Larry Bell re: being a Hawaiian Descendant in the Pacific Northwest
Recording by Sara Kolbet
1 Disc – second half of Cathy Roland – 44:44 – 6 Tracks
TRACK 7 – 10:03
LARRY: I am Larry Bell and I am European, Cosalish and Hawaiian. On my Hawaiian side I am descendant of William Mahoi, Hawaiian laborer to the northwest Coast of North America, a man who came here, I’m going to say here to the northwest coast in the early 1800s. I would say the 1840s is the best guess estimate based on the information we have, and who was buried on Salt Spring Island around the year 1881. William Mahoi came here originally from my understanding to work at Fort Vancouver in what is now Washington, Oregon state area as a laborer, at the farm area there, and would have worked in other areas such as Fort Rupert, Fort Victoria, where again he worked there as a laborer for a short period of time – up until around the 1850s and that area of time. And then had at least one daughter, his daughter was named Maria Mahoi, and she would have been my great-grandmother. The information I’m providing now is really based on my research. And when I say my research, that really involves talking to other people, some of the other people you’ve already mentioned, Jean Barman and Tom Koppel.
Where I’m fortunate is that many people have done the research before I came along. I started doing my research before the whole subject of Hawaiians in the NW coast became popular, or more popular than it was. I don’t mind saying that these group of people in my estimation were a forgotten people and little was known about their history. I always knew that I was part Hawaiian. That name, Maria Mahoi, was always known to me and my family. It was known as a name Maria Mahoi Kamehele. That last part was really unknown how to spell it. And while that name, as she was my great-grandmother was known, there was a certain unknown-ness to it. A ghostlike image of who was she, what was this Hawaiian involvement about? And no one seemed to have an understanding of it. Certainly in my family’s history. I was fortunate one day to have my wife show me an article in the Vancouver Sun, a major newspaper in British Columbia, and there in black and white, on the pages of the Vancouver Sun, was my great-grandmother’s name, Maria Mahoi, with her relationship to an ancestor I didn’t know by the name of Mel Couvelier, who was a previous provincial minister of finance in the province of BC. So here I am in my 30s and seeing my great-grandmother’s name in the newspaper and that was, I don’t mind saying, quite shocking. Who was she to be involved in a newspaper article was quite a surprise to me. But it did say a few things that came as more of a surprise. That it mentioned the Hawaiian connection and it also mentioned that she was part First Nations. So before that I didn’t know I was part First Nations, or as you may call it in the states, North American Indian. I didn’t know that then, and it also explained the Hawaiian connection to William Mahoi, her father, and that he was an employee of the Hudson’s Bay Company. So from that article there, I don’t mind saying that I became intrigued, my wife would say addicted, to finding out about my ancestry. And at the time it was a challenge because there was no books written on the subject and where did I start? And I had to start somewhere, and I did that by talking to people like Professor Jean Barman. I went to her house and she opened her doors and showed me pictures of my grandmother, Mary Jane Fisher, and told me some stories about her and told me stories about Maria Mahoi – things I had never known. And a little bit of information on the Hawaiian connection. But I still had to find out more for myself, and I started doing that by reading a thesis. I contacted and visited Mali Naughton, who is a University Professor at University of Western Washington, who wrote one of the earliest theses on the whole subject, which resulted in an article I think in the Honolulu press on the forgotten Hawaiians. Because these were indeed a group of people who were barely mentioned in history books. I say I had to find out who these people were. I would open a book and I would explore historical tracts or novels or books on Vancouver history, Vancouver Island history, British Columbia history, Oregon history, etc, and then you would read a sentence or two about a group of people who came here, and I don’t mind saying it was annoying. Here these people played such a major role on the early pioneer development of western North America and in some major books they deserve less than a word. So I had to find out more. So I did that, as I say, by talking to people, but I also became a bit of an activist in terms of promoting Hawaiian history. So going backwards I started talking to people. It was prior to Tom Koppel writing his book. But fortunately he did write his book and he was a great resource for me to find out about the Hawaiian connection. I was also able to talk to another lady by the name of Mali Alaine, who I think wrote maybe the first thesis on the Pacific Islanders or the Hawaiians coming to the NW coast, and it featured areas around Vancouver here. So again I did research, I found out who these Hawaiians were, what their connections were to me, when it came down to it, and I also became promoting Hawaiian history, because again I was angry that these people were forgotten. So I started doing that by trying to encourage ancestors of their Kanaka or Hawaiians around. We started having Hawaiian connections in the mainland area. The first one was in Langley. And then there was one in Balcava Park in North Burnaby, Deep Cove area in Vancouver, and there were a few other ones in North Vancouver. And that was a few years ago, and I don’t mind saying I’m kind of walked away from that. But the concept was to get these people together, find out who we’re related to and find our common histories and make a connection with each other and with our ancestors. One of the more positive aspects I’ve had with the promotion of Hawaiian history was that probably about twelve years ago or so I was successful in getting a few projects off the ground by forming partnerships between different levels of government. Sometimes including First Nations people, sometimes the Office of Hawaiian Affairs into I’ll call it signage to notate both a sign at Kanaka Creek, which is located outside of Maple Creek, which is in British Columbia, and signage to commemorate the Hawaiians also at Russell Island, Portland Island, and one also at Salt Spring Island I had some involvement with. As I say, partnerships. That involved expertise and money from the governments and involvement with the wording. I’ll stop there for a second.
SARA: First man who came from Hawaii. What he did.
LARRY: I don’t mind saying my knowledge of William Mahoi is almost ghostlike, and some of it comes from my heart, and some of it comes from information and some of it comes on hope and wishes because the information you gather, or I’ve gathered isn’t necessarily written in stone. You take information about a man named Cannibal Bill written in a book by B. Hamilton on Salt Spring Island and you accept family history as this being him,
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and then you get a Hudson’s Bay record that says Bill Mahoi or B. Mahoi and you think is this the same person? And you really don’t know. So some of this information I’ve taken is certainly written by others, but is also based on hopes and wishes. You have to remember that there was very little information written about these people. Hudson’s Bay Company may have employed someone, in this case William Mahoi, who came from Honolulu, and I’ve seen the church records on that and is buried here in North America. But in terms of the Hudson’s Bay Company and their records, all they’re going to show is his name, and that’s Anglified version is named Mahoi. They’re going to show his name, how much he was paid, when he started, when he left, end of story. The man may have worked there for years, but their purpose was not to write about William Mahoi, their purpose was making money and collecting furs, etc. So again my knowledge is, you could argue it and say it isn’t true and you could be just as right, perhaps as I am. But from what I know he was one of the, it’s estimated that there may have been 1000 or up to 1000 workers that came to work for the Hudson’s Bay Company to the NW coast, or I guess that Petersgain Augden group also should be included in there, came to the NW coast in the early 1800s to probably around the 1850s, 60s. Some like Mahoi who came for the Bay. Others came to be gold miners. He came with the Bay and went to Fort Vancouver, went to Fort Rupert. Worked at Fort Victoria for a short period of time, and at least had the one daughter who I mentioned, Maria Mahoi. He didn’t leave a long footprint here. As I say, I see this ghostlike kind of figure. I don’t know if he had more than one child. One piece of information that I have is his daughter Maria Mahoi, there may be another daughter involved. So you get that kind of information, I received it from other resources, and you don’t really know if it’s true or not. But I expect that it is because I expect that this man was a man and like any other man he would have had children, and I have no reason not to believe that he had more than one child. Who he married? I don’t know. It’s greatly assumed that he married a First Nations wife, because in that era of time there were very few white women and indeed in that time, white women would have not had relationships with a man of dark skin. Hawaiians were not first-class citizens. They were dark-skinned people. They were on the lower social economic order of the day. They could not be on the same line as Englands, Americans, other people of that race. I do, other areas that I don’t know about him include his ancestry. The oral history of Maria Mahoi, his daughter, is that the word royalty was used, and what does that word mean? And as I go on with my research, I don’t know even more so. But that’s the oral history that is connected to William Mahoi. And from the information I’ve gotten when I’ve made my connections with people of Hawaiian resources I was pointed to a connection, and I have to admit, I hesitate to say it because I don’t know how true it is. But people told me the names of my Hawaiian family, the Mahoi auhana were related to two individuals named Kamaneva and Kameoku, these were counselors to Kamehameha the first. These were the counselors that put Kamehameha into power. And certainly those two individuals have a significant amount of information written about them. So I’ve never been able to find out who William Mahoi’s parents were. I don’t know. People have given me information and said yes, these could be the parents of him, but then no you’re not related to royalty figures, Kameneva etc, instead you’re related to this other connection of the Mahoi family over here. So it becomes, it’s a very difficult task and what I have to follow is my heart and what I have seen with my own eyes.
SARA: What do you know about your great-grandmother and what her role was in her community?
LARRY: You’ve asked a hard question because I am a man of my times. My great-grandmother Maria Mahoi was born around the 1850s. She was born just out of Victoria in the Gulf Stream area. And she died in the early 1900s and I should know that exact date and I don’t have it. But lo and behold, I wasn’t born then so I don’t know who this lady was. I can only make those conjectures based on people I’ve spoken to or on books I’ve read such as Jean Barman’s information. If I look at my mother, where my Hawaiian connection comes from, because I didn’t know my grandmother or my great-grandmother. If I look at my mother, I think I can look at Maria Mahoi, in the same ways that have been written about her, as an individual strong character. As an individual who believed in strength and endurance and working hard and being independent. An individual who believed that you had to get what you wanted you had to work at it, and Maria Mahoi did that. She had to do that through strong work and survival in the best way she knew how to. And that was through work and raising I believe twelve or fourteen children, somewhere in that neighborhood anyways, and by having two marriages. And living on an island and fishing and raising children and growing her own food, etc. Did she pass on her history? I’d have to guestimate I don’t know. My guestimate is that she probably didn’t know much of her own family also. I don’t believe she was literate. My guestimate is that her father, William Mahoi is also a man of his times, he worked hard. But I also guess he played hard. He lived in isolated locations, Fort Vancouver he is not a man who has shown much of himself through history. He isn’t a man who I can say owned land, who made his stamp in society, that donated property to the church, etc. So my guess is he was probably a man who liked to have fun, is my guestimate, and liked to have relationships. So I wouldn’t be surprised if he had children. I wouldn’t’ be surprised if he had a variety of different wives at these locations.
SARA: What of your Hawaiian heritage did you know while you were growing up?
LARRY: Next to nothing, to be honest. I really knew very little but it was a name that was really whispered to me. And it was a background noise. My family knew nothing about their native ancestry and very little about the Hawaiian ancestry. How that came to be. It was really an impression. And it really wasn’t until I’m going to say fifteen years ago when this information became available by such people as Jean Barman or Momilene Naughton, etc. So in terms of being able to make this Hawaiian connection, it really hasn’t been until the last few years. And I have to thank books and internet and talking to people and going to visit there and other people are doing the same thing I’m doing.
SARA: Talk about your advocacy for Hawaiian history.
LARRY: In terms of advocacy as I was saying. As my advocacy to promote Hawaiian history in the northwest coast came about because of my I don’t like the word anger, it’s a bit of a strong word, but I certainly noticed that in my research about Hawaiians or kanakas in the northwest coast, there was very little written about these individuals that in books of history there was perhaps maybe a word, maybe a sentence written about these individuals, so
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it became my goal at that time to try to help these forgotten Hawaiians be remembered. So that was first started by a meeting of like-minded people like myself where we had Hawaiian connections, where other descendants of Hawaiians like myself, people from the northwest coast, from Vancouver Island, people from Prince Rupert, people from Salt Spring Island, and I think one meeting people from Hawaii came over to be part of that connection. So we would get together and we would talk story with each other and people would step forward and tell their story about who they were and who their families were and some people would go about copying this information down and recording this genealogy. In other aspects also I would, I have spoken to interested parties at University groups or historical groups or on cable networks to tell the public in the broadest way that I could about the history of these people with my own connection to them. One of the most meaningful and successful ways for me that I have found were partnerships for signs or historical markers. I can say that I’ve been a part of three markers here in British Columbia. One now located at St. Paul’s church on Salt Spring Island, mainly completed by the historical society over there. One at Kanaka Creek Park which is located outside of Maple ridge on the mainland of British Columbia. And one which has been completed on Russell Island, Portland Island, and the two islands just outside of here. So these partnerships involved myself and the expertise of park personnel, expertise of the office of Hawaiian affairs, and the one at Kanaka Creek park, the involvement of the Stolo Nation just outside of Chilohuac because that was their territory also. And not to pat myself on the back, if that’s what I’m doing here, I have written small articles in the newspaper or in newsletter magazines such as for the office of Hawaiian affairs and I still…well, here I am talking to you, I guess.
SARA: Could you explain how your history has changed you?
LARRY: In terms of how it’s changed me, the knowledge of my Hawaiian ancestry, it helped explain a few things but as you say, it also changed me. As I mentioned to you, if we were talking tomorrow I don’t know if I could make it because I’m going paddling. I’m a whitewater paddler. I’ve whitewater canoed for twenty plus years, now I whitewater kayak. Certainly is that part of my…is my ancestry coming through to me in that respect? Perhaps so. These Hawaiians and First Nations people are a water-based, a canoe-based people. So perhaps there. But the other way that it’s helped me is it’s certainly influenced my spirituality.
LARRY: The knowledge of my ancestry certainly influenced my spirituality. It wasn’t eh easiest change for me. I was brought up as a Catholic and I certainly had backgrounds with Christianity. And the knowledge of my ancestry challenged those beliefs for me. I’m dancing on rough water here so I’m a little hesitant and I’m certain that people of certain philosophies are going to want to get down on their knees and pray for me after this conversation. But…I had to ask myself the connection between my ancestors and their religious beliefs to the beliefs that I was brought up with. I could not look back and say that my ancestors going from, that these people, my ancestors were not Christians. And because they weren’t, I couldn’t say that they were all therefore wrong, or they were all therefore bad. Or they were going to spend a lifetime in hell. I couldn’t do that. To me, they were a people of their time and they worshiped and knew their ancestors in the way they did. So I had to say to myself gee, these philosophies that I was told in terms of hell and heaven and such, I had to question those. So as a result of that I’ve sort of taken on greater respect and praise or worship for the gods of my ancestors. I cannot look back on them and say they were wrong. I too, when I pray I pray for my Hawaiian gods, I pray for my First Nations god and I’ll include Jesus Christ’s name in there too. And throughout my research I had help from my ancestors. I believe my ancestors are with me on the other side, they are on the other side waiting for me. And these are things I didn’t believe before. I never saw that my ancestors were there to help me. Only now do I believe that, and it’s a result of me doing my genealogy and my own historical research. I see them there, guiding me down that route, or at least through my research.
SARA: Talk about Hawaii. Have you been and do you feel a connection?
LARRY: I’ll go back for a little bit about more of an effect on me. One of the things which I did to commemorate my Hawaiian ancestry and also to show that in a spiritual sense was by my tattoos. The word tatao is a Polynesian word, so tattoos are a Polynesian media, a Polynesian way of showing who you are and what you believe and I’ve done that. Certainly when I walk down the beach young kids pull their dad’s shirts and they point at me and say look at that man, dad. And then he says to them don’t son, look away. I’m one of those guys. I have a variety of Hawaiian tattoos. And a design which as I understand represents my connection to the Hawaiian gods. They are what I understand as my family kamakua. A kamekua, as I understand it, being an individual who is deified into a god because of his or her actions. And I have my own family amakuas and I wear that on my skin. You asked me about my trips to Hawaii. I’ve only been there twice and…I’ve only been to Hawaii twice, though I think if we stood up here now we could see it from here, almost, I think. I’ve only been there twice, and the first time was to the metropolitan Honolulu where I met two Hawaiians who came to Langley to be part of the oana family, the family group meetings. And that was just basically I met with the office of Hawaiian affairs and that was kind of your normal tourist trip through the beaches and also involved me doing a minimal amount of research and going to Bishop Museum. One of the highlights though of that trip and as it was with the second trip too was going to heaos, being a Hawaiian temple. The first one was on the north shore of Oahu and I believe it’s called Puo awaku heao. And a heao is a temple and these were all destroyed in the, I think the early 17, early 1800s by Hawaiian royalty when the taboo system was removed.
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In any respect this heao overlooks a wide valley and is tremendously beautiful. And it has large rocks scattered throughout the site. And this is a national park and there are mounds of rocks and upright rocks and flat rocks. And some have scattered food or offerings, I’ll use. Tea leaves wrapped with food offerings inside. So as any good tourist or person of interest I was taking pictures of this, and I was on one side of the heao and my wife was on the other. And I walked over to my wife and I said to her, don’t you feel something here? Don’t you feel something? And she looked at me, she said no. And I started to cry. And I couldn’t stop crying and I didn’t know why I was crying but I couldn’t stop it. And I walked over later on to some individuals to ask them about this place because I wasn’t too familiar with it. And they explained it was a heao of human sacrifice to the god Ku. And I don’t know what happened there but something happened. The second trip also was to another well-known heao and that is on the big island of Hawaii. And that was a temple that was built by Kamehameha and he used it I believe it was in the shape of a whale to help him win a battle and I can’t remember the name of the king who was killed there. But it too was a place of human sacrifice. But in any case, what held my presence there was the knowledge that I couldn’t go there. It was a place that you can’t go there. It was a place that Hawaiians were allowed to go there and worship. And I felt a huge amount of pride that this was a place that I could go. That I could say I am allowed to go there, it is a special place for me. And as such I was able to go to this temple and worship.
SARA: Can you say non-Hawaiians could not go there?
LARRY: It was a place I was allowed to go and worship where non-Hawaiians are not allowed to go. I also remember my first day at Kona. I’m not, I’m darker than maybe the average person around here, it doesn’t take me too long to get a tan, but I left the hotel room in Kona and walked across the street to get some breakfast and I’m at a market spot and I’m going through the papayas I think it was, and the stall vender says what island are you from? And I said the big island. And he said hey, welcome home, and he handed me a lei.
LARRY: I don’t know the guy. I’ve been on the island, outside for fifteen minutes, and some guy is already treating me like I already live there. Walking around town, people would give me the hang-loose sign, or speak to me in the, I guess I’ll use the word pidgin English. But I belonged there, and other people would say welcome home. At the time, I even still, I qualified under a program called operation ohana, so I had a small card with me that said I was a registered Hawaiian. So I was able to use that card at a variety of different places in order to pay costs that only locals got to pay. So again that said that I had a presence there. That showed me that I have a status there, shall we say? And that also felt pretty proud.
SARA: Do you want to talk about what you brought?
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LARRY: What I have here is two signs. One with approximately five by ten inches long in the colors of red, yellow, and blue, which are colors of Hawaiian royalty significance. Across the top are the words HAWAIIAN. That is English means ‘the life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness.’ Those were the same words utilized in the motto by the state of Hawaii, and they were originally used, I can’t remember the name of the king, but he used them to commemorate the sanctity that I believe it was a British naval officer it might have been an American naval officer, did not bomb a village in Hawaii. And they didn’t do that so I guess in praise of that or in thanks of that those words were utilized by the king and are now the state motto. But those words were recommended by me and with approval by the office of Hawaiian affairs for both signs. They also utilize in the background the taro leaf entwined with the maple leaf. The maple leaf of course representing the Canadian imagery and the taro leaf representing the Hawaiian imagery. The taro plant is significant in Hawaii not only because it provides a lot of food, but also it’s utilized as a representation for family and for genealogy. So for example, here I am in Canada, thousands of miles from Hawaii, and many generations removed from that one hundred percent ancestor, but I am Hawaiian nevertheless. Like the taro plant, no matter how far you spread from the mother plant, you have many shoots that grow up and grow other plants and other plants, it’s still the same plant. It is still comes from the same mother. We are all related. This particular plaque was utilized at Kanaka Creek Park. It’s still there, from what I know. And it represented a partnership between the Vancouver Greater Regional District Park and the Stalo Nation and myself and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs who provided expertise. Here it says ‘Kanaka Creek is named for the Hawaiians or ‘kanaka’ that were employed by the Hudson’s Bay Company at Fort Langley across the Frazer River. There, the kanaka and the Stalo First Nations wives and children played a major role in the workings of the fort from 1827 until 1886.’ And of course that would be Fort Langley, which was one of the first locations in the Northwest coast to have Hawaiians come to. The other plaque here is a little larger and this is a smaller representation than the actual plaques located on those particular locations. It also utilizes the same wording. HAWAIIAN. With the same background of taro leaves and the colors, with the blue like wave in the background. And it has pictured on this background of Russell Island, Salt Spring and Portland Island. Those are the three gulf islands located between here and Vancouver mainland and these islands were early locations preempted by Hawaiians. Most notably here were Johnny Palau, as pictured here, and William Naukana, preempting both these locations. And also portrays my great-grandmother Maria Mahoi as being half First Nations and half Hawaiian. Johnny Palau and William Hamea both preempted Portland Island which is now Russell Island, which are well known national parks, and through a partnership involving monies paid by the office of Hawaiian affairs in Hawaii, and the provincial parks and again through my family, myself, this sign was designed to commemorate those Hawaiians. Not just those Hawaiians, but all Hawaiians at those locations. It took a long time, I don’t mind saying. Getting the government to do something took a long time. I’ll throw out the number eight to ten years to get this involvement through. Not just making sure everything was done perfectly, but there was money in places and budget in places. I’m very appreciative to those individuals involved. And it is important to show to the public that Hawaiians had a special place in these locations because as I said earlier, they have been forgotten people.
SARA: could you say this one more time a little slower?
LARRY: HAWAIIAN. The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness.
SARA: Anything else?
LARRY: The last one is a bit of a sharing but I have to laugh when I say to myself the last plaque was involved with the assistance of the Office of Hawaiian affairs and it’s much appreciated and it involves here a picture of Maria Mahoi. So the office of Hawaiian affairs put money forward towards this. And some time ago they also approved myself as a registered Hawaiian. I have a card over here that was dated approximately twelve years ago that says Larry Bell, registered Hawaiian, based on the evidence to support showing the Hawaiian ancestry as to Maria Mahoi. And like any other good government goes, they go and change their mind, change their policies. And as a result of that the program which where I was once a registered Hawaiian, I no longer am now because it seems to me that the Office of Hawaiian affairs has either changed their policy or lost the material that had been sent to them. I am still the same person I was twelve years ago. I still have the same documents. But lo and behold the office of Hawaiian affairs have gone and changed their policy, even though they’ve helped to expend money on a sign that states that my ancestor is part Hawaiian and they supplied the support for it. Their own information doesn’t seem to be perhaps worthy. I don’t know, I find it very humorous and sad. I am still the same person, but today I am not a registered Hawaiian under the current program.
SARA: Anything else?
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LARRY: In terms of, I ask myself who would I want to speak to. To have them know about these people. And I guess I’d like to speak to everyone because unfortunately we as a group, as a society, I think in general have forgotten our past. We accept who we are today, we get by our daily lives, pay our credit cards and get to work on time, and try to raise children not realizing that there is a past here. That people have come here or may already be here and have a presence here and a place here and indeed, if it wasn’t for these people, we wouldn’t be here today. And in these cases it sill angers me, it still bothers me to some extent that these Hawaiians are a forgotten group of people. Sure they’re known in this space of time, and you’re an example of that, you’re recording, in a few years from now, will this be another dead subject, another forgotten group of people? And I still I feel these people should be thanked for having brought themselves here and given us today for what we have.
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END OF DISC