In early January, as actions associated with Idle No More were escalating across Canada and around the world, I visited Hawai’i with my family. Carrying with me the questions raised and challenges issued by this urgent movement of indigenous peoples, I set to some reading and writing as a way of understanding what it meant, as a white beneficiary of colonialism and indigenous dispossession, for me to leave one occupied territory for another, what that act of crossing said or didn’t say, what was done, not done, or undone in the act of crossing lands that are not mine. A three-part essay.
When I was a child, my mother was a travel agent. Or as my father, fearing the working class stigma associated with the term would call her: a travel and adventure consultant. For several years while my sister and I were in grade school, she owned and operated a one-woman corporate travel shop, first out of a downtown office tower, and eventually, when she decided she wanted to be closer to the kids, out of our basement. This means that for much of my young life, the closets and shelves of my family home were stuffed with all manner of travel industry refuse.
You know the kind: those big cardboard cutouts, usually emblazoned with the logo of some global hotel chain, that hang in the windows of travel agencies everywhere; faded from decades of roasting in the sun, their over-saturated shades of azure and emerald made dull by untold varieties of dust and grime. Some kids have posters of television and movie stars, some have pages torn out of magazines featuring glamour shots of new bands. I had pictures of lagoons, mountain ranges, and Boeing 747s hanging impossibly, effortlessly, above thick blankets of cloud. I also had a very large, very autographed Jann Arden poster but I hardly see how that’s anyone’s business.
I suspect that, as far as perks go, being a travel agent to socially inept rich people is second only to being a socially inept rich person. Granted, my mother was perpetually stressed by CEOs and head administrators of various sorts calling from the Philippines at 4 AM, wanting to know how one goes about finding a decent coffee in Manila (CEOs are basically infants. Never let anyone tell you any different). But usually that stress was more than offset by various tour operators courting her with complimentary vacations to emerging destinations and cushy half-work conferences in warm, half-working places. More than anything, it meant lots and lots (and lots) of glossy brochures, nicely saddle-stitched pamphlets that waxed lyrical about the glorious getaways awaiting her clients in every corner of the world.
To kill boredom, I would often spend hours in her sweltering study, thumbing through these seemingly endless guides, developing a particular fondness for the massive hotel index catalogues that the industry clearinghouses would send annually. Every glorious, gleaming property (we called them properties in our house, because that’s the industry term for hotel. I also knew most major airport codes and the alpha-bravo-charlie alphabet before I reliably knew my multiplication tables) situated on every glorious, gleaming white sand beach, captured in one enormous volume. They were tomes. Everywhere, every amenity, every rating, and every devastatingly expensive blended cocktail: they were indexed, cross-referenced, and heartily bound. No saddle stitching here. In another age, they might have had their edges gilded and cost a docile priest the use of his good transcribing hand.
In these massive tourist mythologies, which seemed to suggest that basically everywhere that wasn’t Alberta or Saskatchewan was a lush paradise (which might, in some sense, be true), one name was always an anchor, repeated with the frequency of an incantation or prayer: Hawai’i.
Without fail, the Hawaiian Islands were the Holy Grail of the catalogues. There they were, a shining gem dropped as if by accident in the middle of a vast, unforgiving ocean. No shallow lagoons to speak of, no chalky reefs to protect the beaches from the punishing Pacific surf, no geographic neighbours whatsoever. But they were there, somehow: heavy with luscious tree fruits, populated by an apparently forever-smiling-and-dancing people well-versed in the art of threading of flowers into necklaces to be given away for free at the airport. If the book was to be believed, there was something impossible about these islands. They were mystical and untouched, swaddled in a rich mythology that us white people, with our one grumpy cloud-sitting God who seems to prefer chores and guilt above all else, could only dream of.
No one, of course, ever bothered to explain how a place could be both untouched and accessible via twice-daily direct flights from Vancouver. But, as they say, bibles aren’t to be taken too literally.
By the time I was in high school, I’d made the trip to the archipelago six times, partly as a function of my mother’s industry perks, partly as a function of my father’s truly pathological hatred of Canadian winters. I have had the good fortune to visit Kauai (better known to most white people as Jurassic Park), Oahu (origin of pretty much every piece of tropical b-roll in American cinema), Maui on two occasions (origin of pretty much every non-Arizona related golf tan in both the contiguous and non-contiguous United States), and what’s known as the Big Island, or more simply, Hawai’i.
Situated at the southwestern tip of the chain, Hawai’i is the largest and youngest of the islands. As the teenager of the bunch, it is perhaps predictably a bit of an outlier and moodier than the rest. With more active volcanoes than any other island, and a surface pockmarked by enormous lava fields, it lacks some of the touristic curb appeal of its siblings. Maui, after all, is relentlessly groomed for the benefit of golfers who think they are better than they are. Oahu has historically been and remains the centre of Hawaiian commerce, and in more recent decades has cornered the market on overwrought rum cocktails. Kauai, for its part, really is an absurdly beautiful tangle of vines and flowers that overbrim every attempt to contain them.
But Hawai’i is different. Where the other islands approximate the lush promises made by my mother’s travel bibles, its unique geography insists on splitting the fantasy.
When you touch down at Kona International Airport–about halfway down the island’s western coast–much of the experience is predictable. It takes little more than a passing glance to locate at least one of those smiling, dancing souls, and before you can even sheepishly try out your best “Aloha,” you’ve been christened with a gorgeous wreath of plumeria. If you’re really in on the joke, you can even dart to the gift shop and grab one of those t-shirts or mugs that says “I got lei’d in Hawaii.”
But shortly, the picture changes. Much of the western coast is a moonscape, buried under vast, hardened lava flows that tumble toward the ocean from the island’s two highest peaks, Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea. Only weird, twisted mesquite trees, which look nearly dead even at their most verdant, manage to penetrate the unforgiving ground cover. Jagged, brittle volcanic basalt, piled high on either side of a narrow freeway, stretches outward in every direction. Even the sky, which the brochures had always promised would be an impossible shade of blue, is different; frequently made dim and flat by a mixture of volcanic steam, suspended dust, and sulfur dioxide released by the craters sunk into the island’s bedrock. It is beautiful, but in the sublime sense: a terse reminder of the tremendous subterranean forces that come to bear on this place; forces that pay no mind to where a highway might conveniently be located. Beautiful, but a travel advertiser’s worst nightmare. This is a landscape continents away from the Promised Land sketched out in the bible stories I had memorized in my mother’s office.
The whole island it not like this, but the Kona lava field leaves a staggering, and for the would-be Eden revivalist, sorely disappointing first impression.
As one heads north, though, towards the district of Kohala, there are signs of change. At seemingly sporadic intervals along the freeway, boulevards lined with palm trees, cushioned at their edges with perfectly green turf, appear from nowhere. They point seaward, towards enormous tracts of land carved out of the stubborn volcanic stone. The clearings are populated with perfectly groomed palm trees, rolling, spongy lawns, overfull gardens that droop heavily with the weight and perfume of a thousand blossoms, sprawling homes with walls that open themselves to the gentle ocean breezes, gleaming hotels whose wings are organized around multi-tiered pavilions and swimming pools.
It is almost as if someone has cut enormous canals from the East coast of the island–much wetter and greener–to the West, draining its rich foliage into these strange little pools by the sea.
These little pools are what tourists and those who shepherd them rather daintily refer to as “resorts.” The entire western coastline is peppered with them: Waikoloa (which is apparently Hawaiian for Hilton), Mauna Lani, Hualalai, Kona Village, Mauna Kea, Hapuna. I say daintily because, even to my travel-jargon addled brain, the term ‘resort’ calls up something decidedly less elaborate than these lush outcroppings. Perhaps a hotel with a swim-up bar and a buffet breakfast that is always disappointing but makes up for its general lousiness by being gloriously included in the price of the trip.
These are sprawling complexes, in every sense of the word. Tirelessly manicured and staffed by a medium-sized army of groundskeepers, receptionists, servers, bartenders, kayak rentalists, experience coordinators, valets, bellhops, housekeepers, and palm frond threshers of various sorts. Typically, they touch the ocean with a powdered sugar beach, dotted with umbrellas of electric white or navy blue. Towels, handed out by one of many recreation experts, are colour-coordinated to match the area’s branding scheme. Perched behind is usually an enormous hotel offering ludicrous views: of the beach, of blackened-steel torches flickering against the breeze, of overfed gardens spilling onto pathways of crushed volcanic rock, of waves shattering against dramatic promontories.
It’s in the resorts where my mother’s bible stories begin to hold water.
Beyond the central hotel, you will typically find two or three overlapping golf courses that, for reasons that are unknown to me, are distinguished as separate entities and given their own names. I suspect this is mainly because it gives white branding experts from the Continent an excuse to “dive into the culture” (read: Wikipedia search Hawaiian History) and dredge up arbitrary, exotic-sounding nouns.
I wonder how many golf courses might actually have names that translate to something like “deadbolt,” “carafe,” or “paving stone.”
Such potential inconveniences, however, are easily explained away by the elaborate mythologies and creation stories that the resorts construct for themselves. “Our cocktail lounge is built on the site where Ancient Hawaiians once tied their sandals before going elsewhere to do more interesting things. We honour this mystical heritage by offering 2-for-1 mai tais between five and seven, long referred to by ancient Hawaiians as The Hour of our Happiness.”
To deny the beauty of these places would be a losing game. You could rightly, easily argue that they are wasteful, decadent, exclusionary, and exploitative, but one would be hard pressed to reasonably claim that they are truly ugly, at least to look at.
In fact, as I write this, I find myself in Hawai’i for the second time. I am sat on the back patio of a condominium in an area known as Wai ‘Ula ‘Ula, a small cluster of time-share and rental properties belonging to the Mauna Kea-Hapuna Beach resort complex. From my seat, I can see the serrated coastline that envelops Mauna Lani, Waikoloa, Hualalai, and the other mega resorts that mark the distance between here and Kona. The empty dark of the lava field presses against and all at once disappears into an ocean performing a shade of blue that has no business existing in nature. There is a gentle breeze and songs from mourning doves.
But just as there is no denying the beauty of this scene, there is no denying the uncomfortable nuts and bolts that make it possible. On the roads that twist through the resort, there is the constant, faint din of landscaping equipment. Small tractors and hedge trimmers, operated by either native Hawaiian or immigrant labourers, thresh at the pathways to keep them immaculate for the walks I might take. Utility vehicles and mowers of all sorts keep trails to and from the beach appropriately broken.
I recall some of the more common words from my mother’s resort catalogues, words like “untouched” and “pristine.” Set to the droning tune of maintenance equipment, they take on a more ambiguous, more uncertain timbre than they once had. Rather than naming an absolute, they suddenly beg all kinds of questions: is this place really untouched, or are we simply unable to see (perhaps even prohibited from seeing) the people who do the touching? To what ends are those touches put? In whose interests do they operate? By what force are they legislated?
They start to signify in unexpected, disobedient ways, pointing toward stories they aren’t meant to tell. They start to give dimension, unintentionally, to a perverse sort of labour politics wherein those displaced by my presence are tasked with the duty of maintaining and reproducing that displacement. It is, after all, resident and native Hawaiians who have hacked and ground through the volcanic stone not to make way not for their own homes, but for my temporary residency, for the enjoyment of me and my tourist ilk. The resorts and the Hawaiian tourist industry writ large are balanced on this primary displacement. And despite the best efforts of a coordinated infantry of experience architects, it is a displacement that (re)appears as a kind of surface in the moments when my leisure overlaps with another’s labour.
Inside the hotels, this physical displacement is duplicated in the cultural register. On every beach, in every restaurant, we find an excess of luaus, hula shows, musical performances, and art displays crudely stitched together, as Cultural Survival blogger TraskHaunani-Kay has forcefully written, out of an incoherent mishmash of vaguely Polynesian-looking icons. Twice-nightly drumming and dance performances at the shopping pavilion. Just as the landscape is remade in the image of touristic desire, so are Hawaiian lives, practices, and ways of being pulled taut across that regimented terrain, held up to fun-house mirrors.
This torsional rearrangement of landscapes and lives around the boundaries of white, continental fantasies, stands as an (ins)urgent testament of a Hawaiian history that has been willfully forgotten in official record and persecuted as revisionist in the universities: the ongoing history of the American colonization, annexation, and occupation these lands. A history of exploitation, consolidation, and expropriation that stubbornly refuses the politics of forgetting wrapped up in the image of Hawai’i as a comfortably united state, a living fiction in the centre of the ocean.
Against the broader backdrop of Pacific colonization–which by and large rehearsed the same miserable story of infection, extermination, and racialized violence written by imperial projects in Africa, Asia, the Americas, and the Middle East–the taking of Hawai’i stands as something of an anomaly.
Though the specifics of how the archipelago was initially “peopled” remain a point of contention among archaeologists and historians, it’s generally accepted that the first Hawaiians were Polynesian settlers from the Marquesas, who probably arrived in the third century. Over the next six hundred years, more-or-less unaffiliated and self-governing settlements were established on all the major islands, through this trajectory was interrupted in about 1200 AD with the forcible taking of the chain by a second wave of settlers from Tahiti.
Governance and administration in these early centuries was, in turn, decentralized and highly contested. Inter-island warfare was commonplace as chiefs, warriors, and heirs jockeyed for power and privilege within overlapping chains of succession. In the absence of a shared political apparatus, violent efforts to consolidate power, redistribute lands, and establish resilient chains of command became the norm.
But as these factional skirmishes escalated and intensified over the centuries, so too did the colonial ambitions of the Western powers. Russia, Spain, Portugal, England, The Netherlands and France, in this period, were making quick, brutal work of transforming indigenous cultures and territories in all corners of the world into resource colonies, marrying the demands of a nascent market capitalism to violent new experiments in the administration of “modern” government.
Yet despite the swarm of European ships crossing and recrossing the world’s oceans in the early 19th Century, Hawai’i remained independent and indeed, unknown. Though there is some evidence that Spanish sailors had at least located and mapped the islands by the mid-1500s, it wasn’t until 1778, when British captain James Cook arrived off the coast of Kauai  that documented contact with the West was made.
Rather than triggering a quick and brutal colonial appropriation however, such as had been foisted upon Tahiti twenty years earlier, Cook’s arrival in Hawai’i initiated a curious historical trajectory. He and his British crew quickly recognized the chain as an important waypoint in the development of trans-Pacific trade routes, a rare and valuable provisioning station in the middle of the world’s largest ocean. In turn, Hawai’i became both a strategic boon and a precious secret–a secret to which other nations quickly caught wise.
As a result, the decades following first contact saw a steady parade of international ships arrive in and pass through Hawaiian waters. Regional chiefs and administrators quickly established trading relationships with white sailors, swapping imported Polynesian and indigenous Hawaiian crops for steel, weapons, and other European implements. This incipient trade economy had a direct impact on the wars of succession that continued to rage across the archipelago. Western weapons, ships, and military strategy were grafted onto long-standing power struggles, allowing prominent chiefs to consolidate their authority, organize larger armies, and wage more protracted and ambitious wars of conquest.
The influence was so profound and immediate that according to most sources, the last pre-unification battle to be fought with all traditional weapons took place in 1790–a mere twelve years after Cook’s arrival, and only ten years after he was killed in a violent confrontation with native Hawaiians, ignited when, in retaliation for the theft of a landing vessel, his ships blockaded Kealakekua Bay and attacked several natives attempting to pass by canoe.
Indeed, it was through the astute leveraging of this technological integration that Kamehameha I, an ambitious warrior chief from the Kohala region of the Big Island, managed to shore up his designs on conquest and in 1810, unify the archipelago. Thus, where in much of the world, the arrival of Western weapons had meant the swift extermination of indigenous populations by whites, in Hawaii, almost the exact opposite occurred: an independent nation, grounded in a powerful native sovereignty, had emerged.
Following Kamehameha’s seizure of power, sweeping changes came to Hawai’i. As the nation’s first monarch, Kamehameha implemented a number of land use, resource distribution, and administrative systems that, while making room for a number of Western practices, political figures  and technologies, firmly entrenched his own authority and that of the Hawaiian people. Though, to be certain, early monarchial Hawai’i was not without a strict and deeply gendered caste system that put most native islanders on the margins of political power.
Perhaps the most important of these instruments was the kapu, which translates into English variably as forbidden and/or sacred. The kapu was a politico-religious instrument deployed in order to place certain resources, cultural structures, social norms, and ways of being firmly in the realm of the sacral, deliberately beyond the reach of those in the lower castes. For instance, as the sandalwood trade became more lucrative throughout the 1800s with the expansion of trading ports in colonized Asia, Kamehameha, anticipating an eventual shortage in the stock, placed young sandalwood trees under a kapu, restricting the right of access to his descendants.
Importantly, the kapu system also prohibited white settlers (haole) from owning certain lands and taking profit from certain crops. As such, it served as a powerful bulwark against any attempt to reduce native authority and sovereignty. Generally speaking, the haole had been well received by the Hawaiian establishment. Kamehameha was even known to proudly fly a Union Jack, given to him as a gift by Cook, at his various residences throughout the islands. But at the level of policy and legislation, the kapu ensured that the balance of political power was clearly and deliberately raked.
Following Kamehameha’s death in 1819, however, this balance began to shift in ways that would prove to be corrosive. Upon assuming the throne, Kamehameha’s son Liholiho took the major step of abolishing the kapu system, throwing the legislation of daily life and political authority into a period of rapid transition. With whites suddenly authorized to own and develop land once reserved for the king and his kin, American missionaries, primarily from New England, flocked to the islands.
On top of their religious and moral proselytizing, many of the settlers quickly established themselves as sugar cane farmers, keen to profit from the increasingly lucrative global sugar trade. As a result, island economies and social structures became increasingly complex. Sugar cane, after all, is difficult and exhausting to maintain, demanding about five times the labour power required to cultivate other available Hawaiian crops. To backfill the labour deficit, haole farmers began importing indentured labour from Asia, inadvertently creating coercive diasporas of stateless and rightless subjects.
What emerges in the wake of Kamehameha’s death, then, as Benton has written, is a Hawai’i governed by native islanders but, thanks to haole influence, increasingly organized around a number of ostensibly colonial structures: export capitalism, elected legislative and judicial bodies yoked to a constitutional monarchial system, profit-driven land use and labour politics, and owing to the missionaries, the policing of Hawaiian bodies–particularly women’s bodies–along the lines of New England Protestant moral code .
Curious though it may seem, as Benton, Merry, Kamakawiwo’ole Osorio, and others point out, this incipient, anticipatory, almost-spectral form colonization was in fact an intentional and highly calculated attempt to resist outright colonization by whites. Hawaiian politicians and monarchs were well aware of the brutal theft of the Pacific by the colonial powers, and so resolved to take what measures they could to avoid the same fate. The development of an extensive legal and legislative infrastructure was an attempt by native Hawaiians (kanaka maoli) to be known as a ‘modern’ nation, to be seen as stable, self-governing, and firmly under the rule of law. To be known, in short, as more than a resource colony.
Clearly, the subtle threat performed by the constant parade of colonial ships marshalled by Cook’s arrival had not been lost on the kanka. By this time, the colonial guns had been drifting offshore for decades. And that’s where Hawaiian politicians intended to keep them.
And for many years, it worked. Even as other island nations became little more than pools of resources to be violently expropriated and consumed as luxury items in the West, Hawaii remained an independent kingdom. Now this is not, of course, to erase or forgive the subjugations often performed against the other minoritarian subjects who were present on the islands at this time. For example, where many haole had entered positions of authority in law and politics upon arrival, indentured workers from Asia were treated as non-subjects, invisible both to and in law. They gained legal recognition only once the term of their indenture had lapsed, but as they had no standing before the Hawaiian courts during indenture itself, those terms could be and often were arbitrarily extended by haole landowners. No recourse, no accountability, no judicial response. In turn, the promise of legal subjecthood, for many migrant labourers, turned out to be illusory.
Similarly, the traditional Hawaiian caste system and the social division of labour it underpinned were deeply and strictly gendered, and often served to keep women to the margins of public life. In this sense, monarchial Hawai’i was a complex terrain where privilege, power, gender, and race overlapped in messy circuits that demand nuanced consideration. Unfortunately, I do not have the space here to take up that project.
Artificially suspending those important caveats, though: the development of this majority-native Hawaiian government, more or less balanced on the accommodation and non-assimilationist integration of foreign subjects, speaks volumes against the racist civilizing missions that, along with the greedy demands of commodity capitalism, anchored the colonial project in the broadest sense.
But as the 1800s drew to a close, this anomalous case took a perverse turn. As haole landowners solidified their influence both by winning the favor of continental capitalists and consolidating their legislative pull, the kanaka began to see them as a threat to Hawaiian sovereignty. By 1887, as Kamakawiwo’ole Osorio writes, “kanaka faced the very certain possibility of having the Legislative Assembly dominated by haole nobles and representatives who were hostile to their king, and, they believed, hostile to the kingdom’s independence.” These fears would turn out to be well placed.
The path to this crucial tipping point had been broken the year before, when King Kalakaua (who belonged to Hawai’i’s fourth and last monarchial dynasty) had dismissed both his Prime Minister and his cabinet in response to “months of heated criticism by a small group of haole who had formed themselves into the secret organization that called itself the Hawaiian League. Unhappy with the king’s administration and its policies, unhappy with monarchy, and unhappy even that Hawaiians simply showed no desire to become Americans, the league was determined minimally to replace Kalakaua’s ministry and ultimately to secure annexation by the United States” (Kamakawiwo’ole Osorio, my emphasis).
Influential haole seized on this moment of uncertainty. Using the parliamentary dismissals as a strategic pressure point, coalitions like the Hawaiian League deliberately inflamed divisions within the kanaka vote , yoking grievances specific to Kalakaua’s rule to a much broader and decidedly American “contempt for monarchs in general,” which itself was stitched to a racialized distain for “Native monarchs in particular and Native voters altogether.”
With the king isolated from both his parliament and the electorate, in 1886 the Honolulu Rifles–a haole-backed paramilitary force of about 400–threatened and humiliated Kalakaua into signing what became known as the Bayonet Constitution, a document that reduced him and the Hawaiian monarchy in general to little more than a formality.
After Kalakaua’s death in 1892, he was succeeded by his sister, Queen Lili’ukolani. Thanks to Bayonet, Lili’ukolani inherited a nation squarely in the sights of American imperialists. The sugar trade had grown more lucrative, and continental politicians and capitalists (often the same people) were salivating. Sensing the acute threat of annexation, the Queen worked quickly to develop and install a new constitution that would undo many of Bayonet’s humiliations and block the road to colonization. She never had the chance.
I leave it to American journalist Teri Sforza to tell the rest: “On Jan. 16, 1893, U.S. Marines landed in Honolulu armed with Howitzer cannons and carbines. A group of 18 men–mostly American sugar farmers–staged a coup, proclaiming themselves the ‘provisional government’ of Hawaii…Imprisoned in Iolani Palace, Queen Lili’uokalani issued a statement: ‘I yield to the superior force of the United States of America, whose minister, his excellency John L. Stevens, has caused United States troops to be landed at Honolulu…Now, to avoid any collision of armed forces and perhaps the loss of life, I do, under this protest, and impelled by said force, yield my authority until such time as the government of the United States shall undo the action of its representative and reinstate me.’”
Then-President Grover Cleveland, for his part, harshly condemned the coup. He immediately fired Stevens and refused to approve the annexation. But shortly thereafter, Cleveland was succeeded William McKinley, who upheld Lili’Ukolani’s displacement and gave assent to the theft of the islands.
With annexation thus sealed, 120 years of American occupation began.
This history is devastating for countless reasons, but maybe chief among them is the sheer scale of the betrayal committed against native Hawaiians. The crude abandon with which the haole landowners and their continental allies had orchestrated the annexation was immense; a cynical negation of the relative kindness they had been shown by Hawaiian nobles and legislators. As Lauren Benton puts it, “for Hawaiians, alternatives to annexation were both desirable and possible, and Westernizing legal changes were alternately tolerated and encouraged in an effort to prolong autonomy.” In this sense, the accommodation of Others was not, as it remains in the Western nationalistic tradition, regarded as opposed to autonomy and self-determination. Rather, in monarchial Hawai’i, it seems that identity and otherness required one another, helped one another flourish.
This betrayal is matched in scope only by the silence with which history has treated it. The extension of American nomenclature, symbols, and utopian fantasies in the wake of annexation has done much to organize a national practice of forgetting when it comes to Hawai’i. In most accounts of European colonialism, the Pacific is merely a footnote, and most accounts of American imperialism in the Pacific tend to emphasize 20th century interventions in Asia. This temporal and geographic frame shifting tends suggest that Hawai’i simply is, and always has been, American. It is implicated in the history of Pacific imperialism not by virtue of its own status as an occupied territory, but rather by its role as a staging ground for other American colonial projects.
This silence mimics the unique and distressing ways in which the annexation was orchestrated. In her important book Colonizing Hawai’i, Sally Merry writes that Hawai’i, unlike most colonies, was taken not with the barrel of a gun but with the tip of a pen. The annexation of Hawai’i, in Merry’s view, was ultimately an exercise in discipline and Foucauldian governmentality. It was not so much about punishment and slaughter as it was about calculation, strategy, and management. It was about that constant, lingering threat of forced annexation and the anticipatory implementation of colonial structures that the threat compelled. It was about the subtle and not-so-subtle cynicism with which the haole manipulated the Hawaiian legal apparatus; the gradual re-organization of native voters into sectarian camps through a series of rhetorical displacements; the selective regimentation of Hawaiian and Asian bodies such that those bodies could be used shore up the resources of haole privilege. It was about the suspension of sovereignty from within the limits of sovereignty itself.
Kamakawiwo’ole Osorio, melancholically, puts it this way: “What does it mean that Native voters refused to use their legal advantage to limit haole influence and that haole were willing to use force to change the law to enhance theirs? I think it means that Hawaiians believed that law meant more than mere political opportunism. I think that in the short time that Hawaiians had lived in a nation governed by laws, they had come to appreciate their authority and significance. Their laws had allowed kanaka, Chinese and haole subjects to live together despite considerable differences and suspicions, and that was a powerful and vulnerable authority indeed.”
And so while the coup against Lili’Ukolani was certainly an exercise of force, it is chilling to recall that what finally closed the deal on annexation was not the Howitzers, but a regularly scheduled change in continental political office. Cleveland condemned and rejected the annexation. But as the due course of institutional American politics would have it, an election occurred. McKinley took office, and with the stroke of a pen, gave assent. It was no more and no less pressing an issue than any other that simply had to be “dealt with,” administrated out of existence.
Now, looking upon this landscape–this carefully stitched together, oddly populated, and meticulously maintained landscape–it is this cold, managerial violence that seems to persist. The mega resorts carved into Hawai’i’s western lava field suddenly appear to me, even moreso than before, as bewildering exercises in control. The trees and the vines are imported from the northeastern side of the island, matched up with the clearer skies and more intense sun of the west, paired with delicate beaches combed and cleared of detritus, quietly but constantly pruned back, watered, fertilized, restocked.
But the control, of course, starts well before that. It starts with my mother’s travel bibles, with the careful and strategic organization of my fantasies, with the subtle redirection of those fantasies toward a particular set of coordinates somewhere in the middle of a punishing ocean. The resort, and the desiring industries that sustain it, rehearse the theft of Hawai’i daily: managing, organizing, redistributing, redirecting, shoring up, consolidating, deflecting.
We should not, however, think that the exercise of colonial power over Hawai’i is purely legal and legislative. Rather, the bodily and social costs of this managerial regime are immediate and acute. With the explosion of the tourism industry since the 1970s, for example, property values and the cost of living have skyrocketed across the archipelago. To meet the demands of haole tourists, shops and even whole towns have been expanded and “upscaled,” putting a tremendous strain on food production and basic infrastructural necessities like access to water and electricity. Yet as the costs rise, opportunities shrink in equal measure.
To again quote Hawaiian blogger TraskHaunani-Kay, young Hawaiians are increasingly told that tourism is now “the only game in town,” the only way to make a living. But in this game, the deck is stacked firmly in favor of the (primarily foreign) resort owners. Tourism and service work simply doesn’t pay enough to keep up with the inflation that the industry catalyzes, trapping native Hawaiians in a double, maybe triple bind that is perverse in its overlapping tautologies: tourism becomes the dominant industry, concentrating employment in one sector and driving costs up elsewhere, yet in being explicitly organized around an ethos of expropriation that sends wealth back to the continent and to Asia, cannot and will not provide the wages necessary to sustain those who sustain it.
And so it is that 15% of all native Hawaiians now live in poverty (x) and nearly half of native households “experience a problem of affordability, overcrowding, and structural inadequacy” (x). We find young Hawaiians, either unable or righteously unwilling to work in the tourism industry, leaving their lands in search of suitable employment elsewhere. Families and lineages are broken apart and what modes of specifically Hawaiian sociality remain are painfully remade in the interest of satisfying my touristic desires. We find native Hawaiians clustered into the poorest corners of the state (x), earning a median household income of $49,214 (according to 1999 data), the lowest of all major ethnic groups on the islands, with 16% of native households below the poverty line and Hawaiian children in single-parent homes almost four times more likely than their Japanese and white counterparts to be living in poverty (x). Native per capita income slumps to just $14,199, less than half of what whites earn on an annual basis (ibid).
This is colonial disciplinary management exercised at its most macro and micro of levels; simultaneously at its most systemic and abstract, and its most incisive and acute. It is a practice, that like the act of annexation itself, is sweeping in its effect(s) but mostly cold and dispassionate–legal–in its execution. It is the manicuring of horizons, the redistribution of populations along the contours of prevailing power structures, the strategic arrangement of what is (un)thinkable, and the careful opening up and shutting down of opportunity, of choice, of possibility.
It undulates like waves, lapping at the beaches over and over and over again. Quietly, but with the force of a whole ocean.
The disciplinary valence of this landscape appears to me now largely thanks to Idle No More, a decentralized international movement of indigenous and first nations peoples, begun in Canada in late 2012, working in solidarity against the persistence of colonial structures in all corners of the globe. By January 2013, Idle No More had reached Hawaii, with hundreds taking part in a solidarity rally and march in downtown Honolulu. The Hawaiian adoption of Idle No More’s central challenges builds on a history of sovereigntist and anti-colonial organizing that has been alive and well on the islands since, and even before, annexation. That history of struggle is preserved and articulated most clearly today by Ka Lahui Hawai’i, likely the largest and most active organization in the islands advocating for native sovereignty.
Recently, amid this exhilarating global resurgence of indigenous resistance, celebrated Canadian first nations author Thomas King has released newest novel, The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America. I have yet to read King’s book, though there is in that title something that seems salient and uniquely urgent. There is some hard, small kernel in that phrase, “the inconvenient indian,” that lodges itself as much in the circular reiteration of Hawaiian dispossession as it does in Canada’s brutal reservation system, in its miles of broken treaties, and in the draconian legal instrument that underpins them all: the Indian Act.
After all, in managerial liberal democracies, like those ostensibly at work in Canada and the United States, convenience is king. The easy sliding from campaign donation to policy reform to social infrastructure is celebrated as an achievement of effective governance. That same ethos penetrates the policies that both nations deploy to “deal with” indigenous and first nations communities. Take, for example, the Harper Government’s nauseating response to the stunning poverty that ravages first nations communities like Attawapiskat–home to Chief Theresa Spence, whose recently concluded hunger strike was the match that lit the Idle No More powder keg. Rather than making any kind of moral, ethical, or judicial injunction into the situation, Harper simply assigned to Attawapiskat a third party financial manager, charged with the task of evaluating efficiencies in reservation spending. As if the problem was somehow restricted to a neutral question of bookkeeping.
Efficiency and convenience, in this sense, are deeply implicated in colonial practices, insofar as they function as critical instruments of elision and forgetting, a smoke and mirrors game in which injustice disappears beneath the false equivalences imposed by the force of capital. In the Canadian context, The Media Co-Op puts it this way:
“The problem seems to stem at least partially from differences in how treaties are understood. For government officials, treaties seem to be largely a matter of creating the appearance of consistency for legal purposes, after which colonial policies can continue apace.
For Indigenous nations, treaties are a ceremonial commitment to mutual understanding and co-existence. Their spokespeople may sign the treaty and participate in the ceremony, but the commitment and the relationship lives among the people. For Canadians, the opposite is the case. The ceremonial relationship and the commitment begins and ends with the treaty negotiator, and ignorance reigns among the beneficiaries. The courts handle the details, but knowledge stops with the lawyers immediately concerned, for the most part (my emphasis).”
Note here the parallel to Osorio’s account of how haole landowners manipulated Hawaiian legal structures to consolidate their authority and pave the road to annexation. For Hawaiians, the rule of law, as that which meaningfully legislated a social life marked by settlement and cultural intersection, was to be taken seriously. But for the haole, it was simply one more thing to be callously appropriated as instrument of outright domination, a way to grease the wheels of commodity expropriation, a tool in the meticulous construction of elegant tourist fantasylands.
And so it seems to me (at the risk of being incorrectly prescriptive) that on all occupied lands–in Canada, in Hawai’i, and beyond–there is both for indigenous communities and their allies an insurgent potential in being, becoming, and insisting upon being inconvenient. Given that calls for efficiency, consistency, and convenience operate as instruments of colonial subordination, interruption and insurgence stand as blockades against the violences that those calls perform. The conveniences that colonialism affords occupying powers–easy access to first nations and indigenous resources, revisionist histories that write extermination out of existence, the organization of landscapes and territories such that they are relocated to the intersection of white fantasy and market capitalism–can and must be disrupted by the “inconvenient” entry of calls for native self-determination into political life.
Because in the end, to see Hawai’i and to see Canada, as a white beneficiary of colonialism, is to see those lands remade for the purpose of my colonial seeing. It’s to see them structured around my ways of knowing, my ease of movement, my desires for legibility and apprehension. It is to see a particular version of them, designed to be conveniently assimilable as my own.
Perhaps it’s more fitting than I once realized, then, for my contact with occupied Hawai’i to have begun with my mother’s images of Eden. In what other story are paradise and dispossession so closely tied? What other symbol so deeply entangles fantasy with struggle, with displacement, and with the painful exercise of “law?” The ideological work of colonial seeing, however, is the asymmetrical and selective suppression of these entanglements; of isolating the terms of the equations that link the violent and unjust exercise of colonial force directly to the privilege of its beneficiaries.
It is the making of an Eden precariously balanced on a deliberate politics of forgetting; the compression of history onto a single plane, no thicker and no more substantial than a piece of cardboard hung in a shop window.
 Quite by accident, by the way. But colonial histories rarely acknowledge the accidents of powerful white men.
 Two of the most important figures in post-unification Hawaiian governance were white. Isaac Davis and John Young served as governors in Kamehameha’s government after playing instrumental roles in his pivotal 1790 invasion of Maui.
 And, hypocritically, the pushing of those newly-colonized bodies into sex work and prostitution in the brothels that began to thrive along the waterfront, serving white sailors on leave.
 Many native Hawaiians resented Kalakaua’s lenient rule and identified instead as supporters of Queen Emma, a descendent of the Kamehameha line.
Note: I recognize that, in writing this in the first person and by recounting my own learning, I have reinstalled the colonial voice at the centre of an essay meant to disrupt and challenge it. I cannot escape my subjectivity and in acting as an author, cannot decenter it. To claim that I am able to do so would be, I think, disingenuous and, in its own way, closely aligned with the vectors of colonial power (by incorrectly presuming that the beneficiary can somehow step outside of or suspend their status as beneficiary). As such, corrections, challenges, and amendments to what I’ve written here are absolutely welcome.