For a stretch in my 20s, pretty much all I did was clock in to work, clock out of work, and surf. At night I might meet up with a friend from high school, but usually I’d wander my Honolulu neighborhood, eat 7-11 for dinner, and pass out early. I wasn’t making much money, and my apartment had been relieved of its valuables long ago, but other than that, life was stable. I knew my two mile radius, and boy that felt good.
Mostly, home was a stretch of reef just west of Waikiki. Kaisers, Rockpiles, and Ala Moana Bowls are some of Honolulu’s most lived-in surf breaks, where entire lives are dedicated to the subtle complexities of a few particular waves. In Hawai‘i, coming to know the ocean is a ritualized existence you share with a broad swathe of humanity. People from different backgrounds paddle, swim, and surf together, sharing, more or less, the ocean commons.
Like all places people call home, actually being in Hawai‘i is a deeply communal act of belonging. People imagine, define, and make home together. Today, Hawai‘i’s culture is a weird hybrid of all the people that have acted on this place—the continual deluge of tourists, the generations of Asian plantation workers, white American transplants, Polynesians from Samoa, Tonga, and Tahiti, newer arrivals from Micronesia and Guam, and Native Hawaiians, Kanaka Maoli, the archipelago’s original inhabitants. This combination of people, cultures, and circumstances makes for a home whose identity is unique and complex.
From an early age, I had the distinct sense that Hawai‘i was, somehow, deeply historical. It’s hard to describe, but being here, you can feel the continuity from past to present. Perhaps, the very nature of islands, these tiny lands amidst vast oceans, fosters such a feeling. The past is still present. Wherever you are, you know that people have been here before, have pressed their feet into the same sand, have gazed at the same spot on the horizon, have known and studied this place with great intimacy.
Hawai‘i’s history is, largely, the history of how people have related to and understood a particular geographic space: from a society wise of the land and sea, steeped in the sacred, held together through genealogy and myth, to the Hawai‘i of today. Like all settler colonial societies, this change from old to new has been dramatic and violent and utterly disastrous for most of Hawai‘i’s original inhabitants. The stories we tell about this change are important. They shape our understanding of home. They allow us to better recognize the failures and suffering the new ways produce. At their very best, these stories remind us that people have lived together quite beautifully at numerous points in human history, and that doing so has always been possible.
Wailupe Peninsula, an oval-shaped neighborhood that protrudes from the otherwise natural contours of East Honolulu’s shoreline, is a good example of modern violence at work in the natural landscape. The neighborhood’s oceanside properties all have piers, which is highly unusual along Oahu’s south shore. Piers require deep water to accommodate the boats they’re made for, but when volcanic islands erode, they tend to make beaches and shallow reefs that deepen only gradually. So, if you want a pier for your jet ski (or whatever), you need deeper water than what Oahu naturally provides. This depth must therefore be created artificially, using dredging vessels.
Now, if you’ve never seen a dredging vessel at work, it’s a rather violent affair. Like clear-cutting a forest, dredging a reef is pure, blunt trauma. From a boat, a sort of spinning, spiky-toothed prod descends into and mutilates the reef. As this mutilation goes down, a big hose hoovers up the crushed ecosystem (crabs, octopuses, sea anemones, the whole deal) and sprays it into the air. For quite a radius around a dredging massacre, the ocean turns a cloudy, fecal brown. There’s a definite rape-of-nature quality to this. The grinding is loud and disturbing, and one imagines the reef would prefer to go on living.
Contrast this casual destruction with the traditional understanding of the reef’s role. In one of Hawai‘i’s creation stories, the seminal organism from which all life descends happens to be the single reef polyp, ko‘a. From this perspective, Hawai‘i’s reefs are not only a giver of life—that which provides all sorts of tasty things to eat—but a familial entity within the cosmic order. Ko‘a is a distant progenitor, a very old parent who cares for its children and whom the children are meant to cherish as family. The idea that people could view a reef as family may sound strange, but it’s not. As social creatures, we personify all sorts of things for all sorts of reasons. (The other day, as my very lovely partner chopped tomatoes, I stood there and made ow ow ow noises and she cried oh noo! The purpose was, I am suddenly realizing, just to torment her.) By personifying things of questionable sentience, we imbue them with value.
In personifying nature, Hawaiians imbued their world with as much value as they could imagine. In Hawaiian genealogy, the first kalo plant—from which the islands’ staple food, poi, is made—grew from the grave of Hāloa, the stillborn child of the god Ho‘ohokukalani. Hāloa’s younger brother (also named Hāloa in the elder’s honor) survived as the first Hawaiian. Kalo and Hawaiians, staple food and people, are thus paired together: as immediate family, they are meant to care for each other directly. Hawaiian Studies professor and activist Haunani-Kay Trask explains: “Our relationship to the cosmos is thus familial. As in all of Polynesia, so in Hawai‘i: elder sibling must feed and care for younger sibling, who returns honor and love. The wisdom of our creation is reciprocal obligation. If we husband our lands and waters, they will feed and care for us. In our language, the name for this relationship is malama ‘aina, ‘care for the land,’ who will care for all family members in turn.” This is a rather simple way of embedding care and respect for one’s world in daily life.
In Old Hawai‘i, the result of this worldview was a pretty stable society. But inherent to capitalism, of course, is raging instability. If we don’t have meaningful jobs or a relatively secure human-cog situation—as box stackers, bagel makers, or button tappers, perhaps—then we might become wide-eyed neurotics, those who must “disrupt” and “innovate” or be disrupted and innovated into poverty. Capitalism’s insecurity forces its twitchy subjects to go out and find things to commodify. Some of these are bound to be things that other people love or deem sacred or otherwise want off-limits. A precious water source, a swathe of coastline, cultural art, spiritual rituals—within the viral logic of the market, nothing remains sacred that isn’t actively protected.
Before the dredging and before Wailupe Peninsula became housing, it was one of Oahu’s largest loko i‘a (fishponds). The neighborhood that exists today is shaped like an oval because it sits atop an ancient fishpond. What once fed thousands and was common to all, has been filled with riprap and murdered reef, divided into dozens of fee simple lots and sold. Most of Hawai‘i’s fishponds met a similar end. With Hawaiians severed from their traditional roles as caretakers and maka‘ainana (literally, “eyes of the land”), what had been sacred to one people became a commodity to another.
This is Hawai‘i today, where the primary industry is tourism (and the military). Tourism not only degrades the island ecology by attracting thousands of romping visitors while externalizing their costs, but to pay rent, residents and many Hawaiians are also forced to commodify their own culture and/or perform the Happy Native for their tourist colonizers.
It’s difficult to capture what this means for people who begin their lives as keiki o ka ‘aina, “children of the land.” The relationship and sense of purpose goes far beyond stewardship. Even the word “sacred” makes abstract a connection that feels quite visceral. There’s a certain type of love one feels for family that is qualitatively different from anything else. To sell family is not something you simply learn and adjust to doing. In Hawai‘i, this is a sorrow you can feel and observe. Homeless encampments, dead reefs and trashed streams, the utter soullessness in selling bullshit interpretations of Hawaiian culture—this is Hawai‘i suffering as a people’s home.
It took me quite a while to realize what home actually requires of us. Being preoccupied with “progress” and an individual future, which our social system incentivizes, is a great way to disengage from the fine grain of one’s surroundings. It’s possible, even probable, to live in the future and miss the present. This is, I think, a big part of modern alienation and loneliness. We are asked to objectify home rather than understand and belong to it with others.
In 1778, Captain James Cook wandered Polynesia for England and eventually happened upon Hawai‘i. Quite suddenly, the archipelago figured into the plans of some highly imperial people. From these tiny lands, the “superior civilizations” imagined dominating the Pacific and prying open new markets, especially those big and resistant ones in Asia. First came the missionaries. By 1830, dozens of American Protestants had set up franchises across the archipelago. As Hawaiians suffered, dying in mass from foreign disease, the foreigners—these missionary men and a growing cadre of business weirdos—promised wealth and salvation from rampant death. The new rituals of Calvinist toiling, western laws, capital accumulation, and private property would save Hawaiians, the missionaries and weirdos said. Less than 70 years later, descendants of these men had fulfilled their dream. They deposed Queen Lili‘uokalani, engineered the annexation of the Kingdom of Hawai‘i, and pretty much banned the traditional, Hawaiian ways of being. Their descendants came to own the island’s major industries, sugar and pineapple, and their wants dictated government policy.
As a kid, I didn’t know much about Hawai‘i’s colonial history. But, despite my ignorance, colonialism could not be ignored. It is the context and signs of resistance are everywhere. Today, the state flag is commonly flipped to show support for Hawaiian sovereignty. Hand-painted signs along the highway say things like ‘Welcome to the Kingdom of Hawai‘i, Support Home Rule,’ ‘Keep Hawaiian Lands in Hawaiian Hands,’ or ‘Kapu, this is sacred land.’ American holidays are never celebrated as much as Hawaiian ones. Land and restitution, the discovery and trampling of Hawaiian burial sites, and protests against development are all in the news consistently.
Colonial history is also implicit in the Hawaiian word haole, which denotes, simultaneously, “white” and “foreign.” Usually, the word is used to identify a white person, as in: “hey, did that haole just cut in line?” But, it can also be used as a jarring pejorative, out surfing for example: “not your turn haole!” That Hawai‘i is the only U.S. state where self-identifying white people are statistical minorities is one reason the word haole carries some added juice. It is a psychic reminder of the island’s colonial past and present.
A good deal of my own colonial ignorance probably comes from the school I grew up in, called Punahou, which was founded in 1841 by those missionary and business types who forced themselves upon Hawai‘i. During my time there, the interbreeding progeny of the original missionary families continued to direct the school as trustees (and many other Hawai‘i institutions), so it’s no surprise that their shady history was always left unspoken.
“Coming to know the past,” writes Maori scholar Linda Tuhiwai Smith, is a way to rid yourself of weird shit. Alternative histories have this power: they can lead to alternative ways of thinking and doing. This process is often called “decolonizing the mind,” an idea coined and explored by Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Decolonizing the mind requires accounts of colonialism from those without a stake in its continuity. Imperial history, in its efforts to categorize and archive everything for the mother culture, tends to project an understanding of its own past onto situations where it doesn’t apply. The very act of classifying flattens a world of distinctions.
For example, at my school, I learned that Old Hawai‘i was basically a feudal society governed by despotic royalty. To good-faith Europeans and Americans emerging from their own history of cruel feudalism, kings were baddies, and their people were oppressed serfs.
But in Old Hawai‘i, the reality was more complex. Of course, sussing out what’s true about the past and what’s cynically invented to serve some sneaky purpose is always a tricky project. Spoken cultures rely on memory and storytelling, which colonialism typically erases. So many years after the fact, we get interpretations of interpretations. Some of these interpretations are believable and describe concepts or ways of being that obviously carry through to today. (Hawai‘i was a communal society of tight kinship relations. Hawaiian values and ways of relating to others very much reflect this today.) Other interpretations make you squint your eyes suspiciously and wonder about who might benefit from this particular version of events. Like any society, Hawaiians inhabited utopia and dystopia simultaneously. Some things were bad, even inexplicable to our sense of morality today, but other things were totally wondrous.
The first inhabitants of Hawai‘i came from the Islands of Hiva (Marquesas) around 400 AD near the end of Homo sapiens’ global migration. A second migration arrived from Tahiti around 1000. (It’s speculated that Hawai‘i developed its rigorous hierarchy as a result of this second migration.) Polynesians found and settled the Pacific on voyaging canoes. They navigated by the stars, read the ocean swell, and intuited the presence of islands from seasonal bird migrations.
At the core of the Hawaiian social system was a very basic insight: life is interdependent. Life exists because other life exists. Whatever this is, we’re definitely in it together. From there, Hawaiians filled their lives with layers upon layers of interdependence. Nature wasn’t just nature, it was a vast familial cosmos personified by deities who sustained life. Rituals were a way to formally recognize the obvious: we need to care for our home if we’re to survive. As a way of being, the word pono best captures the idea. Pono, meaning good, righteous, and just, is also inseparable from a sense of balance. Things may deviate and go wild at times, but long-term balance, with each other and the land, was what made a pono society.
Between Hawaiians, there was interdependence as well. Maka‘ainana commoners, ali‘i chiefs, and various priests, advisors, orators, and medical practitioners comprised Hawai‘i’s hierarchical society. The commoners subsistence-farmed and made stuff while the ali‘i managed resources, competed politically, and performed sacred rituals. Haunani-Kay Trask explains the dynamic:
“An interdependence was created whereby the makaʻainana (commoners) were free to move with their ʻohana (extended family) to live under an aliʻi (chief) of their choosing while the aliʻi increased their status and material prosperity by having more people living within their moku, or ‘domain.’ The result was an incentive for the society’s leaders to provide for all their constituents’ well-being and contentment. To fail to do so meant the loss of status and thus of mana for the aliʻi.”
War among chiefs was something of a brutal, competitive pastime. Military service was not mandatory, but maka‘ainana commoners held a sort of rooting interest for their particular leader. Battles increased prestige, as did balanced stewardship of the land. By the time of Kamehameha in the early 1800’s, Hawaiians did not, generally speaking, view their society as oppressive or their ali‘i (chiefs) as despotic. Hawai‘i’s hierarchy had yet to incite any systemic revolutions (for what it’s worth) and across Polynesia, the old ways continued as best they could through foreign occupation.
Beyond working the land, Hawaiians spent much of the day engaged in various social arts. Chanting, hula, surfing, crafting, and sports embedded mythology into daily life. (They even dug gravel tracks in the mountains and competed in something akin to bobsledding!) Makahiki season ran from Oct/Nov through Jan/Feb and celebrated the god Lono as well as the yearly harvest. During this period, all work and war was prohibited. Hawaiians played games, competed in sports, and performed rituals in thanks of the land and sea.
Of the games, it’s remarkable how common our amusements are across time and cultures. Hawaiians flew kites, blew bubbles, rocked on seesaws, pestered each other with bamboo water guns, played thumb war, jumped rope, and swung on swings. Puhenhene was a game said to occupy people all day. Sitting in a circle, one person hides a small rock beneath one of five bunched-up mats. The others, having observed the hiding closely, take turns guessing (and gambling on) where the stone was deposited. Marvelous!
A lot of this feels like pretty late stage human activity, at least to me. Hawaiians had enough free time to master their arts, sports, and crafts. Surfing in particular is the sort of absurd and utterly transcendent thing a culture does, or even thinks to do, when the hard stuff has been figured out. It’s a fascinating question: in long seclusion, what do people do when they’ve learned how to live without destroying their surroundings or themselves (for the most part)? For Hawaiians, they partook of ritual reverence of their islands and gods. Hula captures this best. Performed throughout the day, practiced in groups with great intensity, hula dancing embedded mythology in sensuous movements. Words were not enough. This was poetry in motion.
It’s striking to imagine: people dancing everywhere, coordinated, preserving their stories, performing their love affair with home.
How, then, does a familial society of reciprocal obligation become one ruled by grinding, Calvinist capitalism?
The actual mechanics in upending a people’s way of being are varied, as you might imagine. However, Hawai‘i’s change cannot be understood without the context of mass Hawaiian death during the 19th century. From European contact in 1778 until annexation in 1898, the Hawaiian population declined by over 90%, from 400,000 to under 40,000. Smallpox, influenza, measles, and leprosy—all brought and rather blithely abided by foreigners—wiped Hawaiians out. To a people ritually concerned with a balanced society, death and suffering fractured their world. Suddenly, the old ways did not work. Trauma was everywhere, and the pestilent fucking haole could not be kept away.
In Hawai‘i, the merchant ship Charles Mallory arrived from San Francisco in 1853 with sailors stricken by smallpox. Gavan Daws in Shoals of Time writes: “Hawaiians fell sick everywhere. Some were abandoned and died alone; their bodies left to rot. Others were buried where they lay, without coffins, in graves so shallow that wandering pigs and dogs could unearth them.” Wagons patrolled towns and piled up bodies. Hawaiians fled to the country and hid in the mountains. “For those who stayed at Honolulu death was all around. Yellow flags (the sign of serious disease) hung in doorways on every street, and the legal columns of the Polynesian were filled to overflowing with attorneys’ announcements winding up the estates of Hawaiians who had committed their property but not their person to Western ways, who had bought title to their lands and made their wills but had not been vaccinated.”
That’s a pretty typical example of how colonial history frames things. In Daws’ “celebrated” history, we don’t learn why Hawaiians distrusted foreigners and their vaccines. (Their distrust would have been well-placed: There are many accounts of American settlers using diseases as biological weapons in the 18th and 19th centuries. Fur traders in North America threatened the tribes they encountered with vials of smallpox. During the French and Indian War, British commander William Trent wrote to his superiors: “Out of our regard for them, we gave them two Blankets and an Handkerchief out of the Small Pox Hospital. I hope it will have the desired effect.” As state-sanctioned policy, colonists distributed these blankets at peace treaties.)
Neither do we learn what foreigners thought of all the death they knew their presence inflicted. Did it bother them? If not, what ideology allowed them to ignore such an obvious horror? The obviousness of all this death disturbs me the most. I want very much for people to be innately moral creatures concerned to the core with, as Noam Chomsky puts it, “the predictable consequences of our actions.” Colonialism is a depressing testament to something else. Like American forever wars, policing and prisons, ICE’s ethnic cleansing—these interconnected horrors go on and on—the sense of right and wrong gets mired in all sorts of dehumanizing shit. It’s not that we lack moral sense, it’s that we don’t think all people are people to care about.
In this context of disease and death, Hawaiian society entered survival mode. In 1887, the last king of Hawai‘i, David Kalākaua, wrote of the early period: “Kamehameha admonished his people to endure with patience the aggressions of the whites, and to retain, as far as possible, their simple habits.” Unable to keep haole out and dying from their diseases, the question for Hawai‘i’s Mō‘ī’ (ruler) became, what to do with these incredible assholes? This was a strategic question about Hawaiian survival, not only from disease but conquest as well.
Conquest largely took the form of land acquisition and imposed legal conceptions of property. Since their arrival, American missionaries spoke of “big fishes” who find and devour the little ones. Through the 1840s, England had taken Aotearoa (New Zealand) and the French had taken Tahiti and the islands of Hiva. During this period, American, British, and French warships anchored off Honolulu Harbor. In town, the various admirals and consuls argued over which nation would come to dominate Hawai‘i. Despite their many squabbles, on the sanctity of private property all foreigners could agree. Private property was an enlightened institution that separated the savage from the civilized, they said. Individual land titles would allow Hawaiians to toil themselves back from sickness to prosperity, the missionaries added.
Hawaiians had always viewed these arguments as dumbly transparent. Early on, imperial representatives clumsily asked about annexation, revealing their ultimate intentions. Hawaiians simply restated: No one “owns” the land. It cannot be bought or sold. It is simply here, like air and water, a birthright for all to share. The conception of land as private, to be diced up, fenced, and denied to others, was unimaginable for Hawaiians. Such a thing would end communal, subsistence farming, which was their longstanding means of survival.
American colonialism has dealt with this pesky, Native belief in land as a communal birthright by arguing and mandating for the opposite: individual toiling upon individual plots of land. After more than a century of forced removal, in 1901, Teddy Roosevelt shrieked to Congress: “The General Allotment Act is a mighty pulverizing engine to break up the tribal mass. It acts directly upon the family and the individual…The effort should be steadily to make the Indian work like any other man on his own grounds.” In 1921, Congress debated an act to rehabilitate a decimated Hawaiian people by restoring land. The Governor of the Territory of Hawai‘i, Charles McCarthy, attested at the time: “If the native Hawaiian would get out and work, and make a good living for himself and his family, by the sweat of his brow, the race would flourish. That is what the rehabilitation project aims at—not sitting on the fence and playing the ukulele.” (These arguments are remarkably similar to what we hear today about work requirements for social benefits.)
In their pulverizing intent, these 20th century policies largely succeeded. Efforts to rehabilitate and grant restitution for widely-recognized horrors almost always resulted in more land commodification and, ultimately, dispossession. It also resulted in new forms of racial categorization. For Hawaiians, the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act of 1920 defined and codified—for the first time—just what a legally recognized “Hawaiian” is. After lengthy musings on the best racial mix to improve the “lazy” Hawaiian—does a Chinese-Hawaiian or a Japanese-Hawaiian work a cane field harder? Wrong! White-Hawaiians work the hardest!—Congress declared a 50% blood quantum requirement, defining who is and isn’t a Hawaiian and thus, who does and doesn’t qualify for benefits under the legislative act. This rule bore no connection to the way Hawaiians themselves defined being Hawaiian in practice: generally speaking, a Hawaiian is simply anyone with Hawaiian ancestry. This legal blood quantum definition very efficiently, and by design, vanished the vast majority of native Hawaiians and their claims to restitution.
This sort of legalism played a defining role in Hawai‘i’s change. Laws organize a good deal of human life today and it’s easy to take them for granted. However, for Hawaiians in the 19th century, western legalism was itself a strange “foreign innovation.” The constitution of 1840 attempted to translate, for the first time, a Hawaiian society governed by familial reciprocity and traditional ali‘i stewardship into a constitutional monarchy. By converting spoken ways into written law, the ali‘i transferred sovereignty from themselves to the constitution. They became legislators and executors rather than the law itself.
With this foundation, and shoved along by a British occupation in 1843, the Hawaiian legislature began the process of land surveys and title applications that would make private property a thing in Hawai‘i. This period, called the Mahele, started out on an experimental basis in 1845. By 1850, the result was massive dispossession of maka‘ainana commoners. Of 4.5 million acres across the archipelago, only 28,000 went to regular Hawaiians. The vast majority became government and personal lands of the Mō‘ī, ali‘i, and haole.
Why did commoners get so little? For one, few applied for land. Many could not afford the application and survey fees. Another explanation is that many Hawaiians still honored the traditional social relations whereby the Mō‘ī and ali‘i ruled as caretakers. Such a long-practiced system could not simply vanish. Chiefly lineage, while no longer deified, still held social significance as it does today. (The Kamehameha Day parade presents floats of ali‘i descendants and is well-attended every year.) Mostly—within the context of mass disease and death—Hawaiian commoners didn’t want to be governed by foreigners whose presence killed them. In dozens of petitions throughout the decade, they objected to changes in land ownership and haole in government. In these same petitions they also reaffirmed the ali‘i’s traditional right to rule.
For the Mō‘ī, Hawaiian survival was the greatest concern. Their families were dying and stricken by the same infertility that plagued Hawaiians broadly. As death mounted and foreign coercion increased, their decisions—accepting western legalism, dealing with foreigners to secure national recognition, adopting Christianity, gifting land-use, and taking haole advisers—can be seen as scrambling attempts to stave off conquest and annihilation. By the reign of Kalākaua, Hawaiian survival was in complete doubt. The maka‘ainana understood the ali‘i’s strategy and mostly disapproved. In 1854, when several districts of Kauai stopped sending representatives to the Legislature, the governor of Kauai cited the following reasons:
“The First District said, “There is no use electing a Representative, as the one we elected to the Legislature last time went there and passed a law making us pay $1.00 tax on our dogs.”
“The Second District said, “There is no use electing a Representative because the lands are being sold.”
“The Third District said, “There is no use electing a Representative as he will then get a swallow-tail coat.”
Ultimately, through coercion and legalistic creep, Hawaiians were orphaned in Hawai‘i, severed from their traditional relationships with the land and ali‘i. Chopped-up private property ended large-scale subsistence living. The ahupua‘a system of mountain-to-sea resource management, perfectly suited to the island’s streams and valleys, could no longer function, and families could no longer move freely to farm as before. Like commodified land, Hawaiians became commodified labor for the haole-owned sugar plantations.
Hundreds of years later, it’s hard to be critical of those Hawaiian elites who made compromises under threats of violence. The foreigners proved, over and over, that they would do crazy shit to get what they wanted. Legislative changes that hurt Hawaiians and benefited haole almost always reacted to specific acts of coercion. The Mahele began years earlier, when British Consul Richard Charlton produced a dubious lease document and forced a confrontation. When David Kalākaua signed the Bayonet Constitution in 1887, which shed most of his executive power, he’d been threatened with revolution by the sugar oligarchs. The overthrow of Queen Lili’uokalani in 1893 came after an attempt to restore the old constitution. The same oligarchs imprisoned and forced her abdication.
A lot of this is just the politics of power. Could Hawaiians have kicked haole out? They certainly did, but others showed up. Could they have banned haole altogether? By the time of Queen Lili’uokalani, there was no actual Hawaiian force that could accomplish such a thing. Given the effects of disease and a declining population, foreigners knew they needed only to wait, which is what they did.
This is only a small snapshot of a broader Hawaiian tragedy, but it’s important to keep these stories alive and share them. The historical continuity I always felt as a child, and observe quite easily today, is a past that must be remembered and reconciled.
Studying history is not only learning about but from. History is actionable. We interpret the past to understand the present. Colonial societies dedicate whole tomes and pedagogies to versions of history that simplify, justify, or otherwise frame past trauma—if it doesn’t erase it entirely—to its own advantage. (World War II history is usually dished out as very comforting pap. We get American hero stories that ignore unsettling things like Hitler’s fondness for US race science or the hundreds of thousands of bombed Japanese people.) Traditionally, the first chapters of American History textbooks begin with “primitive” natives who “succumbed to progress” before transitioning (rather hastily) onto the glorious story of our great white daddies.
The mere existence of colonized people screws with the imperial project. Natives have strong moral and legal claims to land and saner ways of living that pre-exist the current hellhole of capitalism. These claims are so obvious and compelling that nasty jingoists will often co-opt them, appropriating notions of heritage and authenticity—as ‘real’ Americans, for example—to demean newer arrivals. Settler colonialism is this eclipsing project. If not ethnic cleansing, forced removal, and family separation, then the framing of indigeneity as dead or irrelevant to the times. (I imagine a good many Americans learn about indigenous people from a random museum visit as a kid. These first introductions present Native cultures as artifacts encased in glass, not alive, which they very much are.)
This eclipsing project is so dehumanizing and abhorrent in practice that it’s hard to fully accomplish. People don’t want to be erased and the erasers, hopefully, begin to recognize the horror of what they or their ancestors did and are made to stop. Even when hegemony is achieved, the assault on dignity compels a response. Hawaiian Professor Samuel Kaeo of Maui refused to speak English at his court hearing in January, 2018, going with ‘Olelo Hawai‘i (Hawaiian) instead. (Kaeo had been arrested for protesting the construction of a telescope atop Mount Haleakala, which many Hawaiians view as sacred land.) After responding in ‘Olelo Hawai‘i repeatedly, Judge Blaine Kobayashi issued a bench warrant for his arrest. The subsequent outcry—are you fucking kidding me we live in Hawai‘i brah!—forced Kobayashi to rescind the warrant and reschedule with a translator. (Since Hawaiʻi’s constitutional convention in 1978, ‘Olelo Hawai‘i and English are both official languages of the state.)
Assertions of Hawaiian identity can jar colonizers into confronting what they intuitively know already: the current ways are foreign ways. Things were not always like this. The world we know today required some rather violent behavior to make it happen. Acknowledging this is an important first step in decolonizing minds and, ultimately, decolonizing people and places. Collective demands for Indigenous dignity often arise through sovereignty and nationalist movements, which deserves some healthy skepticism. Sovereignty and nationalism are almost always icky concepts used to justify and energize humanity’s worst atrocities. Nationalism for what, exactly? You want sovereignty why? Wade in a little deeper and you’ll find layers of gross authoritarian shit.
The content of Indigenous sovereignty, what those in Hawaiian movements often advocate for, is not sovereignty as imperial nations practice it. American sovereignty, often called the “American Interest,” is about the sovereign exception to do whatever the eff it wants: sanction economically, invade militarily, ignore human rights, or suicide the planet through fossil fuel capitalism. Indigenous sovereignty is best described as a “right to live responsibly.” (Glen Coulthard has written of “countersovereignty,” which may be a better way to think about it.) Mostly, indigenous countersovereignty demands pretty basic stuff we all ought to want: the ability to participate in governance, to practice culture without it being commercialized, to freely associate, to live responsibly in accordance with nature, to be people who belong to a home of our own imagining.
We desperately need these things today. The outlook for human survival upon a hot and gross planet is not looking good. But, if there’s any comfort to lots of social ills coupled with an environmental horror, it’s that we’re definitely capable of recognizing and learning and imagining better ways of being. We’ve done it before. Some of us are there right now, trying to live quite beautifully. Of course, we need to do much more and get on it. There won’t be one answer or way or truth, such paths have proven disastrous. There probably ought to be a multitude of ways, just as there’s a multitude of peoples and places we imagine as home.
This article originally appeared in Issue 14 of Current Affairs. Get your copy in our online store.
If you appreciate our work, please consider making a donation, purchasing a subscription, or supporting our podcast on Patreon. Current Affairs is not for profit and carries no outside advertising. We are an independent media institution funded entirely by subscribers and small donors, and we depend on you in order to continue to produce high-quality work.