Skip to main content

Allison Milham

Allison Milham

Photo courtesy of the artist

Interview conducted by Deena Woloshin, Scripps College '18

 

   

What was your inspiration for adapting this music and personalizing it?

The process of studying and learning to play Queen Lili‘uokalani’s songs was an opportunity for me to not only reconnect with music, (which had been on the back-burner for a number of years), but also to connect with and explore my Hawaiian heritage. I was moving into my third year of grad school at the University of Alabama when the idea to record an album of Hawaiian music came to me. The project ended up becoming my MFA in the Book Arts creative thesis work. Luckily, my committee agreed to letting me make a record, since I would be not only recording the music, but also designing, printing and binding the album artwork and packaging for the 12” vinyl boxset.

I’d have to say that the initial inspiration to work with these songs, however, really came from my family, and I’d trace it back to an experience I had with my grandma when I was 11. My mom had booked a last minute trip for my sisters and I to go to Hawai‘i to see her a final time, as her health was quickly declining due to leukemia. I remember being at her bedside and playing with her ‘ukulele. I asked if she would teach me something and despite how sick she was at that point, she agreed. In soft voice and with weak fingers, she taught me the chorus of a sovereignty song by Liko Martin, “All Hawaii stand together. It is now and forever to raise our voices and hold your banners high. We shall stand as a Nation, to guide the destiny of our generation, to sing and praise the glory of our land.” My grandmother, Dallas Keali‘iho‘oneaina Mossman Vogeler, was an active voice for Hawaiian rights and sovereignty from the late 1980s until her death. She was also an award-winning theater director and musician, who directed a 5-day, real-time reenactment the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom at Iolani Palace, which was part of the Onipa‘a Centennial Observance in 1993, attended by 20,000 people.

Other inspirational family members who have been active in the Hawaiian Movement include my uncle, Kuhio Vogeler, my aunty Moanikeala, and my mom, Mary Alice Ka’iulani Milham, who was my collaborator on this project. She co-wrote the accompanying booklet and is currently writing a screenplay about Queen Lili‘uokalani.

So my interest in Hawaiian music and Hawaiian culture was really peeked at a young age through my family, but it wasn’t until my late 20s while working on my MFA, that I discovered the Queen’s extensive catalog of music and began to learn her story. Pretty immediately, I knew that I wanted to record an album and use her songs as a portal to understanding Hawaiian history, both for myself and for my audience. So, it was through music that I was able to connect to my heritage and to Hawai‘i’s story.

As I learned the songs and the work progressed, I thought often of my grandma and began to understand this project as a kuleana (responsibility) I had as an artist of Native Hawaiian decent to use my skills in music and art to help educate people about the Queen and Hawaiian history.

Who were the people whose quotes you used in the opening song? Why did you choose these quotes in particular? 

Thank you for asking this question! This first track is a really important one and features the voices of several Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) activists who are or have been involved in the struggle for Hawaiian rights and sovereignty, and who have been influential to me and my work.

The first voice you hear is Noelani Goodyear-Kaʻōpua chanting Oli Aloha, a welcome chant. Noelani is a scholar, author and activist who teaches in the Indigenous Politics Program and the University of Hawai‘i, Manoa. The second is the voice of the late Richard Pomai Kinney, a long-time Hawaiian sovereignty activist. In this interview, he is speaking about aloha ʻāina, a Hawaiian concept of love for the land, or as Noelani puts it, “a politically-engaged loving care for Hawaiʻi and for Indigenous relationships with place.” Following Pomai you hear Lynette Cruz, also an academic and activist who I know through Ka Lei Maile Ali‘i Hawaiian Civic Club and her work with the Kū’e Petition sign display. She and the civic club have installed the signs, each containing one name from the Ku’e Anti-Annexation Petitions of 1897, around the country including on the National Mall in Washington DC. Next is my uncle, Kuhio Vogeler, speaking about sovereignty and the future. This clip, as well as the following, were taken from the 1992 documentary, “Hui Na‘auao: A Community Education Project”. A PhD in Political Science, Kuhio’s research has helped shed light on Hawai’i's legal status as a nation under prolonged U.S. occupation. The next voice heard is my grandmother. In this recording she speaks of the importance of honoring her ancestors who fought annexation. She references her great grandfather who was in the Royal Hawaiian Band, whose members famously said that they would rather eat stones than play for the new Provisional Government that overthrew the Hawaiian Kingdom. The final recording you hear is the voices of young students from a Hawaiian language immersion school chanting, I Ku Mau Mau.

I think the intention of the opening track is really to set the tone of the album, and to make clear that there’s a context to the music and to the project. Especially since most of the songs are in Hawaiian, I think their significance could easily be overlooked or taken for just some nice, soothing island music. So I wanted to be sure the intention of the work was really upfront and I chose these particular voices to highlight the fact that there is still today, a very strong, active and dynamic movement in Hawai‘i. I also wanted to draw the connection between these contemporary activists and the rich legacy of organized resistance in Hawai‘i, stemming from the Queen and the massive protests against annexation in 1898. 

What is it about the connection between Hawaiian culture and music that made you feel it was the best approach to educate people about the Hawaiian occupation?  

Accessibility was really important to me as I worked on this project. I think of music (like do books), as being a more democratic and generally more accessible medium than, say, painting or theatre. I also feel like music impacts people on an emotional level in a way that other forms may not.

In terms of the connection between Hawaiian culture and music, I think it’s important to start by noting that Hawai‘i had an oral tradition with no written language until the 1820s, when the first missionaries came. So, Hawaiian history was really preserved thru music and oli (chant). Hawaiians have always told their stories through music and understood its emotional impact. The Queen understood that as well and during the time of the overthrow, Hawaiian music evolved into a form used to tell of their struggles and as a tool to raise awareness and encourage unity among the Hawaiian people.

I think it’s also really important to highlight the fact that the Queen was a prolific composer. She wrote over 200 songs during her life and is credited as the first composer of Hawaiian music in the Western tradition. Her songs remain immensely popularity today and are frequently covered by contemporary Hawaiian musicians. Many of her songs were political and used music as a form of nonviolent resistance. “Oh my love and adoration for my native people. Be one of heart and stand firm with unity.” This is a line from the song, Umia Ke Aloha I Pa‘a I Loko, which was written during her imprisonment, smuggled out of the palace and published in a Hawaiian language newspaper. It was meant to communicate with her nephew, who had also been arrested and with her people in general, encouraging steadfastness and unity. Countless other Hawaiian patriots were contributing songs at this time as well, and Hawaiian musicians have continued through today to use song as a way to share their story and as a form of protest.

In the same vein, I wanted to use music as an entry point for my project. I think of the songs as being the part of the project that really draws the audience in; that sparks their interest in the work. The content mostly plays out in the booklet, lyric sheet and in the liner notes. The viewer is then provided with a set of tools (stencil, postcards, etc.) allowing them to turn their newly acquired knowledge into action. The action part is key and I tried to really focus on that as central part of this project.

Who is your intended audience? 

I’m often asked why I don’t spend more time sharing this project in Hawai’i. I guess it’s because I feel like most folks living there (at least a lot more than here) are already aware of the history and of the ongoing struggles Native Hawaiians face. So, I’d say for this project, my audience is really the American public in general. 

I think that it’s important for all Americans to have an understanding of what actually happened in Hawai‘i—that there was never a treaty of annexation and that the effects of Americanization, the destruction of land and resources through continued development, desecration of sacred sites, militarization, tourism and the commodification of Hawaiian culture, are deep and ongoing. I think it’s important to know that Hawai‘i was once an independent nation, governed by a constitutional monarchy, recognized by many nations including France, Great Britain, and the U.S. and had consulates and embassies (over 90) throughout the world. And that Queen Lili‘uokalani, Hawaii’s last ruling monarch was illegally overthrown in 1893 and later imprisoned by a small group of American businessmen who would reap economic benefits of sugar exports by annexing Hawai‘i to the U.S. I think that people should also know that the Queen was a highly educated and accomplished woman, beloved by her people, who fought tirelessly for the rights of Native Hawaiians to maintain control of their government, their land and their culture. Her desire to return Hawai‘i to Hawaiians was manifested in her work for the advancement of the health, education, and welfare of Native Hawaiians.

And I think it’s important to know what’s going on in Hawai‘i today: that Native Hawaiians make up less than 10% of the population and yet account for 37% of Hawai‘i's homeless; that they face a cost of living that is 75% higher than the rest of the U.S. causing most to be unable to live in their own homeland; that Hawai‘i is the extinction capital of the world, home to 25% of the endangered species in the U.S. though making up just .25% of the country’s area; and that it’s the most militarized place on the planet. These are things that the average American is not aware of, because we’re not taught these things in school. At least I know I wasn’t. 

The omission and/or misrepresentation of significant pieces of our history is of course a common theme in our education system—a calculated attempt by those in power to maintain their grip over an uneducated public. It’s the same reason that we are not taught about how our country was built on slavery, exploitation and genocide. It seems that today, however, in light of our current political situation, many people are becoming aware and are hungry not only to learn but also to face these untold and dark parts of our country’s history. As we gain new understanding of past and present struggles, I think it’s critical that we as Americans make efforts to see our own personal connection to the present reality we face. A Thich Nhat Hanh quote may help to illustrate my point, “The wealth of one society is made of the poverty of the other.”

How do you think that this music can relate to other struggles of indigenous peoples, and contemporary problems such as Standing Rock? 

In many parts of the world, music has played a major role in political and social justice movements. It was a key component of the Civil Rights Movement and played a significant role in the abolition of slavery. Music’s been used as an effective way to inspire unity in a movement and also to highlight injustice. Songwriters like Woody Guthrie and Nina Simone are great examples of American artists who really used the power of song in this way.

I think for indigenous communities, music and chant are cultural traditions that are totally rooted in their heritage and have been used throughout their history of struggle and resistance. For Native Hawaiians and I’d think for most indigenous cultures, music is intertwined with historical and contemporary movements. And I think for all native people, music serves as an important point of connection to their ancestors and to their legacy of sustained, organized resistance to Western imperialism and white supremacy.

Especially since indigenous peoples have faced such formidable attempts at cultural erasure, with language, dance and many other cultural practices being banned or restricted, the connection to our ancestors, through things like music, is essential and can be seen in movements throughout the world such as at Standing Rock and within the Hawaiian Sovereignty Movement. And new songs continue to be written. Kumu Hina’s ,Kū'u Ha'aheo, is a great example of a contemporary protest song that’s become a unifying battle cry in the fight to protect Mauna Kea, a scared mountain facing continued destruction and desecration on the Big Island of Hawai‘i. I think its potent and uplifting message can easily relate to the ongoing struggles for justice that many indigenous people continue to endure. 

E lei mau i lei mau kākou e nā mamo aloha

Be honored always oh beloved descendants of the land

I lei wehi ‘a’ali’i wehi nani o ku’u ‘āina

Let us wear the honored ‘a'ali'i of our beloved land

Hoe a mau hoe a mau no ka pono sivila

Paddle on in our pursuits of civil justice

A ho’iho’i hou ‘ia mai ke kū’oko’a

Until our dignity and independence is restored”

What do you feel is Queen Lili’uokalani contribution to the modern Hawaiian revolution?

I don’t think there would be any real movement today if it wasn’t for the Queen. Her legacy is enduring and vital to today’s movement. Her music and her steadfast leadership are powerful sources of inspiration and guidance for Native Hawaiians and those fighting for indigenous rights and self-determination. For non-Hawaiians and for those living outside of Hawai‘i, I think she is still a largely unknown figure, despite her being one of our greatest feminist heroes, an early environmentalist and champion of nonviolent resistance. She was a skillful leader, known for her grace and power, who understood the value of melding traditional cultural practices with more modern and western approaches.

I know that for me, she represents a brave and unwavering commitment to nonviolent action and compassion. This is evident in one of her many songs that was written during her imprisonment, He Aloha O Ka Haku, or The Queen’s Prayer, in which she asks forgiveness for her oppressors. I find this so powerful, and so inspiring. Lili‘uokalani was someone who really embodied peace, and I think that the peaceful protests and commitment to kapu aloha we’re seeing today at places like Mauna Kea and Standing Rock are evidence of the rootedness these movements have in the work of our indigenous and nonviolent leaders like the Queen. 

I think it’s also important to recognize that Queen Lili‘uokalani was in touch with her creative voice as an artist, and she used it as a form of resistance and as a way to inspire hope and determination in her people. She was an artist who made music reflecting her times, which, according to Nina Simone is an artist’s duty.

I think her motto, ‘Onipa‘a, which means “to remain steadfast,” is an important message for Americans right now too, in light of the changing and tumultuous times we currently face in our country.

With various different formats of presenting art, what drew you to create this piece in the form of an artist's book? How do you think the format of an artist's book best explores/examines race and identity?

As I mentioned, the work was produced for my MFA in Book Arts, so that obviously had something to do to with my choosing the book form, vs. just music. The clamshell boxset format I used allowed me to combine several of my interests in one piece (music, papermaking, printing, binding, Hawaiian history, family heritage, etc.). It also allowed me to incorporate many different elements housed within the box, offering different ways for the viewer to interact.

Since the project is really about education, it felt import to have the content be accessible in many different formats, so I made separate versions and open editions of almost everything that’s included with the project. The music, for example is available free online, as is the booklet. There is a more basic version of the 12” record, and also CDs available. And I sell (and often give away) the stencils, stickers, postcards separately too.

Artists’ books tend to not be so accessible to the general public. Because of this, I’m not sure I’d consider the artists’ book to be the best format to explore race and identity. I do, however,  think that the intimate and experiential nature of the book form has the potential to be a very powerful way to interact with such personal themes.

How would you like your audience to interact with your work? 

Ideally, listening to the music while they’re interacting with physical components of the work. The project really incorporates a lot of different parts—some that are quick to take in, the stencil image of the Queen, for example, and others that take more time, like the pamphlet. I also love thinking about someone just coming across a sicker somewhere on a sign or on someone’s car or something. Or finding the music online, and then being draw into the work. And not necessarily drawn to my project, but to learning more about Hawai’i’s story in general.

How are the central themes/messages of your work relevant to contemporary issues?

I think the themes of my project are quite relevant to contemporary issues that indigenous communities face. Hawai’i's story is but one chapter in the long and dark history of Western Imperialism. What we’re seeing today at Standing Rock and in Hawai'i is the ongoing struggle of Native peoples against colonial violence.