As Hawaii’s first American century comes to an end, marking grim anniversaries of overthrow and forced annexation by the United States, a groundswell for Native Hawaiian sovereignty continues to build. In addition to their lands and right to self-determination, Kanaka Maoli are reclaiming their culture, language and history. Canoe crews versed in traditional navigation have crossed the Pacific from Tahiti to Hawaii, against prevailing winds and currents, to support their contention that Hawaiians found and settled their islands through deliberate exploration, not by accidental drift from South America, a favorite theory of Western scholars. Like these wayfinders, Native Hawaiian scholars and writers are also embarked on a voyage of rediscovery, exposing, along the way, the harm caused by colonial institutions and lies.
Those with Native Hawaiian blood (about 200,000 statewide) are the poorest, unhealthiest, most imprisoned and least educated citizens of this island state, where food and housing costs are among the highest in the United States; because of this, about 20,000 Kanaka Maoli now live on the mainland. So it’s not surprising that exile is a dominant theme to them, as in two new novels by part-Hawaiian writers Kiana Davenport and Kathleen Tyau. Both authors have also settled outside Hawaii, Tyau in Oregon and Davenport in Boston; but in addition to physical exile, their books explore Hawaiians’ banishment at home, within the society that has forcibly displaced them.
“Because of colonization, the question of who defines what is Native, and even who is defined as Native, has been taken away from Native peoples by Western-trained scholars, government officials, and other technicians,” writes Haunani-Kay Trask, a professor of Hawaiian Studies at the University of Hawaii and a leader of the Ka Lahui sovereignty organization, in the new edition of her essays, From a Native Daughter. As cases in point, Trask refers to the imposition of a 50 percent Native Hawaiian blood requirement to qualify for a Homelands plot and the commercial falsification of Hawaiian culture. “In the hotel version of the hula, the sacredness of the dance has completely evaporated,”Trask writes, noting the “clownlike makeup” and “salacious” manner that illustrate the prostitution of Hawaii by corporate tourism. Native Hawaiians inhabit “a hostage economy where tourist industry employment means active participation in their own degradation” (exemplified by Davenport’s characters in Song of the Exile, where one is propositioned by hotel guests and another is a hula dancer turned hooker).
Trask’s book provides an invaluable overview of Native Hawaiian history, culture and values, as well as of the political, environmental and economic issues that Hawaii shares with other Pacific nations, which, on a per capita basis, “are the most aid-dependent economies in the world.”Trask notes that because they’re far from “civilization,” the Pacific island nations are considered ideal sites for nuclear tests and weapons storage as well as vacations in tropical “paradise.” The US military, the islands’ biggest industry, controls 30 percent of the land on Oahu, the most populous Hawaiian island. It has used the sacred isle of Kahoolawe as a bomb target, operates Pearl Harbor as a nuclear submarine and storage port and lobs missiles from its “Star Wars” facility at Barking Sands, Kauai, into a lagoon at Kwajalein. (This makes Hawaii a prime target for the new, long-range missiles that North Korea has reportedly developed.)
It’s fitting that both Davenport’s and Tyau’s new novels look back at World War II, which, in addition to initiating Hawaii’s military thralldom, also jump-started the era of big resort development and industrial agriculture, the monocropping of sugarcane and pineapple with synthetic pesticides and fertilizers that, along with sewage, polluted fresh and coastal waters, killing off reefs.