2.2 Humanities in Hawai'i, From Statehood to the Present

Kris Coffield


Even in Hawai'i, it can be difficult to escape the stereotype of the savage native. A native, almost always a man, sits in a bamboo-framed domicile, called a hale, thatched pili leaves sheltering his body from the brisk subtropical breeze. No ornaments line the walls, though the floor is littered with utilitarian cultural artifacts, including lauhala mats and baskets, ipu gourds, and fish nets. Westerners have yet to make contact with this premodern man, whose loincloth will be replaced, upon their arrival, by intricately woven cotton clothing. Perhaps he is cleaning the blood off of a stone-tipped spear, having just returned from a day of hunting wild boar. If his family, or 'ohana, is present, they too will be situated within the spectacle of indigeneity. Naked, illiterate children will play the 'ukulele or brusquely chase one another throughout the hut, destined for a brutish life of combat, aquaculture, and monarchical domination. The man’s wife, however, will personify orientalized sexual fantasies of exotic Polynesian beauties, a subservient hula girl dressed in only grass skirt and haku lei, ceaselessly catering to the needs of her lover and the tourist trope in which he and his kinsfolk are trapped. Reductionist to the point of being caricatures, such cultural depictions are, nonetheless, pervasive in mainstream media narratives, working to sustain the paradisaical image of the island chain on which the state’s travel industry is predicated. Unsurprisingly, this image and the discourses that inform it forge the heart of humanities research both in and about the Hawaiian archipelago.


To understand Hawaiian humanities scholarship, one must first grasp the state’s complicated colonial history. Historians debate the identity of the first European explorer to “discover” the Hawaiian islands. Traditionally, that title has been afforded to Captain James Cook, who landed in Kaua'i in 1778 while searching for the Northwest Passage between Alaska and Asia. Cook, who named the archipelago the “Sandwich Islands” in honor of Britain’s fourth Earl of Sandwich, may have been deified by some Hawaiians upon returning to the Big Island of Hawai'i in 1779, owing to his arrival coinciding with the Makahiki, a harvest festival devoted to Lono, the Hawaiian god of peace and agriculture. Despite the possibility that Hawaiian natives, known as kanaka maoli, viewed Cook as a divine incarnation, tensions arose between Cook’s crew and the indigenous population, culminating in the seafaring captain’s death following his attempted kidnapping of the Big Island’s king. Far from being an aberration in Hawai'i’s history, tensions with Cook’s European shipmates proved to be a harbinger of conflicts to come. In 1810, the Hawaiian Islands were united under Kamehameha I, who maintained independence for the newly established Kingdom of Hawai'i by promoting trade with European powers active in the Pacific. Less than a century later, the islands’ final monarch, Queen Lili'uokalani, was overthrown by missionary descendents seeking to consolidate control of Hawai'i’s political processes and profitable sugar industry in the hands of European and American businessmen. The United States’ annexation of Hawai'i in 1898 and subsequent extension of statehood to the islands in 1959 completed the dismantling of Hawaiian governance, indefinitely deferring the natives’ dream of self-determination.


During the period between unification and annexation, Hawai'i’s indigenous people were subject to increasingly eliminationist colonial practices. In order to consecrate power in the hands of “civilizing” Christian proselytizers, white settlers used the threat of military intervention to compel King David Kal'kaua’s proclamation of the “Bayonet Constitution,” which stripped the monarch of political authority and imposed new property value requirements for obtainment of suffrage, disenfranchising 75 percent of native Hawaiians.1 Epitomized by land redistribution efforts and the marginalization of Hawaiian cultural expressions (first, the banning of hula, in 1930, after Queen Ka'ahumanu converted to Christianity, then the legal deauthorization of the Hawaiian language, in 1896, throughout Hawai'i’s schools), colonial sociopolitical infrastructure was built, as is always the case with imperial endeavors, on the back of indigenous identity, to the extent that “Hawaiianness” became a subaltern form of existence on Hawai'i’s own shores. Thus, a central task for the state’s first humanities scholars was to combat cultural erasure via the documentation of the Hawaiian language, mythological tales, mele (songs), and oral histories. Mary Kawena Pukui, one of the most influential early scholars of Hawaiian heritage, compiled the first Hawaiian-English dictionary and grammatical introduction to the Hawaiian language, while also collecting and committing to paper the island chain’s unique folk tales and indigenous proverbs, known as 'olelo no'eau. Pukui’s ethnographic and linguistic work is often credited with initiating the modern Hawaiian Renaissance, a 1970s cultural movement that saw a renewed interest in native dance, crafts, music, and ethnic origins.


Most scholars locate the apex of the Hawaiian Renaissance around 1978, a year that saw the creation of the semi-autonomous Office of Hawaiian Affairs to give natives control of funds derived from 1.8 million acres of crown lands formerly owned by the Hawaiian monarchy. The same year witnessed the birth of Bamboo Ridge Press, a literary journal and poetry firm that focuses on works representative of Hawai'i’s multiethnic culture. Not all of the journal’s publications maintain an indigenous focus; many heteroglossial compositions reflect the ethnic hybridity of Hawai'i’s plantation era, in which foreign laborers from Japan, China, Korea, and the Philippines were imported to supplement Caucasian and native workers of the then-territory’s sugar plantations. Not all academicians approved of emphasizing Hawai'i’s multicultural heritage, however, with its inhered assumption of a shared Hawaiian space. Some scholars, most notably indigenous activist and poet Haunani-Kay Trask, maintain that the framing of Hawai'i as multicultural utopia furthers colonial excision of Hawaiians from their homeland, whereby natives “are categorized in a manner alien to our cultures in the hopes of strangling our ancestral attachments to our own people” (104). Trask’s antipathy toward the continuation of the colonial encounter into contemporary times is aptly captured in “A Fragrance of Devouring,” the second section of her modern lyrical collection Night Is a Sharkskin Drum, in which she mourns “forgotten ali'i, entombed beneath grandiose hotels” and belittled by “crass amusements, Japanese machines and the common greed of vulgar Americans” (16).


Trask’s acerbic verse and cultural analysis was both weathering and groundbreaking for Hawaiian scholars searching for avenues to become visible in their native tongue, a task that was made slightly simpler in 1995 when literary critic and creative writing professor Susan Schultz founded TinFish Press to provide a venue for experimental, avant-garde stylistics. Extending beyond the multivocal “melting pot” theory of racial differentiation, the publishing house and eponymous literary journal promote writing that consciously reconfigures the nexus of power and signification, particularly in regard to the grammatology of agonistic resistance to hegemonic discursive orders. Less than ten years after Schultz launched TinFish with the help of community funding, the press’s anti-essentialist aesthetic vision was amplified by the publication of Noenoe Silva’s Aloha Betrayed in 2004, which demonstrated how the circulation of Hawaiian language newspapers circulating before annexation stemmed linguicidal colonial imperatives and preserved the existential continuity of indigenous cosmologies. Silva’s research, especially her excavation of Hawai'i’s anti-annexation petitions of 1897, spurred a new epoch in Hawaiian historiography and artistic research, effectively modulating analyses of aboriginal attempts to articulate sovereign claims from royal genealogies to the maka'ainana, or common people. Originally intended to “refute the myth of passivity through documentation and study of the many forms of resistance by the Kanaka Maoli to political, economic, linguistic, and cultural oppression” (Silva 1), Silva’s Foucauldian exposition of anti-colonial resistance (that had historically been characterized as acceptance of assimilation, at best, or anti-white racism, at worst) catalyzed like-minded literary, artistic, and academic excursions at the University of Hawai'i’s newly minted Hawai'ianui'kea School of Hawaiian Knowledge, established in 2007, three years after the release of Silva’s monograph.


And what good timing. Within the first decade of the twenty-first century, a steady stream of critical Hawaiiana literature surfaced, both fictive and historiographic, reading indigenous texts as dialogic encounters with the Anglosaxon textual practices to which they have been deliberately suborned. Part of this shift has occurred, undoubtedly, as a result of white scholars entering the fields of Hawaiian studies and indigenous literary criticism. Hawaiian language researcher Puakea Nogelmeier, for example, is of Caucasian descent and spent his formative years in Minnesota, yet his work on the problematic production of Hawaiian knowledge through selective translation has evinced the deficiencies of the Hawaiian textual canon, an English language set of standards that “drowns out all other historical voices […] while calcifying the fixed body of information that the canon perpetuates” (xii). Nogelmeier also serves as the executive director of Awaiulu: Hawaiian Literature Project, a nonprofit initiative dedicated to training Hawaiian-English translators and publishing previously untranslated archival materials, such as the epic tale of Hi'iakaikapoliopele, patron goddess of hula. In the years to come, it seems likely that the continued translation of forgotten and neglected texts will push Hawaiian humanities scholars into interdisciplinary, self-reflexive modes of theorizing, aligning globally-minded comparative trajectories with the narrative trauma of a host nation alienated from its own country.


Needless to say, studying any subject in Hawai'i brings one face to face with ongoing processes of identity construction. For haole (non-native) scholars like myself, navigating the murky waters of racialization is exigent, since sensitivity to the host culture evinces the extent of one’s respect for difference. Moreover, evaluating the performative functioning of race destabilizes the essentialist conflation of non-nativity with whiteness. Following ethnic studies professor Judy Rohrer’s thesis that constructions of foreign racial identity originate in diverging places for different groups (such as colonialism for Hawaiians or plantation management for non-Hawaiian locals), one can view racial construction as co-constituted and hotly contested, with multiple “racialization-from-below” counternarratives of suborned ethnic populations challenging the binary oppositional racial imaginaries advanced by the inheritors of colonial means of control (35).


Within the Ivory Tower, competing racial discourses and colonial histories force scholars to constantly reassess and disclose the discourses informing the space from which they enunciate normative claims. Redounding to students are the positive effects of amplified dissensus. Nearly all humanities programs at the University of Hawai'i at M'noa, the state’s flagship college campus, actively highlight subaltern viewpoints and marginalized modes of expression. Field expertise and disciplinary boundaries are regularly problematized, leading to abundant publishing opportunities for students at all levels. For myself, the most memorable blurring of traditional demarcations of academic status occurred in 2008, when undergraduates from the Department of Political Science and Department of English banded together to host a conference designed for (and limited to) speakers at or below master’s degree candidacy. In many places, such a symposium would be trivialized as an academic eccentricity, where upstart scholars might garner attention, but offer no significant contribution to humanities literature. Given Hawai'i’s legacy of alterity, though, conference organizers asked participants to present their ideas as if they were standing before an audience of Holberg Prize winners. Quite expectedly, a number of papers, mine included, interrogated the changing political character of nations in an era of globalization and their literary relationship to one another. Quite unexpectedly, many of the conference papers were published in peer-reviewed journals on world literature and cultural studies, after their uncredentialed authors were asked to submit. I must say, it is intellectually comforting, not to mention stimulating, to study in a place so hermeneutically open that colleagues of all experience are willing to disregard an individual’s ethnic background and level of scholarly achievement, so long as he or she has something vital to say and makes space for the Other to respond, if necessary.


Works Cited


Nogelmeier, Puakea. Mai Pa'a I Ka Leo: Historical Voices in Hawaiian Primary Materials, Looking Forward and Listening Back. Honolulu: Bishop Museum P, 2010. Print.

Ripper, Jason. American Stories: Living American History from 1865.  Armonk: M.E. Sharpe, 2008. Print.

Rohrer, Judy. Haoles in Hawai'i. Honolulu: U of Hawai'i P, 2010. Print.

Silva, Noenoe. Aloha Betrayed: Native Hawaiian Resistance to American Colonialism. Durham: Duke UP, 2004. Print.

Trask, Haunani-Kay. From a Native Daughter: Colonialism and Sovereignty in Hawai'i. Honolulu: U of Hawai'i P, 1999. Print.

---. Night Is a Sharkskin Drum. Honolulu: U of Hawai'i P, 2002. Print.




Kris Coffield is an interdisciplinary scholar at the University of Hawai'i. Using a framework of speculative realist ontology, his research investigates post-colonial narrativity and political aesthetics. Co-editor of Interstitial Journal, Kris has recently been published in World History ConnectedIn Media Res, and Ishaan Literary Review and is completing his first book on object-oriented ontology and international security, entitled Foreign Objects, as well as a collection of academic interviews, called Theoretically Speaking.



1. The 1887 Constitution of the Kingdom of Hawai'i, commonly called the “Bayonet Constitution,” was a document drafted by American lawyers living in the kingdom, intended to deprive the Hawaiian monarchy of its political authority and bolster the influence non-native islanders favoring annexation of Hawai'i by the United States. In 1874, King Lunalilo restored universal suffrage to the kingdom’s male citizens, regardless of financial status or literacy. The 1887 constitution made a number of voting requirement revisions meant to ensure that Hawai'i was governed by wealthy landowners, however, including allowing resident foreigners to vote and instituting a financial threshold of $600 in annual income or taxable property value of $3,000 to vote for or serve in the House of Nobles, whose members had formerly been appointed by the monarch. According to historian Jason Ripper, the new voting requirements “stripped about 75 percent of the remaining native Hawaiians of their voting rights, among other indignities” (Ripper, 2008).



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