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Archive for the ‘Pacific’ Category

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All photos are my own.

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Video tour of the exhibit by curator RDK Herman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Right: Image from Law Journal Hawaii.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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After some various travels & other events this summer which inspired a number of blog posts on other subjects, it is now time to return to my post-exam book reviews. This, as it happens, is the last of those on Pacific history, though ironically(?) the first I actually wrote, at the beginning of reading for my Pacific history field.

Today, I’m discussing Matt Matsuda’s book Pacific Worlds (Cambridge University Press, 2012). In Pacific Worlds, Matt Matsuda seeks to tell a different history of the peoples and places of the Pacific Ocean from that which might normally be told, focusing not on the individual cultures or polities in a narrative fashion, addressing each dynasty separately, as historical surveys in the standard academic tradition might, but instead focusing attention upon the interactions between these many peoples and places. This is an approach seen, too, in Walter MacDougall’s book on the history of the North Pacific, Let the Sea Make a Noise, which I read many years ago, and should probably re-read, but which also treats the subject of “Pacific history” less as the histories of a grouping of specific cultures and more as that of a purely geographical region within which a variety of events and interactions took place. As this was the first book I read for my Pacific Islands field, I’m coming at it relatively fresh in this review, and you won’t find any reflection upon the books I read later (but blogged about earlier), or incorporation of what I learned from them.

Matsuda explains, or justifies, this approach by citing Fijian scholar Epeli Hau’ofa, who advocates “envision[ing] the Pacific … not [as] a vast, empty expanse, nor a series of isolated worlds flung into a faraway ocean, but rather [as] a crowded world of transits, intersections, and transformed cultures.” Further, Matsuda notes that “the Pacific,” as a unitary entity, and as a bordered, defined region, is a European invention, suggesting in his introduction that Pacific Worlds will instead relate Pacific history from the islanders’ perspectives, counteracting the Eurocentric viewpoint already/previously prevalent in scholarship. Indeed, Matsuda does share with the reader quite a number of local indigenous legends that suggest historical origins or developments, and treats them as such, not dismissing them as mere myth or superstition. To give just one example, he writes of the Saudeleur Dynasty of Nan Madol that “their influence extended out from the ‘other side of yesterday,’ likely the tenth century, when traditional tales say that two powerful holy men, Ohlosihpa and Ohlosohpa, had come from the west bearing sacred works and ceremonies.” He then goes on to summarize further traditional stories which relate the Saudeleur’s forced exile of a local god of Pohnpei, the god’s marriage to a human woman on another island, and the ensuing battle between their demigod son, seeking to regain his ancestors’ lands, and the armies of the Saudeleur, a story which may well contain within it elements of genuine past events. Not only does Matsuda include stories such as these, but he does so without making explicit arguments as to their validity as sources of historical knowledge, instead simply presenting these stories alongside other forms of evidence as if their validity, and their equality with archaeological and European textual sources, goes without saying. This, perhaps, is an even more powerful and more effective tactic than arguing for their validity explicitly.

However, he does not, as we might expect, reverse the perspective to present a more thoroughly indigenous history of the region, a history which might draw more exclusively upon oral histories and other traditional, indigenous modes of knowledge. Rather, Matsuda is more balanced in his approach, countering Eurocentrism not with a native-centrism, but with a narrative we might describe as relatively un-centered, drawing upon multiple perspectives and types of sources, and modeling a mode of history writing that suggests a vision of the peoples of the world, and their cultures, as all equal in their difference, and equally significant. Matsuda’s history gives no more priority to English or French stories, or perspectives, than to Tongan or Fijian ones, and does not boldly or starkly elevate or denigrate either Europeans or natives. In contrast to the more standard narratives of the nobility of European exploration & discovery, and of the wonders of European technology, with which we might be familiar, Matsuda emphasizes the ways in which the Europeans were often woefully unprepared for their Pacific voyages (e.g. three months at sea without enough food; stuck in the doldrums; missing numerous landfalls), had considerable flaws or failings in their understandings, and were “late to the party,” so to speak, “discovering” lands, peoples, and routes already well-plied not only by the islanders, but in many cases by Chinese, Arab, Malay, and Indian sailors as well. He also counters over-simplified narratives of European/indigenous binaries by describing how Polynesian people in Melanesia were no more resistant to disease, often no more culturally or linguistically capable than Europeans, and held similar prejudices against the dark-skinned Melanesian islanders. The result is a more nuanced understanding of “Pacific Islander” identity, agency, and victimhood, and a more balanced and inclusive vision of world history.

Matsuda’s account is a translocal history, which shows how phenomena such as the spread of Christianity, shifts in the sandalwood trade, and beachcomber1 involvement in local politics played out across the region. Anecdotal examples provide a rough, general sense of similarity and difference. Christian missionaries landed throughout the region, reaching some island groups earlier and some later, building missions in some places and not in other places; on some islands, for this or that reason, islander missionaries known as “local agents” were more successful than Europeans, while in other places the reverse was true. However, this translocal approach does a considerable disservice, one might argue, to the distinctive cultures of the Pacific, and their individual histories, not to mention a disservice to the reader seeking something of a thorough survey of each specific culture. Matsuda paints in broad strokes, describing small island societies based on kinship groups and more complex hierarchical societies of some Polynesian archipelagos, providing little explanation of what he means by “kinship groups,” “clan,” “tribe,” or “aristocratic hierarchy.” He also provides only the most minimal explanation (and sometimes none at all) of native terms like ali’i, marae, and iwi, leaving the reader in the dark as to the political structures of the Hawaiian kingdom and cultural or religious attitudes towards their nobility; the architectural style and cultural meaning of Maori and Tahitian sacred spaces; and the internal organization or inter-relationships between Maori tribes or clans.
That said, while Pacific Worlds lacks for providing an impression of cultural color, and falls short of a proper history of any one of the cultures of the Pacific, it does serve as an informative and not-too-Eurocentric survey of major political, economic, and social developments in the region, and the ways in which these developments affected the people of each island group differently. Its argument for approaching this and other regions of the world with an eye to interactions, rather than separate, isolated histories, is also of great importance.

Matsuda’s rejection of the artificial (European-constructed) boundaries of the Pacific also means the incorporation of considerable attention paid to events and developments in maritime Southeast Asia, including the Malay peninsula, Indonesia, and so forth. While the argument for the artificiality of boundaries is valuable, and the histories of this region genuinely interesting, however, it still distracts even further from devoting further attention to deeper or more detailed descriptions of the Micronesian, Melanesian, and Polynesian societies so overlooked in World and other history books.

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(1) “Beachcomber” refers to people of European descent who stayed in the islands, not necessarily “gone native,” in the sense of adopting native customs or joining native society, but most often disconnecting themselves from Europe, and seeking to create a new life for themselves in the islands, whether in an entrepreneurial fashion, or otherwise. Some beachcombers became quite influential in local events, society, and/or politics, while others lived quiet lives alongside or removed from the locals.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All photos are my own.

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

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

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Nic Maclellan & Jean Chesneaux, After Moruroa: France in the South Pacific, Ocean Press (1998).

In this next installment of my book reviews on readings done for a field in Pacific Island history, we move away from Hawaiʻi, to a different part of the ocean. I do believe that if/when I ever teach a course on Pacific history, Hawaiʻi will likely be quite prominent, because it is most directly relevant to our experience as Americans, to understand what the US stood for, what it stands for, how American values led to the downfall of the Hawaiian Kingdom… and because Hawaiʻi is the most prominent in our popular culture or collective consciousness, and the most likely of the Pacific Islands that students might visit (or might have visited). It is “close to home” conceptually and politically if not geographically, and so there are powerful reasons to devote particular time and focus to studying it. However, in the broader sense of studying non-US, non-Western histories, in the sense of learning about foreign peoples and places in order to attain a more global perspective, I was astonished at myself to realize how much I, even with my powerful interest in non-Western and non-ethnocentric perspectives, still tended to cleave to an Anglophone perspective of which parts of the world I am more interested in. After Moruroa discusses not the US, UK, or Japan’s involvement in the Pacific, but rather, that of France. And it really opened my eyes to how little I know of French history, French imperial history – how much my knowledge of world history, of world imperialism, is still through very much a US/British lens.

In After Moruroa, Nic Maclellan and Jean Chesneaux provide an overview of the political/colonial history of France’s possessions in the Pacific, with a particular focus on the second half of the 20th century, but with a seemingly thorough summary, too, of the earlier periods of “discovery” and colonization.

One of the key themes in the book is that the character or nature of France’s relationship to its Pacific territories is quite different from that of the US or UK to their current & former territories in the region, in certain important ways. The US, UK, and other colonial powers recognize their overseas territories as belonging to a separate category, both conceptually and politically, from the mainland; as one of the fifty states, Hawaiʻi stands as an exception, but places like American Sāmoa and Guam are decidedly in a separate category, both conceptually (in terms of how we imagine the space of “the United States”) and in terms of political status and rights. By contrast, France considers its overseas territories integral parts of the Republic, and sees the preservation of the integrity of the Republic’s territory as a constitutional imperative (21). Maclellan and Chesneaux also write that the typical colonial concerns of access to natural resources and military strategic locations are less prominent in French policy positions in the Pacific, than broader-ranging ideas of the importance of maintaining a Francophone community around the world (241), and a French presence otherwise in order for France to remain a “medium-sized world power” (82). The latter was seen as particularly important in the aftermath of World War II, as the US and USSR emerged as superpowers, and France desired to avoid being eclipsed; the role of the Pacific islands as nuclear testing sites, and as therefore essential to France’s becoming and remaining a nuclear power, ties into this as well (78). While the same could probably be said for the United Kingdom and certain other nations too, in terms of the desire to remain prominent on the world stage, the UK and other nations granted independence to many of their former colonies in the 1960s-70s with less difficulty and hesitation than France; one stark example of this is seen in the case of Vanuatu, which had been a condominium between Britain and France, and where the British administrators left relatively freely, while the French only grudgingly gave up following a brief but genuine violent conflict (73-74).

“Mururoa lagoon” by Georges Martin, May 1972. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

That said, while France’s attachment to the Pacific territories may be more deeply connected to broad nationalistic and global geopolitical concerns rather than more specific and explicit military or economic advantages, Maclellan’s discussion of the territories, and in particular his discussion of the period “after Mororua,” i.e. the late 1990s and the future, is strongly grounded in practical political and economic matters. While much of what I have read on the Pacific focuses on issues of cultural identity, cultural sensitivity (e.g. combating Orientalism and Eurocentrism), and maintenance or revival of traditional culture, Maclellan here emphasizes the very practical concerns of UN Resolutions, Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ), labor migrations, and the legal & political rights and statuses of citizens of the overseas territories, making for a vitally informative look at the region from a different perspective. That France is part of the European Union, and citizens of the overseas territories carry EU passports, he explains, presents new complications for the economic, legal, and political interactions between these territories and the Continent. Many fear that as France becomes more integrated into Europe, French identity in France may dissolve, leaving those in the Pacific the “only French people left on the planet.” Meanwhile, others also fear that as it becomes easier for Europeans to move more freely to France’s Pacific territories, gaining French voting rights despite being Belgian, German, or Spanish, this will pose a threat to Pacific identity and autonomy (229); though Maclellan does not draw the comparison, this seems a very reasonable concern, given the dominating political power of Asian-Americans and whites in Hawaiʻi, for example, overpowering native voices.

All in all, this was a fascinating introduction to the very different history and contemporary circumstances of the Francophone Pacific. Despite the fact that we are studying non-Western peoples and places to begin with, we do tend to focus excessively, perhaps without even realizing it, on Anglophone parts of the world; limited though my knowledge of the Pacific may be, of what I have read, the majority has been on Hawaiʻi, Aotearoa, Guam, Fiji, Sāmoa, and Tonga, and on the involvement of the US and UK in these regions, with France rather further off the radar. Yet, it is clear from After Moruroa that the French territories in the Pacific have their own distinct histories and contemporary conditions, important to understand, and inappropriate to assume to be perfectly comparable to other parts of the region. This also makes the Pacific an interesting place to look at to see how different imperialist powers operated very differently (and sometimes, perhaps, quite similarly) in neighboring parts of the world. The histories of Hawaiʻi and Aotearoa are interesting and important, but they are not representative of what went on in Fiji, Tahiti, Tonga, and so forth – between the various sets of Polynesian islands, we have examples of states, overseas departments, independent countries, colonies, incorporated & unincorporated territories, condominiums, and sovereign states in Free Association, and we have peoples and places treated in a variety of ways by the Spanish, French, British, Germans, Japanese, and Americans over the last few centuries. I know embarrassingly little about African history – I truly would love to learn more, and have no doubt there are innumerable lessons to be learned from African history exclusively, specifically – but, I would imagine that there are many lessons, in terms of varying modes of, and attitudes towards, colonialism, that we can learn not only from Africa, but from the Pacific as well. And After Moruroa, by pulling us away from focusing only on the Anglophone Pacific, really helps illuminate that, and fill in the reader’s understanding of the diversity of situations in the broader, wider, Pacific.

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