History and Holoku
Helen Wong Smith tenderly flips open a tattered book with yellowing pages. It’s one of many rare first-edition books safely tucked away at Kauai Historical Society’s office in the Historic County Building. “We have some real treasures in here,” she reveals.
Reading about Hawaii’s history from books like these is Smith’s life. She is an encyclopedia of historical knowledge, although she jokes that her mind now has holes and she has a memory like “Swiss cheese.” Yet, she still can tell you exactly where to find what you’re looking for, which is precisely what her job as archivist entails.
Smith is executive director of KHS, and while she spends plenty of time seeking grants and managing the organization, her main goal is to bring as many Hawaiian collections to light in order to share them with others. “They should be processed and available so that people can do their research,” she says.
The Oahu native has had this job since 2015, and she still is surprised by how many people don’t know about KHS and its function. The resource is available to people in search of any kind of historical information related to Kauai and Niihau, including topography, buildings and genealogy.
Since its establishment in 1914, people have been donating all kinds of unpublished documents to the nonprofit, including handwritten letters. Employees carefully collect and store them for the public’s use. Smith explains that every time a person brings something in, she digs through her memory to recall who may have created the documents and when. “You have to be a detective,” she says.
She will extract as much detailed insight from the document as possible, so that when someone else comes in looking for it, they easily will be able to find it. A developer could learn about what kind of pesticides might have been used on its land in the past before starting construction, for example, or a scientist might want to collect data on rainfall averages.
Photos, some 15,000 of which now have been digitized, are another reason people make use of KHS. Another of its treasures is a transcript of Kawena Pukui (who complied ‘Olele No‘eau) speaking to an audience about hula on Kauai during the 1950s.
“People don’t know about what we have and how we can help them,” Smith says. “When you don’t have that available, people make up things about history.”
Which is exactly what has happened, including the Kanaka Maoli that is claimed to be Kamehameha I’s personal flag. “There’s no historical basis for it. It’s misinformation and people get away with it,” she says, citing the Internet as a dangerous place to collect facts. “The Internet is one big used car lot. There’s a lot of junk out there.”
Smith is passionate about dispensing accurate information. It’s obvious she loves what she does when you realize that, in order to do it, she commutes from Hilo each week. Her husband, Tom Smith Jr., with whom she has two children, Barbara Ka‘onohiokala Mei Lin and Thomas Pi‘ilani Wah Wai, owns Ohelo Cafe in Volcano.
This is not her first time commuting for a job, however. Smith, who has a bachelor’s in Hawaiian studies and a master’s in library and information studies from University of Hawaii at Manoa, traveled to Oahu from Hawaii island to become the first archivist at The Queen’s Medical Center. She also has worked in her current hometown, including as a Hawaiian collection librarian at UH Hilo and an archivist at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. At one time, she was head archivist for National Park Service’s Pacific Island Network, where she traveled to places including Samoa and Kalaupapa. “I’m just a girl who can’t say no,” she jokes.
But Smith, who sits on the Hawaiian Historical Society board and was the second Fellow from Hawaii to be inducted the Society of American Archivists since Agnes Conrad in 1968, is happy to have established some roots on Kauai.
“Helen filled in a great gap in the historical society’s knowledge bank, and her fluency with all the resources is really impressive,” says Donna Stewart, who is retired from KHS. “She is intent on reaching audiences of all ages, using public resources such as the state libraries and making people throughout the island aware of the KHS. Her success at outreach and friendly manner have increased the number of people visiting the office and emailing requests, making her days even busier. But that’s a good thing.”
Right now, planning the society’s upcoming fundraiser, Hoike Holoku Gala, is keeping her busy. The Oct. 15 event will be held from 5:30 to 9 p.m. at Smith’s Tropical Paradise in celebration of Hawaiian holoku — formal women’s attire created by missionaries in the early 1800s. Guests are invited to wear a holoku or other aloha attire and share its history for the hoike portion of the program. To purchase tickets or for more information about KHS, visit kauaihistoricalsociety.org.