It's gonna happen.

Makani:  The first I heard about it,  I was pretty amazed. Not a lot of people would be like yeah,  I went to my friend's ted talk. You talked about rewriting the Hawaiian history book and I was like WOW!

Dr Umi Perkins:  Yeah, and I needed a sabbatical to finish that up.  It can't really be done after school.

Makani:  So, where do you start? I mean, whenever I have conversations with people I would say well where did your historical clock start? In a history book of Hawaii, like where do you start? Like straight kumulipo?

Dr Umi Perkins:  Yeah mine is kumulipo and partly that's because when you talk about growing up with your parents and what do they teach about culture mother's research for 35 years was on the kumulipo and it never quite got completed so I'm just starting to try to think about how to take that back up. One way I can start is to start the textbook with that. My first post on my blog on this series, moolelo series I call it, was kumulipo.  Just to start at the starting point.

Makani:  That's just deep in and of itself. So now this history book, when done and published. Is it  just for Hawaii or like you're going to be like we're going to send this out to all these other schools on the mainland, the continent and be like no this is it.

Dr Umi Perkins:  No just for Hawaii. I mean thereʻs about 200 000 kids in the D.O.E. and you know a tenth of them are taking one of the Hawaiian history classes.  A fifth of them are taking some kind of Hawaiian history at any any given time. So it's a big enough market.

Makani:  That's an amazing feat! When I was watching your ted talk, you don't think about the people that write these scholastic books. I mean from that, Iʻm just like, Wow, my friend is going to do that. Amazing. So what trips me out as we wrap up, is that from you and I sweeping parking lots with coconut fronds...

Dr Umi Perkins:  Donʻt forget the weed whacker

Makani:  I know we thought we were the best. I mean people hate us and then we graduated to blowers. And the things we did at lahainaluna that people would just be like what the heck? It's almost as though you think about, “Hmm,  these lahainaluna boarders. I don't think they're going too many places.”  And then with what you've accomplished today, I think is very important because like on a previous show they said it doesn't matter where we come from,  we just know where we're going.  So, huge huge congratulations to you and all the things that you're doing! Before we leave,  one thing you can say to people about culture.  Whatever it is, whether it's ethnic,  native or social.

Dr Umi Perkins:  i actually looked up an anthropological definition of culture before the show.  What really strikes me about it is that culture is made up of those things that are assumed so in that way culture is often invisible those things that you do and you didn't that you don't think about. So if we're talking about culture then you have to start thinking about those things and are those the right things to be doing? You know as we move into a time where things are very uncertain,  we have to start questioning those assumptions.  You know, should we change some of the cultural parts of local culture for example? Even something like driving cars and trucks and things like that.  It's pretty much part of local culture but can how long can we continue?  I think that's where the tipping point of thinking about culture and moving into the future is.

Makani:  Dr Umi Perkins,  thank you very much for being here. For sharing your manaʻo,  your knowledge and educating. That's what it's all about. We want to share a culture on every level. We got to thank Star-Advertiser for giving us a venue to hang out and sit with friends and special guests, learn culture, share culture as I say preserve, perpetuate and practice.

Also got to thank Jam's World. I think I'm gonna get you some of these.  With these you know, we're gonna try to pull them off and your kids will be like doctor Umi.  One of the great things about Jam's World, there's causes to this shirt.  

So like this shirt specifically, proceeds go to Food Bank. So we got to thank them for it. We got to thank Kapa Kava as well. Continued success. It is always good to see and we'll see you soon. Hawaii history is on facebook,   Umiverse on wordpress.  Where else can we find you?

Dr Umi Perkins:  Oh youtube channel, just my name Umi Perkins.

Makani:  I like it. Again,  thank you very much. Once again, thank you for joining us at culturised.

Always remember whatever your culture is, make sure you're doing something to make it rise and stay risen.


1 comment

  • Hi, how can I get in contact with Dr. Umi Perkins?

    Michelle Cabunoc

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