Native Hawaiian Families Connect with their Ancestors as Bishop Museum Confronts a Controversial Part of its Past
We look behind the troubling origin of the century-old photos in the exhibit “(Re)Generations: Challenging Scientific Racism” at Bishop Museum.
When Annemarie Aweau Paikai looks into the eyes of her kūpuna in their photographs, she feels a deep connection. But it’s complicated by the troubling reason that these treasured century-old portraits even exist.
“Just to see their faces so huge, to be able to look at them, it’s really powerful,” Paikai says, as she stares at the 3-foot-tall prints of her ancestors hanging on the wall at Bishop Museum’s J.M. Long Gallery. “Photos are just so meaningful.”
That’s her great-great-grandfather, Lameka Ho‘olapa, with a clear, compelling gaze and a wiry mustache; and his father, David Ho‘olapa, his white beard grazing the collar of his buttoned shirt—both farmers—photographed on a single day in Kona. They peer out from the black-and-white images taken by anthropologist Louis Sullivan for Bishop Museum and the American Museum of Natural History. Now both are part of a striking new exhibit titled (Re)Generations: Challenging Scientific Racism in Hawai‘i at Bishop Museum that explores a 100-year-old collection of photos and plaster busts.
Sullivan traveled the Islands between 1920 and 1925, enlisting the help of community and school leaders to introduce him to primarily Native Hawaiian families so he could take their photographs. Bishop Museum tasked him with probing the origins of the Hawaiian race as part of the Bayard Dominick Expedition, even while knowing Sullivan was a proponent of eugenics, which advocates selective breeding of humans to improve the genetic composition. Eugenics gained its most infamous backers in Nazi Germany’s systemic persecution and killing of 6 million Jews during the Holocaust.
Paikai, 33, works as an academic librarian at Leeward Community College. She knows a lot about historic suppression of indigenous people here and across the globe. But this time she feels the impact personally as she looks at the photos of her ancestors on the gallery wall. As far as she knows, they’re the only two photographs that exist of the pair. “It’s incredibly sobering to know that my family’s photos were involved in a study in any way associated with the gross misconceptions of eugenics.”
The exhibit focuses on the larger-than-life portraits of five ‘ohana from O‘ahu and the Big Island. Here, the serious historical images—Sullivan discouraged smiling—are joined by modern family photos, full of joy, with descriptions of their lives and the promise of chapters yet to be written by generations to follow. Still, the exhibit presents an unflinching account of its roots in scientific racism.
Jillian Swift joined the museum as curator of archaeology in March 2019 when the discussion was already underway to base an exhibit on the 952 images in the Sullivan collection. The museum had shared the photos publicly for decades—even touring the Neighbor Islands in the 1980s to spread the word to people tracing their family histories—without discussing their origins.
“But it didn’t take too much digging to recognize that there is this really problematic context around the photographs and the research that led to the photographs being created and this now-discredited, very racist idea,” Swift says. “[Sullivan] was interested in hybridization, so he was not necessarily a proponent of racial purity per se, but eugenics from the angle of how do we mix and match to create the super person.”
Sullivan noted the racial/ethnic backgrounds of those he met, their ages, locations, measurements and other physical characteristics, and their names, sometimes misspelled. The museum researched and added a timeline to this dehumanizing effort to classify people by such characteristics.
The museum also recognized that the Sullivan collection had evolved into a resource for people looking into Hawai‘i’s past—a trove of photographs of hundreds of people caught on a day in their lives, created at a time when photos were pretty rare. The exhibit was able to come together now, Swift says, because of the help of the descendants who “have been able to visit it and have been able to add their own stories and memories and histories and experiences with the collection that we now can share those things.”
Sharnelle and Marleah Renti Cruz first saw their great-grandparents’ photos reprinted on a banner at a family reunion but at the time they were focused on connecting with their extended ‘ohana and didn’t think about how the photos came to be.
The twin sisters, 29, trace their family roots to Kōloa, Kaua‘i. They grew up in Kekaha but eventually moved to O‘ahu for school and both earned degrees in library science from UH Mānoa last year. They found the photos had come from Bishop Museum, so they used a university assignment as an opportunity to learn more. When they saw the black-and-white portraits of great-grandparents Mathais and Lucy Hamauku Akona, something bothered them. “You know, these photographs sort of look like mug shots,” Sharnelle recalls saying to her sister.
Finding out about the eugenics study raised more questions. “Did they know what was happening?” Marleah wonders. “What language did they ask them in, because our great-great-grandparents spoke Hawaiian. What happened to all the information that they got from this study? Did they receive compensation?”
Swift says that the exhibit’s timing felt more poignant, prepared during the pandemic as the nation reeled over the murder of George Floyd and the widespread protests of systemic violence against Black Americans that followed. “All of the research that we’ve done, all the stories that we’ve collected, everything that we have from this is now going to be entered into the archives connected to these photographs,” Swift says.
The twin sisters welcome the chance to contribute. They know that Mathais Akona worked for the county as well as for McBryde Plantation, that Lucy Akona was with the Red Cross. “We really want to convey that there is more about our kūpuna that are not conveyed in these photographs, how they were well-connected in their community,” Sharnelle says. “We found out that they were a part of different Hawaiian benevolent societies; our great-grandmother was a part of the Queen Ka‘ahumanu society, our great-grandfather was a member of the Royal Order of Kamehameha.” The family connection inspired the twins to look into joining the Ka‘ahumanu society as well. Sharnelle now works as an archive specialist for the Hula Preservation Society. Both hope the exhibit encourages people to learn more about their ancestors. “And,” says Marleah, “it also empowers us to call out these kinds of situations.”
In the Sullivan photos, the sisters see an uncanny family resemblance across the generations. “We looked at our great-great-grandfather and then we look at our uncle and it’s really striking, the resemblance that they have,” Marleah says.
Swift co-curated the exhibit with museum archive collections manager Leah Caldeira and Keolu Fox, a genome scientist and assistant professor at the University of California, San Diego. Fox, who is Native Hawaiian, marveled that the exhibit delves into topics that he’d never imagined would be explored during his many childhood visits to the museum. “We’re repatriating people’s identities,” he says. And Swift says Fox illuminated how a modern trend—the use of DNA kits that use our genetic makeup to categorize us—could lead to future exploitation. “We talk about genetic research and DNA analysis as sort of the new frontier of how we study human variation today, its advantages and disadvantages,” Swift says. In the exhibit, the point is made with humor: Part of the display includes a fictional DNA company with dubious motives called Bio Colonialism Trust, complete with inviting graphics, a motto—“Trust Us to Tell You Who You Are”—and a fake collection kit labeled as a satirical exhibit prop.
“This is actually just the start of a conversation and of being more open … of thinking harder about how we serve our Native Hawaiian communities.” – Jillian Swift
Swift says the curators highlighted families who knew about the photos and wanted to participate. There are three busts in the exhibit, all identified but whose descendants could not be reached. They are plaster casts of students from Kamehameha Schools, which at the time shared a campus with the museum. Swift hopes even more families will come forward: “This is actually just the start of a conversation and of being more open … of thinking harder about how we serve our Native Hawaiian communities, how we repair those relationships.”
Paikai credits the museum with being honest. Museums “have caused a lot of harm for a lot of communities that aren’t white,” often leaving indigenous people out of the narrative or representing them in problematic ways, she says.
Paikai talked with me in a courtyard just steps away from where the museum team worked to complete the display. At the museum gates, her and her great-great-grandfather’s faces appear on the banner that welcomes visitors to the campus. Although she says seeing her oversized image feels surreal, Paikai views the powerful exhibit as an opportunity to reclaim some of what was lost by Hawaiians forced to suppress hula, cultural practices and even the Hawaiian language.
While she’s closely connected to her Native Hawaiian ancestry, Paikai was born and raised in California after better economic opportunities there prompted her father to leave the Islands long ago. She moved to Hilo at 18 to major in Hawaiian studies and plans to remain here in the Islands to raise her own family. She and her husband provided a family portrait to include in the exhibit and she’s excited to think that one day generations yet to come may return to the museum to find out more about them.
“I don’t know how to explain it other than it’s just this sense within yourself that this is where I belong,” Paikai says. “This has been a quest for me to find my family, to find out more about who we are.”
Visit the exhibit through Oct. 24 in a new timed admission procedure that began March 1.
Bishop Museum, 1525 Bernice St., (808) 847-3511, 9 a.m.–5 p.m. daily, bishopmuseum.org
Searching for your family history?
Bishop Museum offers online help for those looking for information in the Sullivan collection of photos as well as many other resources. bishopmuseum.org/library-and-archives
If you already know what you want, have specific collections questions, need access or want to order reproductions, email email@example.com
The Sullivan collection can also be accessed online as part of the extensive collections and records available through the state Office of Hawaiian Affairs’ Papakilo Database. papakilodatabase.com
Flashback! How did Hawai‘i news report the Sullivan project in the 1920s?
Oct. 5, 1920: “Scientist Finds Plenty of Pure Blood Hawaiians” declares the front-page headline in what was then The Daily Post Herald in Hilo (now the Hawai‘i Tribune-Herald).
The article describes Sullivan as “making a study of the Hawaiians for the purpose of preserving their race characteristics in the museum archives,” to help the museum in its attempt to trace the origins of Hawaiians. Quoting Sullivan: “I am convinced that there are at least 20,000 Hawaiians in the Territory who will pass for representatives of the ancient stock. More than half of them are pure bloods.” He also laments the dental health of Hawaiians.
July 23, 1921: “Eyes of Eugenics Experts Focussed on Hawaii” is the headline splashed above the Honolulu Star-Bulletin’s full-page feature story about Sullivan preparing to go to a eugenics conference in New York, where inventor Alexander Graham Bell would preside.
The story includes photos of plaster busts made from casts of various races to study the effects of interracial marriages. And it includes a photo of a life-size statue of David Kahanamoku spearfishing, made from a full-body plaster cast. He was the brother of Olympian and famed waterman Duke Kahanamoku. Sullivan explains the purpose of his study is to “establish the most important and distinctive race characteristics,” with physical measurements of the nose, thickness of lips, texture of hair, etc.
Conference planners bluntly describe their goals: “The eyes of the scientific world are sharply focused on Hawaii awaiting the development and outcome of her great natural experiment in human breeding. … Aside from the scientific value the publicity value of such an exhibit will be inestimable.”