HONOLULU — Two thousand miles from the continental United States sits a chain of islands known for their tropical climes, natural beauty and geographical diversity. From mountains and active volcanoes to gorgeous postcard-perfect beaches, visiting Hawaii continues to be one of the most popular trips for U.S. travelers every year.
But for most of these tourists, Hawaii is little more than a tropical paradise vacation destination where you can lounge on a beach and drink cocktails. The plethora of guidebooks and travelogues written about Hawaii by non-Hawaiian travelers does little to challenge that perception. Few tourists are aware of the history and cultural turmoil Hawaii has undergone over the centuries to become what it is today — a rich and complicated multicultural society contending with that history and navigating challenging political realities.
So a pair of Hawaiian academics recently took it upon themselves to challenge that stereotype.
In “Detours: A Decolonial Guide to Hawai’i,” a new book from Duke University Press on sale in November, co-editors Hokulani K. Aikau and Vernadette Vicuna Gonzalez use the concept of the tourist guidebook, a genre that has long dominated writing about Hawaii, to encourage people to rethink their understanding of Hawaii and their relationship to it.
Gonzalez and Aikau solicited essays, stories and art from more than 50 Hawaiian contributors, and as submissions came in, they realized that instead of an alternative guide to a place, the project was morphing into a guide to decolonization.
“The ‘Detours’ project first started out as (us) thinking through what it might be like to take the genre of the guidebook, take that shape, the framework that it has, and have people from here tell stories of place, rather than have somebody from outside come here and tell everybody else where to go, what hotels to go to, what are the places to see and what are the things to do,” said Gonzalez, associate professor of American Studies at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa.
For instance: Aikau, a native Hawaiian who grew up in a small Utah town, says the question she heard most whenever she told people she was from Hawaii was, “Does that mean you do hula?”
“Hawaii is so overdetermined by images that are specifically associated with tourism, such as the hula girls and tiki culture and all of that, that growing up in a small town in Utah meant that the only way people could understand where I was from was as it was reflected through tourists’ gaze,” said Aikau, now an ethnic and gender studies professor at the University of Utah. “It’s crazy to have been raised away from Hawaii and yet the only way people know you is through the tourist images. It was pretty painful.”
Lost in the “touristy paradise island” narrative that traditional guidebooks have spun for decades is the fact that before Europeans and U.S. immigrants began arriving in Hawaii around 1778 — often disenfranchising and bringing diseases that killed many Native Hawaiians — Hawaii was a thriving archipelago ruled by Native Hawaiian ali’i, or chiefs. The unified Hawaiian Kingdom was eventually overthrown by U.S. troops in 1893.
“Detours” shows readers the true Hawaii, beyond mai tais and mountain hikes, offering a look at the colonial and military histories that led to a Hawaii whose economy is dominated by tourism and militarism often at the expense of the rights, independence and culture of Native Hawaiians.
The book, however, isn’t just for tourists. The Hawaiian education system, Gonzalez and Aikau say, is dominated by U.S. ideology and a version of history that has long suppressed indigenous Hawaiian culture and language. As a result, many Hawaiians have been undereducated about Hawaii’s native history.
“It is no surprise that undergraduates are coming to the University of Hawai’i who have only had public education, not knowing anything about the place that they live beyond the dominant narrative,” said Aikau. “What we wanted to address in the book is that living in Hawaii also requires a process of unlearning, decolonizing and shifting perspectives. It’s not just tourists. In many ways we all share a similar history and understandings of this place. So how do we disrupt that?”
During a recent reporting trip to Honolulu, this Seattle Times reporter met with several contributors to discuss their work on the “Detours” project.
Shaping activism through stories
In 2015, Candace Fujikane, an English professor at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa, was among the first group of protesters who created a blockade to stop construction vehicles from beginning construction on the Thirty Meter Telescope atop Mauna Kea — a mountain on Hawaii island that is considered sacred to many Native Hawaiians.
When people ask Fujikane how she became so connected to Mauna Kea, she says, “Let me tell you a story …”
Fujikane tells the tale of a Hawaiian chief who falls in love with Poli’ahu, the deity of the snow on Mauna Kea. When he tries to approach Poli’ahu, her mother sends biting rains after him and cloaks her daughter in mists.
The chief returns every day to try to approach her, and as he retreats from the rains, his cape creates a rainbow across the sky. When the chief is finally able to approach Poli’ahu, she is entranced by his rainbow. So he takes off his cape and drapes it around her and the two disappear into the folds of the cape.
Every day, in the morning and in the evening, the chief drapes Poli’ahu in his cape and the snows on Mauna Kea glow pink.
“He melts her heart and that becomes the waters of Mauna Kea,” said Fujikane. “Suddenly you feel connected to Mauna Kea because now you have a foothold. You know something about Poli’ahu. The stories are all beautiful like that, and they track and they map where the waters are, where the springs are. All the stories do things like that.”
In her scholarly work and in her activism, Fujikane explores the ways that stories of Hawaii underlie Hawaiians’ understanding of place and the land, how outsiders understand Hawaii, and how a story can connect people to Hawaii in unexpected ways.
In her “Detours” essay, Fujikane writes about the community-run bus tour in the largely Hawaiian community of Waianae on Oahu, and how this introduced her to grassroots organizing and the importance of stories in activism. On these bus tours, visitors are guided through sites where the community is fighting for environmental justice. The guides weave into their tour the mo’olelo, or stories of the trickster god Maui, as metaphors for their struggle.
“You need those stories of wonder in order to bring the people back again and again,” said Fujikane. “One of the problems with discussions of climate change is that they’re so depressing that people would prefer to go and watch a Hollywood movie. So how do you invite people to become a part of a movement? I think you have to weave that wonder in.”
The ‘Law of the Splintered Paddle’
Sonny Ganaden, an attorney, writer and teacher, points out in his “Detours” essay that stories are more than just a way to connect with communities and movements. In the case of King Kamehameha I’s “Law of the Splintered Paddle,” stories can underlie actual law.
During a military expedition, a young Kamehameha I chased and threatened civilian fishermen, one of whom defended himself by striking Kamehameha so forcefully with his canoe paddle that it cracked into pieces, knocking Kamehameha unconscious. Years later, when the fishermen were brought to the ruler for punishment, Kamehameha instead pardoned them, claiming it was a mistake for him to attack innocents.
In 1797, Kamehameha wrote this doctrine into law.
The “Law of the Splintered Paddle,” as it appears today in Hawaii’s state constitution, reads as follows:
“The law of the splintered paddle, mamala-hoe kanawai, decreed by Kamehameha I — Let every elderly person, woman and child lie by the roadside in safety — shall be a unique and living symbol of the State’s concern for public safety. The State shall have the power to provide for the safety of the people from crimes against persons and property.”
Ganaden suggests that laws such as the “Law of the Splintered Paddle” represent a path toward decolonizing criminal justice law in Hawaii.
“We need a full decolonial approach to criminal law,” he said. “We need to look to the original documents of the Pacific (Islands) and the historically underrepresented communities to develop a jurisprudence and an epistemology to move forward in the 21st century.”
A paddler himself, Ganaden believes there is much to be learned from the ethics and traditions of the canoe, which has long been a vessel for community and culture in Hawaii.
“I’m expanding upon a legal metaphor to say we’re all in this together. The fate of the criminal justice system affects the richest people here and the poorest people here. I’m saying that we’re in this journey together. It’s a lovely metaphor,” Ganaden said. “This notion that we have to work together, that everyone pulls according to their own ability, that we’re generous with each other. It’s island living.”
For Ganaden, decolonizing Hawaiian law recalls the “Law of the Splintered Paddle” in making sure that everyone is represented by — and protected by — the law.
“If we want to create a more equitable world in the 21st century, we need to appreciate that there are stories, histories, contexts that the law, by its nature, excludes,” Ganaden said. “How do we interject those ideas and those stories? Furthermore, how do we make it sing, how do we make it beautiful?”
Likewise, the stories, art and ideas collected in “Detours” are a guide to the contributors’ connections to Hawaii. As a collective, the stories demonstrate how readers can learn about Hawaii beyond the veneer of tourism, and approach the island-state in a way that honors and reduces harm to the local cultures and communities.
“I hope that (readers will) feel unsettled,” said Gonzalez. “And not in a necessarily turned-off way, but in a way that makes them create more space in their head in terms of how they might approach Hawaii, how their assumptions and anticipations of an encounter with this place might shift from how it has been so commonly framed.”
“Detours: A Decolonial Guide to Hawai’i” edited by Hokulani K. Aikau and Vernadette Vicuna Gonzalez, 452 pp., Duke University Press, $29.95. Available November 2019