Fort Vancouver smartphone app brings history to life

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter



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• About 100 people have contributed to the Fort Vancouver Mobile project, including about 20 core members of the project team.

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National parks free for MLK holiday

People who want to try out the mobile app this weekend will be able to take advantage of a free weekend at the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site.

All 397 national park sites will offer free admission Sunday and Monday to commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King.

The workers village is just off the Land Bridge path, and doesn’t require admission, but there usually is an entry fee at the gate of the recreated stockade.

The National Park Service is entrusted with telling the stories of America’s most historic places. Now a Vancouver-based collaboration is pioneering a new way to share that history through the people who lived it — people like William Kaulehelehe.

The Hawaiian pastor arrived in 1845 to minister to his fellow islanders, known back then as Fort Vancouver’s “Kanaka” work force.

While you won’t find Kaulehelehe’s name on local landmarks, he represents a significant share of the people who lived at Fort Vancouver during the Hudson’s Bay era. There is one difference between Kaulehelehe and the other Kanaka transplants who toiled anonymously: Kaulehelehe wrote letters and journals.

His words provide the basis for a little-known chapter of local history. And now, people can experience Kaulehelehe’s story through one of today’s most popular ways to share information, a smartphone application.

“This is cutting edge for the National Park Service,” said Greg Shine, ranger and historian at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site.

The app is the result of a collaboration among Washington State University Vancouver, Fort Vancouver staff, and a local Hawaiian and Polynesian cultural group.

Frank van Waardenburg brings Kaulehelehe’s story to life in a series of dramatized scenes.

The project is the acting debut for van Waardenburg, who said, “I had no idea what I was getting involved in.”

His video portrayal is supplemented by other material, including maps, images of archived documents and interactive features. All that material can be accessed via iPhones or Androids when people visit the workers village west of the fort’s reconstructed stockade.

The application was designed by WSUV’s creative media and digital culture program.

Any material “that we can present digitally can be packaged into this app and then put onto a phone,” said Brett Oppegaard, assistant professor and project coordinator of the Fort Vancouver Mobile project. “Users can access it when they need it, when they want to learn about something in particular.”

Kaleinani o Ke Kukui, a Hawaiian dance group based in Vancouver, is another partner. Its members, including van Waardenburg, portray the fort’s Kanaka community.

“I’m a member of the hula school and on the board of the charity associated with it, the Ke Kukui Foundation,” van Waardenburg said.

While he’d never acted before, van Waardenburg said he enjoyed a chance to highlight some overlooked contributors to regional history.

“People don’t know about the history of Hawaiians in Vancouver and the Pacific Northwest,” van Waardenburg said.

All the laborers worked hard at a trading outpost, but the Kanakas had some specialized tasks.

“They definitely did stuff non-Hawaiians weren’t willing to do, like jump in the water and work on ships underwater,” van Waardenburg said. “The white people here didn’t want to get into the water.”

Serving a need

The Hudson’s Bay Company hired Kaulehelehe to serve the Kanaka workers’ spiritual needs — a need the Hawaiians apparently didn’t know they had.

From another viewpoint, Kaulehelehe served his employer’s need for stable, sober workers. According to the Ke Kukui Foundation’s website, the Hudson’s Bay Company “was concerned about the drinking, gambling, fighting, and other ‘corruptions’ among the Hawaiians in Kanaka Village.”

The Hawaiians worked six days a week from dawn to dusk; on Sunday, they wanted to hunt and fish. Kaulehelehe wanted them in church on Sunday.

Oppegaard and Shine made sure the story was historically accurate, van Waardenburg said.

“As far as the portrayal of William Kaulehelehe goes, that was up to me,” he said. “I made assumptions about his character that I simply played out. I assumed he was a fairly serious character, well spoken and intelligent, not likely to be moved by a lot of emotionality.

“Unfortunately, I’m a jokester,” he said.

Van Waardenburg pointed to the scene that showed him getting off the ship that brought him up the Columbia River to Fort Vancouver.

“When I was being rowed in, my back was to the shore where the filming was taking place. I was making jokes and people started laughing,” he admitted. “Brett said, ‘Well, we really weren’t in character.’ We had to reshoot the whole thing.”

Some of the material came from Kaulehelehe’s correspondence that had been archived in the Bishop Museum in Hawaii. “This brings it out into public use,” Oppegaard said.

The audio features Hawaiian chants done by members of the Ke Kukui Foundation.

Artist also featured

The Kanaka story is one of several packages known as modules that eventually will be part of the Fort Vancouver app. One looks at artist Paul Kane, who created paintings, sketches and journal entries while visiting this area in 1847.

Dene Grigar, an associate professor at WSUV, is basing a module on domestic life in the workers village and the women who lived there.

One piece was animated by Brady Berkenmeier and Allen Anderson.

WSUV raised about $83,000 in grants to finance the project, Oppegaard said.

Berkenmeier, a WSUV research assistant, said the technology can give visitors a glimpse of history they’ve never had before.

“It’s different than an audio tour; it’s different than a wayside sign,” Berkenmeier said. “It’s an interactive way to learn about history. I think it’s the future of this historic site.”

Like other historic places, Fort Vancouver has a ranger staff that can tell the story of the site, and it has a committed cadre of re-enactors who offer living history presentations. But the smartphone app is not tied to a weekend heritage event or a ranger’s schedule.

“It doesn’t replace rangers; it complements them,” said Tracy Fortmann, superintendent of the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site. “It reaches the public in ways we never could. It’s a national model because it’s multi-faceted. I think we are a forerunner, and it’s exciting to lead other national parks.”

“This is a new product,” said the system’s authority on digital technology.

‘Totally different’

“There are about 400 units in the National Park service, and this is totally different,” said John Tobiason, technology specialist for new and social media. “Other apps are about way-finding and general information.”

A few parks have hired media developers to produce fairly simple digital content, but those are essentially enhanced guidebooks.

“This is about story-telling,” Tobiason said during a recent tour of the workers village. “It’s pulling you into the site, not just telling you what the next stop is.”

The park service has been telling stories through film for decades, but it has limitations.

“We’d never be able to show video here,” Tobiason said, referring to the two locked buildings at the west end of the site, near a freeway interchange.

And, Oppegaard noted, the Fort Vancouver app isn’t just a video.

“You will be on the site. The goal is to have people walking around, and half the time look at their screen and half the time interact with the physical environment.”

Scenes were shot to align with the landscape. When the video shows the eastern horizon, people will be able to look up from their smartphone screens and see Mount Hood in the distance.

The official rollout of the app is scheduled for June 9, during the Brigade Encampment — one of the site’s big annual events.

For now, the application is still in the beta testing stage, said Oppegaard, a former Columbian reporter.

“Anybody can come and use it, then give us feedback,” Oppegaard said.

More stories to tell

Oppegaard already is thinking about a project about the U.S. Army spruce mill. The mill was established to turn out material for airplanes in the closing stages of World War I.

There are lots of stories to be told at Fort Vancouver, said Fortmann, the site’s superintendent.

Van Waardenburg, who portrayed “Kanaka Billy,” has a little story of his own. When asked if the Kanaka experience reflected his family’s story, the self-described jokester replied: “Not whatsoever.”

“I’m not from Hawaii. I am a Pacific islander, however,” the re-enactor said.

“I humorously describe myself as from the westernmost Hawaiian island ... Java, Indonesia.”

Tom Vogt: 360-735-4558;;