#71 in the Moʻolelo series, this is adapted from my book review of Kealani Cook’s Return to Kahiki: Native Hawaiians in Oceania in the Office of Hawaiian Affairs newspaper Ka Wai Ola.
An ongoing project among Hawaiian scholars seems to be afoot – that of placing Hawaiians at the center of “encounter.” Works in this vein include David Chang’s The World and All the Things Upon It, Noenoe Silva’s The Power of the Steel-Tipped Pen, Noelani Arista’s The Kingdom and the Republic and Kealani Cook’s Return to Kahiki. The given narrative of Hawaiians passively accepting foreign introductions is beginning to give way to one in which Hawaiians are active participants, co-creators, or in control outright. When foreigners suggested Hawaiʻi adopt private property, for example, Hawaiian leaders did not unthinkingly adopt this innovation. When it was first suggested, the aliʻi of the Privy Council said “They think we do not know the value of our own lands!” the chiefs “laughed heartily at this.” The image of Hawaiians laughing at foreigners runs contrary to most historical accounts. Simply put, Hawaiians had interior lives and their own point of view.
Stephen Desha wrote of Captain James Cook’s arrival:
Kāpena Kuke, a i kapa ʻia hoʻi e nā Hawaiʻi kuhi hewa o ia manawa, ʻo ke Akua Lono i hoʻi hou mai mai Tahikikū me Tahikimoe mai.
Captain Cook had been mistakenly called the god Lono who had returned from Kahiki Kū and Kahiki Moe.Desha, 1996 (trans. Frazier, 2000)
One example from this substantial work of undermining myths is seen in Kealani Cook’s examination of Kalakaua’s delegation that was tasked with creating a Polynesian Federation with Samoa. Most accounts depict this mission as a “gin-fueled, incompetent attempt at empire building by a naīve Native monarch and a set of buffoonish amateurs” – a debacle in which the Hawaiian delegation was drunk most of the time. Even I – for nearly two decades a Hawaiian history teacher at Kamehameha – believed these accounts. Kealani Cook, in contrast, points out that the Hawaiian delegation was successful in gaining the signature of Malietoa, King of Samoa, officially beginning the Confederation. Cook shows that this attempt at empire instead shows how Kalakaua “consistently promoted Hawai‘i as part of the European/American diplomatic and cultural world while still deeply enmeshed in Ka Wā ‘Oiwi Wale,” a term Cook uses for “ancient Hawai‘i.”
Cook is also aware that there is still much we don’t know. He starts the book, almost poetically, with an ongoing debate, if not a myth: “They came from the South. We do not know exactly when they came, why they came or how many of them there were, but we know they came from the South.” By opening the book this way, Cook paves the way for his take on the various debates he addresses: debates over Hawaiian agency – the ability of our kupuna to be the makers of their own world even after contact, Hawaiians’ negotiation with capitalism, their conflicted adoption of Christianity, and their comfort with migrating out of Hawai‘i, even as agents of a foreign ideology.
At root, Cook shows a different picture of Hawaiians in the nineteenth century, one that is epitomized by the picture on the cover – a picture of John Tamatoa Baker, a “Kanaka capitalist, politician and traveler.” Baker travelled to Tahiti, Tonga and Aotearoa/New Zealand promoting, like Kalakaua had, a “Pan-Oceanic Lahui.” A larger-than-life figure, Baker used similarities between Hawaiian and Tahitian language and notions of hospitality and generosity to build this bridge, and he was largely accepted and endeared himself to the natives of Borabora, who essentially claimed him as one of their own. In doing so, Baker gained a larger perspective on Hawai‘i and its place in the world.