Ka’iulani:  the Activist Princess

Travel Blog  •  Pam Mandel  •  05.11.09 | 2:05 PM ET

Photo by clliff1066 via Flickr (Creative Commons).

The Hawaiian Hall at the Bishop Museum is still closed for renovations (we got a sneak peak on our visit—it’s going to be stunning when it opens in August) so there is only a limited amount of Hawaiian artifacts currently on view. The Kāhili Room at the museum is open, though—it’s in a different building—and it displays portraits of the Hawaiian monarchy and their feathered standards. These torch-like staffs were carried in front of royalty to visually announce their arrival.

Two of the portraits really stuck with me: the photo of Princess Ruth, a frowning, broad woman contained in severe Victorian dress, and the portrait of Princess Ka’iulani, also in Victorian attire but looking less awkward. Princess Ka’iulani cemented her place in the hearts of Native Hawaiians by traveling to the mainland to plead with Congress and two US Presidents for the restoration of the Hawaiian monarchy.

Seeing her portrait reminded me of this article about the Ka’iulani movie that’s coming out, a lush costume drama that tells the story of the activist Princess’ short life. There was a bit of a flap about the movie because the working title for the picture is “Barbarian Princess.” Our guide at the museum told us that the press in her day, never having met Princess Ka’iulani, referred to her exactly that way—as the Barbarian Princess—but she won over “society” with her elegance and grace. Some Native Hawaiians were also angry that the role of the Princess went to the ethnically ambiguous Q’orianka Kilcher rather than to a Hawaiian actress; beyond that, they worried about the film crew’s impact on Iolani Palace, and were concerned that the story would trivialize a historic figure who fought for their independence.

There’s no release date listed yet—the Matador Pictures site just says it’s “in production”—but the trailer is up. It looks intoxicating, with a swelling soundtrack, period costumes and footage of beautiful Hawaii. I’ll go for the escapism, that’s for sure—but in the meantime, I’m off to the library to pick up a biography of the Princess’ life in hopes I’ll be able to watch the movie with a sharper sense of context.

Pam Mandel is a freelance writer and photographer from Seattle, Washington. Her work has appeared in a variety of print, radio, and web publications and she's contributed to two guidebooks, one on British Columbia and one on Hawaii. She plays the ukulele, has an internal beacon that is surprisingly capable of locating the best baked goods in town, almost any town, and speaks German with a Styrian accent. Learn more on her personal blog at Nerd's Eye View.

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