In 1899, a young Mormon woman named Hannah Kaaepa traveled to Washington, D.C., as a delegate to National Council of Women’s Congress. She had been invited by May Wright Sewall to speak about the rights of Hawaiian women and the recent overthrow of the Hawaiian Queen Liliuokalani. While in Washington, she was feted by Hawaiian Queen who threw her a dinner party and invited the women who had accompanied the young Kaaepa to Washington. As a result, Emmeline B. Wells, Susa Young Gates, and Lucy B. Young would be among those in attendance that night. Susan B. Anthony finished out the guest list.
I have little information about what happened that night. Gates’ history of the Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Society simply noted that she had been well received, “wearing with dignity the modified costume of her people, decked with leis and shells.” (251) I have even less information about the rest of her life. At BYU, lying in a folder in the Benjamin Cluff papers are two letters she wrote to him when he was the President of the university. The first explains that she must refuse his offer of admission to BYU because her mother cannot speak English and needs her to conduct daily business for them in Iosepa and to submit their family’s names to the temple. The second is written in Hawaiian and remains a mystery. Although I have carefully typed what it says – “Aloha kana anui loaa, na loaa mai ia mana o mama ka ia, ake mahalo nui aku nei…” and see a few words I recognize, “aloha” = hello, “mana” = power, respect, “mahalo nui” = thank you very much, I can’t read it. The Family History Library in Salt Lake City has also microfilmed the Family Book that her husband created when she passed away and there are a few snippets of information in the Honolulu Advertiser. From these I learned that she had nine children and four miscarriages, that her mother had been involved in a punalua marriage, and that she served as President of the Relief Society in Honolulu. Although this is a good deal of information compared to the information we have about other Polynesian Mormon women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it pales in comparison to the boxes of information we have about Susa Young Gates or Lucy Bowen Young. Kaaepa appears as a fragment.
In spite of the fragmentary nature of the information I have about Kaaepa, I find her fascinating. She raises so many questions for me:
- Throughout my reading on the Pacific, one of the things that scholars have stressed is the importance of the ‘aina or the land to Hawaiian conceptions of identity. I wonder what it meant for Kaaepa’s family to move to L?’ie and then to Iosepa. Did Kaaepa feel disconnected from the lands where her ancestors had previously lived? What did it mean to be continually asked to form new genealogies and new connections only to have them severed when she was asked to immigrate to the United States or to move back to Hawai’i?
- Did native Hawaiians who saw genealogy as sacred and told of lineages stretching back into prehistory and even back to creation itself view temple work as the same way as white Mormons?
- What did Hannah Kaaepa think about the fact that she had to turn down an offer to attend BYU?
- How did Kaaepa react to Mormon polygamy, especially since her mother had two husbands?
- And, finally, what was the reaction of women like Susa Young Gates and Lucy Bowen to Kaaepa’s speech at the convention? How did Mormons feel about the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in relationship to their missionary work in Hawai’i? Many Hawaiian Mormons maintained their loyalty to the Queen. Did their white brethren also support the monarchy or after the U.S. accepted Hawai’i as a territory (after initially rejecting it) did they support the actions of the American government?
Although I am hoping to find information to allow him to answer some of these questions (I am pretty sure I can find a partial answer to number 5 in particular), others are certain to remain a mystery. Such is one of the problems with history. Although the lives of some people are well documented, others such as that of Hannah Kaaepa remain just outside our grasp.
 A punalua marriage is one in which one spouse has multiple partners. A husband can either have two wives or one wife can have two husbands. In the case of Kaaepa’s mother, she had two husbands, one of whom was a physician to the Royal Family.