Are There Any Full Blooded Hawaiians Left – A Native Hawaiian family connects with their ancestors as the Bishop Museum confronts a controversial part of its past. We look behind the origins of these disturbing, centuries-old photos in the exhibition “(Re)Generations: Challenging Scientific Racism” at Bishop’s Museum.
When Annemarie Aweau Paikai looked into the eyes of the kūpuna in their photos, she felt a deep connection. But this is complicated by the unsettling fact that this precious, century-old portrait does exist.
Are There Any Full Blooded Hawaiians Left
“Seeing how big their faces were, and being able to see them, was powerful,” said Paikai, as J.M. He looked at the 10-foot-tall prints of his ancestors hanging on the gallery walls. Long time in the Bishop’s Museum. “The pictures are very meaningful.”
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He was her great-grandfather, Lameka Hoolapa, with a sharp, persuasive gaze and a thin moustache; and his father, David Ho’olapa, his white beard touching the collar of his unbuttoned shirt — both farmers — on a photographed day in Kona. They peek out from black-and-white images taken by anthropologist Louis Sullivan for the Bishop Museum and the American Museum of Natural History. Now both are part of a striking new exhibition entitled
Sullivan traveled to the islands between 1920 and 1925, enlisting the help of community and school leaders to introduce him primarily to Native Hawaiian families so he could photograph them. The Bishop Museum commissioned him to investigate the origins of the Hawaiian species as part of the Bayard Dominick expedition, despite knowing that Sullivan was a supporter of eugenics, which advocated selective breeding of humans to improve their genetic makeup. Eugenics found its most famous proponent in Nazi Germany’s systematic persecution and murder of 6 million Jews during the Holocaust.
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Paykai, 33, works as an academic librarian at Leeward Community College. He knows a lot about the history of oppression of indigenous peoples here and around the world. But this time, he felt the impact personally when he saw photos of his ancestors on the gallery walls. As far as he knows, these are the only two photos of the couple in existence. “It is devastating to learn that my family photos have been included in research that is somehow linked to major misconceptions about eugenics.”
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The exhibition focuses on five portraits of O’ahu and the larger Big Island. Here, sober historical images—Sullivan smiling ruefully—are combined with joyful contemporary family photos, descriptions of their lives, and the promise of chapters yet to be written by future generations. Nevertheless, the exhibition unequivocally shows its roots in scientific racism.
Gillian Swift joined the museum as curator of archeology in March 2019, when discussions were underway to create an exhibition of 952 images from the Sullivan collection. The museum has shared the photos publicly for decades – even while touring neighboring islands in the 1980s to spread the word to people tracing their family history – without discussing their origins.
“However, it doesn’t take much digging to realize that these photos and the research that led to their creation and these deeply racist, now discredited ideas have a deeply problematic context,” Swift said. “[Sullivan] was interested in hybridization, so he wasn’t necessarily advocating racial purity, but eugenics in terms of how we fuse superhumans.”
Sullivan noted the race/ethnicity, age, location, size and other physical characteristics of the people he met, as well as sometimes misspelled names. This museum examines and adds a timeline to the inhumane attempts to classify people based on these characteristics.
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The museum also recognizes that the Sullivan Collection has been a resource for people to look into Hawaii’s past, a treasure trove of photographs of hundreds of people taken in a single day in their lives, taken at a time when photographs were very rare. The exhibition is now possible, Swift said, thanks to help from her descendants, who “were able to visit and add their own stories, memories, tales and experiences to the collection, so that now we can share those things. “
Charnell and Marlea Renty Cruz first saw their great-grandfather’s photo printed on a banner at a family gathering, but at the time they were focused on connecting with their “ohana” and didn’t think about what the photo would look like.
From left, Charnel and Marlea Renty Cruz view the exhibition for the first time. Photo by Aaron K. Yoshino
The 29-year-old twins trace their family roots to Kōloa, Kaua’i. They grew up in Kekaha but eventually moved to Oahu for school and both graduated from UH Mānoa with library science degrees last year. They learned that the images came from the Diocesan Museum, so they engaged a university commission to find out more. When they saw the black-and-white portrait of Mathais and Lucy Hamauku Akona’s great-grandfather, something unsettled them. “You know, these pictures look like mug shots,” Charnell recalled telling his sister.
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Learning about eugenics studies raises further questions. “Do they know what’s going on?” Marley wondered. “They were asked what language it was in, because our great-grandmother spoke Hawaiian. What happens to the information they get from this research? Do they receive compensation?
According to Swift, the exhibition’s timing seemed all the more concerning because it was held during a pandemic, when the country was disrupted by the murder of George Floyd and widespread protests against systematic violence against Black Americans. “All of our research, all of the stories we collect, and everything we get from these images will go into an archive associated with these photos,” Swift said.
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The twins welcomed the contribution. They knew that Mathais Acona worked for the county and McBride Farms, and that Lucy Acona was a member of the Red Cross. “We really want to convey that there is more to our kūpuna than you can see in these photos, how well they are connected to their communities,” Charnell said. “We found out they were part of various charities in Hawaii; our great-grandmother was a member of Queen Kaahumanu’s society, our great-grandfather was a member of the Royal Order of Kamehameha. The family connection inspired the twins to join the Kaahumanu Society as well. Charnell currently works as an archivist at the Hula Preservation Society. The two hope the exhibition will encourage people to learn more about their ancestors. “And,” Marley said, “it also gives us an opportunity to address situations like this.”
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In Sullivan’s photographs, the sisters saw a striking family resemblance across generations. “We looked at our great-grandfathers and then our uncles, and it was surprising how similar they were,” Marley said.
Swift co-curated the exhibition with Leah Caldeira, the museum’s archival collections manager, and Keolu Fox, a genomics scientist and assistant professor at the University of California, San Diego. Fox, who is from Hawaii, was amazed by the exhibits that delved into topics he never thought he would explore during his childhood visits to the museum. “We are returning people’s identity,” he said. And Swift said Fox highlighted how a modern trend – the use of DNA devices that use our genetic makeup – could lead to exploitation in the future. “We talk about genetic research and DNA analysis as something new in the current study of human variation, its strengths and weaknesses,” Swift said. In the exhibition, its essence is characterized by humor: part of the exhibition is a fictional DNA company with dubious motives, the Bio Colonialism Trust, complete with eye-catching graphics, its motto – “Trust us to tell you who you are” – and fake collection paraphernalia, which characterized as a satirical exhibition tool.
“This is really just the beginning of the conversation and being more open…thinking more about how we serve the Native Hawaiian community.” – Jillian Swift
According to Swift, curators selected families who knew about the photo and wanted to participate. There are three statues in the exhibition, all identified, but their heirs could not be contacted. These are plaster casts of students from Kamehameha Schools, which at the time shared the campus with the museum. Swift hopes more families will respond: “This is really just the beginning of the conversation and being more open…thinking more about how we serve the Native Hawaiian community, how we rebuild those relationships.”
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Paykai admitted that the museum was honest. Museums have “caused a lot of harm to many non-white communities,” often ignoring indigenous people’s narratives or depicting them in problematic ways, he said.
Paykai spoke to me in the courtyard just steps from where the museum team is working to complete the exhibit. At the museum’s entrance, his face and that of his great-grandfather appear on banners welcoming visitors.