Native Hawaiians Don't Want Your Tourism, or, Peoplehood Resists Cultural Commodification

Updated on March 28, 2018
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Lili is a Ph.D. student in ecology at the University of Michigan. She spent her undergraduate years studying sociology and literature.

The History and Peoplehood of Native Hawaiians

Between 300-600 AD, Polynesians voyaged in long canoes across the Pacific Ocean, settling in Hawaii (Hawaii History). Isolated from other Polynesians, these settlers developed a distinctive Native Hawaiian Peoplehood, composed of four equally important factors—language, ceremonial cycle, place/territory, and sacred history—"interwoven and dependent on one another" (Hawaii History, Holm et al. 12). Through Western intervention, traditional communal land use was disrupted in the 19th century allowing foreigners to own land and accomplishing Western imperialism through capitalism (Trask 24). Dispossession of Native lands culminated in the American military overthrow of the constitutional Hawaiian government in 1893, statehood despite Native protest in 1959, and millions of tourists swarming the Hawaiian Islands yearly (Trask 23). This has led to "a grotesque commercialization of everything Hawaiian" damaging "the expression and integrity of [Hawaiian] culture." Though colonization and tourism have attempted to undermine them, language, sacred history, and place/territory are tightly interwoven factors of Native Hawaiian Peoplehood.

American military overthrow of the constitutional Hawaiian government in 1893, statehood despite Native protest in 1959, and millions of tourists swarming the Hawaiian Islands yearly have led to "a grotesque commercialization of everything Hawaiian."

The Conquering of Hawaii


The Importance of Language

Language, or olelo, is a critical factor of Peoplehood, and the medium through which place and history are communicated. Language inherently has "tremendous power" for Native Hawaiians, with power added through the "seriousness and preciousness of the form in which it is offered" (Trask 26). Language is tied closely to Native Hawaiian's sacred history and its delivery: "olelo means both language and tongue; mo'olelo, or history, is that which comes from the tongue, i.e. a story." Rather than an "oral history" as haole (white people) might oversimplify it, Native Hawaiians have "stories passed on through the generations" with the language's "nuances, references, and grammar" supplying "a meaning of its own" (Trask 26, Holm et al. 13). Similarly, language is intertwined with Native Hawaiians' place/territory. Words in the Hawaiian language with no English equivalent, such as 'malama'aina' and 'kama'aina,' represent the familial relationship of the Hawaiian people and their land, and 'pono' is "the balance that results when people and land work together harmoniously" (Trask 26). "Through its banning by the American-imposed government in 1900," the Hawaiian people "suffered the near extinction" of their 2,000-year-old language. The magnitude of this loss can be understood through the traditional Hawaiian phrase translated as "in language is life, in language is death." Wonderfully, the Hawaiian language "has undergone a tremendous revival" since 1970, and Hawaiian is now one of the two official languages of the State of Hawai'i. Trask calls the Hawaiian cultural revitalization (of language and hula) a "reclamation of our own past and our own ways of life" with the political effect of a "decolonization of the mind."

Hula as Cultural Reclamation

Hula remains sexually evocative in modern American culture, despite a deep cultural significance to Native Hawaiians.
Hula remains sexually evocative in modern American culture, despite a deep cultural significance to Native Hawaiians. | Source
The Hawaiian cultural revitalization (of language and hula) is a "decolonization of the mind." Yet, the State of Hawaii still presents it as an exotic tourist attraction.
The Hawaiian cultural revitalization (of language and hula) is a "decolonization of the mind." Yet, the State of Hawaii still presents it as an exotic tourist attraction. | Source

Malama'aina in Practice

An image from the "March to Evict Monsanto"
An image from the "March to Evict Monsanto" | Source

Colonization Denies the Peoplehood of Native Hawaiians

Place/Territory, another key component of Peoplehood, is embodied by Native Hawaiians' familial relationship to their land and the food that it bears. Native Hawaiians have a "living relationship" with their place/territory, in which they "use the land and consider it part of their heritage" (Holm et al. 14). A term for "native-born people", kama'aina, means "child of the land" (Trask 26). Malama'aina is the Hawaiian word for the relationship of people to land, wherein Hawaiians serve and honor the land as younger siblings do to older, and in turn, the land feeds and cares for the Hawaiian people as an elder sibling would. Malama'aina is an implicit lesson from Native Hawaiians' genealogies: taro, a versatile starchy staple crop, is literally the stillborn elder sibling, or kau'ana, of Haloa, a human from whom the Hawaiian people are descended (Trask 26, Hawaii History). Furthermore, the taro plant symbolizes the "Hawaiian family unit with its main root, or corm, surrounded by offspring shoots and topped by spreading green leaves" (Hawaii History). Ancient Hawaiians had a sophisticated agricultural system for taro, and "the bedrock of Hawaiian society was the traditions and work of farmers." Due to American colonization and massive amounts of tourism, Hawaiian lands "are not any longer the source of food and water, but the source of money. Land is now called real estate; rather than [their] mother, Papa" (Trask 27). Malama'aina is now "used by government officials to sell new projects and to convince locals that hotels can be built with a concern for 'ecology'." Colonization and tourism has disrupted the "familial and reciprocal" relationship of the Hawaiian people to their land and thus have failed to acknowledge Native Hawaiian's Peoplehood (Trask 26). Trask believes that, as evidenced by "the growing resistance to new hotels…and to increases in the sheer number of tourists," "decolonization has begun, but [Native Hawaiians] have many more stage to negotiate on [their] path to sovereignty" (Trask 27).

Track calls for tourists to reject the "cultural prostitution" of Hawaii by not visiting her homeland.

Sacred History of Native Hawaiians

An equally important aspect of Native Hawaiian Peoplehood is sacred history, especially as it relates to the understanding of the interconnectedness of everything in the universe. Hawaiian identity is derived from their history, or mo'olelo, found in the great cosmogenic genealogy, the Kumulipo (Trask 26). The Kumulipo creation chant describes "the sky father Wakea and earth mother Papa giving birth to the islands," the appearance and growth of plants and animals, the relationship of humanity to its elder brother taro and of Hawaiian chiefs to the stars (Hawaii History). The chant creates a "web of lineage" that "links Hawaiians of the present moment to Hawaiians of the past, to the plants and animals of their environment, to the land itself, and to planets and stars in the sky." Therefore, "the genealogy of the land, the gods, chief and people intertwine…with all aspects of the universe" (Trask 26). Additionally, Hawaiians worship 'aumakua, ancestral figures, "linking the current generation to generations past, continuing back to the very origins of the world…[weaving] their individual stories into the larger fabric of the culture" (Hawaii History). But tourism has appropriated and commercialized this sacred history (e.g. "the current use of replicas of Hawaiian artifacts…symbols of ancient power to decorate hotels;" "the trampling of our sacred heiau (temples) and burial grounds as tourist recreation sites") (Trask 23, 24). Trask notes that Native Hawaiians have little choice in all this ("refusing to contribute to the commercialization of one's culture becomes a peripheral concern when unemployment looms") and calls for tourists to reject the "cultural prostitution" of Hawaii by not visiting her homeland (Trask 28-29).

The Interrelation of Place, Language, and Sacred History

The place/territory and sacred history of the Native Hawaiian people are tightly interrelated, reinforcing and amplifying each other as aspects of Peoplehood. As described previously, the sacred history of Native Hawaiians describes the birth of their relatives, their lands and food. This connection between land, history, and family trickles down into a Native Hawaiian identity that defies colonialism: in Lovely Hula Lands, Trask introduces herself as a "genealogical descendant of the Hawaiian islands of Maui and Kaua'i" (Trask 23). Additionally, the deities of Native Hawaiians are "of the land: Pele is our volcano, Kane and Lono or fertile valleys and plains, Kanaloa our ocean and that lives within it, and so on with the 40,000 and 400,000 gods of Hawai'i. Our whole universe, physical and metaphysical is divine" (Trask 26). In their one hanau (literally "birthsands"), Native Hawaiians are surrounded by a landscape that embodies their ancestors, deities, and siblings, and thus deserves honor and cultivation (Trask 23). The close weave of sacred history and place/territory provides a resilient identity for Native Hawaiians that resists tourist-driven reductionism of Hawaiian culture.

In summary, Native Hawaiian identity and history are evident in their words—a Native Hawaiian is called "kama'aina" meaning "child of the land,” their landscape—geographical features are deities like Pele the goddess volcano, and their sacred history—an oral genealogy describes the familial relationship of the Hawaiians to their land and food. Native Hawaiian Peoplehood, specifically the language, sacred history, and place/territory factors, interweave to create a unique culture that resists the commodification and exploitation by corporate tourism.

After all this...

Would you still visit Hawaii?

See results


"Ancient Hawai'i." Hawaii History. Info Grafik, 2017. Web. 26 May 2017.

Holm, Tom, J. Diane Pearson, and Ben Chavis. "Peoplehood: A Model for the Extension of Sovereignty in American Indian Studies." Wicazo Sa Review 18.1 (2003): 7-24.

Trask, Haunani-Kay. "Lovey Hula Lands: Corporate Tourism and the Prostitution of Hawaiian Culture." Border/Lines 23. Winter 1991/1992 (1991): 22-29. Print.

Don't have access to a library from a research institute?

Leave a comment--and I'll send you the papers I've referenced and any supplemental reading material you are interested in!

© 2018 Lili Adams


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