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Archive for the ‘Hawaii’ Category

I was very glad for the coincidental good timing that I got to be in London to see the Oceania exhibit at the Royal Academy of Arts. I had read online about this being the largest Oceanic Art exhibit ever held in the UK, so I was quite excited. And it was, indeed, an excellent exhibit, though not quite as large in the end as I might have expected. If this was the largest ever held, that’s not really saying much for all the previous ones.

Still, I think it was really a privilege to get to see it. The show opened with a video by Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, a spoken word and performance artist from the Marshall Islands, whose performance put me on the verge of tears right from the very beginning. I wonder how most other visitors received this, how it made them feel. Because I now have so much more background in this, I know a little more deeply what she’s talking about, and sympathize and resonate with it, at least a little more. In the video, she speaks of buying gifts for friends, of earrings and baskets, and telling her friends, when other people ask you about those items, tell them you got them from the Marshall Islands.

Tell them about our culture and our history.
Tell them about how the oceans are rising and our islands are flooding.
Tell them how we don’t want to leave.
Tell them we are nothing without our islands.

This set the tone for me, as if it were an exhibit of a vanishing race, so to speak. Even as I know better, that Pacific Island peoples are (for now) very much alive, that their traditions and culture and contemporary identity are very much alive and current, not belonging only to the past, even so, this set a certain tone, making me think of as if, what if the oceans do keep rising and the islands do disappear, and what if someday not so long from now, these treasures become emblematic representative examples of a much diminished greatness that once was? Some of the only things to survive from a myriad of cultures spanning a vast ocean, which have disappeared into that ocean?

While contemporary artworks were mixed in throughout, the core of the exhibit to my mind was the great many artifacts borrowed from across the UK, Europe, and beyond, representing cultures all across the Pacific and including many objects I might never otherwise see unless I visited Berlin, Vienna, and a half dozen other cities. Many were famous objects I’d seen in books or catalogs before, or objects of some great historical significance otherwise – such as the oldest extant pictorial depiction of a Christian house of worship by a Pacific artist; or sketches drawn by Tupaia, one of the very first Pacific Islanders to ever travel to (be brought to) Europe.

To see the Kūkaʻilimoku statue belonging to the British Museum, one of only three such large-scale Hawaiian kiʻi (tikis) extant in the world, was breathtaking. I had seen it before, at the Bishop Museum, elevated high up on a pedestal alongside its two brothers, in a most historic and powerful reunion of the three, returning two of them to the islands (from Salem MA and London) for the first time since the 18th or very early 19th century. But to see it more close-up, closer to ground level, now, was a real privilege. And I imagine that if I knew the backstories behind more of these objects I would feel similarly about more of them as well.

The exhibit was organized in part by Nicholas Thomas, unquestionably one of the leading Pacific scholars in the world, and had the involvement of Noelle Kahanu and Ty Kawika Tengan (two of the most prominent Native Hawaiian scholars active today), as well as Maia Nuku (Pacific Art curator of the Metropolitan Museum), and some other Māori scholars as well. And it was obvious from the labels and from the audio guide that the emphasis was being placed on Native cultures and Native perspectives, not on the history of “discoverers” or “discoveries.” I am sorry to say that no matter how you dress it up, I could only muster so much interest for fishhooks and spears and the like. But, even so, the fact that they were there, representing so many different Pacific cultures – not just the Sepik Valley over and over again as in the Met’s permanent collection galleries – were being described as to their treasured value within their cultures, and included some of the greatest such treasures of European collections, made them appeal nevertheless.

One highlight of the exhibit was the installation of Lisa Reihana’s “In Pursuit of Venus [infected],” a video art piece installed all along one very long wall of an entire room. Emulating a particular famous painting of European explorers viewing the planet Venus from Tahiti, the video is brilliantly designed to resemble a painting, but animated, with the figures within acting out numerous individualized scenes of European and Islander activities and interactions. Some more friendly and peaceful than others. These scenes are isolated, but interconnected. Here, a small group of islanders perform a hula or other sort of dance. Nearby, some sailors sing a sea shanty. Explorers take off layers of clothing and fan themselves as they look around at the scenery. Islanders pray, or gather for food. An explorer suddenly gets scared, and grabs his gun, pointing it in this direction and that. A native prepares and fires a sling. The gun goes off. A Native is killed. The sailor is all the more wary now, scared of what he’s done, and scared there might be more Natives around, coming for him. The video continues to slowly scroll, continually, such that each of these scenes, as they repeat or develop, gradually moves to the left and eventually off-screen, replaced by others. The music and sounds change depending on what is visible on-screen, from happy and sunny Native songs, bird tweets, and the sounds of the ocean to ominous, deep dramatic music, as skirmishes break out and people are killed. I had read about or seen stills or segments of this in the past, but had never seen the whole thing before. A wonderful precious opportunity.

A section of “Kehe Tau Hauaga Foou (To all new arrivals)” by John Pule, an artist from Niue. Look closer and you can see specific episodes from past and present.

The show closes with a last room featuring a few more traditional and contemporary pieces. One in blue and black and white, resembling at first glance the sketches of Tupaia, caught my eye. On closer examination, one sees the events of 9/11, and the ensuing mobilization of warplanes and tanks, dropping bombs on cities. One sees missiles, nuclear or otherwise, being preppred for launch. One sees people carrying away moai and other Pacific treasures. A beautiful and powerful piece.

In total, I suppose the exhibit covered X rooms (galleries), and felt to me like maybe about the same size as a Metropolitan special exhibit. Sizable, but not so incredible. I wonder, if we were to actually compare the number of objects or the number of galleries to, for example, the Silla exhibit at the Met, the Hawaiian Featherwork exhibit I saw at LACMA, or the much larger(-feeling) Pre-Columbian exhibit I saw at the Getty, how this would compare.
I did buy the catalog, though. While entrance to the exhibit itself was definitely overpriced at £15, especially compared to the British Museum being free, the catalog was very reasonably priced at £13. So I took advantage of that opportunity to buy a nice, big, full-color book.

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Last week was an absolute whirlwind. And as much as I tried to get this blog post down as immediately as I could after the festival was over, now, nearly a week later, the whole thing is mostly a blur – but still an extremely positive experience that I am sure will stay with me for a long time to come. I am so lucky that the 6th Worldwide Uchinanchu Taikai, which happens only once every five years, happened to come around while I am here studying in Okinawa. Some 6000 people of Okinawan descent (=Uchinanchu) came from all around the world for a massive reunion party unlike any I have ever seen. The week included so many events it made my head spin – music and dance performances, talks & lectures, eisa, sumo, food booths, cultural lessons/workshops, all across the island (and on some of the other islands too) – but I think for most people the main thing was simply coming here with family and friends, and meeting up with other family and friends, visiting the ancestral homeland to explore or deepen one’s connections to one’s roots, but also to just go out and have a great vacation, with food and drink and partying..

A one-sheet extra edition, compiled and printed super fast, and handed out at the end of Wednesday’s participants’ parade, before the parade was even over!

For my part, both because I’m living here (and was therefore not quite in full-on mental vacation mode) and because I didn’t really have all that many people to hang out with, I’m not sure I had quite the full experience. But, still, I attended so many events, and had a really great time hanging out with the people I did know.

As of a few months ago, my friend Shari with the Hawaiʻi contingent thought it might be difficult for tiny Hawaiʻi to beat the 1100 or so registered attendees from the huge country of Brazil, but in the end, Hawaiʻi sent over 1800 people to the Taikai – and big thanks to Shari for helping me to be one of them. Groups from Peru and Argentina were big, too, and numerous groups from all different parts across the mainland US, of course. Germany, the UK, France, Australia. China, Taiwan, Korea, and Okinawan associations from different parts of mainland Japan, as well, of course. I think one of the surprising ones for me was New Caledonia – it makes sense, I suppose, that there’d be a lot of Okinawans there, just like in Hawaiʻi and Guam, but, still, it was a huge contingent. All of these Uchinanchu from all around the world coming together, not only were there some 6000 additional people visiting the island for the last week, but it was a majorly prominent big event, with newspapers putting out special editions reporting on the Festival, and a great many shops hanging signs and so forth. Everyone knew it was going on. It made for a really nice atmosphere – I didn’t end up talking to too many people who I just ran into on the street, but, having so many people here who you know are in a similar situation to yourself (well, not quite to myself, but I sort of adopted the identity of an Uchinanchu returning for the Festival) really creates such a wonderful open, friendly, sort of feeling.

Gov. Onaga of Okinawa, with the flags of some of the many countries & regions represented, welcoming everyone back home. I wish I had taken more photos of just generally seeing people on the street, or photos of small parties with friends. Drat.

And I think that was one of the main things that really struck me about the whole thing. It’s corny, but it’s real, that all of these people from all around the world, have come together in friendship – and more than that, really, as family – to celebrate their identity as Uchinanchu. Of course, with any such group so large, you’re going to have people acting like strangers – like the strangers they are – to a large extent; but, at the same time, while I generally try to avoid making generalizations about a whole people, I really do feel that the Okinawans are the most welcoming and inclusive people I know. Meeting fellow Uchinanchu, they share in that like they’re family. And with someone like myself, who is not Okinawan (and never can be), Okinawans here in Okinawa have been friendly as could be, and diaspora Okinawans have been just so welcoming, so accepting, inviting me into their group to go out for drinks, or whatever… Months ago, when I was first hearing about the Taikai, Shari was on Hawaiʻi Public Radio telling people about the Taikai, and about registering through the Hawaiʻi United Okinawa Association (HUOA). I sent her a message saying, basically, I’m not Okinawan, and I haven’t lived in Hawaiʻi in quite a few years, but should I register through HUOA? Is there a way to register just as a loner? And I am so glad to have registered with HUOA. Somehow, I didn’t get that same feeling this weekend as I did a few months ago in LA of feeling like I was back in Hawaiʻi, but still, it’s really something to feel a part of a community, a part of a group – to feel some connection to Hawaiian community, to Hawaiʻi as a cultural space. And I really can’t wait to go spend time in Hawaiʻi again, to maintain those connections.

My point is, attending the opening ceremonies at Onoyama Park Cellular Stadium, seeing thousands of Okinawans celebrating together, showing their pride in their individual cities or countries, but also in being Okinawan, and seeing Gov. Onaga and the prefecture of Okinawa more broadly welcoming them home in this way, it’s just so touching. Reminds me of the Olympics, in a sense, just that cheesy but nevertheless genuine heartwarming feeling of people coming together, in friendship, from all around the world, which puts tears in your eyes. Even before the official opening ceremonies on Thursday, on the day before, there was a participants’ parade in which everyone, in their respective national or regional contingents, marched down Kokusai-dôri (the main street of Naha). As Hawaiʻi was one of the first groups to walk, I got to finish walking the parade, and then turn around and become a spectator to watch all the other groups pass by – and seeing Okinawans from Texas, from Guam, from Bolivia.. even from Zambia, was just incredible. Most people had matching shirts, really “representing” their various countries or regions, and they waved flags, blasted music, performed dances. And, both at the parade and all through the week, local Okinawans would stop people, and hold their hand, and say “welcome home” (o-kaeri-nasai), often with tears in their eyes. I’m getting a little bit teary just writing about it.

Some of my friends have better photos than this; some experienced it rather directly. I, too, was greeted similarly on a number of occasions. It’s a really incredible feeling, for strangers, just anyone, people you meet on the street, to treat you like family, to welcome you home like this.

There were times during the week that I felt I wished we could all have what the Okinawans have. I mean, it comes from pain, from suffering, and I certainly do not wish that upon anyone, that anyone should have to go through what the Okinawans have. Their independent kingdom, so culturally rich and vibrant, was unilaterally abolished and annexed, and the islands’ economy allowed to flounder and collapse, leading a great many to emigrate to Hawaiʻi, the US, South America, and elsewhere right around 1900. This was followed in 1945 by Japan allowing Okinawa to become a battlefield, for a last stand for Imperial Japan, a battle which ended in the deaths of roughly 1/4 of Okinawa’s civilian population, and the utter destruction of much of the island. And indeed, that suffering or oppression is ongoing, as roughly 1/5th of Okinawa’s land continues to be occupied by US military bases today, with both Tokyo and Washington agreeing to essentially use the entire island as a strategic military position, rather than truly seeing it as an equal part of Japan, with equal rights to not have to put up with all the many repercussions of that.

But, my feeling is that through all of this, the Okinawan people have such an appreciation for one another, and for their diasporic relatives, addressing one another not as strangers who happen to have some commonality or similarity, but addressing one another as long-lost distant family. They speak of the Okinawan diaspora as being true Uchinanchu just as much, and as doing great things for Okinawa, or in the name of the Okinawan people. They speak of being linked by one heart, one soul, of being inseparably tied to this place as the homeland. We heard stories from members of the older generation, who speak of having lived overseas (in diaspora) for fifty or sixty years, but that when they dream of home, it is Okinawa they dream of. We heard from members of the younger generation, who have come here to Okinawa as exchange students in order to explore their roots. We heard from Gov. Onaga and other top people in Okinawa, who welcomed these thousands of Okinawans home, speaking of how proud Okinawa is of all of them out there in the world. Speaking of the special spirit, the strength, the power, of Uchinanchu. And at both the opening and closing ceremonies, we saw some of the real all-stars of Okinawan pop/rock/whatever music performing, not as distant, untouchable, impersonal celebrities who might happen to share some common ethnic designation, but rather, as people excited and emotional to be involved in such an event, welcoming all these people home. I wish we all could have such a strong feeling of identity, of togetherness, of ties to the land, of appreciation for our ancestors, of love for our culture, and without anyone else seeing our pride and our togetherness as a dangerous or ugly form of nationalism, or as illegitimate or inappropriate in whatever way. Maybe it’s just my perspective based on who *I* am, my own ethnic/cultural background, my own family’s history, but to me, this all feels “pure” in a way. A pure and wholly positive feeling, and display, of pride of identity, without any of the negative connotations that prevent us from demonstrating our pride in the same way in being American, Japanese, German, Jewish, or any number of other identities. I wish I could wave the Hawaiian flag and feel it was my own. I wish I could wave the Israeli flag and have people see it in that same light – as a long-oppressed minority, an indigenous people, regaining our homeland after centuries of occupation.

Ukwanshin Kabudan, performing in their own short play about the history and experiences of Okinawan immigrants to Hawaiʻi. The group is now working with an NPO called Okinawa Hands-On to produce a documentary on the importance of maintaining the Okinawan language. If you might be interested in contributing to this effort, and to the production of more plays like the one from which this photo was taken, see the Okinawa Hands-On website.

Hanging out with diaspora Okinawans, and studying Okinawan history and culture, has really helped me think about and understand and appreciate my own background as well. It’s all too easy to study history or culture (arts) as objects to be studied – as bodies of knowledge to simply read about, learn about, know, and then share. Names, dates, events, facts. And I do love that stuff. And I do think it’s important. But the ways in which we live our very real lives, the ways in which every individual person, every individual family, has their story, their experiences, their particular relationships with their identity; the way we struggle, as individuals, as families, as local communities, and as a people as a whole (e.g. the Okinawan people), to know the past and to keep those lessons with us, to have appreciation for our ancestors without whom we wouldn’t be here today, to hold onto some notion of our heritage while still living the more immediate, if mundane, priorities of everyday modern life… has really gotten me to think about my own Jewish identity, my relationship with my grandparents and their story, their identity, the heritage that I have inherited, what sort of life I want to live and what lessons I should want to pass down to my own children. How do we embody our ethnic or cultural identities and make that truly a part of who we are? How do we honor who our ancestors would have wanted us to be? How do we maintain traditions, and not lose them, while at the same time not preserving them in a sterile unchanging way like in a glass jar? And how do we maintain them while also dealing with the demands of regular, everyday, modern life?

Some people I would love to get to know, and who I suspect would actually be quite friendly and down-to-earth. Unlike the air or impression that I think is not uncommon within New York or Tokyo of unapproachability. You know, it’s funny, for a post all about making friends and feelings of friendship and family, I still can’t believe (still as in as I continue to write this, from however many paragraphs earlier) that I took no photos at all of new or old friends, or of hanging out with people this whole week. That’s what the whole damn thing was about (partially)!

Another thing that comes up when hanging out with Hawaiʻi folks is the sense I get that in Hawaiʻi, and in Okinawa, it’s not so much about knowing your way around the city/island, knowing cool places, in an impersonal way, nor is it about “who you know” (personal networks) in a high-powered, self-important way, but rather that it’s very much about just being friendly and making friends, and that’s something I have really grown to love and enjoy. I know my way around New York and Tokyo to a certain extent – I have my favorite restaurants, etc.; I know certain short-cuts or certain back ways or whatever. And I’d long aspired to develop that more for those two cities, and for everywhere I went. But, being knowledgeable in that sort of way can be rather impersonal – knowing the best restaurants in the city, being up on the latest trends, doesn’t mean you actually know anyone, or that they know you. And, like at that party I happened to be invited to that one time at the apartment of a curator for the Guggenheim, New York can feel like it’s all about moving in important circles. Who you know, as in who you can name drop, who you can get favors from. But in Hawaiʻi, and I think maybe in Okinawa too, it’s not about that stuff. It’s about being real, genuine friends with people who just happen to be guesthouse operators, restaurant owners, magazine editors, archivists… It’s maybe a little hard to put into words, I guess, what the difference is that I sense. But it’s about the easy, friendly, accessibility of making friends with people in all sorts of circles. Introductions go a long way here, and people are friendly and open and welcoming. They aren’t necessarily looking for what they can get out of you, or looking skeptically at this stranger wondering why should we really be friends. And I think that’s something I struggle with within myself – wanting to be on good, friendly, terms with more or less everyone in my life, but at the same time I have a hard time really accepting that someone else sees me as a friend until we’ve hung out many times and I feel a genuine sense of closeness. Anyway, I’m getting a little too personal, or self-psychoanalyzing or something. The point is, I’ve been here for all of six weeks, and by virtue of friends’ introductions, I already have connections, if not outright friendships, with quite a few grad students and professors, plus a guesthouse owner or manager, the editor of a major local magazine, an archivist… and in Hawaiʻi, through one means or another, I think I have friends or at least acquaintances, connections of some sort, with at least a few bars and restaurants, with multiple people at the Honolulu Museum of Arts, many on campus of course, but also with HUOA, the Japanese Cultural Center, the synagogue, and so on and so forth, after only three years of living there, by virtue of friendliness, aloha spirit, introductions, and the fact that it’s all in all a relatively small place. By contrast, I’ve lived in New York more or less my whole life (when I wasn’t in London or Tokyo or Hawaiʻi or Okinawa or California), and while I am fortunate to have a few friends in a few “high” places here and there, for the most part, I already feel more “connected” here in Okinawa, and in Hawaiʻi, than I ever have (and perhaps ever will) in New York – and not only in the professional networking “what can I get out of you” sort of way, but even in the sense of having social circles I feel I can rely upon to invite me out.

Here’s part of where the difference comes in: in Hawaiʻi and Okinawa, I never felt like I was walking with an elite crowd. I never felt like we were calling up a place to make a reservation and saying “do you know who I am?” “Oh, yes, of course, anything for you, Mr. so-and-so.” No. It was more like calling up and saying “Hey, [insert name]! How’s it going? Thanks again for such-and-such the other night. It was a really fun time. Listen, I have some friends coming into town. You think you have space?” “Oh, yeah, of course! It’s always great to see you! I can’t wait to meet your friends!” After the Taikai was over, just a few days ago, I went over to the guesthouse where one of my friends had been staying, to inquire about making a reservation myself. And, not only did the manager/owner immediately say,

“Travis! Yes, she told me you’d be coming. Great to meet you!”

and then talk to me excitedly about how wonderful that mutual friend is, a nice, fun, generous, warm, person, but then even in the middle of showing me around the guesthouse, she saw someone walking past on the street (a friend? a regular guest?) and called out to him “Oh! Takeo! I didn’t know you were back!” And then interrupted our little “tour” to go chat with him. I just love the idea of this kind of not-so-strictly-professional, friendly, attitude. Like I might also become not only a regular guest, but actually a friend, and might even get introduced to other friends, and, I dunno, just, feel happy and welcomed and feel a part of a real network of actual friends here, more so than just being an experienced, knowledgeable, cosmopolitan, visitor.

This weekend was incredible. So much fun, so exciting, but also emotional at times, very moving. It’s also given me a lot to think about; it’s refreshed my feeling of membership in a Hawaiʻi community, for which I could not be more grateful; and it’s helped me make some new friends and contacts here in Okinawa, which is sure to be fruitful going forward.

The above is all just one version of one attempt at organizing my thoughts and feelings on all of this… I still barely know how I think about all of this. My identity, my relationship to all of these things, remain a work in progress. I may at some point come back and write more about the Taikai, specifically about some of the many events I attended over the course of the Festival, which I barely touched upon at all in this post. But, feeling already so far behind (posting this so many days after the Taikai ended), I’m not sure I will get around to it. In the meantime, for those interested, please do feel free to check out my documentation of my experience of the Taikai, on Flickr, Tumblr, and YouTube.

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Royal Hawaiian Featherwork: Nā Hulu Aliʻi, which recently showed at the de Young Museum in San Francisco, opened May 22 at LACMA, and I was so glad to not only see the show, but also to attend a talk by the curator, Christina Hellmich, and to just generally be there opening day. Though I didn’t get to see any of the opening ceremonies (some, or all, were held in private), and didn’t actually end up talking to very many people, it was a real pleasure to see this exhibit alongside members of the Hawaiian community. Many people in the gallery wore aloha shirts, muumuus, and/or lauhala hats, bringing that feeling of local community, which I always felt when visiting the Honolulu Museum, here to Los Angeles.

The exhibit itself was marvelous. I was excited to see it anyway, even not knowing much about it, simply because it’s Hawaiian art, but I don’t think I knew what to expect in the show. Just from the phrase “Hawaiian Featherwork,” and thinking of textile arts shows, I guess I expected smaller works, and more modern/contemporary fashion accessories, like feather earrings or something. But, no. They were serious when they said “Royal Hawaiian Featherwork,” and we got to see numerous capes and cloaks of the royalty (aliʻi), including pieces associated with such prominent figures as Kalaniʻōpuʻu, Kamehameha I, Kamehameha III, Kamehameha IV, Queen Emma, Kapiʻolani, and Kalākaua, Kekuaokalani from the collections of the Bishop Museum, Honolulu Museum of Art, the Smithsonian, and Harvard’s Peabody Museum. I was extremely pleasantly surprised that they were willing to let these pieces travel – though, as the curator told us in her talk, the featherwork cloaks and the like are far more durable than you might think, and so as long as they’re packed carefully and properly and so forth, really they’re quite okay to travel.

A feather helmet (mahiole) associated with Kalaniʻōpuʻu. Royal cloaks (ʻahu ʻula) in the background.

Being there on opening day, it was a wonderful feeling to walk through the gallery amidst a crowd of Hawaiians and Hawaiian locals, to appreciate this significant event and to engage with these powerful objects alongside them. It made me feel like I was “home” in Honolulu again, and at the Honolulu Museum of Art – I have never felt such a sense of community at any museum as I have at the HMA.

It is not often that a major mainland museum devotes this much space to Hawaiian history or culture, and shares those stories with the wider public, and so being there as members of the Hawaiian community engaged with these powerful artifacts, and thinking about how special an experience this might have been for them, was thus a special experience for me as well, secondhand. When we Westerners look at pieces from another culture, hopefully we are inspired, hopefully we learn something, but mostly it’s just another day at the museum – for these people, and I hope I’m not romanticizing overmuch or god forbid orientalizing, or putting too much onto it, but I really felt I could sense (or, at least, imagine) that there’s a real engagement as they connect to their own history and culture, to their own identity. There were also a number of people there who, from their dress, I am guessing belong to other Native Nations, and I overheard as Bishop Museum staffer & Hawaiian traditional arts practitioner Kamalu du Preez was approached by a Hopi woman, who presented her with a few small packets of seeds; I have been reading about, and watching videos of, meetings between the Hōkūleʻa crew and the Native peoples who have welcomed them at each of the places they have visited, and so there was a wonderful sense of interaction and fellowship here, too, between representatives of Native peoples. I’m still sad I’m going to miss the Hōkūleʻa’s visit to my hometown of New York, in the first week of June.

A cape (center) associated with King Kamehameha III, and two other cloaks from the Bishop Museum.

As much as I enjoyed the energy of walking through the exhibit alongside all these Hawaiians and Hawaiian locals, I regret that I was not bold enough to try to talk to anyone, to ask just who exactly they were. After all, if I had been more bold, to try to talk to people, I wonder who I might have met! I wouldn’t be surprised if many were Bishop Museum staff, prominent traditional practitioners, or bigwigs of Hawaiian high society, or of the local LA Hawaiian community – I think I overheard someone say they were a member of the Royal Order of Kamehameha – and, I wouldn’t have been surprised if they were actually quite kind and friendly. But, alas, this was not a reception or mingling event – it was a regular museum gallery space, and you don’t go up to anyone and everyone in a museum gallery and try to engage them in conversation, do you? Right? If only I’d been closer with someone there already, they might have introduced me around a little bit… but, then, that’s why you have to introduce yourself, develop connections, to begin with.

I did get to meet, and speak very briefly, though, with Kamalu du Preez, Ethnology Collections Manager at the Bishop Museum, who was excitedly getting her picture taken in front of the kāhili (feather standards) she had constructed for the exhibit. My sincere mahalo to her for being so accessible, and friendly, and for taking the time, just for a minute or two, to tell us more about the kāhili – the original exhibit design had them at the entrance to the gallery, framing the title, but due to concerns about light damaging them, they were replaced with wall graphics, as you can see above. The kāhili du Preez made were brought into the gallery, where they stand framing a series of photographs of the aliʻi, just as they would have stood to each side of the actual aliʻi or mōʻī (king or queen) during the time of the Kingdom.

Turning to the objects themselves, thanks to http://wehewehe.com/, we can come to understand a bit more deeply the terminology. Many of the key pieces on display are ʻahu ʻula – feather cloaks each made of hundreds of thousands of feathers, and worn only by the aliʻi (nobility, or royalty). As we learn from the Wehewehe dictionary, ʻahu refers to a garment worn over the shoulders, either a short “cape” or the much longer “cloak” in English parlance, while ʻula refers to red color, and to royal sacredness. Thus, these capes and cloaks, both, even when dominated by yellow, are called “red” or “royal capes”: ʻahu ʻula. ʻŌiwi TV has a series of videos for teaching oneself the basics of Hawaiian language (ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi) – hopefully maybe some day soon I’ll start making my way through those.

The crowd there to see the exhibit created a particular energy in the gallery, that I think made for a wonderfully different experience than if I had visited at any other time.

The capes and cloaks are stunningly beautiful, all the more so because their color shows little sign of having faded – they remain bright and bold – and, LACMA being an art museum, we are certainly there to appreciate the incredible traditional craft techniques, expertise, and unfathomable hours of work it took to produce each of these. But, they are incredible, too, for their historical significance and power. From a Western or modern point of view, we do often speak of artworks as having an “aura” as a result of their canonical status, or historical importance. And as the curator, Christina Hellmich, said in her talk that day, they are touchpoints for history. One could walk through this exhibit and tell much of the history of the Kingdom by pointing to objects associated with each of the kings and queens. But these pieces possess a great mana, too, an aura within traditional Hawaiian belief as well, as they still brim with the mana of the aliʻi who once wore them. It was traditionally considered kapu (taboo) for a commoner to touch anything associated with the aliʻi, not only simply because it was considered disrespectful, or simply not done, but beyond that, because it was believed that the spiritual energy of that person – their mana – was too much for a commoner to handle, and that it would severely injure or even kill them. Today, such kapu are not so strictly observed, but the objects are still considered to be quite powerful, and are still treated with much respect, including ritual. Not only are there various public celebrations, like there were for the opening of this exhibit, and as there were for welcoming Kalaniʻōpuʻu’s ʻahu ʻula and mahiole back to Hawaii a few months ago, but there are also more private rituals performed by those actually handling the objects, as they (I believe, please correct me if I’m wrong) call upon the gods and ancestors for permission to touch, handle, and move the objects.

A feather cloak (ʻahu ʻula) associated with Kalaniʻōpuʻu and obtained by the Bishop Museum in 1968, from the Earl of Elgin.

Doing a little internet research for this blog post, I found an amazing post from the blog nupepa, translating a clip from a 1908 Hawaiian-language newspaper which tells of the Bishop Museum reacquiring from Tsarist Russia at that time an ʻahu ʻula and mahiole associated with Kalaniʻōpuʻu, which had been given to Captain Cook and which had, seemingly by accident, been left by Cook’s men in Russia, way back in 1779-1780. The cloak and helmet were apparently found quickly by Russians, and brought back to St. Petersburg, where they had been preserved all this time. These do not appear to be the Kalaniʻōpuʻu artifacts included in the exhibit at LACMA, which have accession numbers indicating a 1968 date – and as the gallery labels tell us, it was in that year that these were purchased by the Bishop Museum from Lord Bruce of Kinnaird (Earl of Elgin). Neither are these 1908 objects the ones currently on long-term loan to the Bishop from Te Papa. It’s kind of incredible that so many pieces from so long ago – prior to the unification of the kingdom – still survive. Not just one, but at least three sets of ʻahu ʻula and mahiole associated with Kalaniʻōpuʻu, have apparently been maintained in either British, Russian, New Zealander, or Hawaiian hands.

And this, given that Hellmich tells us only about three hundred such Hawaiian featherwork garments are known to be surviving in the world. It’s a small number, but at the same time a large one, considering that in this one exhibit at LACMA alone we have numerous ʻahu ʻula belonging to Hawaiian mōʻī, while only one Ryukyuan royal crown is known to survive, in all the world. This is thanks, I suppose, to a combination of factors, including the fact that Hawaiʻi, for all its troubles, was at least spared the shelling and bombing and devastation of land war visited upon Okinawa; the fact that these objects, however Orientalized and exoticized, were valued and thus carefully preserved in British, Russian, and American collections; and the fact that within Hawaiian culture, too, these things were considered powerful symbols of kingly legitimacy and power, and were passed down from one king to another. Stacy Kamehiro writes, in her book The Arts of Kingship, about King Kalākaua’s possession of numerous key objects belonging to the Kamehameha line. And, indeed, the Sacred Sash of Liloa (Kāʻei Kapu o Liloa) worn by Kamehameha I in his famous statue was possessed, too, by Kalākaua, and survives in the Bishop Museum collection today.

We also learned about the birds used to make this fabulous cloaks. Three of the most significant were the mamo, the ʻoʻo, and the ʻiʻiwi. The mamo and ʻoʻo, used for their black and yellow feathers, are today extinct, though the red ʻiʻiwi can still be found in Hawaiʻi today, and are merely designated as “Vulnerable.” To make a full-length cloak like many of those in this exhibit required the feathers of literally hundreds of thousands of birds, and since the mamo and ʻoʻo were black birds with only a few yellow feathers each, one can begin to imagine how rare, valuable, and precious these yellow feathers were – and thus how a yellow cloak, even a smaller cape, could serve as a great show of wealth and power. Brilliant as the red is – and, make no mistake, the red was considered a royal color too – it was the yellow, really, which made so much more of an impression. This being the case, an all-yellow ʻahu ʻula associated with Kamehameha I and still held by the Bishop Museum today, despite being less visually interesting than the red and yellow ones, must have provided an exceptionally powerful display of wealth and kingly authority.

Moa – a type of native Hawaiian duck far cuter and far less imposing than the large ratites which once lived in Aotearoa – were also used for featherwork, and are also extinct. Green feathers, used mainly in lei and not in cloaks, came from the ʻōʻū, which is today believed to be critically endangered, if not already extinct.

The mamo, as depicted by John Gerrard Keulemans, 1900.

Given that several of these bird species are today extinct, and that it did require so many birds to make a single cape, a number of people in the audience raised the perhaps obvious questions about how exactly the feathers were gathered, and how (why) precisely the birds went extinct. I have certainly in the past, too, heard various rumors about precisely how or why this happened – one that came up among the audience questions was the notion that even if you leave the mamo safe and alive after plucking only its yellow feathers, it won’t look recognizable anymore to the females, and that thus the feather collection has a profound negative impact on breeding, and thus on the mamo population overall. Who knows if this was the case, though. While no people ever truly lives in perfect harmony with nature, and while all human presence has some environmental impacts, Hellmich reminded us, too, that on a very practical level, since it’s clear that these cloaks continued to be made for at least a hundred years (that is, over the course of the time of the unified Kingdom), if not for many centuries before that, clearly people must have had techniques to ensure they were not depleting the bird population too severely. If the feather gathering process had been as devastating as some of these rumors suggest, the bird-catchers and cloak-weavers would have been out of a job in only a few years, or decades, and the existence of these artifacts clearly shows they were not. Further, I thought it interesting that, as Hellmich pointed out, people so often seem so concerned about the environmental impact of indigenous art – and yet, when it comes to Western art, we don’t ask those questions. What about the human & environmental costs of all many various materials collected and used for European visual and material culture?

Further, while all of these audience members were asking questions about the environmental conservation angle, I may have been the only one who asked a question about the significance of these objects to Hawaiians today, and about the museum’s involvement in allowing for the appropriate (pono) ritual protocols to be observed regarding the transport and display of these objects.

Tammeamea (Kamehameha I) by Louis Choris, 1816. Pen and ink, ink wash, and watercolor on paper. Honolulu Museum of Art.

A couple of final points. One, that Hawaiian featherwork, though generally quite obscure in the overall treatment of global art history, in fact had its impacts & influences beyond Polynesia. The 1824 visit of King Kamehameha II to England, where he wore at least one of his royal feather cloaks, inspired a boom in English fashion emulating this style of featherwork – one example of such a piece, a British featherwork cape or jacket, is on display in the exhibit. Second, that in Louis Choris’ famous watercolor painting of Kamehameha I in a red vest, he is still wearing the royal red & yellow, even in Western clothing; I never noticed this color significance before, but now that it has been pointed out to me, I think it a very interesting sign of the ways in which Hawaiians – like others, around the world – adapted to modernity while retaining their cultural identity and traditions. Tradition, culture, and identity are not irrevocably tied to the past, nor are they incompatible with modernity; we know this so well for ourselves, even for various minority cultures, but when it comes to indigenous peoples, for some reason we have a lot of difficulty with this concept. Choris’ painting shows that Kamehameha had no difficulty with that at all.

Royal Hawaiian Featherwork: Nā Hulu Aliʻi is on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) until August 7, 2016.

All photos are my own.

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Video tour of the exhibit by curator RDK Herman

I don’t recall where I first heard that the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) was doing an exhibit on the history of the Hawaiian Kingdom, but when I heard, I blogged about it, and decided to try to make sure I would get to DC to see it.

E Mau ke Ea: The Sovereign Hawaiian Nation is described by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser (in an article hidden behind a paywall but fortunately available on CA Legislation Action Hub of all places) as “the culmination of more than five years of research and development.” In that same article, curator RDK Herman is quoted as saying that this is “the first time Hawaii’s story has been told publicly in Washington, D.C.,” and it was accordingly celebrated with a number of presentations, performances, and events, including a sizable symposium on “The Future of Hawaiian Sovereignty,” much of which is visible on YouTube. And, paired with the “Nation to Nation” exhibit on the history of formal treaties between Native American Nations and the US, makes the exhibit all the more timely and powerful, by connections in themes and historical parallels. So, you can imagine my excitement about this exhibit.

From what little I know of Hawaiian history – I am still very much a novice – I have come to believe strongly in the importance of Hawaiʻi’s story being taught, and learned, and known, by Americans across the country. There is so much to Hawaiʻi’s history which helps us to understand the devastating impacts of capitalistic ideologies that place corporate profits over popular well-being; the power of ideals of pure democracy to steamroll over the rights of specific (minority) peoples; and the beauty and powerful validity of different cultures, and alternate modernities. Hawaiʻi’s history is also an excellent case which helps us to complicate our understanding of American history, and to come closer to a more inclusively complex understanding of our country – there is much more to US history than Whites and Blacks, and Britain and Spain and Mexico, and slavery and civil rights, and Manifest Destiny and the frontier, and the numerous other issues and topics that we tend to make central and prominent in our discussions of mainland US history and issues. Hawaiian history is American history, too, now, as a result of the overthrow. The people who live there are Americans, too, and their stories, their problems, their experiences of racial/ethnic identity, are just as authentically, genuinely, part of the US American story as anyone else’s.1

The NMAI is an incredible place – its “Nation to Nation” exhibit, which I saw the same day, was top-notch – and I had no doubt they would do an excellent job of this. I could not wait to see an exhibit that brought the story of the Hawaiian Kingdom, in all its glory and its tragedy, to the nation’s capital, bringing to DC museumgoing audiences something approximating the experience of visiting the Bishop Museum – an immersive exhibition, loaded with artifacts, from the feather cloaks of the aliʻi to the letters, treaties, petitions, and/or other documents associated with the overthrow.

Hawaiian Hall at the Bishop Museum, Feb 2010. Photo my own.

What a shame, then, that “lack of adequate funding … forced Herman to downsize the exhibit.” I appreciate that there are complicated politics involved here, as they are in any museum exhibit, that museum budgets are generally far tighter than the public imagines, and that having this exhibit come together at all is still a massive accomplishment. Not to mention the fact that this is the National Museum of the American Indian, and there is undoubtedly, and quite understandably, politics surrounding the inclusion of the Hawaiian people, especially where it might take away space and attention from the Ho-Chunk, Chumash, Snohomish, Seminoles, and other mainland Native Nations. I appreciate the difficulties, and I appreciate the accomplishment that this exhibit still nevertheless represents, and so I feel bad to criticize at all. Indeed, I trust that all involved did as much as they could, and so there is no person or institution to criticize – rather, it’s just the circumstances, the limitations of budget, security, space, and so forth; and thus, not a criticism, but simply a shame.

The historical narrative and its powerful lessons are still told in rather good detail, however, in this small exhibition. As you can see in Herman’s video tour (above), and in my own photos (there is unfortunately no exhibit catalog), the beautiful, well-crafted, well-curated, panels cover everything from Hawaiian literacy, symbols of sovereignty, and treaties, to the annexation, to cultural resurgence, sovereignty movements and prospects for the future. And, the panels included some really excellent information, such as treatment of the kingdom’s use of both Native and Western modes of symbolizing sovereignty, a chart of demographic changes over time, and a 2012 anti-annexation (Kū’ē) protest on the National Mall, which I had not known about.

Visitors to E Mau Ke Ea in early May 2016, Photo my own.

I saw quite a number of people make their way through the exhibit while I was there, talking, pointing, questioning – so I do think this exhibit, however small, will make a significant impact. The inclusion of audio stations playing songs evocative of the various periods & historical moments, and of the video Act of War were excellent, and do a lot, too, towards imparting a fuller, more culturally immersive, impact upon visitors.

Yet, still, there were by my count only six artifacts in the gallery, four of which are from the 2010s, and one of which was a reproduction,2 despite the originals being held by the National Archives (NARA) – an institution under the very same broader umbrella organization as the NMAI, namely the federal government, and located only a five-minute walk away, literally. Similarly, I would be very surprised if the Smithsonian doesn’t own, somewhere in one of its various museums, other Hawaiian artifacts. Whatever the conservation concerns may be, and security concerns, it’s hard to imagine the NMAI could not have handled it. It’s not as if they don’t have conservation and security for the rest of their exhibits… But, then again, I don’t work there, I don’t know the behind-the-scenes true details of the situation. Herman’s video would seem to suggest that it was simply security concerns, and the Star-Advertiser budget concerns… So, it is a shame, but, sometimes it truly is the most mundane logistical circumstances which do us in, and sometimes that’s just how it is.

Based on the catalog, it sounds like the 1980 exhibit Hawaiʻi: The Royal Isles was everything this exhibit might have been. I do not know if there have been other such exhibits since, but regardless, I think it is time to see such an exhibit again – large-scale, filling a major gallery (such as the one “Nation to Nation” is in now, or one of similar size and prominence at the American History Museum across the Mall), and filled with numerous significant, precious, and impactful artifacts, conveying a fuller, more thorough narrative and more immersive experience of Hawaiʻi’s greatness, and its tragedy.

Someday. Hopefully, soon. In the meantime, though, my congratulations to Dr. Herman on the accomplishment – an excellent and historic exhibit, the successful culmination of many year’s work, bringing the story of Hawaiʻi’s history to Smithsonian visitors, and an exhibit which I do think will have a significant impact, teaching visitors important and shocking truths of which they had been unaware. My sympathies to him as well that it could not (yet, in this iteration) be all that he had hoped for. I eagerly look forward to seeing the project continue, and grow, and hopefully reach greater successes in future – and I look forward to hopefully being in some position someday where I can contribute somehow to helping to make that happen.


1. With acknowledgement, of course, for the fact that many Native Hawaiians (and people of many other indigenous Nations) do not recognize US authority over them, and do not consider themselves Americans. Still, I think this makes it all the more incumbent upon us to know about their history, their struggles.

2. A pre-overthrow human hair necklace (lei niho palaoa) was the only pre-2010s artifact on display.

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Images from Hawaiian history, laid over a Hawaiian flag, from a Hawaiian Independence Day event at University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, 2015. Labeled on Google Images as free for reuse. Sad to be missing such vibrant cultural and historical events, day after day.

Since the overthrow, and perhaps even more so since the cultural renaissance of the 1960s-70s, there has been a strong segment of society in Hawaiʻi agitating for sovereignty, and for a return to independence. This is a huge topic, with a long and complicated history, complete with much factionalism, and I fully admit there is so much I do not know about it. So, I invite you to look into it more on your own. And, if I have misrepresented anything, comments and corrections are most welcome.

What I would like to introduce in this post is a recent set of developments which have the potential to become a truly historic turning point – and perhaps might be identified as a significant historic set of events already. In coming months, the Hawaiian people may move significantly closer to attaining federal recognition, after the fashion of many mainland Native American Tribes/Nations. This is a really big deal.

The opening lines of the Akaka Bill. Image from the Honolulu Civil Beat.

In an article in the Hawaii Civil Beat from last October, Trisha Kehaulani Watson explains some of the key steps leading up to this. First, for many years, Daniel Akaka (US Senator from Hawaii 1990-2013) pushed a bill (commonly known as “the Akaka Bill“) which would grant the Native Hawaiians federal recognition. Many supported this, of course, as it would mean official recognition by Washington of the Hawaiian people as being a Nation, with certain sovereign rights, and possessing a government with the power to negotiate with Washington on an equal (or, kind of sort of equal) basis, regarding rights, policies, benefits, etc.

Many Native Hawaiians were staunchly opposed to the bill, however, with some of the key reasons being (1) fear that being “given” recognition would be seen by too many in Washington as balancing the scales and negating any further grievances the Native Hawaiians may have, as to land, reparations, etc., (2) fear that recognition would make true sovereign independence more difficult to obtain later down the road, and (3) opposition on the basis that the federal government – that is, the United States of America – is an illegal occupier, and has never had any rightful legal authority over the islands whatsoever. In short, that being officially recognized by Washington means officially acknowledging that Washington has any right or sovereign authority to be the ones granting such recognition.

Image from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA), as seen on the Huffington Post blog post “OHA CEO Forces Standoff Over Sovereignty.”

Those seeking federal recognition then pursued the establishment of a formal roll of Native Hawaiians, an important step towards building a base of voters for some future election of a committee or government which could then represent the Native Hawaiian people in government-to-government negotiations with Washington. This roll, called Kanaʻiolowalu in Hawaiian, and organized through the State Senate’s Act 195 (signed in 2011), was also deeply unpopular. While they aimed to get some 200,000 people to sign up – which would still be less than half of the total Native Hawaiian population – they got less than 10% of that. And so, with the backing of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA; a government agency deeply invested in the federal recognition track), these pro-recognition factions apparently got another bill passed, which allowed a whole bunch of people already on other lists to be added to this Kanaʻiolowalu roll without their consent. Kehaulani Watson identifies this as a very serious and problematic development – the fact that this allows OHA to pretend the Kanaʻiolowalu has more support than it actually does, is only the least of it. Her concerns, expressed in the Civil Beat article, can be heard too in an interview she did with Noe Tanigawa of Hawaii Public Radio (an NPR station).

Which brings us to Naʻi Aupuni, and the most recent set of developments. Now, while I admittedly could probably quite easily do a little Googling and figure out more, I think the fact that I don’t already have a sense of who Naʻi Aupuni is, from all the newspaper articles and blog posts I’ve been reading, I think really says something. Naʻi Aupuni is not a US federal or state agency of any kind; neither is it part of the OHA, nor is it an organization that in any way genuinely represents the whole, or the core, of the Hawaiian people. Best as I understand it, Naʻi Aupuni are just some organization, one of a great many factions, but the one chosen by (or formed in cahoots with) the OHA to receive the official rolls from the Kanaʻiolowalu, and to start moving towards an election that a great many Native Hawaiians were opposed to holding.

As I am beginning to understand, it seems a common story among many indigenous groups that there are those factions who develop “in” relationships with the authorities, and then regardless of how marginal those people may be (and they often are) in relation to the community at large, or in relation to chiefs, elders, culture-bearers, powerful families, or whatever it may be, suddenly now these people gain so much power. Museums and anthropologists work with those (sometimes marginal[ized]) people in the community who volunteer themselves to engage with them, and even if these people are rival factions, or in one way or another not actually representative of the community, its attitudes, interests, or desires, suddenly they are the ones who are seen by the museums, scholars, and authorities, as the voices of authority, as the recognized representatives of the tribe/nation. And this can be terribly problematic, as the “recognized” faction attacks others as being less authentic – those who control the museums often control what happens to artifacts, and those connected to local government can control recognition, benefits, land agreements, and so forth. I’m beginning to learn bits about the local politics and issues facing the Chumash peoples, who are local to the area I am living in today in Southern California, and, boy…

Right: Image from Law Journal Hawaii.

But, to get back to the Naʻi Aupuni, they held elections this past fall, to elect representatives to an ʻaha, a committee which would then meet and discuss to work to organize a government. That government would then, in theory, represent the Hawaiian people just as the various federally recognized tribes/Nations on the mainland do, to negotiate with the federal government on a supposedly equal (but actually deeply unequal) government-to-government basis. A huge number of Native Hawaiians did not vote, and so the whole thing was hardly representative, but the counting of votes was in any case halted by the US Supreme Court, on account of racial discrimination. The only ones eligible to vote were those of Native Hawaiian ancestry, which is essentially “race.” This is ironic, of course, in that first of all it’s an election to form a government that would represent the Hawaiian people, so it just makes sense that, obviously, only Hawaiian people should be able to vote. But, also, what could be more American than “government of the [Hawaiian] people, by the [Hawaiian] people, for the [Hawaiian] people”? That said, though, there are many even within the Native Hawaiian community who have pointed out that the unified Hawaiian Kingdom was multi-ethnic from the start, incorporating British, French, [mainland US] Americans, and many others. King Kalākaua had his “Hawaii for the Hawaiians” motto and movement in the 1880s, and with good reason in my personal opinion, but even then, he simultaneously backed systems for foreigners to declare their loyalty to the King and to thus become royal subjects & naturalized citizens. Walter Murray Gibson, one of Kalākaua’s chief advisors and one of the strongest advocates for “Hawaii for the Hawaiians,” was just one such naturalized subject. So, anyway, the point is, the Kingdom was always a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic one, and so doing it by race/ancestry is a bit weird. But, what’s the alternative? Let descendants of the missionary families vote, or descendants of those who were directly complicit in the overthrow, and you’re drowning out the voices of the Native Hawaiians themselves, who according to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, as well as various other documents, have a fundamental right to self-determination.

The counting of the votes was thus stopped. But Naʻi Aupuni decided to go ahead and just have all the candidates go forward to become members of the ʻaha, as if the election wasn’t halted, and as if they had all been elected. This ʻaha then met in February 2016 for a four-week convention. Kaʻiulani Milham, one of the members of the ʻaha, has shared “What Really Happened at the ʻAha” in a pair of articles in the Hawaii Independent: Part 1, and Part 2.

Prof. Jon Osorio, former director of the Kamakakūokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, has been quite critical of the entire process. In one interview, he simply said quite explicitly,

Whatever they come up with, I’m going to be one of the thousands of people who say, ‘you do not represent me, you do not speak for me.’

Osorio has also written several pieces in the Hawaii Independent, Honolulu Civil Beat, and elsewhere, expressing his opposition. And he’s not the only one. As one man, Isaac Kaiu, told the Department of the Interior at a public hearing in 2014:

“The law of nations tells me that we are the Kanakas, the only people that have a legal right to conduct our affairs. No other entity, whether state or federal government has that authority”

Meanwhile, Prof. Lilikalā K. Kame’eleihiwa, the current director of the Center, is among those who have expressed their strong support for federal recognition. She argues that federal recognition is the first important step towards gaining “standing,” a position from which to begin, to start to negotiate with Washington, as a first step towards gaining true sovereignty.

As a haole, it is of course not my place to insert my opinions in this contentious, complicated, and important issue – it is something for the Hawaiian people to decide for themselves, and not for me to judge. Of course, I cannot help but have my opinions, but I hope I have not intruded by hinting at them in this post.

As you can already see, even this Naʻi Aupuni series of events alone is quite complicated – not to mention the broader issues of sovereignty, internal politics, and history – and so as a mere observer, who has been following all of this only through a scattering of some news articles and blog posts (and who knows how many I have missed), my sincere apologies again if I omit or misrepresent any key bits. I invite you, dear reader, if you are so inclined, to look around the Internet, and read more, to inform yourself further. And if you know more, or know different, please do feel free to leave a comment pointing out my errors, and/or pointing me to further information.

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Lots to report on right now, with events touching upon many aspects of Hawaiʻi’s history, and future.

The Hōkūleʻa, in a photo from Wikimedia Commons. I hope to have my own photos of the boat someday.

The Hōkūleʻa was built in the 1970s as a recreation in the spirit of the double-hulled canoes with which the Polynesians originally explored and settled the islands of the Pacific, guided not by any instruments but only by their expert knowledge of sun, stars, wind, and waves. Its construction and first voyage to Tahiti was but one of the many great accomplishments of the grand cultural revival enacted by the Hawaiian people – and by indigenous peoples all around the world – at that time. In 2014, the ship departed Hawaiʻi on its first attempt to circumnavigate the globe. In recent weeks, it has reentered US territorial waters for the first time in many many months. The boat is now in the Caribbean and will be visiting New York in June or July. A whole bunch of events have already been going on in New York in anticipation of it – as a (lowercase ‘n’) native New Yorker who has never really been aware of very much Hawaiian anything going on in the city, I am very excited that this is going on, but also sad to be missing out on it. If you’re in New York, check out Halawai on Facebook for updates and information about Hawaiʻi-related events in the city.

The sister ship, Hikianalia, has not been receiving as much attention, but is scheduled to be visiting the West Coast of North America over the course of this summer, with stops in Seattle (May 29 – June 10), Vancouver (July 5-14), San Francisco (July 29 – Aug 14), Monterey (Aug 15-21), and San Diego (Aug 26 – Oct 10). Why am I not surprised they’re not coming to Santa Barbara? Nothing ever comes to Santa Barbara (even though we have the oldest working wood wharf in California, and that’s gotta mean something, right? Plus, the opportunities for interactions between the Hawaiians and their indigenous cousins, so to speak, among the coastal Chumash).

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Polynesian people sailed the seas, crisscrossing the Pacific in ships not unlike the Hōkūleʻa, for centuries before any Europeans ever entered the Pacific. Englishman Captain James Cook was, famously, the first European to happen upon the islands. Cook would eventually be killed in Hawaiʻi, but before that, he was warmly welcomed by Chief Kalaniʻōpuʻu, who gifted him a feather cloak (ʻahuʻula) and feather helmet (mahiole), royal gifts loaded with mana. Truly incredible gifts which made their way back to England, and then were passed through a number of different hands, different owners and collectors, before being given in 1912 to the Dominion Museum in New Zealand. Today, over a hundred years later, Te Papa Tongarewa, the successor to the Dominion Museum, is returning these items to Hawaiʻi for a ten-year extended loan. Even if they are not returning to Hawaiʻi permanently, still, this is their first time back in the islands since they were first given to Cook, in the 1770s. I know some of what was said about the temporary return of two Kū statues to the islands back in 2010, about how significant that exhibition was as well. Thinking of how ancient these objects are, their association with momentous events and with two figures – Kalaniʻōpuʻu and Cook – who are both regarded as possessing immense mana, I can only imagine how powerful and moving this must be for many members of the Hawaiian community. I hope it’s not Orientalist or something to say so, but just looking at the objects in the video below, I felt like I could almost sense the mana myself – and thought of the traditional kapu (from which we got the English word “taboo”) against touching anything of the king’s, for fear that its great mana would be literally fatal to anyone of lesser station. Clearly, attitudes and practices have changed, though I have no doubt that the objects are still being treated with utmost respect, awe, and a sense of their power and significance.

This video, narrated in Māori, discusses the ritual process of Hawaiian representatives ceremonially reclaiming these royal treasures from the Māori people, who have served as their caretakers for the past 100 years.

A cacophony of additional videos, photos, and other coverage can be found on the website of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA).

Further ceremonies will be held at Bishop Museum in Honolulu on March 17, and I expect there will be video related to that as well. I look forward to it. The treasures will be on display at Bishop Museum beginning March 19. I hope I get to see them at some point…

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“Ua Mau Ke Ea O Ka Aina I Ka Pono”. A royal motto appropriated for the State motto. Usually translated as “The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness.” Seen here on the gates to `Iolani Palace. Photo my own.

Meanwhile, the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC is hosting an exhibit on the history of the Hawaiian Kingdom (which emerged out of the unification of the islands by Kamehameha I some decades after Cook’s time), including especially “the undermining of Hawai`i’s independence and its annexation by the United States; to the rise of the Hawaiian rights movement in the late 1960s and the resurgence of Hawaiian nationalism today.”

I haven’t been able to find much about the exhibit just yet beyond this basic exhibit description on the museum’s website, and a brief Star-Advertiser article. As this is not only an exhibit relating in one fashion or another to some aspect of Hawaiian culture, but is quite likely the most major exhibit the NMAI will hold on the overall story of Hawaiʻi’s history for many years to come, I very much hope that I (somehow?) manage to make it to DC to see it. The exhibit is open until January 2017.

Here’s a video from part of the events held at the museum in association with the exhibit:

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Today, over 100 years since the overthrow and illegal annexation of the Kingdom, we find ourselves suddenly in the midst of what might become (if it hasn’t already) the next significant turning point in Hawaiian history. In my next post, I will discuss the Naʻi Aupuni elections, ʻaha committee discussions, and possibility of Native Hawaiians being formally recognized by the US federal government, in the near future, as something akin to a Native American Nation.

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On my recent trip to New York, I picked up two more Pacific Art books. I have yet to have the chance to read them through, cover-to-cover, so this post is not part of my series of response essays on books read for my exams, but rather, a book review post like those I have done more typically, previously, sharing general impressions based on a thorough skim.

The first, Hawaiʻi: The Royal Isles, was a particularly exciting find. A 1980 exhibit catalog from Bishop Museum Press, I found it at the Strand, one of New York’s greatest bookstores. This is not an exhibit I had ever heard of before, and it was a very different exhibit from just about any other Pacific art exhibition I have ever heard of.

In Pacific art books, courses, and exhibits, including in Pacific Art in Detail, the second book I’ll be discussing in this post, the focus is typically on objects of traditional use: fish hooks, baskets, tapa/kapa cloth, oars/paddles, religious icons, ritual garments, and so forth. And that’s fine. That’s great. These objects are beautiful, fascinating, and the cultural beliefs & practices to which they are related are of great value and interest and importance. From a historian’s or anthropologist’s point of view, they constitute the material culture of that society, and are valuable tools for examining, investigating, understanding, and envisioning that society, and from the art historian’s point of view, too, these constitute the artistic production of that society, products of that society’s aesthetic sense or interests, and are valuable tools for encouraging appreciation of those aesthetics, appreciation of that society, appreciation of the great diversity of our world, and that everyone makes art worthy of appreciation.

But, Hawaiʻi has a history, too, of a cohesive, complex, and in many ways “modern”/Westernized polity, as many other places in the Pacific do as well. Hawaiʻi: The Royal Isles was an exhibition of that history. It did not only include koa wooden bowls, feather cloaks, wooden idols, and other objects of “traditional” culture, such as we would expect to typically see in any Pacific art exhibit; rather, it included numerous paintings and photos of the kings and queens of Hawaiʻi, of Honolulu and other parts of Hawaiʻi itself, and of haole and other influential figures in Hawaiian history from Captain Cook all the way up through the overthrow, as well as “modern” or “Western” objects1 related to the kingdom, such as the scepter, sword, and ring used at Kalākaua’s coronation, the royal throne of Kamehameha III, examples of the Order of Kalākaua and Order of Kamehameha, the gown worn by Liliʻuokalani for her coronation, and the suit worn by Curtis ʻIaukea at Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, along with traditional items directly associated with the royals, such as a feather lei worn by Princess Kaʻiulani. Unlike the fishhooks and so forth which are wonderfully evocative of a culture, but which alone convey to a Western museumgoer, or reader, little sense of a historical narrative, these objects convey to that Western observer a clear sense of a line of kings and queens with a real history, developing over time through different personalities, different times, different events and influences and obstacles.2 The exhibit contained at least one formal portrait of every monarch of the united Hawaiian Kingdom, from Kamehameha I (r. 1782-1819) to Queen Liliʻuokalani (r. 1891-1893), and through these portraits, a variety of objects directly associated with the monarchs, and other paintings, photos, and objects, the exhibit suggested, if not actually narrating directly, the complex and real history of the kingdom, as it confronted Westernization, dynastic change, pressure from imperialist powers, and eventually, overthrow.

King Kamehameha III (r. 1825-1854), and his sister Nāhiʻenaʻena, ages 12 and 10 respectively, in 1825 works by Robert Dampier, which were included in the exhibition in 1980. I was fortunate to see these on display at the Honolulu Museum of Art, last year, where I believe they are now on regular or permanent display. As the HMA gallery labels note, both the king and his sister normally wore Western clothing for both formal and everyday occasions, and dressed in this fashion merely for the portrait.

I do not know what gallery text accompanied the exhibit, as it was mounted, at the time, but the catalog entries include short sections which run through themes pertaining to the history of Hawaiʻi, from earliest mythical origins, through the reigns of the various kings and queens, including themes such as “symbols of sovereignty,” hula, pre-contact Hawaiian religion, and the arrival & influence of missionaries. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to present an apolitical account of this history, and in order to say quite where this book lies, what sort of narrative it is presenting, I would have to read it more closely, and really analyze what is and is not being said. But upon a brief skim I think it’s fair to say that while these brief sections do not level any boldfaced criticism of the US, or of the other imperialist powers, nor of the haole influence within the islands, neither is the book particularly laudatory or celebratory of haole/US influence either, presenting what it presents in a fairly matter-of-fact manner. As such, this is not a powerfully progressive book, like Osorio’s Dismembering Lāhui or Dougherty’s To Steal a Kingdom, but neither is it a regressive text, presenting the Hawaiians as backwards, or the US takeover as a great and wonderful thing. As for the history, it is at least a good source for the most basic outlines of the history of the kingdom – names & dates & events, from Captain Cook, through each of the kings and queens, to Liliʻuokalani.

The one lengthy essay in the catalog, entitled “The Persistence of Tradition,” and written by Adrienne Kaeppler, builds upon this basic framework in a very valuable way. Having not read it through word for word, I cannot say precisely how good this essay is, or whether it is wholly unproblematic, but, I can say that it contains a number of important ideas that I think may have been radical (in a good way) for the museumgoer, or catalog reader, of 35 years ago. Kaeppler writes positively of the value and validity of oral tradition, and negatively of how Western media has, for the most part, ever since Captain Cook all the way up through the present, “largely built upon the original erroneous conceptions, and have done little to dispel the myths” (53). Perhaps more pleasantly surprising for a book of this age, and also of great importance, is her foregrounding the idea that

traditional Hawaiian world views, philosophies, arts, and crafts still flourish in Hawaiʻi in spite of the overlay of 19th and 20th century European and American value systems, a competitive money economy, and an introduced Christian God. Even before the recent resurgence of Hawaiian tradition, there were many visible elements of Hawaiian culture that had never died. The persistence of tradition is a more appropriate vision of Hawaiʻi … Hawaiian values have not fossilized; they are living forces for inspiration and creation that form a continuous link between the Hawaiʻi of today and of yesterday. (53-54, emphasis added)

Perhaps it should not be surprising that we should see such ideas in 1980, as the Hawaiian Renaissance was well underway already since sometime in the 1970s, nor should it be surprising that the Bishop Museum – the museum founded in the name of Hawaiian royal Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop, and housing the collection of the Kamehameha Dynasty, including the largest collection of Hawaiian artifacts of any institution in the world – should be saying these rather progressive, pro-indigenous, anti-Eurocentric, things, even a full 35 years ago, and taking the bother to include the ʻokina where appropriate throughout. But, still, given that issues of how to appropriately and respectfully represent indigenous cultures in museums remains very much an ongoing debated issue today, something museums are still very much struggling to do properly, it was for me really something to see these kinds of attitudes and approaches represented in this fashion in a 35-year-old book. In particular, the attitude, or conventional wisdom, that indigenous peoples or at least their distinctive culture, have all but died out, and belong only to the past, remains quite strong today in the United States, if not elsewhere in the world, and it is only in the last few years, or maybe the last decade or two at most, that many museums in the country have begun to more actively include contemporary Native American works alongside the traditional ones, in their galleries, in order to more directly and actively confront this myth, and to assert instead the “persistence of tradition.” To give some examples, the National Museum of the American Indian only first opened its doors in 2004, and at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, though I do not recall how they represented Native American art/history/culture previously, it is in the new American Wing, which only just opened in 2010 or 2011, that contemporary Native American artworks are placed front and center amidst older objects. Even the Bishop Museum itself, though I don’t know precisely how things were represented in the past, only very recently did an overhaul of its permanent galleries, re-opening Hawaiian Hall in 2009, and Pacific Hall in 2013, with a renewed focus on Native, rather than Western/anthropological, perspectives. In any case, Kaeppler’s essay goes on to discuss at some length Hawaiian origin myths, beliefs about mana and kapu (taboos), and so forth, hopefully informing the 1980 visitor about Hawaiian traditional values and their vitality still today, and perhaps even inspiring that visitor, or reader, to rethink their attitudes, as to the validity and appeal of these non-Western perspectives. I certainly think this essay, along with the rest of the catalog, will be of value and usefulness to me, as I continue my education in Hawaiian & Pacific historical matters.

Replica of the 1886 Convention on Immigration signed between Meiji Japan and the Hawaiian Kingdom, with photograph of Hawaiʻi’s Permanent Minister in Japan, Robert Walker Irwin, and his Japanese wife Iki. On display at Bishop Museum, 2011.

But, to return to what really impressed and amazed me about this catalog, is that such an exhibit could be held, was held, traveling to museums in Denver, Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco, New York, Boston, and Washington DC. As I said at the beginning of this post, every other Pacific art exhibit I have seen on the US mainland, or for example at the British Museum in London, has focused on utilitarian and ritual objects of traditional culture, and only very rarely do I recall seeing such an exhibit that extended beyond the permanent galleries, into being a special exhibition. For a place like the Metropolitan or the MFA to devote such space, money, efforts, and so forth to a show of Pacific art is, at least in my experience, all but unheard of. And for them to do so with an exhibit that brings forth the greatest “national”/royal treasures of the Hawaiian Kingdom, to tell a story not about a culture in vague “traditional” “past” times, but rather a story about a complex and modern kingdom, with a chronology of monarchs with specific names, appearances (portraits), and so forth, who possess a real narrative of the rise and fall, trials and tribulations, of their kingdom just like any other Western or non-Western country, is truly something I never suspected ever took place. Not at this level. Not on this scale. Half the objects in this exhibition I have not even seen at the Bishop Museum or ʻIolani Palace themselves, in Hawaiʻi, let alone ever dreaming of seeing them at a mainland museum. My point, simply is this: if mainland museums won’t even show enough interest to devote time, money, effort, to bringing over an incredible show of Hawaiian Art Deco, how can we hope to ever see such an exhibit as this? Or, a different way around, I am honestly floored by the idea that this exhibit ever took place. Can it, will it, ever take place again? Why do we not have more exhibits like this one? The American people could really benefit to learn more about this history, and given the general appeal of Hawaiʻi, and the flashiness of thrones, royal scepters, and monarchy in general, I think this really could be a rather successful blockbuster exhibit. I don’t think it would fall flat. Tonga or Samoa, Fiji or Guam, sadly, might be just a little too distant to attract the crowds; but Hawaiʻi, for better or for worse, is a part of our country, and very much a part of our popular consciousness – I think people would be interested to see such an exhibit as this. Plus, if the immense popularity of the Met’s Alexander McQueen and “China Through the Looking Glass” shows are any indication, fashion has some serious popular attraction – so, an exhibit such as this, including Liliʻuokalani’s coronation gown and ʻIaukea’s formal Victorian-style official suit, should fall at least partially within that market, right?

Well, at least we have the catalog, which is available used on Amazon, as well as elsewhere on the Internet, for rather reasonable prices.

….

The second book I’d like to touch upon today is Pacific Art in Detail, one of a series on artistic traditions from different parts of the world, put out by the British Museum in 2011. The book, aimed at a fairly general museumgoing / arts-interested audience, incorporates on a fundamental level many wonderful progressive ideas about approaching Pacific art, including some of those I have already mentioned above: e.g. that post-Contact objects including Western influences and/or imported materials can still be authentically “traditional,” that these traditions do survive, and that contemporary art is also very much a part of the bounds of “Pacific art” – that there is a such thing as contemporary Pacific art, and that it addresses important themes of identity and politics in interesting, powerful, and artistically high-quality, post-modern ways. I suppose no one is going to be reading this book who is not already inclined towards interest in Pacific art, in non-Western cultures, and in non-Western perspectives, but, still, for any reader, from the beginner with a passing interest to someone like myself, the book helps instill in the reader a broad-ranging and fundamentally progressive (read: post-colonial, anti-Eurocentric) perspective on a variety of matters important to understanding and appreciating Pacific Island cultures and history.

I suppose there are two things which I most appreciate and enjoy about this book. One is the essays and thematic content, as touched upon in the previous paragraph, and the excellent quotes which can be pulled out from them. The second is the treatment of the British Museum’s collection. Just as Hawaiʻi: The Royal Isles serves as an excellent source for at least a portion of the Bishop Museum’s collection – a source for knowing about portraits of the monarchs, royal costumes & objects, photos, and a variety of other objects that exist in that collection – this is a good source for some of the chief treasures of the British Museum’s collection. And, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that despite not having any dedicated Pacific gallery, the British Museum does have many of these objects on display, in thematic galleries on the Enlightenment, “Collecting the World,” and “Living and Dying.”

A hei tiki given to Captain Cook by a Maori chief in 1769. Carved of jade (nephrite), it is meant to absorb the mana of those who wear it, and continue to accumulate mana down through the ages, becoming ever a more and more powerful object. Given by Cook to King George III, and thence to the British Museum, and having become one of the canonical objects of Pacific art history due to its inclusion in British Museum displays and publications, I would say it has certainly acquired considerable power of a sort, albeit if not exactly within the Polynesian context.

Whereas the Bishop Museum’s collection is largely that of the Kamehameha Dynasty itself (or, more cynically, as appropriated by Charles Reed Bishop, top banker in Hawaiʻi in the 1890s, on par with Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Morgan in his fat-cat-ness), and whereas the collections of most American museums, such as the Metropolitan, come largely from individual collectors and donors, the British Museum’s collection of Pacific artifacts comes largely from nationally-sponsored voyages of exploration, and from the imperial/colonial project. While this introduces considerable controversy, and very rightfully so, for obvious reasons, at the same time, it means that the Museum does possess a great many objects of great historical significance, which a place like the Metropolitan does not. Thus, we are able, at the Museum and in Pacific Art in Detail, to look not just at various general fishhooks but at, for example, a particular set of shark-fishing fishhooks made for the exclusive use of high chiefs – the only ones permitted to fish to catch sharks – and possibly given as gifts directly to Captain Cook himself, or his crew. Not only are these objects directly associated with some truly famous, prominent, significant historical events (the voyages of Captain Cook and his “discovery” of Hawaiʻi), but they are also significant and powerful within a Native Hawaiian context, as they are imbued with the mana of these chiefs.

Left: A wedding dress designed by New Zealand-based Samoan designer Paula Chan Cheuk, in 2014, incorporating traditional designs and material – siapo (barkcloth, known as tapa or kapa in other regions) – into a rather postmodern garment.

Pacific Art in Detail talks about a wonderful range of “traditional” objects from across the Pacific, but also extends into discussing contemporary art. We are told that one of nine Pacific Islanders lives elsewhere in the world, and yet “Oceanic artists can feel more closely defined – whether they would like to be or not – by their cultural background” (16).

Personally, this has long been a particularly fascinating aspect or element of contemporary art. I have no doubt that there are artists of Pacific Islander ancestry who are producing works having little or no relation to that heritage, and many of them may be great artworks in their own ways. But, what really intrigues me, and which this book delves into as well, is the various ways in which contemporary artists draw upon their own heritage and traditions, and wrestle with their identity & that of their people more broadly, and with colonial & post-colonial politics. As Anne D’Alleva is quoted as writing, “the past is as multi-faceted and open to interpretation as the present, and tradition is not fixed but contested” (17). And, further, not only are people today drawing upon the traditions of the past, but also expressing, practicing, and influencing the traditions of the present – present traditions which are real and ongoing. All cultural identities draw upon a past for their foundations, their histories and identities, but cultural identities also exist in the present, and the people of today are no less Polynesian, no less Pacific Islander, for living today, rather than in the past. And, the artworks they produce, similarly, are no less authentic, no less genuine, for having been made in the 21st century rather than the 18th.

Pacific Art in Detail links past and present beautifully, and introduces readers to the power, meaning, and aesthetics of Pacific art, in order to help readers know how to appreciate Pacific art – not only for its style, design and aesthetic qualities, but also for its cultural and historical meaning, for its association with great people and events, or with spirits, deities, or cultures. It also serves as a great introduction to the highlights of the British Museum’s Pacific collections.

All photos are my own.

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1) Of course, we shouldn’t really draw such stark categories between “traditional” and “modern” or “Western,” since, as Stacy Kamehiro reminds us, a great many things about the Hawaiian Kingdom incorporated Hawaiian traditional symbols and practices on a fundamental level, into a distinctively Hawaiian modernity – just as Meiji Japan (1868-1912) was no less Japanese for being modern, as well.

2) Objects such as fishhooks and feather cloaks can very much be the vehicles for history and memory within indigenous traditions. The malo ura of the Tahitian high chiefs serves as a great examples of this, as it was passed down from one chief to another, maintained in a sacred storehouse, and worn for various special occasions, incorporating the mana of those great people and great events within it. Pacific Art in Detail also talks about a variety of other objects which were used in various ways, if not to “record” history as we might understand it in the West, then at least to serve as mnemonic aids, for a chief or priest to recite the genealogies using the carved bumps in a rod, for example, to help him remember the generations. While this approach to history and memory may seem rather foreign to us at first, in truth, it is not so foreign, is it? After all, we Westerners, too, can look at a fishhook given as a gift to Captain Cook, and feel it is a greater object, somehow, imbued with the significance of that association and that event. Even if we do not think of it as containing “mana,” it is certainly much more than just a piece of ivory – it is a very specific piece of ivory, that passed through Cook’s hands, that was given to him in conjunction with a very prominent historical event, and that very same fishhook is now sitting in a glass case before you, as symbol of that event, and because of that object, you are thinking about that event again. So, I just want to be clear that I do not mean to ignore or disparage indigenous ways of knowing; and, indeed, an exhibition truly dedicated to indigenous ways of knowing could be fascinating. But, for the Western museum visitor, or Western catalog reader, I think there is something very valuable in showing too – just as Kalākaua himself wished to show the world back in the 1870s-80s – that Hawaiʻi had a vibrant, complex, and meaningful history as can be understood in a Western mode, too, in order to recognize and respect Hawaiʻi as a kingdom, and as one quite similar to Western countries in a lot of ways.

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