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Smithsonian NMAI honors Queen Liliʻuokalani

Smithsonian NMAI honors Queen Liliʻuokalani

WASHINGTON D.C.—The music and poetry of Queen Liliʻuokalani greeted visitors and filled a grandiose open space at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) on March 9 and 10, an event to honor the Queen in celebration of Women’s History Month. 

“This program is part of a couple of initiatives for the Smithsonian … and I think Liliʻuokalani is a particularly compelling and important story; she was an amazing figure in history, she was incredibly literate, she was charismatic, she was a world traveler … and a diplomat. She did a lot of amazing things during her lifetime,” said Hayes Lavis, a curator for the NMAI.  

Amy Stillman, professor of ethnomusicology at the University of Michigan, performed the Queen’s songs and discussed the impact of her music during a period of instability in Hawaiʻi, surrounding the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom. 

“Knowledge is power and it’s important to know our history; it’s important to know what our ancestors did, so that we have more tools at our disposal for moving forward. So in that respect, a program like this is important for introducing people to new ways of thinking,” said Stillman.

She continued, “What’s near and dear to me in this program is that it is so historically based and it’s an opportunity to put on stage some of the historical research that I have done on the Queen’s songs over the years. …What is lesser known are the songs that she was composing in the1890s … when she was going through the rebellion and the subsequent efforts to lobby the United States Congress and president against annexation. ... She was very much an active poet and writer of songs during that period, many of which appeared without attribution or under pseudonyms, so we’re still in the process of connecting up those pieces.” 

On stage, Dr. Stillman shared her research on an anonymously published text in the Hawaiian newspaper, Ka Makaainana, on April 1 of 1895. Stillman later discovered it was text of a song composed by the Queen at the start of her imprisonment after the rebellion of the U.S. annexation. Her research showed that the song was the first of a series of poetic text to appear in the same newspaper. Another part of the song was anonymously published the following week, and it was a response to the Queen in support of her. The week after, Queen Liliʻuokalani responded with words of love for her people. This back and forth dialogue went on for about three months, when the Queen eventually wrote, “What was my crime? My crime was simply being your queen.” 


Kumu Hula Manu Ikaika and Halau Hoʻomau I Ka Wai Ola O Hawaiʻi, based in Virginia, joined Stillman in song and dance throughout the program, including a performance by the keiki of the halau. 

“It means a lot to us because we see from before how strong Hawaiʻi was and what she did for the people, and how it is today and how we try to perpetuate from past to present and to move on to educate people. … For me in the halau, the songs that we do, basically my job is to bring the songs alive and to tell a story of how it was then,” said Manu Ikaika.

Starting with Sanoe and ending with Aloha ‘Oe, the show captivated an audience of about 500 people from varying parts of the U.S. who attended over a two-day period of eight showings.

21-year-old Maya Toluk Ito, executive of the Nesians Unite Club at Chabot College in California said,“She is amazing, when I was hearing the stories of how she didn’t want violence, that’s very Pacific Islander culture. … I was happy that Amy was talking about the history because a lot of people don’t know that Hawaiʻi was illegally annexed. … She held solidarity through Hawaiian and Pacific Islander culture and hearing the songs made me tear up, it was very powerful.” 

“The Queen’s music is very moving because of the history of it, the fact that she can still forgive is very, very touching,”said Robert Engler, a Thousand Oaks, California city council member. 

In 1897, while in Washington D.C. to lobby against the annexation of the Hawaiian Kingdom, Queen Liliʻuokalani compiled many of her mele into a song book.