As a 10-year-old from Mississippi, Jon Peede was impressed by two things on a family visit to Honolulu.
The first was Don Ho.
“Don Ho serenaded my mother,” said Peede, now 50 and chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, speaking by phone from Washington, D.C., before flying to Honolulu for the National Humanities Conference, in session now through Sunday.
“We were seated right in front of the stage, and (Ho) looked down at my parents and me and my brothers, four little boys all dressed exactly alike, and he sang a song to our table.”
The young Peede was also amazed by the Oahu landscape, “the explosion of the terrain, the dramatic rise and fall of the land, and while I grew up near the (Mississippi River), no great river equals an endless ocean.”
America’s voices, Peede added, are as diverse as its places, and bringing them together in a national community is a principal goal of the NEH.
“I don’t think we can really tell a national story without telling thousands of small stories,” said Peede, who joined the agency as acting chairman in 2017 after stints as literature grants director at its sister agency, the National Endowment for the Arts, and publisher of the Virginia Quarterly Review.
Noting that Eudora Welty was one of many local Mississippi writers who transformed the international literary scene, “People might think that in small town life, you just have one little or maybe no story, but of course it’s just the opposite, you have all these voices getting woven together,” said Peede, himself from the small town of Brandon. “And so I’m always talking about community — who’s inside, who’s left out, (making) sure there’s an outlet for everyone’s voice.”
For instance, the University of Hawaii has received an NEH grant to organize veterans’ discussions groups that use the humanities to examine their military experience and homecoming. “One thing we’re seeing now is the World War II, Korean and Vietnam war veterans, through their oral histories, they help the current groups of veterans bring their stories forward and reintegrate into society,” said Peede. Previously, he met with troops in Afghanistan and Kurdistan while overseeing “Operation Homecoming,” an NEA program providing writing workshops for service members.
“A considerable amount of (NEH) funding over the past decade has talked about military service in Hawaii,” he said.
He added, “One thing I love about the story of Hawaii is how it welcomes outsiders and brings them into the community.”
Take the architect Alfred Preis, the subject of a biography for which Laura McGuire, at the University of Hawaii, received a 2019 NEH fellowship.
“Preis left Austria, fleeing Hitler. Hawaii took him in and he designed the USS Arizona Memorial and became an important voice in regional Hawaiian modernism.”
Another creative transplant, the poet W.S. Merwin, moved to Maui in the 1970s and died there in March. “Merwin brought a level of environmental and ecological thinking (to the literary canon), and I think he found that voice within himself because he lived in Hawaii,” Peede said.
The theme of this year’s National Humanities Conference, attended by representatives from states’ humanities councils and other professionals in the field, is “Roots & Routes: Immigration, Migration & Exchange in the 21st Century.” Hosted by the Hawai‘i Council for the Humanities in partnership with Humanities Guahan, Northern Marianas Humanities Council and the Amerika Samoa Humanities Council, it is the first such conference to be held outside the continental U.S.
Since NEH was founded in 1965, Hawaii organizations and individuals have received a total of $41.6 million in grants. Recent recipients include the Friends of Iolani Palace for its “Points of Contact” exhibits; the University of Hawaii for documenting endangered Pacific languages; the East-West Center for teacher seminars; the Manoa Heritage Center for informing teaching through Native Hawaiian cultural resources; and the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum for a plan to preserve its Hawaiian and Pacific archaeology collections.
A new preservation plan grantee this year is the Hula Preservation Society, founded by the late Nona Beamer. Its collection includes video oral histories, photographs, manuscripts, records, textiles and hula implements.
“Talking with our hula elders for our oral histories, they began to gift us things from their personal collections, and we realized we had to take care of them,” said Keau George, collections manager.
“We’ve found a preservation professional — Jeanne Drewes, retired chief of collections care at the Library of Congress — to give us feedback and recommendations on the physical care of our archive,” George said.
After integrating that, she said, the society hoped to apply for more NEH grants “so we can actually implement those things.”
According to Peede, “The job of NEH is to make sure there are enough resources for people to tell their story and see their story in a library, on television, on the radio.”
That’s something to sustain hopes and dreams, big and small.