Decolonizing the Mind

Decolonizing the Mind

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


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.

Trask documents the rise of contemporary Hawaiian activism, initially a land-based struggle spearheaded in 1976 by the movement to reclaim Kahoolawe and by resistance to evictions, such as those at Sand Island in the seventies and the military-occupied Makua Valley in this decade. She follows the evolution of these land-restitution struggles into the political process that in 1978 created the state Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) and led to the resoundingly defeated Native Hawaiian Vote of 1996, which had sought to toss Kanaka Maoli the bone of a state-run model of sovereignty. Last year saw the defeat of the so-called Hawaiian Autonomy Bill, which would have preserved the status quo under the guise of Hawaiian self-determination.

A strong feminist, Trask illumines the role activist women play as grassroots leaders, including her sister, Mililani, former Prime Minister of Ka Lahui, and Dana Naone, a Maui poet and defender of Waipio Valley and other threatened natural and religious sites. Then there’s Trask herself, who fought racial and sex discrimination by the University of Hawaii, a classic colonial institution, where 75 percent of the student body are people of color and more than 75 percent of the faculty traditionally white. But while a chapter of the book sets forth Ka Lahui’s master plan, Trask gives short shrift to other sovereignty groups, such as Ka Pakaukau. And this 1999 edition would have profited from a look at the election this year of Mililani Trask to OHA, a body she had vehemently opposed for years.

Maybe Mililani plans to reform OHA, an agency bloated with 20 percent of the revenues from ceded lands and widely accused of failure to help Native Hawaiians. Its sister institution in the private sector has just had a shakedown: In May, following widespread protests of mismanagement and other abuse, a federal district judge ordered the removal of four of the five trustees of the 115-year-old Bishop Estate, the largest private landowner in Hawaii, whose $900,000-a-year trusteeships were political perks awarded by the state’s highest court. The fifth trustee resigned. The sole beneficiaries of the trust, created by Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop, have been the Kamehameha Schools, where children of Hawaiian descent were traditionally “bleached and de-Hawaiianized,” according to Dr. Kekuni Blaisdell, class of ’42 and leader of Ka Pakaukau, a grassroots nation.

The trustees were challenged, among other reasons, for failing to aid Hawaiian-language preschools; the language, which was banned by the American-imposed government in 1900, is seen by Kanaka Maoli as central to their cultural revitalization. “Language, in particular, can aid in decolonizing the mind,” Trask writes. With their books, written in English but affirming Native history and values, Kiana Davenport and Kathleen Tyau are part of this process.

It’s far from an easy one, though, given prevailing “racist beliefs that Natives do not understand or even know their culture well enough to assert it,” as Trask puts it. And, echoing assaults on affirmative action on the mainland, many local haole resent Hawaiian reparations. In Rice v. Cayetano, a case scheduled to be argued before the Supreme Court this fall, a white Big Island rancher claims that allowing only ethnic Hawaiians to vote in OHA elections violates his constitutional rights. Trask shows just how invidious the influence of Western historians and anthropologists has been, portraying Hawaiians as lazy, promiscuous, weak–an inferior race. Hawaiians, for instance, had no resistance to diseases introduced by foreigners, and the missionaries portrayed their decimation by syphilis as payback for their sinful nature. These prejudices were popularized by Jack London, a white supremacist who in 1912 appropriated the historical tale of Ko’olau, a Kauai man at the turn of the century who, after helping care for Hawaiians with leprosy, came down with the disease himself and chose armed resistance rather than exile in the leper colony on Molokai. The story is taught widely in local schools, including Kamehameha, according to Dennis Kawaharada, professor of literature at Kapiolani Community College, in his Storied Landscapes: Hawaiian Literature and Place.

Kawaharada points out that London stresses Ko’olau’s individualism, projecting onto him a Western love of freedom, not the actual values that a Hawaiian of that time cared for most: family and place. As explained in a Hawaiian-language account by Ko’olau’s wife, Pi’ilani, keeping his family intact was the reason he refused to leave. By making Ko’olau, as he dies, reflect upon the superiority of the white race, London “epitomizes the strategy of colonization through the usurping of the native voice in storytelling,” says Kawaharada.

That native voice is to be found resurgent in Tyau and Davenport. Tyau’s sentimental comedy of manners and Davenport’s sprawling, tragic melodrama differ vastly in style, but both books personalize, as novels should, vital contemporary struggles–in this instance not only for political self-determination but for the Hawaiian people’s very identity. In literary terms, they can thus be called “popular” novels in more than one sense.

Davenport’s Song of the Exile, a saga of star-crossed lovers, opens in 1942 in Rabaul, New Britain, where Korean-Hawaiian Sunny Sung is imprisoned in a “comfort women’s” compound for Japanese soldiers. To distract her fellow inmates from their misery, she tells them about her Parisian interlude with her Hawaiian lover, Keo Meahuna. Davenport then flashes back to Honolulu in the mid-thirties, where Keo lives with his Hawaiian-Filipino family in working-class Kalihi Lane. A musician and waiter at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, he falls in love with the jazz he hears played by black musicians on tour, and with Sunny, then a University of Hawaii student.

Keo’s sister, Malia, seeks Western sophistication. Working as a hotel maid, she cuts the labels off guests’ French clothes and sews them into her own. She refuses to speak local pidgin English like the rest of the family, prompting her mother’s complaint, “You coming too high maka-maka.” There’s good stuff here: ambitious characters, class and racial tensions building beneath the somnolence of Honolulu on the brink of war. But then the novel makes an epic diversion that wades toward the farcical, sliding at last into a sea of language overenriched with an algae bloom of conflicting images.

From New Orleans to Paris, where Keo plays in nightclubs and he and Sunny work for the Resistance, to Shanghai where their infant daughter is impaled on a Japanese soldier’s bayonet, it’s a case of overkill, replete with rapes, tortures, bombings and coincidences. For instance, a Japanese friend from Paris becomes the commmandant of the camp where Sunny is enslaved.

Though such plotting is overwrought, it’s interesting to see Davenport invert the cliché of Hawaii-as-dream-destination with a romance in which Hawaiians, dreaming of Paris, become tourists, basically, in the war zones of Europe and Asia. Back in Honolulu with Malia, the book returns on course. In between turning tricks in wartime Honolulu, she has an affair with a Hawaiian athlete, Krash Kapakahi, who becomes a political and labor leader, urging Hawaiians in the then-US territory to vote “No” on statehood and instead demand return of their stolen lands. If they don’t, he predicts, accurately, the state will take possession of the 1.8 million acres of Hawaii Kingdom lands that were ceded to the United States by the Americans who illegally overthrew Queen Liliuokalani. Krash presents the argument that grassroots sovereignty groups make today: Since Hawaii voters weren’t given the choice of self-government, as required by Article 73 of the UN Charter, statehood can’t be legal.

In a lovely gesture, Malia names their daughter Anahola after the baby her brother Keo and Sunny lost. The girl grows up considering Keo her father, reaffirming the Hawaiian tradition of free adoption, hanai, a principle of sharing responsibility for children that accompanies the Kanaka Maoli’s system of collective, not private, rights to water and land.

Kathleen Tyau’s brisk, humorous, more sparsely written Makai also explores hanai, and the economic stresses that result in many generations living under one roof. This in turn creates stresses, although it’s the more the merrier as far as the narrator, big-hearted Alice Lum, is concerned. Makai, which means “toward the sea,” centers around the lifelong friendship and conflicts between two women, poor, “plain Chinese” Alice and beautiful, rich, Hawaiian-Chinese Annabel Lee. Annabel, the adventuress, moves to Florida. Alice stays, puts down roots, and endures the growing remoteness of her moody husband, her elder daughter’s moving out and the bittersweet pain of knowing that her younger, retarded daughter never will.

In flashbacks, Makai, like Song of the Exile, depicts Pearl Harbor and the hardships of the war years in Honolulu. In the book’s present time, Alice’s daughter Beatrice visits the mainland and returns with her childhood friend and new lover, Annabel’s son Wick. The funniest scenes in the book show part-Hawaiian but totally haolefied Wick trying to fit in: No matter how much he uses pidgin and the shaka sign to locals, “they know.”

Tyau’s recurring images include hula and ballroom dancing, salty awkward sex, bare feet and polished shoes, all kinds of underwear, island women sewing “getaway” clothes, handed-down jade embodying a lost mother; floods rushing to the sea that Alice fears. While Makai unrolls gracefully in controlled, disciplined prose, I couldn’t help but wish that Tyau would take more chances, dive a little deeper into the psychological depths. I couldn’t lose the feeling that her protagonists–like Davenport’s–were ultimately stock characters, manipulated by a deft puppeteer.

And so we come full circle, from the distortions of Jack London to the reclamation of Hawaiian identity by emergent native voices, to yet another Western visitor’s retelling of native story–only this time, one receptive to the pre-existing culture. London’s conceits should be flung to their unhallowed rest by the astonishingly beautiful reworking of Ko’olau’s tale by the poet W.S. Merwin. This book-length narrative in verse, The Folding Cliffs, relates much of the action through Pi’ilani’s eyes; Merwin, a twenty-five-year resident of Hawaii, writes like a man possessed, letting himself be the vessel for the story. He begins after the fact, with Pi’ilani’s return to the remote valley of Kalalau to make sure her husband’s bones haven’t been disturbed, creating a sense of foreboding and loss so wrenching that the reader can hardly bear to go on, especially when Pi’ilani remembers their little boy, Kaleimanu, imitating the calls of the birds that ply those high cliffs. But we do go on, drawn in by the warmth of the characters and their love for one another and a world of sheer rock, mists, plunging waterfalls and crashing waves.

Merwin, who shares with Charles Olson, A.R. Ammons, Elizabeth Bishop, Gary Snyder and others a heightened sense of the natural world and sensitivity to pre-Western cultures, brings all the devices of his mature skill–imagery, rhythm, moments of lyric flight from a tersely cadenced free verse–to this retelling. The sometimes highly tactile images he chooses to repeat, of rocks, streams, mosses, certain birds and flowers, a cold touch running down between the breasts, build patterns of emotion in the characters and the reader and hark back to Native Hawaiian literary traditions, in which the people were part of the living body of their land. In Hawaiian verse, or mele, concrete pictures carry an underlying meaning, or kaona. In 1893, the year Ko’olau went into hiding and Queen Liliuokalani was overthrown, Ellen Wright Prendergast wrote “‘Ai Pohaku,” the stone-eating song, which exhorts eating this “astonishing food of the land” rather than taking the government’s money in exchange for “its sin of annexation/And sale of native civil rights.” No wonder Ko’olau and Pi’ilani chose to live in a fortress of rock. In the most famous illustration of kaona, the rain on the cliffs entering the buds of the lehua trees in Queen Liliuokalani’s song “Aloha Oe,” while beautifully and accurately capturing the upland forests, is also a sexual image.

Merwin’s images are auditory, as well. As Ko’olau dies of leprosy, Pi’ilani hears again the ‘uwa’u ‘uwa’u calls of the petrels that Kaleimanu had mimicked, and also the “sounds some said were crickets and others said were land snails singing and they were spirits.” Delicately and suddenly, Merwin makes us take Pi’ilani’s leap between actual and spiritual “realities,” and achieves a kind of synthesis between Western myths and Hawaiian oli, or narrative chants. Pi’ilani’s return to Kalalau and the remains and spirits of her dead remind us of Odysseus, Orpheus or Virgil visiting Hades. The colony of lepers, “damned” in the eyes of Western society, inhabits the “rocks, caves, lakes, fens, bogs, dens, and shades of death” of Milton’s Paradise Lost, with joy. When Merwin writes of the waves ending against the cliffs and sands of Kalalau Valley, he is also thinking, as the Hawaiians do, of their original journey to these shores by sailing canoes. He writes of the birth of their literature, in which “they had become their journey which was the tale they repeated,” in a time when “it was still their day their light their shore with those trees.”

When a missionary asks to write down her history after Ko’olau’s death, Pi’ilani becomes uncomfortably aware of the misappropriation and Christianization of her story; he asks her, for instance, if she prayed while being shot at on a cliff ledge. For a while she feels as if, by this telling, she has lost touch with her story. But later, when she meets friends from that time, “she saw then that it was the terrible moments there that she did not want to forget…the sickness of Kaleimanu day by day she did not want it to slip through her fingers now and be gone or his dying and their burying him she wanted to keep even the pain of it.” It is akin to Sunny Sung’s reaction, in an Allied hospital, to a doctor’s assurance that she’d heal, she’d forget. “Why did they think she wanted to forget? That any P-girl wanted to forget?” Remembering shared suffering, exactly what happened and why, what was there before, what was taken and what should be taken back, is crucial to the decolonization of the mind.

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