Erstwhile: A History Blog

Paradise, with Problems: Academics on Vacation and the Struggle with Historical Guilt

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Erstwhile editor Sam Bock reflects on the burdens of knowledge and the academic’s obligations while on vacation.

I’m writing this piece while I recover from the jet lag of my return flight from Maui. I am lucky enough to have spent eight days relaxing there in the Hawaiian sun with my family who were there celebrating my parents’ 30th wedding anniversary and my father’s 70th birthday. And I have to say that I had a blast. I got to snorkel around some of the world’s most amazing corals, drink the best coffee I’ve tasted in my life, and relax on the sand in front of one of the island’s most impressive resorts. Sounds like I have a hard life, I know.

While I had a great time and was incredibly lucky to have gone to Maui, the question of whether it was OK for me to be there enjoying the sun and surf constantly loomed over my head, omnipresent like Haleakalā, East Maui’s massive shield volcano. With my historian’s training, the shiny beach resorts and intricately beautiful hula dances were reminders that I was there exercising my various privileges on stolen property. Of course, I wasn’t going to tell my parents that I wouldn’t celebrate their anniversary with them in the place of their choosing, but joining them on the vacation gave me the feeling that I have contributed to the problems of inequality, injustice, and appropriation that Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians) continue to experience in their day-to-day lives.

Perhaps more than any other place in the United States, the islands of Hawai’i represent blatant land theft. In January 1893, Queen Liliʻuokalani was overthrown by a group of sugar plantation owners and pineapple growers backed by a contingent of U.S. Marines. While this is a story similar in form to the way many American Indian peoples found themselves removed from their homelands or the way the southwestern states entered the Union, the U.S. annexation of Hawai’i was all the more egregious given America’s recognition of Hawai’i as a sovereign kingdom less than fifty years earlier in 1842. While the Tyler administration’s declaration of Hawaiian sovereignty had more to do with American anxiety about Hawai’i becoming a British protectorate, the designation should have shielded the island and its inhabitants from U.S. territorial aggression.

But the islands and their peoples weren’t shielded. The sugar cane and pineapple fields that lured American capitalists to the island are now beach resorts serving Mai Tais and Kona coffee to eager tourists. These resorts perpetuate the problems of inequality that have shaped the Hawaiian economic, cultural, and physical landscape for the last century. Homelessness is a real problem among Kanaka Maoli, one compounded by the fact that many homeless Hawaiians are faced daily with the choice of assimilating into mainstream American society or living a life on the margins that well-meaning state officials can only understand in terms of impoverishment. Living outside of capitalism in a manner resembling the way Kanaka Maoli lived before annexation is seen as an unacceptable departure from the norm, and with housing prices on the island rising to astronomical rates, the question of whether homeless Kanaka Maoli are choosing this life as an act of protest against capitalism or being forced into it is becoming increasingly immaterial. Furthermore, according to the Maui Food Bank, more than 4,000 children in Maui county don’t know where their next meal is coming from, while tourists (myself among them) flock to the Old Lahaina Lūau–an awesome and totally worthwhile performance of Hawaiian dances–to feast until bursting on pulled pork, ahi tuna, and poi.

Wai’ānapanapa State Park is home to sapphire waters, impressive lava rock formations, and a gorgeous black sand beach. It also contains several private cemeteries where the gravestones are reminders that this landscape has a deeper significance than its obvious beauty.

For the cynical academic visiting from the mainland, such negative side effects of capitalism are hidden behind a façade of service. Whatever feelings of hostility hotel workers or the Hula dancers might harbor for well-to-do tourists enjoying expensive vacations are masked by friendly “alohas,” “mahalos,” and practiced smiles. It almost feels like being in Disney’s Adventureland (a topic Erstwhile guest contributor Travis May took up in November 2014).

But do academics, some of whom conscientiously write about the problems of Kanaka Maoli homelessness and the still-smoldering movement for Hawaiian sovereignty, have to wallow inside cynicism or constantly remind themselves that they are in a place rife with internal contradictions and inequalities? Are we allowed to just take a week off and enjoy Maui’s spectacular waterfalls or the otherworldly beauty of the Haleakalā crater without constantly evaluating what participating in these activities means?

Disappointingly, I’m not prepared to answer this question. But I do have to say that dwelling on these issues while on vacation is a one-way ticket to misery. Moreover, I think that answering the question definitively would be to impose an outsider’s perspective onto a whole island full of people who might not necessarily agree. I didn’t get a chance to talk to any of the amazing and generous hula dancers or hotel staff I met (I guess I decided that I was going to take a vacation), so I can’t report on their thoughts. But what I can report is that the island’s many for-profit lūaus seem to be authentic expressions of joy and pride Kanaka Maoli performers feel for their culture. The lūau performances might be a Disney-fied version of hula dances that are put on every night for an audience that can’t fully appreciate them. But as the lūau organizers proudly proclaim in the middle of the show, tourist lūaus offer a chance for Kanaka Maoli to preserve essential stories and practice an art form that can take them to Polynesian dance competitions all around the Pacific. Knowing this makes it harder to charge the tourist lūaus with promoting the notion that Kanaka Maoli traditional culture is something that ended long ago or does not continue to evolve as a dynamic expression of cultural identity.

It was hard for me not to think of this place as paradise. But perhaps invoking the idea that Maui is a place without problems has made its problems that much harder to see.

In the end, I figured that seeing everything on Maui through the lens of academic criticism would ruin my family’s excellent vacation and would taint for me an important memory I will cherish forever. While I couldn’t in good conscience fully abandon my critical lens, I chose to keep criticisms of colonialism and capitalism to myself and pursue a path of curiosity, observation, and openness. Where I could do so politely, I asked questions about what life is like on the island, always remembering that I was an uninvited visitor whose dollars might be welcome but whose actual presence was probably only tolerated. I tried my best to patronize businesses and restaurants owned by Kanaka Maoli, and when that was too impractical, I at least tried to avoid giving my money to mainland-based chains in the perhaps-foolish hope those dollars would stay on Maui. I opened myself to new experiences, and enjoyed with relish everything from delicious Spam musubi to the unbelievably sweet, almost-coconutty, taste of locally grown Maui pineapple. I learned everything I could about Kanaka Maoli history and learned to respect the deep connection these people feel for the aina (land) that was taken from under their feet and the warm waters around the island that abound with sea turtles and other wildlife. And in a totally lame attempt to relieve myself of some of the guilt I had about my consumptive habits, I made a small donation to the much-in-need Maui Food Bank.

But none of this made it sting any less when the server at the Old Lahina Lūau remarked to the gathered crowd that resort hotels now stand on the site where his ancestors grew banana leaves they once used to make kalua pork. He got a big laugh from the audience when he quipped that they now have to use bed sheets from the Sheridan to wrap the pig before it gets buried for cooking. Meanwhile, all I could do was stir my tiki drink in uncomfortable silence.

I’m not sure he was kidding about the bed sheets!

 

Note: For an excellent resource on critical evaluations of contemporary Kanaka Maoli life and the politics of Hawaiian sovereignty, I would suggest looking for A Nation Rising: Hawaiian Movements for Life, Land, and Sovereignty edited by Noelani Goodyear-Kaopua, Ikaika Hussey, and Erin Kahunawaika’ala Wright.

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