Paradoxes of Hawaiian Sovereignty

by Tomonori Sugimoto, Yale University

Paradoxes of Hawaiian Sovereignty: Land, Sex, and the Colonial Politics of State Nationalism, by J. Kēhaulani Kauanui (Durham: Duke University Press, 2018)

In this deeply engaging book, J. Kēhaulani Kauanui unpacks paradoxes inherent in past and contemporary assertions of Hawaiian sovereignty. She provocatively maintains that certain Hawaiian claims of sovereignty are themselves colored by the history of settler colonialism on the island. She especially critiques the idea prevalent among (mostly male) Hawaiian kingdom nationalists that their nation was never colonized by the United States, and thus needs to be simply restored to its original sovereignty. According to Kauanui, in the process of forming itself as an independent nation, before U.S. colonization, the Hawaiian Kingdom modeled itself after Western nations and enacted its own “colonial biopolitics” in relation to Hawaiians. In this process, the Kingdom fundamentally transformed practices regarding land, gender, and sexuality. If the kingdom’s sovereignty were simply restored, as kingdom nationalists wish, it would ironically reproduce the very settler colonial logics already built into the kingdom, at the expense of those who were marginalized by its nineteenth-century biopolitics, such as people who lost land, women, and queer people.

Chapter 1, “Contested Indigeneity: Between Kingdom and ‘Tribe’,” explores kingdom nationalists’ refusal to identify as “Indigenous.” Kauanui focuses on their opposition to the Akaka Bill, first introduced by Senator Daniel Akaka in 2000 with the goal of gaining federal recognition of Hawai‘i as a “tribal nation,” like Indian nations in the continental U.S. Nationalist groups such as Hawaiian Kingdom and the Reinstated Hawaiian Government consider this model of federal recognition to be illegitimate, because they see Hawai‘i as an independent nation that is only “an occupied state” and was never formally colonized. The same nationalists also refuse to be recognized as Indigenous “because Indigenous Peoples’ rights under international law are distinct from the rights of states” and they see such recognition as inadequate (p. 62). Relying for their claims and arguments on the 1907 Hague Conventions rather than the framework of Indigenous rights, they insist that Hawai‘i’s continuity of independence was never extinguished. They assert that Hawai‘i, as an occupied state, simply needs to be deoccupied. Kauanui critiques this denial of colonial history and dismissal of the Indigenous rights model among kingdom nationalists. She suggests that “the deoccupation model, while taking account of [Hawai‘i’s] independent status, also denies settler colonialism in terms of the culture, language, and territory to which the Kanaka Maoli have been specifically subjugated” (p. 72).

This denial of settler colonialism in the history of the Hawaiian nation is problematic, she suggests, because it blinds kingdom nationalists to the “colonial biopolitical governmentality” that the Hawai‘ian Kingdom itself enacted in relation to its population, imitating Western nations (p. 81). In Chapter 2, “Properties of Land: That Which Feeds,” Kaunaui turns to the issue of land. She shows how King Kamehameha III’s privatization of communal lands through the 1848 Māhele land division has had enduring consequences. The kingdom aimed to protect Hawaiians from extinction (p. 83), linking this legislation about land to biopolitics. However, Kauanui suggests that in practice “the haole [white settlers] were treated with favoritism over the maka‘ainana [local commoners] by the chiefs” (p. 90). In the present, some haole are able to maintain property rights to massive tracts of land—in one case she examines, almost a whole island. Problematically, though, some kingdom nationalists interpret the land division as a sign of chiefly agency, and not as part of a wider process of settler colonialism.

Kauanui continues to show the effect of the Hawaiian Kingdom’s colonial biopolitics in the realms of gender and sexuality. Simply put, “new colonial biopolitical practices that missionaries foisted on Hawai‘ian society were in turn claimed by Kanaka elites as a form of social normalization that served to undercut . . . Indigenous epistemes and ontologies, the basis for ea (embodied indigenous sovereignty), to conform instead to a Western model” (p. 158). Chapter 3, “Gender, Marriage, and Coverture: A New Proprietary Relationship,” explains how, with the help of Christian missionaries from New England, Hawaiian elites significantly transformed the status of women, who previously “were not subordinate to men within comparable genealogical rank” (p. 123). The introduction of legislation regarding fornication and adultery led to the subordination of women to their husbands. Kauanui suggests that this was, like the land division, an instance of the Hawaiian kingdom adopting settler colonial practices and enacting its own version of colonial biopolitics, specifically in relation to women. “The constitutional adoption of a legal system that privileges male authority conform[ed] to Western political and cultural norms” (p. 150). Such a legal system, paradoxically, was used to express Hawai‘ian sovereignty. Chapter 4, “‘Savage’ Sexualities,” similarly shows how non-heterosexual sexualities common in pre-monarchical Hawai‘i were reinterpreted as “savage” and had to be exterminated from the nascent Hawaiian kingdom. This legacy still endures in Hawai‘i, as people who identify as māhū—a term used to refer to transgender women or effeminate men today—are marginalized. Kingdom nationalist men who try to “remasculinize” Hawaiian society erase the existence of what they deemed as signs of effeminate colonized identity like māhūs.

One of the contributions of this book is to bring to the fore fissures and heterogeneities within the Indigenous community in Hawai‘i. By discussing diverse groups of people—Christian-identified kingdom nationalists, those in support of federal recognition, and people like herself who refuse these two state-centered options for Hawaiian sovereignty—Kauanui succeeds in showing that the Hawaiian’s struggle is not simply between the monolithic “colonized” and the colonizer (the US settler state). By instead elucidating paradoxes inherent in historical and contemporary sovereignty assertions on the island, she suggests that these paradoxes emerge from global limitations imposed on Indigenous Peoples under the framework of international law. But she refuses to reject Indigenous status because of such limitations (as Hawaiian kingdom nationalists have done). By asserting that the problem is not indigeneity per se but those limitations placed on Indigeneity in international law (p. 197), she pushes for different futures for Indigenous peoples, both in Hawai‘i and elsewhere.

Kauanui hence closes the book by sharing her visions for what such futures may look like. She argues for a non-state-centered approach, refusing both the simple restoration of the kingdom (as advocated for by nationalists) and continuing colonization by the US settler state. Building on Noelani Goodyear-Kaʻōpua’s writing, she asserts that the concept of ea—which can be used to indicate both life and sovereignty in the Hawaiian language—offers a critical contrast to other conceptions of sovereignty. Ea allows Hawaiian to articulate their sovereignty according to a land-based system, outside of the Westphalian state-centered model (p. 28). Kauanui suggests that the recent efforts to revive languages, agriculture, rituals, music, and cultural practices like tattoo and voyaging are all part of fostering ea (p. 200).

While Paradoxes of Hawaiian Sovereignty is set in Hawai‘i, it will prove useful for anyone interested in the global politics of Indigeneity and settler colonialism—in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan, Japan, the Pacific Islands, and Israel/Palestine. Kauanui’s book will allow for the examination of how Indigenous sovereignty is complexly limited by settler states, international institutions like the UN, and statist ideas among some indigenous groups themselves. Further, her work will remind us that decolonization struggles always have to be grounded in Indigenous epistemes and ontologies. In the case of Hawai‘i, that is to revitalize ea. Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars working in other contexts toward decolonization should find inspiration in Paradoxes of Hawaiian Sovereignty and seek to find such alternative models for Indigenous life and futures that are embedded in their own contexts.