Iosepa, the place, inspires new BYU-Hawaii archivist

Dr. Matt Kester[Story and photos by Mike Foley, originally published online in the BYU-Hawaii Newsroom, October 7, 2004. Kester has since finished his PhD and the Oxford University Press will soon publish his dissertation as a book.]

Matthew Kester [pictured at right], who graduated from BYU-Hawaii in 1999 and is a Ph.D. candidate in Pacific history at the University of California-Santa Barbara, recently joined the University staff as the assistant archivist. It is planned Kester will replace University Archivist, Dr. Greg Gubler, when he retires at the end of this school year.

Kester explained he moved to Hawaii as a youth to surf, graduated from Kahuku High and went on to BYU-Hawaii. Along the way he developed a deep interest Pacific history, and followed former professor Paul Spickard to UCSB.

“My dissertation is on the Hawaiian colony at Iosepa in Utah. It’s a history and also a look at the way Iosepa has been remembered in the community, especially in the Laie community,” he said.

“I’ve done a lot of oral interviews with the descendants of Iosepa settlers and looked at all of the primary sources I can find; but what I’m really interested in is how that community is remembered in the narratives, the stories that people tell, about Iosepa and what it means to them.”

Kester added he’s also interested in “the way that people’s personal religious faith has been influenced by narratives like the Iosepa ones. I’m interested in the concept of pioneers in the Pacific and how these different kinds of religious narratives have been incorporated, like the stories of Iosepa, into people’s religious identity.”

He said that even though he’s gathered a lot of data, “I haven’t really gotten to do an interpretation. I’m finding there are all kinds of different ideas and narratives about what Iosepa was and what it was all about, which to me is as important and valid as what you might refer to as historical truth. It’s as interesting to think about how people remember a specific event or period in history, as the actual facts you can gather about that event.”

“History is much more than facts about the past. It’s the way people remember and interpret it,” he continued.

Kester noted he doesn’t plan to finish his dissertation until 2007 because he needs to research many more primary documents in Hawaiian, which so far he has been teaching himself. “While I can sit down and read a newspaper, my understanding is pretty rudimentary. I don’t feel comfortable working in primary documents yet. Until I do, I’m not going to rush my dissertation. Issues of representation of that community are more important than a time line.”

Kester added it’s important to approach this history from the perspective of the Hawaiian Saints, who were perhaps among the most literate nations in the nineteenth century. “When we do histories of Laie, of Palawai, of Maui — of the places where the Church had such early successes — we’re always having to look at it through the lens of the missionary journals. As important as the work they did was, it’s hard to say that those kinds of journals are representative of the history of these communities when there were so many more Hawaiians here. The missionaries were maybe 10% of the community.”

“If we really want to get at a history of these communities, we really have to take into consideration and do anything we can to recreate the perspective of the Hawaiian Saints,” he said.

“We have all kinds of records from Iosepa, including records from the plantation, minutes from Relief Society, minutes from other meetings. There are also letters from Joseph F. Smith back and forth to leaders of the community.”

Kester also said he loves to visit Iosepa, located in Skull Valley, Utah, as often as possible. “Today there’s very little there. It seems rather dry, dusty and foreboding; but Iosepa has the same kind of spirit that I feel here in Laie. This is a place where I feel the spirit very strongly, and I know that people who are at Iosepa on Memorial Day weekend and New Year’s Day are out there for that same special spirit. I know that we all feel that spirit together. I think without a doubt Iosepa is an incredible place.”

“People are shaped by the land where they live, and their spirits also shape that land. So there’s something about Iosepa that is fundamentally different than Utah because of the spirit the Iosepa settlers and pioneers brought there,” he continued. “I think that spirit is maintained in the way people remember Iosepa today. The descendants of the families who settled Iosepa are really keeping that spirit alive today. It’s a special place.”

“There’s really not much there today, but what you have to remember is that in 1910, 1911, 1912, it was a thriving community with beautiful wide streets, nice houses, water running, and all kinds of fruit trees were planted. It was really a beautiful turn-of-the-century community in Utah of Hawaiian Saints. There were some Maori, Samoan and Tahitian Saints there, too, but mostly Hawaiians.”

“I also think it was incredible that the [BYU-Hawaii voyaging] canoe was named Iosepa.”

 Foley’s photo of the Iosepa Cemetery in Skull Valley, Utah, will be
on the cover of Dr. Kester’s upcoming book on the unique Polynesian settlement. 

Of his work in the University Archives, located on the second floor of the Joseph F. Smith Library, Kester said, “To me as a historian it’s one of the most important places on campus. It’s where we preserve the past. It’s where we preserve the kinds of materials that can tell us about the past.”



    Matt, this is Dr Edmunds (Now retired) Mari’s father. I was just playing around with the computer and I was moved to pull up your name. I am very happy and impressed to see how well you are doing. Sally and I have always kept a warm spot in our heart for you. Congratulations!!

  2. Patricia Kamai says:

    Aloha Matthew,
    I would like to invite you to our May 27th Iosepa Festivities here at Iosepa, Skull Valley Utah if you are here in Utah. If you would like, you may sell your book here and then donate what you can to this historic site whom our Iosepa Historical Association is taking part to restore this beautiful place. I know there would be many people coming from all over especially this year being the 100 year mark since the saints went back to Hawaii. Please let me know if you are interested.
    Mahalo nui for your book as I have read some of it which I have purchased myself.
    Aloha Pumehana,
    Pat Kamai

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