Tag Archives: Noenoe Silva

Recentering Hawaiians

#20 in the Moʻolelo series

This is the beginning of several posts I will be writing as I review this book.

Noelani Arista’s book The Kingdom and the Republic (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019) is part of a now decades-long project of Hawaiian revisionist history. Some use this term as an epithet – as if “standard” histories (in the case of Hawaiʻi, that would be Kuykendall’s The Hawaiian Kingdom) are not, and will never be, in need of revision. Revision is itself neutral – it can be well- or poorly done. Arista’s is, I think itʻs safe to say, in the former category – the dissertation it is based on won the American Historical Association’s dissertation of the year award (AHA is the academic association in history in the US).

Arista locates herself in this intellectual genealogy, beginning with Lilikalā Kameʻeleihiwa’s Native Land and Foreign Desires, which she notes “illustrated the power of metaphors framed out of a deep literacy in Hawaiian language” (Arista, 2019, 6). She continues this genealogical framing with Noenoe Silva’s work on Hawaiian resistance to annexation and colonization, Puakea Nogelmeier’s illustration of the historical counter-narrative seen in Hawaiian language newspapers and Kamana Beamer’s reframing of the Hawaiian Kingdom as a functional nation-state. To these one might add David Chang’s The World and all the Things Upon It, and Kealani Cook’s Return to Kahiki as illustrations of Hawaiians as discoverers, rather than “the discovered.”

Even my own work on the māhele and Kuleana Act is part of this same project – of showing Hawaiian agency – I show in my dissertation that, rather than passively accepting Euroamerican land tenure, Hawaiians co-created a land tenure system along with non-Hawaiians like William Richards. And it is with Richards that Arista’s book begins.

Richards was involved with what is known as “the outrages” and accused a British ship Captain named Buckle of buying a Hawaiian woman. This led Buckle to charge Richards with libel. An ʻaha ʻōlelo was convened to address these charges, based as they were in the space between Hawaiian, British and American law. Of which country was Richards a subject? Richards made an eloquent speech in Hawaiian claiming that his fate lay in the hands of the chiefs, and he said it in a way that evoked the ʻōlelo noeau “I ka ʻOlelo nō ke ola, I ka ʻōlelo nō ka make” [in the word is life, in the word is death]. As he had done with his concept of “three paths to foreign mana,” Richards shows again here his capacity as a translator of cultural concepts in what Arista calls a “world of words.”

The British Consul to Hawaiʻi, Charlton held that Captain William Buckle:

purchased a female slave at the island of Maui for the sum of one hundred and sixty dollars [and] as the purchasing of a slave is by the laws of Great Britain declared to be piracy, Andy instructions regarding slaves are very explicit … that the offender be brought to justice.

Arista, 2019, 204.

David Malo was brought before the ʻaha ʻōlelo for his advice and he used a precedent from Kaʻahumanu’s own past, asking: in Hawaiian traditional law, was it the messenger that was punished or the offender? Kaʻahumanu responded that it was the offender – her lover Kanihonui in this case, who was put to death by Kamehameha – who was punished, not the one who told Kamehameha. Arista notes that this use of tradition to navigate new legal concepts such as “libel” shows Hawaiian agency in facing Western modernity.*

*Note that Maloʻs statement assumes that Buckle is indeed guilty, which is what Buckle was contesting. This shows that Western concepts like libel and slander were perhaps indeed complex ones for Hawaiians to negotiate.

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Filed under academia, Education, Hawaiian history, intellect, law, Mooolelo

The Ten Most Pervasive Myths about Hawaiian History

10. Hawaiian women in the Kingdom could not vote, so the constitution, and the country, was sexist

While it’s technically true the women couldn’t vote, this needs to be put into context: Lunalilo was thinking of universal suffrage in the early 1870s, but did not live long enough to achieve it (he did achieve universal male suffrage). Had he lived longer, Hawaiʻi may have been the first country to grant women the right to vote, because the official first country to do so was New Zealand in 1893! So, yes, women couldnʻt vote in the 1870s and 1880s – they couldnʻt vote anywhere in the world! In fact, women in the Hawaiʻi legislature (House of Nobles) could vote as early as 1840 – this is calmly reported in the main Hawaiian history textbook as if itʻs not a big deal, but it means that one might be able to argue that Hawaiʻi was, in fact, the first country to allow women (certain women) to vote.

9. Missionaries overthrew Hawaiʻi

Anyone who knows their Hawaiian history well at all knows this isnʻt true – not technically. None of the leaders of the overthrow were themselves missionaries. They were the sons and grandsons of missionaries, and often called the “Mission boys” – the “boys” of the missionaries – and colloquially “missionaries.” But none of them were actually missionaries because that wasnʻt the thing to do in their generation – they all became businessmen in sugar and related industries. The only exception was Hiram Bingham’s son, who became a missionary, but went to the South Pacific, and had no involvement with the overthrow. A related misconception (among those who have only a cursory knowledge of Hawaiian history) is that missionaries helped abolish the kapu system. Since they were climbing aboard a ship in Boston harbor when that happened, it’s impossible for them to have done so.

8. Hawaiians did not resist the overthrow or annexation

OK, this one is pretty well known to be false by now, but itʻs worth remembering that in the 1980s, Haunani-Kay Trask had to defend the idea of Hawaiian resistance, and could only refer to the lyrics of “Kaulana nā Pua” in support of the idea. Now, with the Kūʻē petitions, we see that not only did Hawaiian resist, they resisted nonviolently and violently (with the Wilcox rebellion). In other words, Hawaiians did everything possible to prevent annexation.

Aloha Betrayed by Noenoe Silva depicts the gathering of the petitions against annexation

Aloha Betrayed by Noenoe Silva depicts the gathering of the petitions against annexation

7. Kalākaua was powerless after the 1887 Bayonet Constitution.

Historian Ronald Williams Jr. has uncovered strenuous debates between Kalākaua and the legislature in which he pushes hard for returning power to the throne – quite a different King from the one commonly portrayed as a broken man.

King David Kalākaua (1874-1891)

King David Kalākaua (1874-1891)

6. The 1893 overthrow was “US-backed”

Louis “Buzzy” Agard has found evidence that the US planned the overthrow ahead of time. Agard found an encoded message (and then found the key!) from the State Department telling the USS Boston to attack ports in Hawaiʻi, ending in Honolulu. That makes it a straight-up US overthrow.

5. Kamehameha V was a despot

According to A. Grove Day in History Makers of Hawaii:

[Lot Kapuaiwa] believed that the example of his grandfather, KAMEHAMEHA I, gave him the right to lead the people personally, and favored a stronger form of monarchy that verged on despotism.

Screen shot 2011-12-27 at 7.56.18 AM

This description comes partly from the period, when in 1864 “it appeared that a new constitution could not be agreed on, he declared that the Constitution of 1852 should be replaced by one he wrote himself” (Day, 1984, 70). But the power to do that was in the old constitution, and if one looks at the new Constitution, that power is absent. In other words, Lot had reduced his own power rather than increasing it. Members of the legislature thanked him afterward.

4. Pauahi was the last of the high-born Kamehamehas

The last of the high-born Kamehamehas was Albert Kūnuiakea, son of Kamehameha III. Albert seemed to be a persona non grata since he was “illegitimate” as the son of Kauikeaouli and Jane Lahilahi Young. This made him Queen Emma’s cousin, and the black sheep of that family. He was literally “the man would be be king,” that is, if the missionaries hadnʻt brought the notion of illegitimacy with them.

Albert Kūnuiakea (1852 - 1901)

Albert Kūnuiakea (1852 – 1901)

Think about it: he could have been Kamehameha IV, rather than Alexander Liholiho, and Albert lived into the twentieth century. So the son of Kamehameha III could have been king for 40 years by the time of the overthrow, making such an event much less likely. He is buried at Mauna Ala, recognition that he was a royal in the 20th century.

There are also many other descendants of Kamehameha – see the book Kamehameha’s Children Today.

3. Hawaiians lost their land in the Māhele

My own research, as well as that of Donovan Preza, Robert Stauffer and Keanu Sai, shows that Hawaiians co-created the “Western-modelled” land tenure system along with advisors, and that many Hawaiians learned the system, and had land (this is why Kamehameha V’s property requirement for voting is not as bad as it might look otherwise). Stuffer shows that they lost land mainly due to foreclosure after 1874 due to the non-judicial foreclosure law, which eliminated judicial oversight. Preza (The Empirical Writes Back, 2010) shows that the Māhele was a “necessary but not sufficient” condition for land dispossession. My research (Kuleana: A Genealogy of Native Tenant Rights, 2013) suggests that the land tenure system embedded Hawaiian rights in land rather than alienation Hawaiians from it.

2. A great majority of Hawaiʻi residents supported Statehood in 1959

Ron Williams wrote that Lamar Alexander, in 2006, expressed the commonly held view: “In 1959,94 percent of Hawaiians reaffirmed that commitment to become Americans by voting to become a State” (Williams, 2). He also shows that, while it may be true that the vast majority of Hawaiʻi residents who voted supported Statehood in 1959, only 132,000 people actually voted for Statehood – about one-fifth of the population at the time (20.7% to be precise). This is a far cry from 94%.

(See Williams, ʻOnipaʻa ka ʻOiaʻiʻo: The Truth is Steadfast)

Dean Saranillio also tracked anti-Statehood sentiment in his dissertation (Michigan, 2009) Seeing Conquest, noting that Kamokila Campbell had opposed statehood and in fact become a kind of mouthpiece for those who opposed it, but feared for the loss of their jobs or other repercussions. Campbell, who was part of the Kawananakoa family and became famous for saying “I am Hawaiʻi,” opposed “forfeiting the rights of natives of these islands for a thimbleful of votes” in Congress.

1. Annexation

That it happened. Without a treaty. Legally or illegally. This isnʻt as widespread these days as the others, but whatʻs at stake is obviously much, much greater than with the others. Those who say there was an “illegal annexation” neglect the fact that annexation is precisely the legal aspect of a conquest, thus it’s an oxymoron. Those who point to Supreme Court decisions neglect the fact (as I said in my debate with Ian Lind) that there were two countries involved, and one country’s court, no matter how supreme, simply does not have a say in the legality of their action – it is an international issue. Those who say international law does not exist fail to consider what other countries think when its understandings are violated (as with Iraq in 2003): could we be next? Whatʻs to stop the US or China from taking us over if there are no rules? That’s why these international norms are in place. China, in fact, seems to be on to the US occupation – in 2011, they said “we could claim Hawaiʻi,” to which then-Secretary of State Hilary Clinton responded “weʻll prove we own it,” showing that she understood it was a challenge to the US occupation, not a threat to simply invade.

While some misconceptions have more impact than others, the cumulative effect of these, and many other myths (when combined with a plain and complete ignorance of Hawaiian history on the part of many) is to distort courses of action and decision-making processes. This is true even, and perhaps especially, among Hawaiians themselves.


Filed under academia, Education, Hawaiian history

The State of History

On May 4th at the Hawaiʻi Book and Music Festival I was on a panel, with three other Hawaiian history scholars, which focused on the use of sources in historical research. It asked the very pertinent questions:

What Are the Indispensible Resources for Hawaiian History?What are the existing must-read publications for those working in Hawaiian history, or simply interested in it? What important new resources will we have access to soon? What do Hawaiian-language sources offer those who can read them? Just how much are we really missing by not having access?

And concluded:

The four panelists are all currently conducting research into diverse nineteenth and twentieth century Hawaiian cultural and historical topics, and will share their own experience of finding their way through the whole range of materials, good and bad, now publicly available, and also how they deal with the inevitable gaps they encounter.

My remarks began with a stark assessment of the state of Hawaiian history as a field. I pointed out that there have only ever been three (or possibly four) people ever employed specifically as Hawaiian historians at a “research 1” university – Pauline King, Noelani Arista and John Rosa (one might count Ralph Kuykendall, M.A., but one would do so at oneʻs own peril). I stated that this is only true if one takes such disciplinary boundaries seriously – which I do and donʻt (such boundaries have significance, but so too do interdisciplinary studies). Rosa’s position had to be specially created by the State Legislature – thatʻs my point; it’s not automatic that there are Hawaiian historians.

Prof. John Rosa

As I mentioned in my debate with Ian Lind, it was confided to me that King was hired to “do in” Hawaiian history – she produced no original publications in her long career. Ronald Williams was the first PhD to graduate from a program specifically focusing on Hawaiian history (this is partly because they had only recently hired Arista and Rosa to supervise such a program). Of course there are those with history degrees who teach in Hawaiian Studies. Jonathan Osorio, who was the moderator of the program approached me afterward and said “you know that Lilikalā [Kameʻeleihiwa], Kanalu Young and myself all have history degrees and consider ourselves historians?” And of course I did know that, but the fact that he included the late Kanalu Young on the list only underscores my point. Add them and we have six, one deceased. And there are others, such as political scientists Keanu Sai or Noenoe Silva, who said in a class once “Iʻm not a historian but I may as well be.” But we are talking about a dozen scholars at best, compared to tens of thousands of scholars in US history, for example.

What this means is Hawaiian history as a field is, as I perhaps controversially stated, that is both in its infancy and is an amateur undertaking. It is only recently becoming professionalized as a field. The vast majority of books on Hawaiian history are written by amateurs and/or outsiders with little grasp of the nuances stemming from the dominance and suppression of the Territorial period. While the professional historians can only do what they are capable of given the slow pace of publication and constraints of academia, the effect in the community is that there is little “trickle down” of good research into the lower levels. With so few top-level researchers, there truly is nothing but a trickle of new historical perspectives. And in this case it truly is a top-down situation. Amateurs cannot be expected to devote the time and resources to study that are available to a professional historian.

The result is graduates who go on to high positions in government and the corporate sector who exhibit very shaky understandings of how we got where we are as a society. Many become interested in, even passionate about history as adults (by which time it’s too late), but in school it is, as portrayed in the film History Boys, “just one bloody thing after another.”

There is an infrastructure of knowledge, a “house of intellect” as Jacques Barzun called it, and reasons why we know what we know. We canʻt take this house for granted – the Lahainaluna scholars knew this, as did Kauikeaouli, who said “he aupuni palapala koʻu” [mine is a kingdom of learning]. This vision was invested in, as we still reap its rewards a century and a half later. There seems to be – across the board, not just in Hawaiʻi – a nonchalant squandering of the gains made over history in labor rights, environmental protections, civil liberties, and social justice by a generation of profit-seekers who ignore or are ignorant of history. These people, in whom most power is invested, imperil us all with their proclivity to proverbially “repeat history.” We must demand that history not be completely over shadowed by STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields in the name of “twenty-first century” skills, if we want that century to be better than the last.

UPDATE: Arnie Saiki had this response on the Statehood Hawaiʻi Facebook page, which raises very valid counterarguments and gives me a chance to clarify my position:

I think there are a lot of people who do contribute to the growing canon of Hawaiian history, and follow well disciplined methodologies, as well as pave the way for methodologies that speak to cultural, linguistic, customary practice.

What … strikes me about Hawaiian history is just how much work has been done for a place that boasts a little more than a million people. Although I have not done a full accounting of library catalogs, it seems that there is more historical work produced on Hawaiian history than most states. Granted there is likely a political reason as to why that is, an element that sought to make Hawaii “knowable” to colonial settlers, but it seems that in regard to Hawaii, everything that was recordable was recorded, and it is relatively easy to access. 

Its very true that there is a fascination with Hawaiian history that does not exist in other states – a fact evidenced by a Facebook group I started called Mooolelo: Hawaiian History, which grew to 500 members within a couple of months. But it’s important to remember that this is a national history, and should thus be compared to other national histories (I think of New Zealand, for example), than to other states. In the case of New Zealand, a close look at the historical work there shows a depth that Hawaiʻi could only envy. This is in a country that, while larger than Hawaiʻi, has the same population as the average US state.


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