The Krotona Colony’s Kaua’i Roots, Part III: The Indelible Influence of Hawai’ian Religion
February 13, 2011 § Leave a comment
The Knudsens were major players Kauai’s economy from the late 19th century to the mid- 20th century, producing cattle and sugar and overseeing large tracts of land, but the family’s cultural legacy was at least as significant.Valdemar Knudsen, the patriarch, became fluent in Hawai’ian and made the first written studies of Kauai’s birds and plants. His abiding respect for native customs and religion made him a natural go-between for the Island’s native and haole populations, and his erudition led to his appointment as agent for the Kingdom’s Board of Education. Under King Kamehameha IV, Valdemar became a noble with governing power on Kaua’i.
All five of his children grew up among native Hawai’ians, and in addition to speaking Hawai’ian were well versed in local myths and religious practices. While Eric went on to become Hawaii’s preeminate folklorist, publishing the first English-language books of Hawai’ian myths and legends, his older brother Augustus concerned himself with Hawai’ian religion, a polytheistic faith that incorporated ancestor worship and animism.
Growing up on a ranch in the wilds of western Kaua’i put the younger Knudsens in frequent contact with kahuna (Hawai’ian priests)–as well as unexplained phenomena. Their sister Ida Knudsen Von Holt writes:
Augustus also claimed to have seeen a menehune on one of his camping out nights. He had been late hunting cattle, and built a fire to keep warm. As he sat eating chocolate and hard tack, he suddenly realized that across from him through the flames he could see a little figure, bushy haired and heavly bearded, and clad only in a malo, and about 18 inches high.
(The menehune, often described as the “leprechauns of Hawaii,” were Hawaii’s pre-Polynesian natives, and engineers of incredible skill. On Kaua’i, they are credited with building the 1,000-year-old fish pond pictured above, as well as the Island’s heiau [temples made of intricately fitted stones]. Though often assumed to be mythological, they probably did exist, though in less tiny form: in Kaua’i's 1820 census, 65 people described themselves as menehune.)
It was his affinity for Hawai’ian religion that eventually led Augustus to Hinduism, the most polytheistic of the major religions. Back on Kaua’i in the early 1890′s after earning an engineering degree from MIT, and none too happily running the family ranch, Augustus delved further into his newly adopted faith. According to his daughter, Ruth:
…in 1896 he had saved up enough money to go to India. He was sure there was a great connection between India and Hawaii.
But Ruth’s opinion of her father’s religious interests was decidedly jaundiced:
He was interested in the occultism…and black magic.
Oral History of Ruth Knudsen Hanner, courtesy Kauai Museum.
Von Holt, Ida Elizabeth Knudsen. Stories of Long Ago: Niihau, Kauai, Oahu. Honolulu: Daughter of Hawaii, 1985.