The Birth of Hawai‘i's Native-Language Newspaper Archive - Atlas Obscura
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The Birth of Hawai‘i’s Native-Language Newspaper Archive

Hawaiian-language experts are working to preserve a century’s worth of history.

The Kingdom of Hawaiʻi’s first native-language newspaper was published in 1834. By the 1870s, there were 10 such newspapers serving a population with an almost 100 percent literacy rate—impressive considering that as recently as the early 19th century, Hawaiian was primarily an oral language.

The explosion in Hawaiian-language papers demonstrated that Hawaiians were committed to documenting their own culture. The newspapers were also a critical method of sharing ideas across the islands, and with the rest of the world. Within these papers readers could find accounts of sustainable farming practices, regional politics, and reports from the battlegrounds of the American Civil War.

Then in 1896, three years after the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarch Queen Liliʻuokalani, teaching the Hawaiian language was formally banned in local schools. With this change in law came a sharp decline in fluency, and in 1948 the last Hawaiian-language newspaper shut down.

Today, tens of thousands of fragile newsprint pages, from a period that ranges over 100 years, sit in archives and collections around the islands. But with only 1.2 percent of the population currently able to speak Hawaiian, much of the information they contain is inaccessible to those for whom it would be most relevant.

In the video above, we visit with a group of Hawaiian-language scholars who are now working to scan, catalog, and translate this archive. The hope is that by digitizing and opening up access to the stories within these lost newspapers, a crucial resource will be available for generations to come.

The Aloha Spirit brought to you in partnership with OluKai.