Are kanaka maoli indigenous to Hawai'i?

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Would the status of being indigenous give them special rights?

(c) Copyright 2000 - 2003 Kenneth R. Conklin, Ph.D. All rights reserved

Are kanaka maoli indigenous to Hawai'i? Do they have a special relationship to the land of Hawai'i that is different from any actual or possible relationship which non-kanaka maoli might have with the land?

Anthropological research suggests that the Polynesian islands were settled by people originating from Asia, spreading through the south Pacific, and arriving in Hawai'i very late in the process. Clearly Marquesas and Tahiti were settled long before Hawai'i. But China, Africa, and even the Americas had indigenous peoples living in those places for many thousands of years before anyone ventured into any of the Polynesian islands. So, among the peoples of the world, Polynesians have one of the shortest tenures in their so-called indigenous area. And within the Polynesian triangle, Hawai'i is one of the most recently settled island groups.

It appears that the Hawaiian islands had no human population before the first Polynesian explorers arrived, probably from Marquesas, sometime around the year 400. Therefore, kanaka maoli did not come forth from the lands of these islands. Indeed, the evidence suggests that the final wave of Polynesian voyagers from Tahiti around 1300 conquered and largely destroyed the people from Marquesas who had been here before them (not to mention the Menehune). In that sense, modern kanaka maoli are local to these islands only from about 1300. The tenure of kanaka maoli in Hawai'i after the Tahitian invaders established their culture is shorter than the tenure of Englishmen in England after the Norman invaders defeated the Saxons. Some might say that the issue of Tahitians vs. Marquesans is irrelevant, because all were Polynesians. But kanaka maoli in Hawai'i today do not recognize ethnic Samoans or Tahitians or other Pacific islanders as having any rights to kanaka maoli sovereignty in Hawai'i. Even if kanaka maoli tenure in Hawai'i is considered to be the tenure of Polynesians as a whole, that would still be only since about 400, which is shorter than the tenure of the Anglo-Saxon race as a whole in England. Yet, most people recognized as indigenous would think it very odd if Englishmen showed up at indigenous people's conferences claiming to have indigenous rights. Some sovereignty activists like to say that kanaka maoli have been in Hawai'i since time immemorial. But that is clearly false, as the memories contained in their own geneologies tracing through Tahiti can testify.

One argument often heard is that indigenous people have a special relationship to the land which entitles them to special rights. For example, some indigenous tribes in Africa and Asia are very remote from modern civilization, and continue to live on the land in a subsistence mode as they have for thousands of years. Indigenous people who have continuously maintained their cultural traditions as their primary and regular way of life clearly deserve special protection so they may continue doing so. Some African tribes continue hunting with bow and arrow; fishing with spear, net, and individual hook; planting and harvesting by hand or animal-drawn plow; speaking their traditional language from childhood as their main (and often only) way of communicating. That is quite different from what well-assimilated African-Americans sometimes do as a hobby when they learn traditional skills, or study Swahili in their spare time. It is quite different from what Makah Indians do when they reassert an almost-forgotten custom of hunting a whale, not because they need the food to survive but because it helps them revive a dormant cultural practice. Very few kanaka maoli live a traditional subsistence lifestyle, or have any desire to do so. Nor should they be expected to do so as a prerequisite for sovereignty. But kanaka maoli cannot claim that they need land to grow taro as a matter of physical survival, since poi is not their primary food item as it was 200 years ago. Kanaka maoli might want land to grow taro because it makes them feel closer to the land, helps them relearn an almost-forgotten lifestyle, and gives them a source of food free from dependence on the supermarket; but those reasons are more akin to voluntarily choosing to pursue a hobby. Almost all modern-day kanaka maoli live in houses with electricity, plumbing, computers, and food from supermarkets; unlike true indigenous tribes whose dependence upon the land is direct, immediate, and inescapable. Africans are indigenous on their tribal lands in Africa, but African-Americans are not indigenous in America, even though they may trace their geneologies, learn Swahili, and celebrate Kwanzaa. Polynesians may be indigenous in various Pacific islands where they have lived for thousands of years, but kanaka maoli are not indigenous in Hawai'i any more than Normans are indigenous in England. Most modern-day kanaka maoli have no more daily intimacy with the land of Hawai'i than the descendants of the Chinese and Japanese plantation workers who cultivated sugar or rice a century ago.

Kanaka maoli have ancestors whose bones have been in the land of Hawai'i for hundreds of years. But millions of Americans have ancestors whose bones have been in the land of England for many centuries, and that does not give those Americans political rights in England. Indeed, some kanaka maoli have more English blood than they have kanaka maoli blood, and more ancestral English bones in the land of England for more centuries than they have ancestral kanaka maoili bones in the land of Hawai'i. Where the bones are does not determine either indigenous status or political rights.

There is, however, a very special connection with the land which is spiritual more than material. In Hawaiian language the word for land is 'aina, which means "that which feeds" or "that which provides food." Like a mother's breast provides food. Like a man gives food to a dog, or a flower gives food to a honeybee. But it is not merely food for bodily survival, it is also food for spiritual sustenance. The land -- even a rock -- is a spiritual being of higher status than a person. An old Hawaiian proverb says that the land is a chief, and a person is its lowly servant. This is not stewardship, in the Christian sense of dominating the land to protect it and make it productive for God who owns it; it is rather a relationship of love, respect, awe, and service, as a child to parent, or a younger sibling to an older one. The land speaks to any who care to listen, and we owe it our prayers of respect, thanksgiving, and permission-seeking when we first tread upon it in the morning, each time we enter a new area, and before stepping off it to go to bed at night.

Kanaka maoli, in their traditional lifestyle, had a very intimate spiritual relationship with the land which was not shared by the Europeans who came here. Some modern kanaka maoli continue to have that special relationship, even while living in a high-rise condominium, because of the way their families raised them. Some modern kanaka maoli may have an advantage over non-kanaka maoli in spontaneously feeling that spiritual relationship with the land, or learning to feel it. But even if some kanaka maoli are more inclined to recognize a spiritual relationship with the land than some non-kanaka maoli, that does not mean that all kanaka maoli should have political sovereignty to the exclusion of all non-kanaka maoli. It only means that some kanaka maoli are fortunate to have a richer spiritual life than some non-kanaka maoli. But all persons can become attuned to this spirituality; and people who are so attuned, regardless of race, should be placed in positions of authority in land management.

Finally, it should be noted that kanaka maoli activists insist that all kanaka maoli are entitled to sovereignty even if they and their parents were neither born nor raised in Hawai'i. So connectedness with the land through life experiences is not what the activists are saying establishes a political claim to sovereign control of the land. And kanaka maoli insist that any person with even one drop of native blood is kanaka maoli, regardless of knowledge of the culture. So they seem to be saying that the connection with the land is genetic, even though quantum percentage is irrelevant. Is there a genetic predisposition toward spiritual connectedness with the specific lands of Hawai'i, so that people whose ancestors have lived in Hawai'i for 700 years would have undergone natural selection causing them to be more likely to have that connection, even if they have only a small percentage of kanaka maoli blood quantum? There is no evidence for such a genetic predisposition, and it seems unlikely that a mere 30-40 generations would be sufficient to encode it reliably. One thing we have learned from 20th century history is this: it causes great misery when any race claims that its genes give it superiority over other races in matters of intelligence, spirituality, or righteous behavior. The 20th century history of India/Pakistan, Jerusalem, Rwanda, and Yugoslavia shows the misery that can be caused when a racial or ethnic group claims that historical or spiritual connection to a specific area of land gives them the right to political sovereignty. For an in-depth discussion of how religious myths are used to support political claims for racial supremacy in Hawai'i, see: Religion and Zealotry in the Hawaiian sovereignty movement

In ancient times individuals had no rights except as members of a tribe. Tribes had rights to areas of the land or sea where they had lived for centuries, or which they had conquered from other tribes. In some parts of the world these tribal rights are still more important than individual rights. A person's status in his tribe is determined according to geneology, gender, birth-order, astrology, and special skills valued by tribal leaders. Tribal leaders exercise absolute power over tribal members. If a nation-state includes such tribes with specific land-bases, special rights may be given to individuals living on tribal lands based solely on the fact that they are members of those tribes. But in Hawai'i the situation is very different. Kanaka maoli eagerly welcomed foreign culture beginnning with Captain Cook's arrival in 1778. Foreigners were given full and equal status as members of the Kingdom of Hawai'i, beginning with the Constitution of 1840 (right to vote) and the Mahele of 1848 (right to own property). See the section of this website that deals with whether non-kanaka maoli were guests or partners. The native kanaka maoli exercised their right to self-determination when their undisputed monarchs exercised their sovereign power to give voting rights and property rights to non-kanaka maoli. See the website section regarding self-determination. By the time of the overthrow and annexation, 74% of the residents of Hawai'i, and half of the citizens with voting rights, were non-kanaka maoli. And so it is that any tribal rights were given up in favor of a western system where only individuals have rights under the rule of written laws, under a constitution. Minority individuals have certain rights protected by the constitution even when 90% oppose them, including the right to speak freely, to vote, and to own property. But individuals do not receive special rights solely because of their membership in a racial group, as shown by the recent trend away from hiring quotas, racial gerrymandering of voting districts, and affirmative action.

Jocelyn Linnekin, a student of famed ethnohistorian Marshall Sahlins, spent a year (ending in 1975) living among the kanaka maoli on the isolated Keanae peninsula in windward Maui, along the picturesque road to Hana. She focused on the persistence of tradition. She studied whether traditional Hawaiian practices were still followed, including "exchange-in-kind" and mutual networks of informal obligation as the economic model. She notes that even in 1975, in this isolated community where almost every resident is kanaka maoli living on land passed down for generations, ancient rituals and cultural practices do not survive in ancient forms.

Cultural practices are often invented and then used for asserting political claims. For example, in the case of the 'awa ceremony, Kamakau (writing in the mid-1800s) stated that even in his time it was no longer practiced and only a dim memory. In modern times that ceremony has been reinvented by Hawaiians following Samoan style, and the ceremony is used on public occasions to impress people with the alleged indigenousness of kanaka maoli. The ancient Polynesian tradition of voyaging canoes navigating by the stars had been completely lost and forgotten throughout all of Polynesia, and was revived at the initiative of a white man who organized the construction of the Hokule'a canoe and located a traditional Micronesian navigator who taught the skill to a part-Hawaiian politically-connected man in the 1970's.

I personally have observed occasions when activist kanaka maoli want to perform some sort of ceremony for political purposes but do not know any appropriate ceremony from actual personal experience; so they look up the words of an ancient chant as written in Fornander's book and invent hula motions and music to accompany it. This was the procedure followed in 1999, when kanaka maoli wanted to assemble a welcoming party on a beach in Hilo for the World Indigenous People's Conference on Education. Numerous training sessions were held on several islands with printed instructions, prayers, and chants to be memorized (in traditional indigenous culture, these things would already be known to the participants from childhood and would be passed down through oral tradition and apprenticeship). The participants later got on airplanes and flew to Hilo, stayed in motels, drove by car to the beach, and performed their "indigenous" welcoming ceremony. Anyone would be able to do this sort of thing, regardless whether they have kanaka maoli blood, even without having cultural experiences of that sort in ordinary daily life. In that sense, most modern kanaka maoli are only "wannabe" indigenous, just the same as the white American hippies who sometimes come to Hawai'i and try to adopt an "indigenous" lifestyle.

This is not to disrespect the kanaka maoli or their ancient or modern reinvented culture -- it is only to recognize a cultural discontinuity that would not be present if the people were truly indigenous. Some individuals may be more attuned than others to the Cosmic Spirit that lives inside us all. Each culture has practices and rituals which evoke that spirit in ways unique to that culture. Individuals growing up in a culture experience those practices and rituals and become familiar with them. As adults, individuals may unthinkingly persist in following the cultural practices of their upbringing. Some individuals find that practices of other cultures more easily or profoundly evoke awareness of and communion with that inner spirit. But indigenous people do not choose their culture -- they are born into it, live it in everyday practice, and stay in it routinely. Indigenous people are either unaware of other possibilities, or reject and withdraw from those external forms when they intrude. When indigenous people embrace new cultural forms, language, religion, and lifestyle, they are no longer indigenous.

Genuinely indigenous people have a daily lifestyle filled with ancient customs, rituals, and prayers handed down from generation to generation through unbroken tradition. Some of those rituals in precontact Hawai'i are described in Valerio Valeri (trans. Paula Wissing), "Kingship and Sacrifice," Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985. Hawaiian culture until the early 1800s included frequent warfare, human sacrifice of innocent victims, and the death penalty for anyone who stepped on the shadow of a high-ranking chief or any woman who ate bananas or coconuts. There were very good reasons for these customs. They were accepted as the cultural norm by all kanaka maoli. There were very important reasons for these customs -- reasons which today would be called "religious."

The ancient culture cannot be practiced without these and other elements which today's kanaka maoli reject. Warfare was highly ritualized and was permitted only during certain seasons of the year when it would not insult the god Lono. Human sacrifice brought the mana (spiritual power) of the gods into a ceremony and into physical objects being blessed, such as temples, or the houses being constructed for important chiefs. Low-ranking people who stepped on the shadow of a high-ranking chief were robbing that chief of his mana, which would cause disaster for the community unless the mana was properly restored through sacrifice. Bananas and coconuts were the body-forms of the god of maleness, and could not be eaten by women without threatening male virility and insulting the god: a banana resembles a penis; and when looking at a palm tree, one can easily see the shaft of the tree penetrating the ground, with the coconuts at the top surrounded by foliage.

So it seems inauthentic when a modern kanaka maoli assembles his political supporters for an 'awa ceremony (reinvented from Samoan practices), describes the trade winds as the breath of the ancestor of all kanaka, passes around the 'awa bowl and some food and says that drinking and eating these things is a spiritual communion (hinting at the wine and wafers of the Catholic communion) -- and the food being passed to the mixed audience of men and women includes pieces of banana and coconut. Modern kanaka maoli pick and choose which portions of the ancient culture to honor, while dishonoring other elements that were inherently integrated with it. The new or reinvented cultural forms may be beautiful and inspiring, but are used for political purposes rather than spiritual ones. And they are not the authentic or spontaneous expressions of a continuously functioning indigenous people.

However beautiful and evocative an invented or reinvented culture may be, and however authentic the inner feelings of some practitioners may be, the people and culture have no rightful claim to be indigenous in the way some South American or African tribes are. If today's kanaka maoli reply by saying that they are descended from the indigenous people of Hawai'i, then the previous rebuttal is appropriate: the kanaka maoli are less indigenous to Hawai'i than the English people are indigenous to England. And, of course, every human being is descended from people who once were indigenous.

An example of invented tribes was shown on a popular television series in the summer of 2000. The program was called "Survivor." Sixteen middle-class American men and women of various ages were placed on a remote island in the South China Sea, and divided into two "tribes" called the Pagong and the Tagi. Each tribe had its own zone of jungle and beach, and was expected to survive through subsistence fishing and hunting. Competitions were held between the tribes, and the losing tribe had to vote one of its members off the island. The program's producers created a carved wooden totem that gave immunity from elimination to the tribe that possessed it. A torchlight ceremony was held when a tribe had to vote one of its members off the island. After the vote, the person chosen to be sacrificed had his torch snuffed out and had to leave. "Fire is the symbol of life. Your torch is now extinguished. It is time for you to leave." For a few weeks these contestants lived a lifestyle more indigenous than most modern kanaka maoli. They were living off the land, exchanging goods and services cooperatively in a moneyless economy, building their own shelters from local materials, engaging in torchlight ceremonies symbolic of life and death.