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History of Hawaii/Introduction

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Hawaiians by Manookian


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We might just as well ask: How do people come to know who they are? -- Noenoe K. Silva, Aloha Betrayed

For a long time, so the story goes, indigenous Hawaiians—whom we will hereby refer to as the Kānaka Maoli—lived in a peaceful state of harmony with nature; possessing tribal independence and high living standards uninterrupted by the European colonial project. Then, in 1778, James Cook arrived, and—over the course of the next two-hundred years the culture and language of the Kānaka Maoli, through a succession of coups and regulative measures, was systematically repressed, leading to the eventual assimilation of Hawai'i into the American nation.

Yet, when one looks back over these two centuries of supposed cultural repression, it is observable that—rather than their being a lessening of discourses pertaining to the subject of Kānaka culture once Hawai’i entered the sphere of American influence—there was actually a veritable proliferation of such discourse. Missionaries, for example, authored the first texts on Hawai’in vocabulary, grammar, and diction between 1836 and 1865[1] while the establishment of the University of Hawai’i in 1862 helped spur an increased body of cultural research [2]. The impact of these developments was not restricted to white colonists: the unification of Hawai’i under King Kamehama in 1795, and the arrival of new technologies in Hawai’i brought by the haoles allowed for a broader transmission of pan-Hawai’in “factual” historical and cultural content than ever before, and in the nineteenth century the publication of newspapers, many of which contained anti-colonial content, flourished. [3][4]

We must be clear on this point, however: while the body of written knowledge that existed about Hawai’in culture flourished in the nineteenth century—a fact attributable to the embrace of positive control and governmentality in Europe prior to Cook’s arrival—much of it was nonetheless imbued with a set of assumptions. These were, roughly, as follows: that “culture” is chiefly understood through the techniques of academic study and the materialist conceptualization of history, much of it devoted to understanding the upper-class; that the Kānaka Maoli derive their identity from being an individuated ethnic/racial group, rather than from the concept of Aloha `aina (an idea that would have profound implications on the perception of Hawai’i’s mixed racial make-up); that the Hawai’in language should continue to exist out of a need for cultural preservation, rather than as the normal, day-to-day, basis for communication. In this sense, Hawai’in culture was not repressed: rather, it was created; or more precisely, rendered an object for the interpretation of the standpoint of European culture.[5]

For all its pretensions to cultural inclusiveness, the current post-colonial narrative that enshrouds Hawai’i does not differ fundamentally from those of the aforementioned nineteenth-century scholarship. In both cases, history and culture are understood as a linear, chronological succession of events (albeit more flexible than in the nineteenth century); European conquests and their consequences are treated with a high degree of triumphalist self-importance, the “indigenous peoples” of a given area are glorified in a way that barely conceals an importation of the “noble savage” ideal, “culture” is assumed to be a thing that exists within the parameters of its European understanding, etc. [6]

A good example of the difficulty posed to the historian in understanding the history of the Kānaka Maoli can be seen in Noenoe K. Silva's discussion in Aloha Betrayed of the role of women in Hawai’in history. "In nineteenth century Hawai'i, as elsewhere", the author writes, "women's public writings were small in volume relative to men's." Elsewhere, Silva remarks that the birth of academia in Hawai'i actively resulted in the trivialization of oral tradition. "The epistemology of the school system is firmly western in nature: what is written counts." [7]What is seen here is that the very institutional framework in which academia exists—that of the written and scholastically sanctioned—has great difficulty, by its very nature, in grappling with the essence of Hawai'in culture (in this case, the way in which women's roles were affected by the transition away from oral communication that coincided with the arrival of European settlers); a problem post-colonial scholarship has never fully negotiated. It could be said, as well, that the tone of many academic, post-colonial writings—that of uncritical admiration for indigenous peoples, mixed with a virulent resentment of colonialists, whose arrival becomes a sort of Creation-Fall by which history is assessed—reveals a deeply patronizing dimension, and in Hawai'in culture could easily result in the overlooking of exploitative parties who themselves identified as Kānaka Maoli (and much could be said of King Kamehama, in this respect).

The goal of the historian, then, in approaching Hawai’in history is not to unthinkingly embrace the post-colonial narrative—that of a culture of indigenous peoples that was repressed for the purposes of global capitalism, and that needs to be rehabilitated through acts of historically sensitive scholarship. Rather, it is to conduct an investigation of the underlying assumptions that shape the nature of our own research, and in doing so to attempt to find a way in which the notion of “culture” itself can be redefined to provide relatively unbiased insight into the past.


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  1. Hawaiian language, "This is the 115-year period during which Hawaiian-language newspapers were published. Missionaries introduced newspaper publishing in Hawaiian and in English, and played a significant role in publishing a vocabulary (1836) grammar (1854) and dictionary (1865) of Hawaiian. Literacy in Hawaiian was widespread among the local population, especially ethnic Hawaiians."
  2. University of Hawaii, "The University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, founded as a land grant college under the terms of the Morrill Act of 1862 for the benefit of agriculture and the mechanic arts in the United States, is the flagship institution of the University of Hawaiʻi system."
  3. Hawaii Journalism History, "The missionaries, who ran the schools in the mid-1800s, introduced the idea of newspapers as a teaching tool. The first edition of Ka Lama, for example, was dominated by an essay on the habits and habitats of He Liona, the lion."
  4. Teaching With Documents: The 1897 Petition Against the Annexation of Hawaii, "Originally governed by individual chiefs or kings, the islands united under the rule of a single monarch, King Kamehameha, in 1795, less than two decades after Cook's arrival."
  5. Foucault's Critical Project, "Knowledge, thus, became the phenomenon to explain, and over time, Foucault came to believe the way to make sense of it rested in conducting a social (or more accurately, historical) epistemology of the western will to truth. The historical a priori came to have many names in his works--fundamental codes, epistemes, discourses, regimes of truth, games of truth--but Han leads us to recognize that, at its heart, Foucault's critical project was always conceived as an attempt to transform Kant's a priori into an empirically accessible and assessable phenomenon."
  6. Paradoxes of the other (post)colonial racism, racial difference, stereotype-as-fetish, "This paper draws on the work of Homi Bhabha to mount an explanation for a facet of(post)colonial racism, the 'paradox of otherness' as exemplified in the racial stereotype. The paradox in question operates at the levels of discourse and identification alike. As a mode of discourse the stereotype functions to exaggerate difference of the other, whilst nevertheless attempting to produce them as a stable, fully knowable object."
  7. Aloha Betrayed