Archive for the ‘indigenous rights’ Category

Finally went to Takae and Henoko today. Thanks so much to Kinjô-san and Ariarakawa-san for taking me along.

These are two sites where the US military, with the support of the Japanese (national) government either are building, or have just completed, new military installations – against the will of the Okinawan people, and despite extremely extensive peaceful protest + formal political & legal efforts.

Right: A banner reading roughly “We don’t need Ospreys in the Yanbaru forest.”

Takae is a region of the sparsely populated, densely forested, northern part of Okinawa Island, called Yanbaru. The US military has controlled a significant portion of this forest for decades, using it to stage training and practices for jungle warfare (esp. during the Vietnam War). Much of the forest has been ruined by Agent Orange, something the US kept secret for years. And now, over the last few years, they’ve tripled the number of helipads in the forest, in large part to use for the experimental Osprey vertical-takeoff-and-landing (VTOL) crafts that keep crashing, and which the Okinawan protesters have particularly seized on opposing. Meanwhile, the US returned portions of the forest to public Japanese/Okinawan use, last week, as part of a distraction, and in order to make themselves look good, and to make the Okinawans look bad. “Look, we returned all this land! You should be grateful!” “Yeah, but it’s useless land, that you stole, that we never chose to give up to begin with, and which you’ve ruined with Agent Orange.” Further, some number of people who’ve lived in this neighborhood for decades, in many cases for generations, are now voluntarily leaving because they just can’t bear to live with the noise and difficulty that these brand-new helipads – built without their agreement or permission, and indeed built against their opposition! – will bring. As the US continues to expand its operations, so long as helicopters and Ospreys continue to crash in Okinawa, it’s only a matter of time before one hits a school or hospital, a residential neighborhood, or even worse, one of the dams that – between five of them – provide some 60% of the fresh water, and much of the electricity, to the island.

Part of the Takae section of the Yanbaru forest.

As for Henoko, this is a gorgeous bay, home to corals and dugongs and much other significant sea life, a beautiful bay which would be fantastic for swimming, boating, fishing, environmental tourism… and which the US has decided to fill in partially with landfill, to create two new runways, to make up for what they’ll lose by eventually returning Futenma Air Base to public (Okinawan/Japanese) control. Of course, the Okinawans don’t want a new base. They want Futenma to be dismantled, and for nothing new to be built to ruin any other part of the island; the positive of seeing Futenma dismantled shouldn’t be balanced out by inflicting further damage and burden elsewhere.

An illustration of the plans for Henoko. The orange area shows where landfill will be done, to build two runways, and a docking area for aircraft carriers. Munitions and possibly even nuclear weapons (despite Japan’s Three Non-Nuclear Principles) will be stored in an area labeled in white, just to the northeast. The red line, meanwhile, shows the area that will be blocked off from civilian entry. Areas circled in dotted white lines are archaeological sites, and the yellow oval within the orange shows a key section of the dugong habitat. Abu, which I mention later in this post, is just off the map to the upper right, just on the opposite side of the bay. Finally, an area just north of the red area contains facilities for hosting eco-tourism, hosting tourists/visitors who would want to enjoy the bay and its wildlife, bringing valuable revenue to the area, if only the bay weren’t ruined by an expanded US military presence. (Thanks to the protesters at the Henoko tent for this information.)

It was really something to finally visit these sites I’d read so much about in the news. To see the tents, which I’d seen so many times in photographs, where protesters have set up camp, protesting day in and day out, for hundreds – indeed, thousands – of days. Beyond that, though, there wasn’t too much to see. I’m not sure what I expected – these are military bases, after all. With the exception of places like Kakazu, where a public park happens to be located on high enough ground that it does offer a pretty nice view down into the base, otherwise, why should I expect that us civilians would ever be able to get a closer view, especially of places that are so contested, so strongly protested? Of course, that said, I have heard that there are boat tours of Henoko, and I would very much like to get to do that, see it from that perspective.

In any case, to begin, we stopped at a few small sights and things on the way up to Takae. This fellow’s name is Konsuke こんすけ. He’s a Ryukyuan boar, and he lives at the Mountain and Water Livelihood Museum 山と水生活博物館 in Higashi Village.

Look at that cute face. Don’t worry – he has plenty of space to chill. As you can see on the right side of the image, his pen goes back quite a ways. And I presume he’s well-fed and looked after.

At Takae, after walking through the protesters’ main tent / camp (where I was instructed not to take photos), we walked down a small dirt path, to find this wacky set of walls and fences and enclosures, blocking protesters (or visitors like ourselves) from even getting close to the guards (in blue, in the background), or to the actual boundaries between public/private Japanese property, and US military property. Layers upon layers. I am in no way an experienced protestor or activist, nor someone with any military background (or the like) whatsoever, so I have no idea what’s normal, but there was something about this that I found just really funny.

Indeed, overall, there’s this funny imbalance or paradox, where on the one hand the authorities have deployed a level of security totally out of proportion to the actual protester presence – suggesting that they see the protesters as a very real and serious threat – while at the same time, just totally bulldozing (sometimes literally) past/over the protesters’ opposition, showing that the protesters in fact pose very little threat at all to their agenda. Things were pretty quiet at both Takae and Henoko today – I saw no more than ten or so guards (private security firm guards) at the one area of Takae we were at (plus two police vans from the Okinawa Prefectural Police), plus a totally reasonable two to five guards or so at each of the gates we passed by.. and similar numbers at Henoko. But, to have even that many, when the protesters are doing absolutely nothing but sitting quietly in a tent by the side of the road, handing out pamphlets and whatever, while anti-base banners and the like have been put up all over the area… what the hell are you guarding against? No one’s doing anything.

Just outside the protesters’ camp, they’ve posted some signs making fun of the signs that are fucking everywhere in Okinawa, saying things like “U.S. Army Facility. Unauthorized Entry Prohibited and Punishable by Japanese Law.” These tongue-in-cheek signs say, roughly, “Entry by those associated with the Police or the Okinawa Defense Bureau is Prohibited,” with the implied earlier line “Territory of the Okinawan People, [Entry … prohibited].” Totally meaningless in terms of actual legal authority, but I really appreciate the chutzpah.

We also visited the beach at Abu 安部, where an Osprey crashed just a couple weeks ago, on December 14. Click through on the photo above to see a larger version. There was nothing really to see there today, as the cleanup was already completed quite quickly, but the crash took place just immediately off the point (Abu-no-saki 安部崎) seen on the far left in the picture. This is a quiet, secluded, beautiful beach in a tiny village, which we accessed only by walking through a small entryway at the end of a quiet street. Locals examined some kind of tank they had found on the beach – not associated with the Osprey, but whether this belonged to the US military, or what it was at all I did not learn. An older man from the neighborhood, recognizing us as outsiders (though two of our party were native Okinawans), came up and engaged us in conversation, telling us about the beach and about the crash…

After visiting Takae, and stopping at Abu, our last major stop for the day was at Henoko. The protesters’ camp/tent is located right along the waterfront, and is loaded with posters, newspaper clippings, flyers, and other resources. We arrived just before four o’clock, when the protesters apparently pack up for the day, before returning at 8:00 the next morning, much as they have done for over 4,500 days now. But, still, one of them was kind enough to take the time to talk to us, and point out on the map much of the information I have shared above. I know it’s difficult to see in this photo, but the rock on the right-hand side of the photo marks where the two runways will converge – the “point” of the “V.”

I welcome clarifications or corrections, but as far as my understanding, while the helipads at Takae were completed last week, regardless of popular opposition, construction has not actually begun at Henoko just yet. The military has conducted various surveys, and maybe some kind of digging or something on the seabed, and has started dropping concrete blocks which will help serve as foundations – something like that – but, there was a Japanese court decision in March 2016 which demanded construction be halted until the situation could be reassessed, and some degree of discussions completed between the Okinawan and national (Japanese) governments. This decision was reversed by the Supreme Court of Japan quite recently, and it is my understanding that Governor Onaga is being obliged to rescind his rescinding of permission for construction to continue, starting as early as tomorrow (Dec 27).

Just a view of Okinawa’s beautiful waters, as seen from the car, somewhere along the north/eastern coast of the island.

I was on the verge of tears several times today, just talking to people, and thinking of how the US and Japanese governments, and most especially the US military, clearly don’t care one bit about the desires or best interests of the Okinawan people. They just don’t regard Okinawa as a place full of people with real hopes and desires, with rights as citizens and as human beings which deserve to be respected – let alone as indigenous people. No, they see it purely through geopolitical strategic lenses, as a Rock, or an “unsinkable aircraft carrier,” on which to situate our military bases, using the land and air and water for training and so forth, regardless of who is affected by the noise and pollution, by the crime and crowding, and by the very real dangers of potential aircraft crashes, etc.

It upsets me in particular to see people protesting so vigorously, and yet peacefully, for so long, through so many avenues, and to get just totally steamrolled. People have been holding sit-ins at Henoko for over 4,500 days, and at Takae, Futenma, and other places for at least that long (though perhaps not quite as continuously). Anti-base sentiment dominates in the chief Okinawan newspapers, and it dominates in the Okinawan people’s democratic selection of anti-base candidates for mayors (of Nago and elsewhere), for governor of Okinawa, and for Okinawa’s representatives in the National Diet. It dominates on and off the university campuses, and in academia, and in regular protests before the Prefectural Government building, and elsewhere. And yet, nothing changes. The helipads were completed anyway. The Ospreys are here anyway. Futenma is still here, 20 years after Washington and Tokyo agreed to dismantle it. And Henoko is being built as a replacement, anyway, despite extensive efforts at opposition.

Sign at Henoko. “The will of the people is NO on construction of new bases.”

I of course don’t believe that governments or other authorities should simply bend to the will of whichever group shouts the loudest, on any and every issue. Indeed, there are quite a few issues where I am glad that governments, university administrations, and other bodies of authority have stood their ground despite one group yelling and shouting their fucking heads off, pretending they represent most or all of the rest of us, when they most assuredly do not. And that’s a whole conversation for another time. So, it’s complicated. I certainly don’t think that we should automatically leap to the defense of any or every group that claims to speak for all Native Hawaiians, or all Asian-Americans, especially when one well knows that there are other Native Hawaiians, or Asian-Americans, or Asians, who disagree. But, in this particular case, while I fully recognize that there are those Okinawans who hold differing political views, and while there are some very real, practical, economic considerations for how Okinawa benefits economically from the bases’ presence, even so, I really cannot help but feel that these protesters are not some small fringe – that they truly do represent the voice of the majority of the Okinawan people, and that they truly are in the right. That their voices are being ignored, and their land and water, their sovereignty, their rights as equal citizens of a democratic country, indeed their fundamental human rights themselves, are just being trampled on by top-level (inter)national agents who just think on some other level, some ‘higher’ abstract level of pushing pieces around a Risk board – people who just don’t fucking care. What is the purpose of protest, when it accomplishes so little? It seems almost like a joke. Like a sick joke. These people are here day in, day out, putting so much effort into expressing their political will, into doing something that is at the very heart of what it means to be free and democratic – at the very heart of what it is the US military claims to be defending: Freedom and Democracy. And yet, Tokyo and Washington have the nerve to fucking disrespect and ignore these people so thoroughly, so completely, on issue after issue, month after month, year after year? There is something very very wrong here, and when peaceful protest is so totally ineffective, when a people seem so utterly powerless in the face of government/military agendas, it just makes me feel so saddened, so worried, so disappointed, in the state of our world.

A view of the ocean near the Okinawa Yanbaru Seawater Pumped Storage Power Station.

All photos my own.

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While at the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) to see RDK Herman’s exhibit “E Mau ke Ea: The Sovereign Hawaiian Nation,” I also got to see the museum’s long-term exhibit “Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations.” Treaties – or their absence – are a major feature in the histories we tell of the interactions between China, Japan, Hawaii, and other non-Western nations on the one hand, and Western powers on the other. The Treaties with the US, France, and the Netherlands which showed the Ryukyu Kingdom was recognized as a sovereign member of the international family of nations prior to its unilateral abolition and annexation by Imperial Japan. The Unequal Treaties imposed upon China by the British, and shortly afterward by the other major Western powers. The similar treaties signed with the Western powers by Japan, and the use by Japan of similar treaties to bring Korea out of its special tributary relationship with China and into independent sovereignty in a “modern” sense, so that Korea might be a “free” and “independent” diplomatic and trading partner with Japan. And the absence of a treaty of annexation, the absence of any treaty at all by which the Hawaiian Kingdom agreed to give up its sovereignty or its land to the United States, is arguably one of the most prominent elements in most tellings of the history of Hawaiʻi.

Of course, it would be a true victory of/for cultural relativism if we were to convince ourselves that all societies are truly worthy of our respect regardless of their political character or configuration. But, that remains a difficult thing to achieve, as we all (myself included, of course) are burdened by various biases based on the values and attitudes of our upbringing and the culture in which we are immersed, and so on. And thus, I think something like this is a valuable intermediate step. In the end, notions of the “nation” and indeed of “treaties” and the objectivity or universality of European/Western cultural practices of diplomacy & law, need to be questioned, and I think this exhibit does a rather good job of beginning to break that down – it shows that Western notions of these things were not necessarily better, or more logical, or more advanced, but were simply different, and that the Native Nations had every reason to think their own way was equally valid, or even more valid and true than the Western way. But, even as we try to question this and break this down, to get the average museum visitor to question and relativize things, at the same time, we need to cater to their biases to a certain extent, I think, to argue that, even within this biased Western notion of “nations” – even within this notion that one must be a real Nation to be worthy of certain kinds of respect – these Native Nations do constitute Nations, or should.

Native peoples are more than just another ethnic or cultural minority. They are more than simply another group whose particular needs, attitudes, and interests need to be incorporated into the US American societal, political, and legal landscape cares about or attends to. Native peoples are qualitatively something different from merely a descent group. While Asian-Americans and African-Americans are, by one means or another, diasporic groups, distanced from their ancestral Nations, Native peoples are not, and they constitute those Nations still, down to this day. Or, even if we might apply the term “diaspora,” it is like the Jewish diaspora, exiled from their homeland and scattered, but still a nation in exile, with rightful claims to past nationhood, and to a future return to sovereignty.

Native Nations are groups with which the US – and other members of the family of nations, e.g. Britain, France, Mexico, and Spain – signed Treaties, meaningful (if not necessarily actually binding) under international law. They are groups whose National governance and political identity was (and is) recognized to at least some extent, and who possess(ed) lands. They truly do (or at least did, once) fulfill most if not all of the fundamental features, or qualities, that characterize a sovereign nation according to our general conceptions of that notion – something than cannot be said of other ethnic groups.

And so, while there is most absolutely value in trying to garner support and respect for Native Americans through the typical avenues of identity politics, respect for minority cultures, attacking racism, and so on and so forth, I think that it is through discussion of the history of Treaties that their Nationhood, and not merely their Peoplehood, comes to the fore, highlighting or emphasizing all the more so their rights and claims, and the unjustness of the injustices that have been committed against them. Racism is something to be assaulted, to be combatted, to be dismantled, most certainly. But racism is also intangible and debatable in ways in which (inter)national rights and so forth are not – if we recognize Native Americans as merely a minority, then questions of what does and does not constitute racism against them, or of in what ways and to what extent their culture should be respected, versus an idea that they ought to behave like any other US American, are more debatable- but, by contrast, if we recognize Native peoples as independent, sovereign nations, whose independence and sovereignty has been unlawfully or wrongfully violated, and whose rights to practice their own systems of law, cultural practices, etc within their own sovereign communities have also been violated, I think this makes it more stark, and less debatable.

Turning now to the actual content, and approach, of the exhibit, from the very beginning, and throughout the exhibit, the displays place the Native perspective first, presenting it in a fashion that shows its logic, its reasonableness. It’s amazing how powerful and meaningful such a small, subtle, move can be. In doing so, this exhibit avoids entirely the stereotype of Native ways as superstitious, or illogical, cutting right through all that rhetoric and instead showing the museum visitor (1) how different cultures can simply have very different ways of understanding something, or of performing certain processes, without either one being inherently better, or more logical, and also (2) that Western notions, and ways of doing things, were honestly quite superstitious and illogical themselves. I was reminded of Greg Dening’s article “Possessing Tahiti,” in which, after the English come to Tahiti and claim the island by planting a flag, the French then claim it by burying a plank of wood, and a bottle with the French ship’s crew’s names on papers inside; the Spanish then come and plant a giant cross. Is any of this fundamentally more logical or reasonable, or inherently less superstitious, than the Native practices?

This approach was applied to explain competing cultural notions regarding land & land ownership, law, and the use of language in securing promises or agreements, as well as to show Native & Euro-American perspectives on each of the different treaty negotiations featured. I wish the exhibit had gone a little farther, to explain the Native perceptions, or practices, in each of these realms a little further, since the all-too-brief labels often left the visitor having to fill in the gaps themselves – and most visitors would not possess the knowledge to be able to do so. For example, why and how was it that many Native peoples found oral agreements more meaningful, and more binding, than written ones? How does oral tradition, and the transmission of oral agreements, function in their political culture? For another example, my father said he found the description of Native & Western leadership structures to be too vague, leaving him rather unclear as to just how Native Nations were governed, or politically organized. One thing that was quite interesting, and compelling, however, in this section of the exhibit was the competing, or incompatible, practices, between Western notions that a written and signed agreement (such as a Treaty) was secured for all time, versus the common Native notion that “treaty” relationships had to be constantly renewed, through the performance of actual interpersonal friendship. In other words, just as friendships between individuals shift and change, and are only maintained through actual ongoing friendly interactions, relationships between peoples, too, could not simply be determined in a single moment, and set down on paper for all time, but just the same had to be constantly engaged in, in an ongoing fashion. This same label also reminded us that European notions of treaty law, and international law, were only in their infancy at this time (in the 18th century, when the first treaties between Native Nations and British colonists were being worked out) – it is not as if European/American systems of international relations were already well-worked-out and mature.

“Audience Given by the Trustees of Georgia to a Delegation of Creek Indians,” by William Verelst, 1730s. Reproduced in the exhibit; photo my own.

I also appreciated the nuanced and at least somewhat sympathetic view the exhibit presented on the Westerners, showing that attitudes do change, that relations were once on a more equal basis and could be again. That maybe, just maybe, a lot of the suffering, dispossession, death, and so forth came about for reasons other than just pure, unadulterated, racism and greed, but that rather they came about, at least in part, due to misunderstandings, difficulties in reconciling very different cultures; ignorance and naivete; conflicting needs of two peoples; and so forth, alongside, yes, at times, horrifically racist, even genocidal, attitudes. And, also, that even amidst such racism, arrogance, and aggression, there were also prominent US figures who were far more sympathetic.

Now, don’t get me wrong, if you’ve read my other blog posts, I hope you’ll know that I am as sympathetic as could be with the Indigenous cause. But, I appreciate the allowance of some suggestion, some hint, that even someone like Andrew Jackson may not have fully understood the implications of what he was doing – that the journey itself would be exceptionally difficult, bringing great suffering and numerous deaths; that dividing a people from their land meant disconnecting them from their history, their ancestors’ burials, their folkways; from the plants and mountains and rivers they knew, and how devastating that would be to their culture – and that he may have, at least to some extent, at least at this early stage, have had some greater respect for the Native Americans, and a desire to actually live in peace with them, albeit by removing them to other lands, so that their original lands could be settled by Whites. Cultural relativism is of vital importance as we seek to understand and respect others’ histories and cultures – and I think it of the utmost value that we should work to see Native cultures, histories, and Nations as equally valid, as equally worthy of our respect, as equally deserving of sovereignty and freedom and wellbeing. But cultural relativism has to cut both ways – just as we seek to understand and be sympathetic towards other cultures, we must not forget to also seek to understand and be sympathetic towards our own.

In any case, I was glad to learn a bit more, a bit deeper, about this history. And the exhibit did an amazingly good job of giving equal coverage to many corners of the country. Haudenosaunee Nations (New York/Quebec area) were covered in several sections, Pacific Northwest in another, California in another, the Southwest in another; and the Muscogee (Creek) and the Lakota/Sioux, the Cheyenne, and so on and so forth.

As we learned, unsurprisingly, there was a wide range, a diversity of experiences and interactions and results, as different Nations came up against the colonists or the US government, at different times. Some Treaties are actually still being honored, at least in part; other Nations got no Treaties, and many others’ experiences were in between. Some actually won negotiations, and even gained land or stronger assurances of independence, even if these didn’t last in the end. Others were utterly dispossessed, ruined, with the US using treaty law as a weapon, as a tool for dispossession, rather than as a means of respectful and mutually beneficial agreement. Still, of course, there are great similarities and connections across all these Native experiences – to have it spelled out explicitly, in a gallery label, that no Native Nation, not a single one, retained its land & sovereignty as the end result of contact with the US, is a pretty powerful thing to realize.

And, we learned that the Cherokee Trail of Tears was by far not the only story, or experience, of Removal. Not by a long shot. Some Natives felt this basically meant they could keep only their land, or their sovereignty, not both. Some, for a time, tried to stay. They simply said, “these are our lands, period. That is it. We are not talking to you any more,” and they simply stayed put, for as long as they could manage to resist. Others moved to new lands, but found this brought drastic changes in lifestyle. People lost their folkways – knowledge of those specific lands, of the weather, of the plants, were in many cases no longer valid in the new lands. Further, the actual process of walking to the new lands was exceptionally grueling, and for all too many, deadly. The exhibit leaves it somewhat open as to whether this was “genocide”. Was the utter and complete destruction of these peoples the intent? Or was the incredible extent of death, suffering, and cultural loss an unexpected effect, due to White naivete? I think this nuance, this complexity, is important.

Yet, still, regardless, the outcome was devastating – words fail me, to express how profoundly tragic and injust, we realize this was. Imagine the situation reversed, where some other people has taken over all of Europe, and everyone there is reduced to being regarded as simply “Native Europeans” – the distinctions between English, French, German, and Italian largely ignored, overlooked, and all just considered to be differences between cultural/ethnic minorities, and not Countries, Nations, Kingdoms, that once were sovereign and independent states of their own – and, further, equals, with the potential to have remained equals, as sovereign nations on the world stage. This is what has been lost – self-determination, freedom, sovereignty, land, equality, prosperity. The potential to have been free and prosperous people, sovereign in their own lands, and treated as equal members of the family of nations. The Western/modern concepts of the nation-state, territory, and sovereignty may be Western concepts – not universal, not inherently more right or more logical or more reasonable or more natural – but, even while there is incredible value in breaking down the false universality of such notions, and seeking to respect Native notions of nationhood, of sovereignty, etc., I think there is also value in emphasizing the ways in which Native Nations are still Nations, no different from any other Nation, and worthy of just the same respect.

This lesson of their equality, of their Nationhood, of the validity of their culture and their peoplehood, and this lesson of the horrific losses they have suffered, is a lesson that *must* be learned, shared, by US residents/citizens, and by people around the world, to appreciate the profound extent of the loss, of the destruction, and how it came about. To realize and respect what has been lost, what might have been, and to not only work to ensure that such things do not happen again, but also to seek to make restitution. I am so glad to see the NMAI up and running, and well-attended. The next step is to get this stuff into our textbooks, and to quit the whitewashing of our history.

All photos my own.

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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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A few things that have been going on lately in and around Japan.

The airstrip at Futenma Air Base on Okinawa. Photo my own.

US Pacific Command (PACOM) reports that the dismantling of Futenma Air Base on Okinawa might be delayed yet again, until at least 2025, due in large part to Okinawan opposition to the construction of its replacement at Henoko. The Japan Times quotes Gen. Robert Neller, commandant of the Marine Corps, as telling a congressional hearing on Weds March 3 explicitly:

The project has been “delayed partly due to demonstrators and lack of support by the government of Okinawa.”

Tokyo responded that they had never told Washington there would be any such delay.

The Okinawan people have been protesting for decades for Futenma to be dismantled, and for no new bases to be built in its place. But while the US finally agreed in 1996 to move towards dismantling the air base, more than 20 years on, they (we) have dragged their (our) feet, taking Okinawan protests and opposition not as impetus to actually do what the Okinawans demand – accelerating the dismantling, and at the same time not building any other bases – but rather, to delay, and to cite the protests as the reason, as our excuse. The US (and Tokyo) continue to stand firm that this new base will be built, that there is no other way, and that as soon as Henoko is complete, Futenma can be dismantled.

But, meanwhile, the Okinawans have stood firm as well, that there must not be any new bases. That the new base at Henoko is unacceptable, and that “there is no other way” other than actually dismantling bases without constructing new ones. If it’s not evident already, I side with the Okinawans, and on a moral level, I feel it is incumbent upon Washington & Tokyo – not upon Okinawa – to change their ways. But, on a practical level, if Okinawan protests (as well as criticism in newspapers, opposition through political avenues, etc.) have for the last 20+ years only succeeded in having the opposite effect – of delaying rather than accelerating the dismantling of Futenma – one has to wonder what other tactics the Okinawans could or should be using? What could they do differently to impel the decision-makers in Washington and Tokyo to change their policy?

Tokunoshima, Kagoshima prefecture. Photo by Wikimedia Commons User:Opqr, courtesy Creative Commons licensing.

On a related note, the Asahi Shimbun reports that they’ve obtained a classified US government document which may have been used to help block Prime Minister Hatoyama’s efforts to get Futenma moved. Hatoyama, prime minister of Japan in 2009-2010, was probably the most vocal and explicit of all recent prime ministers about committing to getting Futenma moved; he was so committed to it, in fact, that when it failed, it contributed significantly to his getting pushed out of office.

At the time, Hatoyama had been backing a plan to relocate the base, not to Henoko (still on Okinawa Island), but to Tokunoshima, a smaller island to the north. According to the classified document the Asahi claims to have obtained, the US blocked this by citing a policy that “Marine Corps helicopter unit[s] should not be based more than 65 nautical miles, or 120 kilometers, from [their] training grounds.” This seems nonsensical on the very surface of it, because if you relocated the base to Tokushima, and declared Tokushima the training grounds, then it wouldn’t be far from itself at all. Why continue to have Okinawa considered the training grounds once you’ve moved the base X km away to another island? Regardless, what makes this all the more interesting is that US Forces Japan denies that there is any such policy, and Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Gaimushô) “cannot confirm the existence of such a document.” The latter may be simply because it is a classified document. But it still raises an eyebrow for me. Does this document, and the policy it cites, exist or not? Was this policy invented explicitly in order to block Hatoyama – the US Marines manipulating a foreign head of state?

I’ll admit I wasn’t following these events nearly as closely at that time, six years ago, but I was still back then aware of Hatoyama’s support for taking real action to actually get Futenma shut down, and I was in support of it. The idea of moving it to Tokunoshima, however, is complicated. Tokunoshima used to be a part of the Ryukyu Kingdom, until it was taken and annexed by Satsuma domain in 1609-1611; unlike the kingdom itself, based on Okinawa, which was allowed to retain some considerable degree of autonomy, Tokunoshima and all the other islands north of Okinawa were fully absorbed into Satsuma territory, and were no longer under the authority of the kingdom. So, when the people of Tokunoshima protest against a base being built there, as they did indeed protest, this too is a Ryukyuan indigenous and anti-colonial protest, sharing considerably in the core character of the Okinawans’ protests. Moving the base from Okinawa to Tokunoshima is like moving a base from Hawaii to Guam – you’re lightening the burden on one colonized indigenous people only to increase the burden on another.

While Tokunoshima does have 1/10th the population density of Okinawa, it’s still undoubtedly sacred land in its own way, as basically all Ryukyuan land is. And, there are arguments to be made that the smaller the island, the smaller the population, while yes you may be placing the burden on a far smaller group of people (and thus benefiting a greater number, whose burden is lightened), the burden on that smaller group is all the heavier. Which logic, or morality, is to win out? The notion that the benefit of the many outweighs the benefit of the few? Or the notion that the tyranny of the majority is tyranny and is to be avoided/opposed?

If the bases were to be moved to the Japanese mainland, e.g. Kyushu or Honshu, I think there is still an argument to be made for the disruption of sacred and/or historical land. Almost anywhere you put it, you’re going to be building on top of a sacred Shinto space, and/or a historically significant location. Even as rural Japan continues to become woefully depopulated – a major societal concern that’s a whole other topic unto itself – those abandoned villages still have history, going back hundreds of years, and to erase them from the face of the earth to build a military base should be undesirable. But, at least, the indigenous and colonial issue is not present, and that’s something I think the Japanese government needs to learn to recognize and acknowledge – that the Okinawans, and those of islands such as Tokunoshima, are not simply Japanese citizens like any others with all the same obligations to the Nation, but that they are colonized, occupied people, and deserve a little more consideration.

“Nuclear Power, the Energy of a Bright Future,” a sign in Futaba, Fukushima prefecture, within the exclusion zone. Image from the Asahi Shimbun.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in Japan, a town in the Fukushima exclusion zone is taking down signs promising “nuclear power, the energy of a bright future.” And the signmaker is not happy. He argues that taking the signs down “could be perceived as an attempt to “cover up” the shameful past,” whereas leaving them up is a reminder of the arrogance and mistakes of the past.

Robert Jacobs, professor at Hiroshima City University, has an article in the Asia-Pacific Journal this month on a closely related topic: “Forgetting Fukushima.”


Ainu traditional robes on display at the East-West Center Gallery in Honolulu, Feb 2013. Photo my own.

The Japan Times reports that a new book on Ainu history has won a prestigious award. Prof. Segawa Takurô’s new book “Ainu Gaku Nyûmon” (“Introduction to the Study of the Ainu”) challenges long-held stereotypical views about indigenous peoples, that they were quite politically and culturally isolated in their villages, not engaging with the outside world. To the contrary, Segawa emphasizes that the Ainu – the indigenous people of northern Japan – were historically (going back quite a few centuries) quite actively engaged in (political) contact, trade, and cultural exchange with a considerable number of other cultures – Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Russian, and numerous various indigenous peoples – across a large geographical area.

For those of us with a certain extent of formal background in Japanese Studies, and especially those of us who have studied indigenous issues in general or Ainu Studies in particular, this is not exactly new. Still, from what little the Japan Times article is saying, Segawa seems to be suggesting an even greater degree of interaction than I’d have thought. And, more importantly, he is introducing this to a popular Japanese audience, and hopefully contributing to an eventual sea change in how people see the Ainu – as possessing a great history, never so isolated, and today as fully modern people, their culture and traditions no more “backward” than Japanese traditions or those of any other culture.

For this book, Segawa won grand prize at the third Ancient History and Culture Awards 古代歴史文化賞, and also received an invitation to speak before the Ainu Association of Hokkaido 北海道アイヌ協会 (the most major Ainu Association there is), alleviating his concerns about how the Ainu community might receive his arguments.

Grey Area (Brown Version) by Fred Wilson, 1993. Not actually a direct replica of the Berlin Nefertiti, but obviously based upon it. Seen at the Brooklyn Museum. Photo my own.

Finally, one more thing that doesn’t have to do specifically or exclusively with Japan. As the New York Times reports,

Two German artists walked into the Neues Museum in central Berlin in October and used a mobile device to secretly scan the 19-inch-tall bust of Queen Nefertiti, a limestone-and-stucco sculpture more than 3,000 years old that is one of Germany’s most visited attractions. … Then last December, in the tradition of Internet activism, they released the data to the world, allowing anyone to download the information for free and create their own copies with 3-D printers.

Now, there’s a whole side to this that has to do with whether or not the Nefertiti was “stolen,” whether it should be returned to Egypt, and so forth. And I’m not going to comment on that today.

But, here’s the thing – regardless of whether the bust legally belongs to Germany, or to Egypt, either way, it really belongs to the world. That’s what museums are for, to conserve and share art and artifacts for the benefit of the whole world. Yes, there is plenty to be said (books and books of Museum Studies commentary) about museums for constructing a sense of national identity, and so forth, and that’s something too. But, no one living made or painted this bust. According to the underlying values and spirit of copyright law (in the US, at least, but I imagine to a large extent internationally as well), copyright expires and things fall into the public domain. How much more so things made thousands of years ago. In short, my point is, the museum may own the object, but do they really – morally, ethically – own the rights to the image? So, if you forbid museum visitors to take photos of one of your most famous and iconic objects, is it really your right to do so? Sure, I guess any institution can make whatever rules they want within their own building, and if you don’t like it you can leave. But is it right? Mike Weinberg discusses the basic details of this in a post on the 3D printing blog Shapeways.

If you read my blog regularly, you’ll know this is one of my main pet peeves, one of my main sticking points. I’ve talked about it before, and I’ll talk about it again. Today’s post isn’t a particularly coordinated logical argument, and I’m okay with that. For now, in short, let me just say that, the “stolen artifact” “Egyptian repatriation” issue aside, I think “stealing” into the museum and taking totally non-invasive photos or scans of one of the most iconic pieces in the world, and sharing it with the Internet, is a great victory for art, culture, heritage, world community. These things belong to the world, and the museum is merely its steward – it is your job as a museum to share these things, to make them available to the public, to learn from, to be inspired by. If you are being stingy and protectionist about these things, that’s just wrong. And all the more so in our current internet age – the Nefertiti and its scan being 3D objects makes it a bit different, but when it comes to 2D images, I think we are in desperate need of new laws and understandings, both within our various countries and worldwide, as to whether sharing images online counts as “publishing” (and thus subject to the same stringent permission requirements) and what should be the bounds of the rights of museums, libraries, archives, which own the objects but not the copyrights, to tell us what we can and cannot do with those images (and the rights of such institutions to block us from access to the objects, and/or from taking photos to begin with).

EDIT: Blogsite ArsTechnica is now reporting that the scan was likely not, in fact, covertly done in the gallery but rather is likely an official scan commissioned by the museum and then “stolen” in some fashion by the two German artists – either through direct hacking of the museum’s systems in some fashion, or through having someone at the museum, or the contracted-out scanning company, give them the information.
This certainly changes the character of the situation a shade. I’m not sure whether it actually changes the copyright situation – in the US, the question of whether a highly accurate photographic record of something truly introduces “creativity” and thus qualifies as a new copyright (owned by the photographer) has some degree of legal precedent. I have no idea the case in German or EU law.

But, perhaps what’s most pertinent is conveyed in this quote from the ArsTechnica article, from Cosmo Wenman, an artist who has done his own covert scans of museum objects:

I know from first-hand experience that people want this data, and want to put it to use, and as I explained to LACMA in 2014, they will get it, one way or another. When museums refuse to provide it, the public is left in the dark and is open to having bogus or uncertain data foisted upon it.

Museums should not be repositories of secret knowledge, but unfortunately, as I’ve noted elsewhere, Neues is not alone in keeping their scan data to themselves. There are many influential museums, universities, and private collections that have extremely high quality 3D data of important works, but they are not sharing that data with the public.

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Sometimes you have a blogpost which ends up so much longer than you ever intended it to be, and it just kept getting longer and longer, but you didn’t want to split it up into multiple smaller posts, so you just left it as is, in its crazy rambling length. This is one of those posts.

Homeland is a powerful documentary, which shares the stories of struggle of four indigenous communities in North America. The Penobscot Indians of Maine, fighting the pollution of their river by paper mills. The Northern Cheyenne in Montana, fighting against natural gas drilling which is destroying their land. The Gwich’in of northern Alaska, similarly fighting against oil drilling in their most sacred places. And the Navajo, who have suffered for decades the catastrophic effects of uranium mining.

I was on the verge of tears throughout much of this film, and once it was over, we all sat in stunned silence for a few moments, speechless at what we had witnessed.

Learning of these four stories made me feel great anger, but more than that, a deep sadness, for these peoples, who have lived on this land for thousands of years, and who have suffered so much at the hands of our government. Native peoples today control only 4% of the land area of the United States – when only, what, seven or eight or nine generations ago, all of it was inhabited only by Native peoples. It is not only what was done in the distant past – in terms of Western expansion and settlement, Little Bighorn, the Trail of Tears, etc. – but also what continues to be done today. Granted, local, state, and federal government do a lot of good things for Native communities; we should not demonize them entirely. But they do a lot of bad things, too, prioritizing industry and economics over protecting Native lives and lands – are these people not Americans as well? Are they not deserving of the government’s protection? Indeed, doubly so, since they are not only US citizens like the rest of us, but also have an entire federal bureau dedicated to their protection, in accordance with America’s own paternalistic rhetoric and laws regarding indigenous peoples. Though, indeed, our government and society, our American values seem, on a very fundamental level, to prioritize industry and economics over human lives and non-human ecology in general, destroying the land, air, and water for all of us, Native Nations and all other Americans alike.

Half the notes I took during the film, and during the conversation afterwards, are merely of terms: environmental racism, the disposability of human lives. Some lives, clearly, are held to be more disposable than others.

The Penobscot River. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

We learn of the Penobscot people of Maine, who once lived all across Maine, and whose recognized territory is now limited to a few islands within the Penobscot River. And that river, which flows from the most sacred mountain in the entire world according to Penobscot beliefs, that river in which people canoe and swim, and from which they get their fish, continues to be polluted, day after day, by paper mills. This story struck me particularly for several reasons. One, the three other stories deal with severely extractive and “dirty” industries. Coal, natural gas, and uranium mining are easy to see as the face of Big Industry, as major environmental destroyers, and as connected to major political issues regularly debated politically – fossil fuels vs. nucleaar vs. clean “green” energy; and in the case of the uranium, the issues of nuclear weapons and of war, overseas military deployment, the military-industrial complex more broadly. But paper mills feel so much smaller, so much more local. Who knew a paper mill could be as destructive as these other things? And yet, for a small people who rely so closely on this river, it truly is. And, as they explain, it’s not just about Native lives and livelihoods – everyone in the US is poisoned by this sort of thing, which goes on all around us. The process of bleaching paper produces a number of by-products, including dioxins, some of the most toxic substances known. And paper mills in Maine spew billions of gallons of untreated by-product water into the river. People who swim or play in the water get rashes or lesions on their skin, and the dioxin concentrates in the flesh of the fish, and then in the bodies of those who eat the fish. Looking at the white foam that floats in that river, it made me wonder how many times I, too, in streams or rivers, saw curious white foam and assumed it must be natural, or something not to worry too much about, when in fact it may very well have been evidence of serious pollution. Of course, this dumping of untreated pollution into the river is illegal, but the fines are only, at most, $3000 a year, a simple price to pay for a paper company that doesn’t want to pay a far larger amount to retrofit their factories to run more cleanly, and perhaps more importantly for a company that simply doesn’t seem to care. Instead of regulating the industry more strongly, the local or state government opted to simply issue health warnings, warning people not to eat more than 8oz of fish a month, or for pregnant women & children to not eat fish at all. Yet the Penobscot people eat far far more fish than that – they are modern people, in modern homes and modern clothing, like anyone else, but just like anyone else, they have their customs and traditions, and fishing and eating fish remains a central part of their culture, their identity as Penobscot. It was devastating to me to see one man talk about comparing a fish to a cigarette. And, again, I don’t know which is more moving – to think of these people as uniquely affected, their traditional foodways and their land being destroyed, or whether it is more moving to think of how similar processes are destroying all of our land, all of our food. The Native Americans are not the only ones affected by this – the destruction of clean air, of clean water, of the land itself, and the pollution of our food sources, affects all of us. I don’t even want to think about how much dioxin and mercury are stored up in my body from all the things I’ve eaten over the course of my lifetime.

Image found here. Original source/creator unknown. Investigation of origin of the quote, traced most likely to an Abenaki, Algonquin, or Mohawk speaker in 1972, described here.

I was struck, too, by the language and rhetoric that was used, as the film spoke of Native Americans having to sacrifice – sacrifice their land, their well-being – for the benefit of all Americans. Not only were Navajo lands used for uranium mines, but the air and water was severely polluted by those mines, and a whole generation of Navajo men – working adults in the 1970s or so – worked in the mines, exposing themselves and their families quite directly to very long-term radioactive dangers.

As citizens of any country, yes we all must be willing to make sacrifices for the greater good, and NIMBYism (“Not In My Back Yard”) taken to its extremes would mean no factories, power plants, military bases, anywhere (because everywhere is someone’s metaphorical “backyard”). And so, I cannot deny there is nuance and complexity to be had here – there is a certain degree of logic to it, that the Cheyenne and the Navajo should have to sacrifice as well. If I have to deal with factories in my backyard, they should have to as well, or so the logic goes. But, there are also special conditions that have to be taken into consideration –

(1) these are a people who have been profoundly extremely wronged by the United States, its people, and its corporations. They have been killed in great numbers, their lands stolen, and it is about damn time they got a little justice;

(2) these are sacred lands – you wouldn’t build a factory or a power plant or a strip mine on the National Mall, or on Mt. Rushmore, and you wouldn’t build it in Bethlehem or the Old City of Jerusalem, so if we are sincere in our respect for other cultures, for diversity, then why should we be okay with building it on lands just as sacred to Native Americans as those other places are for us?;

(3) these people are formally recognized by the federal government as possessing a special status of national sovereignty that all the other NIMBY-ers do not. They are a Nation. A Nation that deserves to have a greater say than anyone else in what happens on their land, and to their people. We (the US) seek to protect our borders, our people, and our interests otherwise, both on US soil and beyond, and yet we deny that same freedom, that same right, to the sovereign Nations within our nation.

And let’s not even get started on the question of what does and does not count as “the greater good” (good for whom? by what metric? according to whom?). Yes, all people (including the Bundys and Hammonds) should have to sacrifice some of their freedoms, and their money (taxes), and so forth for the benefit of the whole. Locke and Rousseau, among many other thinkers upon whose thought modern Western political philosophy is based, argued as much quite convincingly. But all people should receive equal rights in return, and equal membership in the society – such that the society should care about their well-being. And this is not being extended, in a great many cases, to Native American peoples.

Returning to the point about language and rhetoric, I am struck by the parallels between the “sacrifice” of Native American lives and land, and the “sacrifice” of Okinawa and its people. The notion that Okinawa must sacrifice for the good of Japan runs deep, to the core of the modern narrative of Okinawan history and identity. In the 1870s, Ryukyu, a kingdom just as independent and sovereign as Japan itself1, with formal treaties signed with the US, France, and the Netherlands, and with strong political ties to China going back 500 years, was unilaterally overthrown and annexed by Japan. This was followed by decades of assimilation efforts to make Okinawa just as much a part of Japan as anywhere else. And yet, in 1945, rather than being considered more fully a part of Japan, to be protected as fervently as the rest of Japan, Okinawa was allowed to become a battleground, a land-stand location, in order to protect anywhere in “mainland” Japan from having to see on-the-ground fighting, and the death and destruction which would inevitably result. The island, and its people, essentially, were “sacrificed.” And when Okinawan people sought protection from their own country’s soldiers, they were told they must be willing to sacrifice themselves gloriously for the Emperor – they were made a target, placed in harm’s way as their homeland was made a military base and then a battlefield, and then they were forced to commit mass suicide rather than be protected by their own government’s army. Something like 50-75% of the island’s homes etc. were destroyed, and around 1/4 to 1/3 of the civilians killed. After the war, all of Okinawa was given over to US military control for nearly 30 years, and was allowed to remain under US martial law, “sacrificed” yet again, so that the rest of the Japanese people could be free and could return to self-governance. When Okinawa was returned to Japanese governance in 1972, some 1/5 of the island remained (and still remains today) under US military control – another sacrifice the Okinawan people have been told they must endure, for the benefit of all Japanese, for the sake of the military defense of the entire region against potential Chinese or North Korean aggression. Just as the Cheyenne and Navajo are told they too must sacrifice their lands, their health, their very lives, for the benefit of America as a whole.2

I think that all too often we think of Native communities as something different from the rest of us. We don’t understand their notions of ties to the land, their ties to their traditions. We see them through stereotypes of being opposed to modernity, opposed to progress, and as stuck in the past. But as we see clearly in this film, through conversations with real people, they really are modern people just like any of us (and, even if they weren’t, they’re still people and we should respect their culture, and their right to maintain their culture just like anyone else) … When you think about it, really, are their stories really so different from those of any of us? All of us, whether we are Irish or Polish, Vietnamese or Lebanese, we have stories of our people being invaded, colonized, or otherwise attacked or oppressed. We have stories of our people nobly and bravely fighting back, and stories of either winning against all odds, or of surviving the indignities of defeat and of the suffering which ensued. As a Jew, most certainly, I know of these stories. We were slaves in Egypt, but we escaped and suffered forty years of wandering in the desert to find and found a new homeland in Canaan. We were driven from that home by the Babylonians, and then by the Romans, suffering in the Crusades and in the aftermath of the Black Plague, and after that, the Inquisition. In lands further east, we suffered pogroms, and then in the 20th century, the Holocaust. My own grandparents survived Buchenwald, and saw nearly all of their friends and relatives rounded up and brutally murdered, along with some six million other Jews (as well as Roma, LGBT people, and those with mental difficulties). I have recently found hundreds of photos of my family in the refugee camps, in Poland & Israel in the 1950s, as well as some of their entry documents for the US. .. The United Nations granted my people a homeland, where we might be safe from persecution; one of the only cases in the world of an indigenous people returning to their homeland, enjoying true sovereignty there, with membership in the UN and so forth, and truly building an incredibly successful, stable, prosperous society there. And yet, this homeland remains one of the most controversial and embattled countries on earth.

My grandparents’ friends and neighbors in a refugee camp in Germany, in the late 1940s. Sure, the details are different, but at the core of the narrative, the Othering; the persecution; the loss of land, property, and livelihood; the restriction to camps or reservations… are we really so different? Can we not understand and sympathize with the plights of (other) indigenous peoples the world over?

If we think of what an indignity it was to lose Ireland, to lose Armenia, to face invasion, to be forced to assimilate to an invader’s culture, or to be driven from our homes, then whether we are Jewish, or Irish, Korean, Armenian, or whatever your background, then, I think hopefully we can sympathize with a people like the Cheyenne. After decades of fighting to retain their lands, and their sovereignty, the Cheyenne united with the Sioux and several other groups in 1876 at Little Bighorn, to make a last great stand. Think of William Wallace in Braveheart. They were defeated, and they were brought to Oklahoma. Somehow (I didn’t quite follow what the film said), the Cheyenne were able to convince their captors, the US military, to allow them to go, to walk north to attempt to return to their homelands. And walk they did, over a thousand miles. By the time they got to the Tongue River area in Montana, only 300 people remained. Only 300 people out of what was once a great nation. The 8000 people or so who live on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation today are their descendants. Only 8000. Embattled as I often feel as a Jew, a people who comprise only 1.4% of the US population, and whose homeland is smaller than New Jersey and being constantly in danger of being destroyed entirely, still we have something like 13-14 million fellow Jews in the world. To be one of only 8000, and to have your home constantly under threat from mining companies, I can hardly imagine.

A sign on the borders of New York State and Seneca land, alerting the driver that they are entering sovereign territory.

One issue that really stuck out for me from this film was the question of sovereignty. Many of these groups – the Penobscot, the Cheyenne, the Navajo, the Gwich’in – are formally recognized by the federal government as sovereign Indian nations. And yet, what does this sovereignty really mean? The Gwich’in live in a federally-designated nature preserve, which comprises only 5% of Alaska – the remaining 95% of Alaskan land is open for drilling. And yet, oil companies, with the backing of the George W. Bush administration, wanted, and still do, to drill for oil in what the Gwich’in people call “the sacred place where life begins” – the caribou birthing grounds. Disruption of this site could be devastating for the caribou, and for the Gwich’in people, who see themselves as intimately tied to the caribou. It burns and disgusts me that the woman still today calling for “drill baby drill” is not from some other part of the country, where they might not be aware of such issues, but rather is a former governor of Alaska, precisely the person who should, more than most, know, understand, and appreciate the concerns of the people of Alaska – the Gwich’in.

I know it can be difficult for those of other religious/cultural backgrounds to understand, but the caribou are important to the Gwich’in not in a hand-wavy, hokey superstitions sort of way; they are important in a deep, profound, way that cuts to the very core of what it means to be Gwich’in. If you wouldn’t drill for oil under the Temple Mount, or under the Church of the Nativity, then you should understand and feel the same for this caribou birthing site, and you should feel the same for the Penobscot River. Really, what it all comes down to is respect. Respect for others’ beliefs, whether based on recognizing the parallels with your own and having some sympathy, or whether it comes from stepping out of your own bubble, and simply more abstractly recognizing that not everyone should have to live by your values, your beliefs, your worldview.

The government of the sovereign Penobscot nation attempted to resist the paper companies’ demands for certain documents – they resisted by asserting that as a sovereign nation, they are not subject to US Freedom of Information laws. But, rather than recognize that sovereignty, Maine courts found the Penobscots in contempt of court. And when the Penobscots asserted that they have sovereign rights to protect their own lands and waters, and that since all Indian affairs are managed by the Federal government and not by the states, that Maine therefore should not have the power to issue licenses to the paper mills, the EPA, under Pres. George W Bush, for the first time in their history, sided with the State over a Native nation. Up in Montana, there are Federal agencies whose entire job is to help protect the Cheyenne and their interests. And yet, the Cheyenne have spent more time and money fighting these agents than anyone else. What does sovereignty mean, when the very government that has formally recognized that sovereignty, ignores it, pays it no heed?

This film opened my eyes to all kinds of issues I had not known about. And by the end I was wiping away tears. Native Americans are not some Other, to care less about. They are Americans like the rest of us, members of our society, members of our democracy, and their voices deserve to not only be heard, but to be respected, to be sympathized with, to be understood and appreciated. These people were here for thousands of years before us, and all they want is what most of us want – to live in peace, on our own lands, to observe our own traditions and to be able to pass them on to our children.

And, not only that, but the environmental issues they face affect us all. The people being poisoned by dioxin are not just the Penobscot – we all are. We are destroying our own land, air, and water, putting corporate profit first. This isn’t just a Native American problem. It is an American problem. It affects us all.

1. Well, Ryukyu was a feudal vassal under Satsuma domain, and a tributary to China. But, then, Korea, Vietnam, Burma, Siam, were all Chinese tributaries, too. Tributary status doesn’t make you any less independent. And while Ryukyu’s relationship with Satsuma is complicated, Satsuma and Japan (the Tokugawa shogunate) both asserted Ryukyu’s foreignness and separateness in numerous ways on numerous occasions, even as they also claimed it in certain ways.

2. And that’s a whole other conversation, the centuries-long rhetoric of (neo)liberal capitalism and imperialism that equates the wealth of some with the well-being of all. We see it as early as John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government (1689) – I don’t know if it appears earlier: the notion that whoever uses an area of land to its utmost productive capacity is doing a good for all mankind, because God created arable land for us to farm it, and placed resources in the earth for us to mine it. Nature exists to be exploited for Man’s benefit, and if you are not using that land to its utmost, then you are not only depriving Mankind of those resources, of that wealth, but you are also acting against God’s plan. But, is “all of Mankind” really benefiting? Who is reaping the benefits of the extraction of those resources? Corporate coffers. Certain subsections of the population. Not *all* Americans, and most certainly not all mankind.

This sort of logic was fundamental to the stealing and pillaging of Native American land across the country in the 19th century, but of the histories with which I am most familiar, it is in the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi that I find it most glaring. (see To Steal a Kingdom by Michael Dougherty, and Dismembering Lāhui by Jon Osorio) When Americans and Brits were brought in to serve as advisors to the Hawaiian government, to help the kingdom develop itself into a modern, democratic, and prosperous country, Western advisors chiefly advised them as to how to make it easier for (white) entrepreneurs and (American) corporations. They gave white men the right to own land, and then they gave them a great deal of the land, and for a certain period they even added in the right to vote without having to be a citizen (without having to swear loyalty to the King and Kingdom). They avoided regulation of industry, and put into place a variety of policies and arrangements which made it all the easier and more profitable for plantation owners and other big-business types. Corporate profits within the islands were seen as the goal, and were equated with being the strength of the national economy. When Native Hawaiians submitted formal petitions to their government, hundreds of petitions with thousands of signatures, saying that few if any of these policies had improved their well-being at all, that many of these policies in fact severely damaged or harmed their well-being, and that the people – the people of Hawaiʻi – were suffering, the Western advisors insisted this was irrelevant and petty, of no concern. The wealth of corporations, and not the well-being of the people, is the wealth of the nation. And this same bullshit logic continues to dominate much of our political discourse, and most especially when it comes to Native issues like these.

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Jonathan Kay Kamakawiwoʻole Osorio, Dismembering Lāhui, University of Hawaiʻi Press, 2002.

Osorio’s account of the history of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi, focusing particularly on the evolution of the constitutions and legal structures of the island, raises a number of rather thought-provoking issues. Essentially, he suggests that the key issue relevant to the history of the kingdom, or the lens through which we should understand that history, is one of gradual separation, or “dismemberment,” of the Hawaiian people from the traditional relationships of reciprocity they enjoyed with their leaders, through the gradual insertion of haole modes of running a government, or a state.

Whereas certain versions of the narrative of the fall of the kingdom, including that given in To Steal a Kingdom, present the Hawaiians as utterly powerless, and the haoles as single-mindedly, deviously, and selfishly engineering the kingdom’s downfall from the very beginning, Osorio presents a somewhat more nuanced view, looking at why the haoles did what they did, and why the Hawaiians went along with it. Osorio’s account also differs widely from Dougherty’s in that Osorio pays considerable attention to the Native Hawaiian perspective, informing the reader of Hawaiian attitudes, perceptions, intentions, and desires, while Dougherty’s account relates Hawaiʻi’s history exclusively through the lens of the haole perspective. In the 1820s to 1840s, we see the example of Christianity, which – among other reasons for its acceptance by the Hawaiians – seemed to provide a new set of prohibitions to replace the kapu (traditional systems of taboos) which had been abolished, and to thus, perhaps, provide a way to set right, or to make pono, the spiritual balance; many at that time are said to have seen the abolition of the kapu and of the traditional heiau rituals as having toppled the spiritual balance, thus leading to the smallpox epidemics and other difficulties faced by the people at the time. We also see the Hawaiian people, especially at that time but in later decades too, genuinely believing that some haoles were “good” haole, and that these people were genuinely bringing benefit to the kingdom through education, and through advising the chiefs as to constitutional government and capitalist economy (26).

The Nuʻuanu Valley, as seen from the Pali Lookout. Photo my own.

Osorio also explains how traditional understandings of the functioning of governance, and of the relationship between makaʻāinana (commoners), aliʻi (nobles), and mōʻī (monarch), informed Natives’ understandings and behavior in the new Western-style government of the 1840s.1 Osorio suggests that haoles, in becoming the chief royal advisor came to be seen as an equivalent to the kālaimoku, whose advice, given in secret directly to the king, traditionally superseded all other advice. Whether this was intentional, or whether the haoles even recognized or understood the association, is unclear. The aliʻi could present their suggestions, but if told this contradicted the advice of the kālaimoku, the aliʻi would then defer, without questions or challenges, as was traditional. Similarly, makaʻāinana petitions to the aliʻi were traditionally mere descriptions of conditions and expressions of desires, often in the form of requests for personal redress.

Makaʻāinana petitions to the legislature reveal considerable awareness and intelligence on the part of the common people as to what was going on in the government, how it affected them, and what policies they believed should be implemented. Once the petitions were submitted to the aliʻi for consideration, the job of the makaʻāinana representative was done; it was not his place, according to the traditional political thinking, to question or challenge the decision of the aliʻi, nor to argue for a side, nor to make a decision, but simply to present the petition and leave the decision up to the aliʻi; it was unthinkable, initially at least, for commoners to presume to go any further, to make decisions themselves, to challenge or oppose the decisions of the aliʻi. And, once these fundamental beliefs or conceptions underlying the traditional political structure of the relationship between the segments of society began to break down, and commoners were able to challenge and oppose the aliʻi, we are led to understand, the kingdom itself, as anything resembling its former political culture was essentially doomed.

Osorio’s narrative, and argument, rests largely on this notion of the gradual breakdown of the traditional political system, and of the traditional system of relationships and mutual responsibility, which left Hawaiians unable to rely upon their own nobles and kings for help, and left them at the mercy of haole desires and ways of governance. Step by step, they were alienated from understanding how their own government ran, and how they were expected to operate, or behave, as “citizens.” To many of the haole advisors, they may very well have believed they were bringing the Hawaiian people a better, more modern form of government, and indeed a freer and more democratic one. That the Hawaiian people proved unable to instantly, overnight, appreciate how to behave within this new system, was taken by many of the haoles as an indication that the Hawaiians were inherently, biologically, racially, less intelligent, or at the very least, simply not yet ready for self-rule. Seeing it spelled out here in the Hawaiian case, it becomes clear that this must have been quite similar to what happened throughout the world, giving birth to notions of the “white man’s burden,” and of the idea of colonialism as a civilizing mission – that imperial powers were there to rule the “natives” until they were ready to rule themselves – a time that never seemed to come. But, as Osorio’s account so brilliantly makes clear, it’s not that the Hawaiians were inherently less intelligent (of course), or that their minds were somehow shackled by feudal upbringings preventing them from shaking themselves free and realizing and embracing democracy. Rather, it is simply the fact – to which the haoles at that time were oblivious – that the Anglo-American system of government is a culturally particular system, that it requires thinking about things in a particular way, and articulating things in a particular way in order to engage in legal arguments. It was, simply, a different set of cultural understandings and practices, as foreign for the Hawaiians as the Hawaiian system was for the haoles. Aliʻi who were used to presenting their thoughts to the mō’ī and then leaving it to him to make his decision were not used to the idea of debates, back and forth, within a legislature, the idea of continuing to argue your position against a political opponent. And they were also not used to the concepts of “rights,” “property,” “citizenship,” and so forth which were now enshrined within their own Constitution. So they were at a serious disadvantage within their own government, a government now run based on haole ideas and ways of doing things.

Aliʻiōlani Hale, home to the legislature and other organs of government from 1873 until the overthrow. I realize now I don’t think Osorio ever makes it clear where the government was housed – his history is very much a legal history, not an architectural or urban one.

Osorio’s is a fascinating and compelling argument, and I have no reason to think it mistaken. However, if I were to level one criticism, or concern, one thing I do feel Osorio leaves unclear is how such a complex system of traditional political relationships and governance could have been so well-established, when the kingdom was only unified a few decades before the arrival of the first haoles. Back when the islands were not united, was there a mōʻī, and a kālaimoku, and a council of aliʻi who represented the interests of the konohiki and makaʻāinana of their respective ahupuaʻa in precisely this same way that Osorio is now presenting as the established, age-old, traditional system? Had Kamehameha lived 100 years earlier, I’d feel more comfortable with the assumption; had Osorio even just taken the time to address this concern, to reassure the reader that these systems were well-established, either from older times, or simply very thoroughly impressed into the popular consciousness very quickly, within these first few decades since unification, I think it would have helped. There are a number of books out there that focus more strongly on pre-unification, and unification, and while I do not know for sure what these books might cover, I wonder if they might help clarify this question.

In any case, returning to his argument, as Osorio explains, as the traditional respect for the authority of the aliʻi broke down, so too did the traditional system of reciprocal responsibility, in which aliʻi, konohiki, and makaʻāinana were responsible to one another for the productivity of the land, and responsible for one another’s well-being. In “freeing” the Hawaiians from what the haoles perceived to be “oppressive” “feudal” arrangements by establishing private property, Osorio explains, the haoles actually left the makaʻāinana (now called hoaʻāina under the kuleana system implemented after the Mahele of 1848) abandoned, and on their own, deprived of the systems which had helped ensure their welfare. The assertion by Richard Armstrong that

“If you now continue poor, needy, living in disorder in miserable huts, your lands lying waste … whose fault will it be? Whose but yours?”

rings far too true of Conservative ideologies widely espoused today, asking people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. One can easily imagine Armstrong, or his counterparts today, simply standing and scratching their heads, dumbfounded as to why these people, given “freedom,” and their own land, are not spontaneously and suddenly productive and prosperous, as Locke’s notions of the “state of perfect freedom,” and classical economics notions of incentives say they should be. Possessing a mental block against the idea that people should have support structures, and against the idea that they have been deprived of what they need for success (in the case of the hoaʻāina, being deprived of the irrigation access and rights of fishing & other gathering activities on communal land they once possessed, and given, yes, some land, but not enough land to grow enough taro), and fueled by racist ideologies which sadly persist today, these people could find no explanation for failure but to think the farmers “lazy,” or otherwise racially/bodily/mentally incapable.

What’s frightening and disheartening and disgusting is just how similar – indeed identical – much of these 19th century haole attitudes are to fundamental aspects of our own American discourse today. These same logics continue to underlie our society today, and while I suppose they must have played some role in bringing our country to the greatness it is (or was), I cannot help but see them as terribly dangerous for our future. The history of Hawaiʻi, though quite widely generally seen as peripheral, marginal, in fact bears numerous parallels to developments today, which I think makes this history a powerful warning. (In my own words, but pulled out just for emphasis:)

The people petition the government, and the government, “bought” and in the hands of corporate interests, ignores the voices of the people. The government equates prosperity and success for industry and economics with prosperity and success for “the nation,” putting corporations first, and people second.

Certainly, the situation in the United States is powerfully different from that of Hawaiʻi in important ways – one of the chief ones being the matter of self-rule. Those who espouse these dangerous ideals and threaten our way of life today are not some foreign influence, bringing some foreign way of doing things, as was the case in the Hawaiian Kingdom, but rather they are our fellow Americans, of similar ethnic, religious, and/or cultural backgrounds to many of us, espousing ideals and systems of government that, far from being foreign, are indeed some of the ideals upon which our nation was founded – the very same ideals which were foreign to Hawaiʻi, and which brought its downfall.

Sympathetic as I am for the Hawaiian people, and angry as I am, especially after reading To Steal a Kingdom, at the greedy and self-righteous haoles for what they did in Hawaiʻi, Osorio actually presents a more sympathetic picture of the haoles than Dougherty or many others do, in seeking to understand why they did what they did, and why the Hawaiians allowed it to happen as they did. Sympathetic or not, I think that such an approach is crucial towards truly understanding why horrible things happen, and being able to recognize and combat such trends when they re-emerge. If we simply see haoles – and Nazis, and Japanese militarists, and American Confederates – as “evil,” it makes it far too easy to simply relegate them to some distant corner of history, to believe that evil is always easily recognizable, and that the only reason such horrible things happened in the past was because the people of that time were too stupid to recognize it, too weak to fight it, or were simply bad people themselves. We consider ourselves smart, strong, and “good,” and so distance ourselves from, and blind ourselves to, the possibilities that such things could happen again – and the possibilities that our own beliefs and actions might be contributing to such negative trends. By contrast, if we do not simply dismiss these people as “bad people,” and instead engage with attempting to understand why people support the causes and policies that they do, and the appeal and flaws of certain ideologies, we can get a better understanding of how a country falls into the hands of fascist, Communist, militarist, or otherwise destructive forces.

Such an approach raises all kinds of questions as to how we should think about American ideals and discourses, and how we act upon them. In the wake of reading these two books by Osorio and Dougherty, and amidst discussions about Citizens United, among other related subjects, I have less sympathy than I ever had before, to be sure, for corporate interests or pure profit motives. But, if I were living in a foreign country, and most especially if I had sworn an oath of allegiance and been granted citizenship of that country, would I not, too, want to see government address my interests? Would I not, too, at the very least, want to feel that I was safe from the arbitrary will of the leaders of that country? Both on a general logical, practical, and emotional level, and in drawing upon my understanding of the United States’ foundational (Revolutionary) anti-monarchical ideologies, I can understand why an American, or a group of Americans (and Brits and Frenchmen), who grew up with certain notions about equal protection under the law, protection even from the government itself which is also constrained by the law, would fear the arbitrary will of a King and his Nobles, and would want to see a system of law put into place to protect them. Indeed, I have these fears today, in my own life, in my own experiences, in Britain and Japan. If Japanese law enforcement accuse me of something, convict me of something, something I am either innocent of, or something for which the punishment is much harsher in Japan than it would be at home, of course I would wish for extraterritoriality, or want to call my Embassy. And this is precisely what these haoles do, in 19th century Hawaiʻi. Yes, there was also a very significant element of flat-out racism, the Orientalist and “white man’s burden” kind of racism that undergirded imperialism and colonialism throughout the world in that era, and there was in many cases unbridled greed for power and wealth, and I certainly do not mean to condone or excuse those motivations whatsoever. But, I guess in summary, it should serve as an object lesson that our ideals, even those which we think among the best of our ideals, can be extremely problematic and dangerous, and how a people can become constrained, indeed doomed, by their own laws, when law is given priority over justice, or over what is right. (Though, of course, there can be many differing opinions as to what is right on any given point, and it is this which the supremacy of law is meant to protect from. But, hence the dilemma.)

(1) Osorio uses the term “Natives,” and so I do as well, taking after his example. I appreciate the potentially problematic nature of using this term, as it is evocative of old Orientalist tropes of “the natives,” e.g. as in the phrase “the natives are restless.” As Osorio is a Native Hawaiian scholar himself, I feel it safe to follow his lead, to use the terms he uses as appropriate. Further, while it might be more precisely culturally accurate to use a term like kānaka ʻōiwi or kānaka maoli, I feel uncomfortable with the idea of granting myself permission to use those terms. It is, to be sure, something to continue to think about and wrestle with. If any of you readers are Native Hawaiian yourself, please feel free to let me know what you think. Mahalo.

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While we’re still in the mood from yesterday of celebrating our own freedom and independence, let’s give a thought, maybe, to those whose freedom and independence was taken from them by this good ol’ US of A, and by the capitalistic ideals we hold so dear. In the next in my series of book reviews on Pacific Island history, I look at Michael Dougherty’s To Steal a Kingdom (Island Style Press, 1992). Together with Jon Osorio’s Dismembering Lāhui (Univ of Hawaiʻi Press, 2002), which I will discuss in another soon upcoming post, these two books serve as the chief sources of my personal understanding (thus far) of the historical narrative, and contributing forces & factors, of the decline and downfall of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi. In this post, I focus almost exclusively on Dougherty’s book. I will address comparisons or syntheses of the two books either in my review of Osorio’s, or in an additional separate post.


As you might guess from the publisher (Island Style Press, based in Waimanalo, Oahu), Michael Dougherty is not a professionally-trained historian, and his To Steal a Kingdom is not a formal academic work. Yet, it was by far the most detailed history of the Hawaiian Kingdom I had yet read, and provides not only an informative, detailed account of that history, but also a biting critique of the attitudes and actions of haole missionaries & businessmen as he represents much of the kingdom’s history as a steady march towards greater and greater haole control.

Dougherty’s account is not so much a history of the kingdom, as a history of the white (haole) presence and influence in the kingdom. His treatment is based almost entirely on haole writings (e.g. diaries of businessmen and missionaries, as opposed to Hawaiian government documents, or materials otherwise from the Hawaiian point of view), and is organized into chapters taking prominent haole individuals as points of focus. Dougherty refers to many of the other Polynesian islands only by their English names, with no reference to native placenames (e.g. Easter Island with no mention whatsoever of Rapa Nui), and his treatment is somewhat Orientalist at times, describing the people of Tonga, for example, as utterly peaceful and “well-proportioned,” making no mention at all of the Tonga Empire. His treatment of the character, attitudes, and policies of the Hawaiian monarchs is also described largely based on the writings of haole businessmen and missionaries, and as a result is unsurprisingly often quite negative. He portrays Kamehameha III as a drunkard and as a weak king who was totally controlled by his haole advisors, and Kalakaua as a “sell out” to Washington (at least in some respects), in contrast to the rather positive impression of Kalakaua presented by Stacy Kamehiro. Yet, despite representing quite a few of the Hawaiian monarchs as being weak, misguided, selfish, and/or poor rulers, and despite his rather mainstream/Eurocentric/Orientalistic approach in various respects, Dougherty’s account of Hawaiian history is still one that is deeply sympathetic to the Hawaiian people, and villainizing of the haoles. I came out of this book perhaps angrier than any other history I’ve ever read, at the raw injustice of it. Jon Osorio, a Native Hawaiian scholar and head of the School of Hawaiian Knowledge at the University of Hawaii, whose book I’ll be discussing next, interestingly presents a more nuanced view of haole intentions.

Hotel Street, Honolulu, 1890.

Dougherty organizes the book’s chapters around individual figures, with one chapter for example taking Hiram Bingham as its focus point, and another Charles Reed Bishop.1 His narrative biographical style brings the history alive in a way more academic writing often doesn’t, making for a vivid and engaging read. However, nearly every chapter overlaps chronologically with previous ones, rather than following along chronologically, and the narrative frequently jumps far backwards, such that we are discussing the terms of the Constitution of 1840 on page 93, and the attitudes and decisions of Kamehameha III in 1832 on page 101. We are introduced to Hiram Bingham and the events of the 1820s-1840s in one chapter, and then to Charles Reed Bishop, and the events of the 1840s-1860s in another chapter, with the overlapping period portrayed in such a different manner that one might be led to think we’re talking about multiple different Hawaiis, or multiple different 1840s. In the hands of a more expert historian, such multiple perspectives can bring a fuller, richer, deeper understanding of the topic through the introduction of nuance and complexity; sadly, Dougherty’s narrative only manages to confuse. Though I myself have some considerable experience reading history scholarship, and negotiating complex and nuanced histories in my head, as someone who is learning much of this narrative for the first time – and even in revisiting my notes on this book now, in the course of writing this blog post – I still find it hard to keep it all straight. This is in large part because we have so much history packed into a relatively short period. It does not suffice to attempt to remember that Kamehameha III was the one who did X, because in 1832 he held one set of attitudes, and in 1840 another. Major changes and shifts pile up one after the other across a rather short time period in Hawaii’s 19th century.

Honolulu as seen from Punchbowl, 1890.

There are most certainly numerous places throughout the book in which Dougherty lambasts prominent haole figures such as Charles Reed Bishop and the Judd family. Some of the most scathing critiques come towards the very end, where he details the way the Judd family controlled large swaths of primary source documents & archives, and thus the historiography of the kingdom, asserting that this has poisoned, so to speak, most histories of Hawaiʻi written up until recently – something the historiography, he claims, is only just now (as of his writing, in 1992) beginning to recover from. Dougherty’s treatment of Charles Reed Bishop was particularly illuminating for me, as I had been under the impression that Bishop established Bishop Museum, Kamehameha Schools, and all the rest in his role as husband of Princess Bernice Pauahi Paki, i.e. that he did so in the name of the royal family, for the benefit of the Hawaiian people. And as such, it long puzzled me why I had been told that so many Native Hawaiians, and locals otherwise, continue to see Bishop Museum as a colonialist institution. Dougherty relates, however, that Bishop had been willed the estate lands for the term of his life – not for the life of his heirs. So he merely anticipated his death by turning the management of these temporary land holdings over to a board of missionary/businessmen trustees who, even to this day, reap enormous profits from their philanthropic ministrations to a few Hawaiian children (Dougherty 176-177), and further, that “without exception, to this very day these institutions all actively perpetuate the missionary/business version of Hawaiian history” (177, emphasis added).

Right: Charles Reed Bishop, largest bank owner in Hawaii, on par with Morgan, Carnegie, and Rockefeller. Institutions he established continue to dominate Hawaiian society and economy.

What becomes abundantly clear throughout Dougherty’s narrative is that, at almost every turn, haole missionaries, and in particular businessmen, manipulated the government for their own personal economic and/or political gain, or for the benefits of the broader haole community. And, dishearteningly, that even those who appeared the most loyal, supportive, and beneficial to the government at times turned against the kingdom and were profoundly selfish, destructive, and injurious at other times, with only a very few exceptions (e.g., seemingly, Walter Murray Gibson). These businessmen-types manipulated the government for their own gain in numerous ways, and very often in the name of doing what was best for the Hawaiian kingdom, and for its economy, often claiming that the native rulers were incompetent, even dangerously so, endangering the well-being of the kingdom, and of the Hawaiian people. To name just one example of this, we see Claus Spreckels buying up tons of land on Maui, which he plans to plant with sugar cane. Through various schemes, he expropriates Crown Lands into becoming his own private property for his sugar plantation corporation – i.e. for his own personal profits. He secures water rights from the king, and puts Hawaiians to work – backbreaking, low-paying, manual labor – harvesting sugar cane. He claims he is doing this for the benefit of the Hawaiian economy; in the terms of 21st century US political discourse, he claims he is “a job creator.” However, it is clear that his real aims are not to selflessly benefit the Hawaiian people or the kingdom, but rather to selfishly line his own pockets. It’s unclear precisely how Spreckels ended up at the end of his life, but Dougherty is sure to point out that Charles Reed Bishop’s wealth, some portion of it from usurious banking practices and a 26-year monopoly on banking in Hawaiʻi (138) at the expense of basically everyone around him, including the kingdom’s own coffers, placed him in similar company with Morgan, Carnegie, and Rockefeller.

Left: Claus Spreckels wearing many leis. Schemed to transform vast swaths of royal lands into his own private sugar plantations. I don’t think there is any mystery as to his motives.

However, two things unfortunately remain rather unclear in Dougherty’s account. The first, despite his numerous direct quotes from statements and letters by haole leaders, is just how genuine these haole leaders were in their feelings about their loyalty or allegiance to the kingdom, what they thought the kingdom meant or comprised, and in whether they genuinely felt they were benefiting the Hawaiian people. The haole leaders claim they are acting to benefit the economy, and the kingdom, and they claim that their loyalty and allegiance is to Hawaiʻi alone (and not to the United States or Great Britain). But, how much of this rhetoric is just rhetoric, deployed with consciously selfish and duplicitous intent, and how much of it is reflective of their genuine beliefs? To what extent, or in what ways, did they truly believe that this was for the benefit of the kingdom, and of the Hawaiian people, and to what extent a matter of bold-faced lying, blowing smoke in order to secure more power and wealth for themselves? Did they think of themselves as “Hawaiians,” and when they spoke of benefiting the Hawaiian people, were they talking about themselves? When they spoke of the need for haole advisers (i.e. themselves) to run the government, and convinced king after king that they brought a greater professional expertise and international knowledge that Native Hawaiian advisers would lack, were they being genuine, or were they consciously and intentionally being duplicitous? We get a powerful hint of some people’s true feelings at the very end of the book, in a quote by Reverend Sereno E. Bishop, who writes in 1896,

Is it not an absurdity for the aborigines … who are mentally and physically incapable of supporting, directing or defending a government, nevertheless to claim sovereign rights? It would seem that the forty millions of property interests held by foreigners must be delivered from native misrule (179).

Here we see haole rule justified, and native rule discredited, through a logic of boldfaced racism and the privileging of capitalist interests, which is strongly suggestive of the central logics of Orientalist thought (e.g. the white man’s burden, the civilizing effect of Western culture, the fundamental weakness, incompetence or stupidity of the non-Western races, etc.). However, in countless examples throughout the rest of the book, despite these countless quotes, the true attitudes and intentions of these historical actors remain unclear.

The funeral of King Kalākaua at ‘Iolani Palace, 1891.

The second aspect left disappointingly unclear is the attitudes and actions of the monarchs, especially Kalākaua and Liliʻuokalani. In The Arts of Kingship, Stacy Kamehiro provides a wonderfully vivid description of the ways in which Kalākaua (and his chief adviser, Gibson) aimed to revive Hawaiian culture, traditions and customs, and modes of knowledge, and to establish the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi as a respected, sovereign member of the international community of nations. In Dougherty’s book, however, we see the monarchs’ policies chiefly through quotes from haole leaders criticizing them. When these haole leaders accuse Kalākaua or Liliʻuokalani of being incompetent, of endangering the economy, of threatening the rights & freedoms of the haole community, or of pursuing policies which are, essentially, racist, which policies exactly are they referring to? And to what ends were those policies aimed, for what reasons?

Still, To Steal a Kingdom remains a densely informative, and indeed refreshing, look at Hawaiian history. That he starts with Polynesian voyaging, and touches upon the cultures and histories of a number of other island groups rather than beginning with Captain Cook, or with the reign of Kalākaua, is refreshing, situating the history as a decidedly Hawaiian one (even if the vast majority of the rest of the book focuses upon haole actors and draws chiefly upon quotes from haole sources). And Dougherty’s account is certainly not a hagiography of the Hawaiian monarchs. While Dougherty’s narrative is, overall, one deeply sympathetic to the Hawaiian cause, and powerfully critical of whites’ capitalist attitudes & actions – and, indeed, by the end of the book I was reeling with anger that this could have happened, and that this is so widely unknown – Dougherty does not always represent the monarchs in the most positive light. I have no doubt that many histories represent Kalākaua, and Liliʻuokalani in particular, in overwhelmingly positive ways, as fierce, determined, politically savvy, and wise leaders, as truly tragic heroes, tragic victims of the acts of a villainous haole community. In my limited time in Hawaiʻi, I certainly got the impression that there was a powerful sense of celebrating these figures, mythologizing them really, in a manner not entirely dissimilar with how mainstream mainland US K-12 education teaches us to regard the Founding Fathers of the United States: as larger than life supermen, some of the wisest, greatest leaders who ever walked the earth. Dougherty’s account, while disappointingly sparse on the details of the monarchs’ personalities, intentions, methods, and policies, nevertheless opens up the possibility that Kalākaua and Liliʻuokalani were not supermen, but were, perhaps, leaders of more average ability, and perhaps even seriously flawed in terms of their vices, or otherwise. Kamehameha III, in fact, is represented as profoundly weak, as a “Little King” “more often drunk than sober” (96) who was more or less completely complacent to the whims of his haole advisers.

Statue of Queen Liliʻuokalani outside the Hawaii State House, with ʻIolani Palace visible in the background. Photo my own.

Dougherty’s treatment of Kalākaua’s efforts to secure a pan-Pacific alliance or confederation as a ward against Western encroachments is also thought-provokingly unexpected. Where other accounts present this effort in a strongly positive way, as a consensual agreement between non-Western states, working together to help one another defend against the evils of imperialist conquest and colonialist exploitation, Dougherty represents Kalākaua as pursuing imperialistic aims himself, writing that Kalākaua, “not content to merely rule over the Kingdom of Hawaii, decided to expand his territory and become the sovereign ruler of the entire Pacific” (156). On this particular point, I am a little too attached to the more positive view. But, again, it does help us peel the wool from our eyes, helping us question our positions and interpretations, and to not blindly leap to defend, or extol, all Native Hawaiian leaders, decisions, actions, or practices. While most certainly wronged in one of the greatest injustices in American history, and while their haole advisors do seem to have been, almost to a man, utter scumbags of a most horrible sort, perhaps the kings and queens of Hawaiʻi were not the great, wise, upstanding leaders we might otherwise allow ourselves to believe they were.

All images except book cover & Liliʻuokalani statue are public domain images, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

(1) It’s kind of amazing how when you Google “Charles Reed Bishop,” someone who played a rather prominent role in the erosion of Hawaiian freedom, sovereignty, and well-being, while making for himself a personal fortune, you find tons of webpages celebrating him – mostly pages belonging to the institutions he founded – and then, when you finally find one that calls him “a criminal deviant, a PIRATE OF THE PACIFIC, pillager, parasite,” and you’re about to link to it, you find that page goes way overboard, calling him a “faggot,” and talking about New World Order conspiracies.

There’s certainly something to be said for the way wealthy and powerful institutions dominate the narrative through their prominence and their more authoritative-looking, more professional websites, and that just because a website is poorly designed, even poorly worded, the 2015 equivalent of a Geocities page, doesn’t mean this isn’t the voice of the people, the counter-narrative against those dominant narratives – in a sense, the corporate control of our society is a conspiracy, a thorough-going one so deeply embedded that we learn not to recognize it, or to question it. But, even so, the dichotomy is startling. Where are the more official pages, from the university, PBS, Hawaii Independent, or someone, telling the less hagiographic version of Bishop’s story? Perhaps I shall have to take the time at some point to write such biographies myself…

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