UH archivist embraces digital age
Raised in Virginia and weaned culturally and intellectually at the intersection of DIY punk ethos, anti-capitalist activism and comic nerddom, Koa Luke seems an unobvious person to help birth a new age of Hawaiian scholarship.
But for Luke, a cataloger and assistant archivist at the University of Hawaii at West Oahu, the move from anarchist to archivist was a simple matter of personal evolution.
Luke was born in Honolulu and raised primarily in the D.C. area. His father, who served in the Air Force, is Native Hawaiian; his mother, a proud Minnesotan.
While the family moved frequently as his father’s assignments changed, Luke said his father did his best to instill local and Hawaiian values in him and his two siblings. Luke’s awareness of his native background also caused his ears to perk up when issues related to indigenous people were raised in the various places he lived.
After an abortive stint at Virginia Commonwealth University, Luke immersed himself in social activism, bouncing about a national network of punk-affiliated political movements and participating in demonstrations against the World Trade Organization in Seattle and the International Monetary Fund in Virginia.
Luke eventually landed in Indiana — “literally the least diverse place,” he cracks — and a bookstore collective through which he got involved in the Pages to Prisoners Project, which advocated for educational rights for incarcerated people and operated a small library for prisoners.
“A lot of my experiences during this time were informed by being Hawaiian and being a minority,” he said.
Yet, while Luke was invested in the causes he championed, he sensed a discomfort and defensiveness from those around him whenever he broached issues of indigenous rights and colonialism. At the same time, he felt a growing desire to further explore his Hawaiian roots.
“I realized that the movements I was
in could be a bit shallow,” he said. “I started to feel that Native Hawaiian issues were more meaningful because I’m genealogically connected to the land. It feels more alive to me, and I wanted to learn the language and the culture and to see how I could help.”
Luke returned to Hawaii and earned a bachelor’s degree in political science with an emphasis on Hawaiian politics.
His studies were both highly motivating — during one archival exploration, he discovered his great-grandfather’s signature among the Kue Petitions opposing American annexation — and at times frustrating.
Too often Luke found his research inquiries met with unfriendly stares, needless red tape and badly outmoded systems of access. He began to understand that for all of the Hawaiian historical material now being made available through digitization and other archival efforts and all of the interest and energy on the part of emerging Hawaiian scholars, important work would be stymied without ready conduits between the two.
And so Luke got a master’s degree in library science and set about being just such a link.
As an independent contractor, he established the Nona Beamer Collection for the Hula Preservation Society, meticulously cataloging photos, organizing mele, setting access policies and adopting preservation techniques.
Luke now works in UHWO’s Uluulu: The Henry Kuualoha Giugni Moving Image Archive, cataloging and otherwise helping to oversee audiovisual material related to Native Hawaiian issues and communities.
“In everything I do I see the importance of preserving the past for future keiki, future lahui, and to break stereotypes of what a Hawaiian is,” he said.
Koa Luke ———