Bards of the Pacific: the Legacy of Katharine Luomala

katharine-luomala-1955-1959_250x250 (image from Guggenheim collection)

Bards of the Pacific — the Legacy of Katharine Luomala

As the autumn season continues to wind down toward Samhain, it is a time to celebrate the legacy of the honored dead. This multi-part article is going to focus on the life’s work of my great aunt Katharine Luomala Phd, Polynesian folklorist.

As you hopefully know already, bards and oral instruction are a crucial part of the Druid path among humans, however it is now structured. So also was it throughout Polynesia. The peoples of these far-flung island nations are remarkably similar both genetically and culturally, part of a prehistoric diaspora from Southeast Asia that some argue stretched as far east as the Americas. Marked similarities in their cultural practices, traditions, and mythologies fascinate folklorists, who rushed to record what remained of the oral traditions after missionary and colonial contact in the early 20th century.

Much like the Neo-Pagan movement, modern Polynesians are rediscovering their cultural roots, and in the process rediscovering the preservation of their ancestral stories by dedicated academics like my ancestor, Dr. Luomala. Traditional practices are enriched, and new ones formed, with the help of such studies. And unlike many scholarly works, her writing is seldom dry and inaccessible. Her popular and synthesizing style earned her the 1984 Hawaii Award for Literature shortly before her death.

So how did a Finnish-American farm girl from northern Minnesota end up dedicating her life to collecting local myths at the University of Hawaii? For dedicated is the correct description. She never married; she traveled the world upon the conference circuit sharing with her peers, and was known as extraordinarily helpful to her grateful students. Her collected writings number in the hundreds. The University of California-Berkeley houses her collected papers and memorabilia.

http://dpg.lib.berkeley.edu/webdb/anthpubs/search?all=&subjtext=University+of+California%2C+Berkeley.+–+Dept.+of+Anthropology&subjectid=4015&item=3

Katharine, or as the family knew her, ‘Aunt Kai’, was a seldom seen legend to us kids back in the north woods. Born before World War I, she grew up tri-lingual in Finnish, Swedish and English on the Luomala dairying homestead in St Louis County near Duluth, Minnesota. Her childhood recollections of surviving the Great Cloquet Forest Fire she has shared with the Minnesota Historical Society.

http://beta.worldcat.org/archivegrid/record.php?id=122476238

The fire spared the homestead, which the family will eventually give to the local Historical Society as well, as a rare surviving example of 19th c. Finnish log construction; but for now it is still in use by Luomala descendants. I too grew up there, in a no-nonsense farming family that encouraged scholarship with a glass cabinet-filled library of 19th and early 20th century books against its plastered plank walls, including first editions of Rackham’s fairy tales, science texts, and the Kalevala.

From here young Katharine progressed in her academics as far as the distant paradise of California, attending the University of California-Berkeley, known for its strong contributions to anthropology, ethnology, and folklore.A stint of research in Navajo country interviewing elders introduced her to folklore as a discipline, so she threw herself into academia, getting her doctorate and relocating to the growing new University of Hawaii. Phd level was achieved in 1936.

She also served the US government during World War II, recommending largely ignored re-socialization measures for the Japanese citizens in internment camps. This was when she met the love of her life, a US Navy officer who was killed in action before he could divorce his first wife to be with her. They spent happy times together, I am sure, both in California and in Hawaii— but this, while serving as fodder for future romance novels by yours truly, is not how Katharine wished to be remembered. She poured out all that loving energy into her life’s work instead— capturing what she poetically described as the ‘voices on the wind’ in Polynesia.

Honolulu was to be her home for the rest of her long life. People hearing her surname would sometimes be surprised to see a leggy golden blond with a square jaw instead of a native Hawaiian. Finnish and Hawaiian do have some superficial similarities! But Dr. Luomala demonstrated admirable love and respect for her chosen culture. She dressed informally in the muumuu, even sending them to us little grand-nieces as presents, and wore fresh leis at least once a week. She never neglected present day traditions in her studies, as titles like Hula’ Ki’i: Hawaiian Puppetry demonstrate.

But her most famous works were about the great mythic figures of island legend, such as Maui of a Thousand Tricks, or the syncretic work I am going to discuss in later articles, Voices on the Wind.

http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/1496917?uid=3739256&uid=2&uid=4&sid=21105010196043

Teaching came naturally to her. Online I was able to find this paean to her from one of the myriads of anthropology students she served to inspire.

http://www.johncharlot.me/Hawaiian-Polynesian-NativeAmerican/Luomala00%20copy.pdf

There is also a commemorative volume in her honor, full of the work of those she influenced, and influenced her in return, in the field of Polynesian studies.

http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/20705399?uid=3739256&uid=2&uid=4&sid=21105010196043

Here is a link to her Huge List of Publications

http://socialarchive.iath.virginia.edu/ark:/99166/w6b58mc2  

I was surprised to find no good photo of Dr. Katharine Luomala online, so here is a remedy to that, scanned from a book jacket.

kaibio

I leave to you the decision about whether she qualifies as a Bard herself, or is merely a celebrator of Bards. Next article will deal in more depth with the content of the message, the ancestral voices she preserved, much as Elias Lonnrot did for the Finnish national epic.  He interviewed the singers of Kalevala and compiled their songs into one huge cycle. I suspect this is the true inspiration for my ancestor Dr. Luomala’s work in Polynesia.

voicesonwindcover

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