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Adrienne Kaeppler, The Pacific Arts of Polynesia & Micronesia, Oxford University Press, 2008.

In The Pacific Arts of Polynesia & Micronesia, Adrienne Kaeppler not only provides a broad-ranging and detailed survey of material cultural forms and objects of the various cultures of these two regions, but also introduces the reader to a number of crucial theoretical or critical issues in approaching these objects and traditions.

The first chapter provides an introduction and overview of the geography and history of the islands and their peoples, and of those peoples’ various types of arts.

In the second chapter, in the course of discussing various forms of ritual containers, Kaeppler discusses the inseparable interconnectedness in Pacific cultures between objects, ritual use, and meaning. As she explains, these objects can be considered in isolation, for their purely visual and formal qualities, and they often are, in museums and similar institutions around the world; however, within Pacific Island cultures, the arts are surface manifestations of systems of knowledge, forming the scaffolding of meaning that encompasses visible, verbal, musical, or performative instances of art. As a result, visual arts, performing arts, and ritual should be understood together, and not in isolation from one another. The Fijian kava bowl has certain formal and visual qualities that make it a beautiful work of art in the Western sense of the term, but it is through understanding its use in the ritual of mixing and serving kava that we gain a deeper appreciation for the way Tongan people might understand and appreciate the object.

Hawaiian royal feather cloaks on display at the Bishop Museum, in Honolulu. Photo my own.

The importance of ritual meaning and use otherwise within cultural contexts is seen further in chapter four, in which Kaeppler discusses textile arts. As she explains, textiles can be embodiments of ancestors, genealogies, histories, or memories, or prayers given solid physical form. The specific examples of individual named kie hingoa woven mats passed down through the generations and worn by kings and queens of Tonga at weddings, funerals, coronations, and when receiving foreign royals (such as Queen Elizabeth II) help the reader to appreciate how this functions, including how these objects become prized, their power as symbols, and the ways in which they come to be associated with powerful individuals and significant events. The related Hawaiian belief that garments contained the mana of their wearers, and how this sacred (or kapu) quality makes them dangerous becomes clearer in a discussion of Hawaiian royal feather cloaks in the fifth chapter (on tattoo and personal adornment), which also discusses the personal sacredness of Māori moko and facial & body tattoos in other Pacific island cultures.

Various objects from the Sepik Basin in Papua New Guinea, one of the most studied places in the Pacific, on display at the American Museum of Natural History. Photo my own.

Jumping back to the third chapter, in her discussion of carvings, Kaeppler provides a lengthy unpacking of Western concepts of “aesthetics” which not only (hopefully) helps us move further towards being able to more appropriately understand and appreciate the ways in which Pacific Island peoples appreciate their own “artworks,” but also seems a profoundly useful set of passages for inviting reconsiderations of how we approach all art, Western and non-Western alike. As Kaeppler explains,

When one decides whether something is beautiful or not, a value judgment is being made. Beauty of course is not inherent in any object or thing but is a mental construct of an individual that may or may not be shared by others. The basic concept here is evaluation (that is, whether something is beautiful or not) and how this mental construct is part of a system of thought.

Further, “ways of thinking about cultural forms, including the standards by which they are judged, are largely determined by the cultural tradition of which they are a part. … Members of different cultures simply do not react in identical ways to the same stimuli, artistic or otherwise.” These 2-3 pages alone, and the book as a whole all the more so, provide a powerful argument for a more culturally sensitive and globally-minded (non-Eurocentric, cultural relativist) approach to the arts and cultures of the world.

Finally, throughout the book, Kaeppler intersperses discussions of contemporary art, and quotes from contemporary artists & traditional practitioners, with discussion of older objects and traditions. That Pacific Island cultures are alive and well and that traditional cultural attitudes continue to be powerful and relevant – while having also developed and changed over time, as in any society – is presented not so much as an argument, but as a matter of fact, woven throughout the book.

Canoe/Waka, by Māori artist Lewis Tamihana Gardiner and Haida (Pacific Northwest) artist Preston Singletary, 2007, on display at the Seattle Art Museum. Photo my own.

Kaeppler’s incorporation of contemporary arts & attitudes, and discussion of aesthetics and the importance of appreciating native uses and understandings, serve as powerful models and arguments for culturally sensitive, global or non-Western, approaches. Meanwhile, her elaboration of specific concepts such as the association between danger and the sacred, and the importance of objects as embodying oral histories, provide a detailed and important foundational sense of the cultural character, attitudes, and beliefs of the various Pacific Island cultures, and the similarities and differences between them.

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I will be going to New York for a couple weeks a little later in the summer, so expect more exhibit reviews at that time. But in the meantime, let us return to our discussions of Pacific Island history. Today, reviews / responses to a few different essays from Remembrance of Pacific Pasts (Robert Borofsky, ed.), which I introduced a couple weeks ago.

James Belich, “The New Zealand Wars and the Myth of Conquest”
Patricia Grimshaw and Helen Morton, “Theorizing Māori Women’s Lives”
Greg Dening, “Possessing Tahiti”

These three essays from Remembrance of Pacific Pasts, by Greg Dening, James Belich, and Patricia Grimshaw & Helen Morton, all deal in one way or another with the mythologizing of history in Westerners’ accounts, and the difficulties or dangers of attempting to understand historical events based on those accounts. Often, Westerners’ accounts are the only written sources we have on a certain topic or event, highly detailed and written in a style which purports to be objective. However, as these three essays discuss, these accounts are heavily colored by racial, national(ist), and other ideologies or attitudes of the day, and by considerable misunderstandings or misinterpretations of islander attitudes, intentions, or actions. Oral histories, among other forms, can help us attempt to reconstruct events or encounters from the native point of view, but these have their limitations as well.

Right: Hone Heke cuts down the flagstaff on Flagstaff Hill at Kororāreka, in 1845. Public domain image from a 1908 book, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

In “The New Zealand Wars and the Myth of Conquest,” James Belich describes how Victorian British attitudes about race and empire contributed to skewed understandings of the British wars with the Māori, both at that time (1845-1872), and down through the 20th century to today, in popular conceptions of the history. In particular, as he explains, the British narrative takes British victory as inevitable, downplaying or ignoring British defeats or setbacks, and emphasizing or exaggerating the extent of British victories. He points out that this was systematic, that is to say, thorough, in its impact throughout British understandings of these wars, but also that it was not deliberate or conspiratorial (261). Rather, this skewing of the narrative comes as a result of attitudes of the time. “Savages” were believed to lack higher mental faculties, and thus it was unthinkable, in the most literal sense of that word, to attribute British defeats or setbacks to tactical skill or strategic intelligence on the part of the Māori. As a result, various explanations or excuses were employed to justify Māori victories. One such technique was to exaggerate or simply over-estimate the numbers of Māori, following a logic that if the British were defeated, it must have been because they were outnumbered. In other words, they judged the number of opponents based on the outcome, rather than by any more objective count; when bodies were counted after a battle, it was often assumed that some additional number had been carried away from the battlefield, lost in a lake, or were otherwise uncountable (262).

Māori were also represented as part of the natural landscape, just one prominent element of a natural environment inhospitable to Europeans and which had to be tamed, alongside the flora, fauna, topology, and climate. Their strength was often attributed to animalistic or otherwise natural advantages; British accounts acknowledge Māori courage, but speak of the islanders as burrowing like rabbits, or possessing the ability to survive multiple gunshots to the head. Where islanders’ use of structural fortifications or thoughtful tactics could not be ignored, it was attributed to their borrowing or learning from European models, since it was believed that natives could not possibly think of such things on their own. Finally, in some cases, the British accounts simply scapegoat their own commanders, attributing British defeats or setbacks to incompetence on the part of the British commanders, rather than admit aptitude on the part of the Māori. It is unclear precisely what sources Belich draws upon in attempting to construct a more balanced or “objective” account of these events, including for example seeking more “accurate” numbers for the size of Māori forces, counteracting the exaggerations in the British accounts. Nevertheless, however, the idea that, in Belich’s words, “whatever their historical success, historiographically the British won the wars hands down,” helps us to understand at least one way in which the phenomenon of the dominance of “colonial(ist) knowledge” manifests itself.

Left: A Maori carving of Taranga giving birth to the god Maui. The carving a gift to the East-West Center from the head of a Maori delegation to Washington DC. Photo my own.

Patricia Grimshaw and Helen Morton, meanwhile, discuss Westerners’ accounts of Māori women’s lives and position in society in the early period of contact. Like Belich’s discussion of the depiction of native peoples as “savages,” a part of the natural environment (or natural history) of the place, and incapable of higher mental capacities, Grimshaw and Morton similarly present us with a familiar picture of Western impressions of non-Western women: in short, that they are oppressed by their native culture, that this oppression is a key sign of the oppressive and uncivilized character of that native culture, that women in Christian societies are freer and less oppressed, and that it is the Westerners’ aim, or obligation, to “rescue” these native women by bringing them “freedom” and “civilization.” Westerners’ accounts describe Māori women as quite outspoken and active in local affairs, including engagement in war councils and discussions and decisionmaking otherwise of the local community; women also accompanied men to meals and even on war expeditions. It seems it would be difficult, judging from this, at least from a 21st century feminist point of view, to argue that Māori women were particularly oppressed; yet, Westerners’ accounts emphasize their hard labor in the fields and otherwise (as if lower-class British women did not do heavy work), and in particular represent Māori women’s sexual promiscuity prior to marriage, and their supposed rapid loss of beauty and other youthful qualities following marriage as elements of a “degraded state,” and as signs of their oppression (282, passim). Grimshaw and Morton point out that this concern with women’s rapid aging and their “masculine” appearance and behavior does not reflect a genuine concern for women’s wellbeing as social or emotional individuals, however, so much as it does a preoccupation of many of the male writers with women’s sexuality. Women’s appearance is discussed as a measure of their sexual attractiveness to the white male observers, and is not truly a discussion of women’s health for their own sakes.

“The Natives of Otaheite [Tahiti] Attacking Captain Wallis the First Discoverer of That Island”. Date, artist, unknown. Public domain image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Greg Dening’s essay on “Possessing Tahiti” was of particular interest for me, as he describes the colorful and exciting events surrounding the first encounter between British sailors and the people of Tahiti, with particular attention paid to ritual performance & symbolic meaning, and to the question of Tahitians’ understandings or interpretations of these events. As the performance of political ritual is a central theme of my own research on Ryukyuan missions dispatched to Edo, Dening’s discussion of the symbolic meanings for both parties of particular actions and objects is of particular interest. As he describes, in addition to numerous other actions which took place during this encounter, the British planted a flag, as a performance of a ritual of claiming sovereignty, which the Tahitians then took and incorporated into their chief’s maro ura, a feathered girdle representing his own sovereignty or authority, and thus appropriating the British symbol for their own. In a sense, then, on some metaphorical or ritual level, both British and Tahitians had enacted the “possessing” of one another. I quite enjoy these sorts of interpretations of history, emphasizing symbolic discourses, as it adds layers of meanings, and brings events, acts, or cultural ways of being beyond the mundane, countering the view that political and economic concerns are the core of all that is “real,” and that much else is mere superstition. It is for these reasons that the scholarship of Timon Screech is also especially compelling, as he paints a picture of an Edo period Japan loaded with the kinds of added layers of meaning that make that time and place seem so much more romantic, colorful, and aesthetically or culturally infused than descriptions focusing on economic hardship, societal inequalities, and the more mundane details of economic logistics and political structures, would make it seem. Yet, at the same time, such “magical realist” interpretations can be a bit hard to swallow, at times.

I have already discussed the debate between Marshall Sahlins and Gananath Obeyesekere over whether the Hawaiians (mis)understood Captain Cook himself to be the god Lono. Dening’s discussion of a similar phenomenon in the encounter between the Native Tahitians and the crew of the HMS Dolphin is thus also of interest, as I attempt to gain an understanding, or appreciation, of Native Tahitians’ “metaphoric” view of such events. When the HMS Dolphin sailed into Matavai Bay, they were met by thousands of islanders in hundreds of canoes, who threw plantain branches into the water, danced provocatively, offered small gifts of food, and made sacrifices of pigs, before beginning to hurl pebbles at the British ship; imagining this to be an attack – that is, an attempt by the islanders to defend themselves or their island against the newcomers – the British responded with gunfire. Dening contends that this was not, in the Tahitians’ view, such a defensive action, but rather a ritual of welcoming, certainly coordinated and dramatized, and possibly invented for that rather novel occasion. Further, he suggests that the man identified by British accounts as possibly being some kind of “king of the island” was likely not a political or military leader at all, but rather an arioi, a special sort of priest of the god ‘Oro. Dening suggests, therefore, that all of this was seen by the Tahitians not as a defensive battle against a human “other,” but rather as an act performed for/against a god. He writes that “the arrival of the Dolphin was the occasion of another ‘Oro incarnation or materialization and all the Tahitian associations of sovereignty and sacrifice, of colony and coming from ‘beyond the sky,’ of alliance and title, were at work” (120).

Queen Oberea welcoming Captain Samuel Wallis. Engraving, 1827, as reproduced in Le Costume Ancien et Moderne ou Histoire by Giulio Ferrario. Public domain image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Dening does not say it outright, but I believe he is implying that the Native Tahitians perceived these events as both metaphorical and literal, at once. Dening does not explain out fully how this might have functioned, but I wonder if perhaps the Native Tahitians, while not seeing the ship or the crew as being the god, still saw the event as sacred, as being imbued with or accompanied by the god. It seems to me that the standard Western interpretation draws a dichotomy between either the ship or its crew literally being the god on the one hand, or the entire event being purely a profane (mundane) and non-godly event on the other hand; it is this latter scenario, and our literal, secular, view of things that leads into discourses of natives being naïve, foolish, and superstitious. How ridiculous that they should have thought Captain Wallis to have been a god! But, perhaps these two are not the only possibilities. Maybe the islanders recognized these Strangers for what they were – human beings from a foreign culture, hungry, thirsty, and violent, with all the very “real” political and economic implications that come along with human profane/secular encounters, while at the same time recognizing their coming as marking a special event, and in its specialness being accompanied by the god. If so, then the rituals performed before the Dolphin would not have been aimed at the ship itself, or its crew, but at acknowledging the sacredness of the occasion. This could, potentially, tie into the notion of the flag as a memento of the event, and as containing the mana either of the ship & its crew, or of the event, this unprecedented encounter and exchange with such Strangers (even without the Strangers themselves being divine).

Another popular misconception surrounding these types of encounters is the idea that the god’s coming was prophesied, and that the ship’s coming is mistaken for fulfilling that prophecy. Dening points out that no such prophecy is needed, and that indeed the sacred path of approach into the bay taken by the ship need not be considered sacred beforehand; rather, the event can be recognized as special, as sacred, in the moment, and mythologized as it occurs, lending new meanings and new sacredness to certain places (such as this path into the bay). The event and associated objects, actions, and places can also be mythologized afterwards, in the process of retelling it.

To sum up, all three of these articles point to the considerable ways in which our understandings of Pacific history, and the historiography upon we rely for those understandings, are deeply flawed, corrupted by Western biases. And all three suggest some ways forward, to begin to ameliorate the damage, reverse the discourse, and rectify the errors, by incorporating the Native point of view, or by at least attempting to account for and adjust for the fundamentally inherent biases of both the Western primary and secondary sources. Through these essays we learn much about the New Zealand Wars, Maori women, and the first British-Tahitian contacts, as well as the very significant issues in how these topics are understood, and how these types of topics, more broadly speaking – military history, women’s history, and first contacts & mythical understandings – might be approached.

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In case I haven’t said so yet, my apologies that posts have gotten especially infrequent. I am studying for PhD comprehensive exams, and have just gotten so busy… but, come June or so, once exams are over, I expect to be able to blog more often again. And, since I’ve been reading tons of books for the exams, I will have tons of book reviews to be able to post. In the meantime, here are a few quick hits, of news items that have come across my dash in recent weeks.

*A UN Tribunal has ruled that the UK government acted illegally in allowing the United States to build military bases in Mauritius. According to a second Guardian article, the crux of the issue is that

In 1965, three years before Mauritius was given its independence, the UK decided to separate the Chagos Islands from the rest of its then Indian Ocean colony. The Mauritian government claims this was in breach of UN general assembly resolution 1514, passed in 1960, which specifically banned the breakup of colonies prior to independence.

Situations are different all around the world, and legal challenges to US use of Hawaiian and Guamanian (Chamorro) land will, presumably, have to take different approaches. The situation seems to be oddly reminiscent of Okinawa, in a way, as the UK and US seem to have conspired between the two of them to use Mauritius (Chago Islander) land in this way without giving the islands any voice in the matter, much as the US and Japan have conspired to use Okinawan land as they see fit without giving a care to what the Okinawans want. Of course, the situation in Okinawa is actually quite different, as all of Okinawa remains Japanese territory, and so the UN resolution forbidding the breakup of colonies prior to independence doesn’t apply.

Still, this is some good news for the Chagos Islanders, it would seem. Time will tell how it plays out, whether the islanders will really get their land back, and so forth.

An aerial photo of Diego Garcia atoll, separated from Mauritius prior to independence, to form the core of the British Indian Ocean Territory, which was then given over to US military use. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

*Meanwhile, on a related note, the government of New Zealand continues to move forward with what a UN report describes as imperfect but nevertheless “one of the most important examples in the world of an effort to address historical and ongoing grievances of indigenous peoples.” The Honolulu Star-Advertiser tells us the New Zealand government has given dozens of Māori iwi (tribes) large swaths of land to manage, and millions of dollars in legal settlements connected to claims against the government for breaches of the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi.

The Treaty of Waitangi was a treaty signed between the British Crown and over 500 Māori chiefs, and is the founding document of the colony, and later the independent country, of New Zealand. As is so often the case in these sorts of things, the English-language and Māori-language versions of the Treaty do not match up perfectly, leaving plenty of room for debate and dispute. But the NZ government has, from what little I understand, been perhaps the best in the entire region at attempting to address claims and settle them generously, with an eye to righting past wrongs and doing right by the Māori people, who form roughly 15% of the population of the country, and who, as the indigenous inhabitants, not only have certain rights to the land and so forth, but who also play an important part in the fabric of New Zealand culture and society.

Since 1995 or so, the government has settled over 72 claims from Māori iwi, and hopes to settle the last currently on the table by 2017. One of the most recent settlements, the occasion for this Star-Advertiser article, went to the Ngāi Tūhoe tribe, who received NZ$170 million (US$128 million), and rights to manage the national park they claim as their home. Each iwi has managed its settlement money differently, with some being more successful than others in their investments. The Māori certainly seem to have a more positive relationship with their government – or at least moving in that direction – and with the people of New Zealand more broadly, a different place within the culture and society, than do Native Americans & Native Hawaiians in the US, or indigenous peoples in many other colonial countries in the world. It would be wonderful to see similar things happen for the Hawaiians, for the Ainu, and so forth, but, every situation is different, and terribly complex, and only time will tell how these things might be able to evolve.

The Māori marae at Whenua Rangatira, belonging to the Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei hapū (sub-tribe). Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

*Finally, today, a blog post by Dr. ‘Umi Perkins on The Ten Most Pervasive Myths About Hawaiian History. I suppose one might need to know at least some basics of the narrative, and the key controversies/issues, in order to understand what Perkins is talking about, but this is an excellent jumping-off point for learning more, beyond that.

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*As you may know, the Ainu are an indigenous people of northern Japan, mostly associated with Hokkaidô. For about five weeks this past January to February, a small group of Ainu youths (along with an interpreter and a few supporters) journeyed to Aotearoa (New Zealand) to meet with members of the Maori community, engaging in cultural exchange and building connections. The indigenous rights / indigenous cultural movement among the Ainu is relatively young, gaining strength only since the 1990s, and the group was only formally recognized by the Japanese government as an indigenous people in 2008. These exchanges with peoples such as the Maori help the Ainu connect into a larger, global indigenous peoples movement, and help them consider and develop ways to maintain or revive their traditional culture, as well as ways to move forward, into a “modern indigeneity” or an “indigenous modernity.”

I contributed a small amount, Kickstarter-style, to help the project, and received this neat mukkuri mouth organ. Can’t seem to manage to play it properly though.

Having now returned, participants in the Aotearoa Ainumosir Exchange Program will be sharing their experiences at an event in Yokohama on June 1st.

*Colleen Laird, a good friend of mine, has had an article published in Frames Cinema Journal! It is entitled “Imaging a Female Filmmaker: The Director Personas of Nishikawa Miwa and Ogigami Naoko.” Admittedly, I have yet to find time to read it, but it certainly looks fascinating. Congratulations, Colleen!

*Gavan McCormack has published yet another article on the Senkaku/Diaoyutai debate, over at The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus. Interesting and important to understand the details of the history, but, of course, none of that really matters – the debate isn’t really about history so much as it is contemporary national pride and related issues.

*Meanwhile, the ruins of a Buddhist monastery at Nalanda in India, are to become the site of a new university. The monastery is claimed to have been a thriving “university” in the 5th to 12th centuries, hundreds of years before the advent of the university in Bologna, Paris, Cambridge and Oxford. I appreciate the sentiment, the desire to de-Eurocentrize world history. But, still, I’m a bit skeptical. That said, congrats to Nalanda on a bit more public exposure for this marvelously impressive site, and best of luck with the new university.

*Finally, I have finally buckled and given in and started a Tumblr, which I’ve titled “byakko zatsuga,” or “white tiger miscellaneous pictures.” I’m really kind of surprised to discover that zatsuga doesn’t seem to be a standard term in Japanese art history at all. Look through woodblock printed books of the Edo period, and you’ll find tons that are, essentially, just collections of assorted random pictures. And the books have such a wide variety of titles, including terms such as manga 漫画, gafu 画譜, gashi 画志, gaden 画伝, ehon 絵本, zasshi 雑誌, zakkô 雑考, gakyô 画境, and gashi 画史… yet I have never seen any called zatsuga.

In any case, my blog posts here tend to be pretty long, as you might have noticed; the Tumblr provides me an opportunity to share pictures with a minimum of commentary, as well as quotes, videos, or the like, and most especially, while I will be sharing images of historical artworks, or items related to serious topics such as gender theory/feminism, it also provides me a space to share things a bit too silly or frivolous for this blog.

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