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Biography 27.1 (2004) 222-249

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Land, Leadership, and Nation:

Haunani-Kay Trask on the Testimonial Uses of Life Writing in Hawai'i

Haunani-Kay Trask is descended from the Pi'ilani line of Maui and the Kahakumakaliua line of Kaua'i. A professor of Hawaiian Studies at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa, Trask served as director of the Center for Hawaiian Studies for nearly ten years. During her tenure as director, she played a primary role in the building of the Gladys Brandt Kamakakuokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies. Trask is the author of Eros and Power: The Promise of Feminist Theory (1984). Widely read and taught in Hawai'i, the continental US, and throughout the world, her collection of essays, From a Native Daughter: Colonialism and Sovereignty in Hawai'i (1993; reissued in 1999) is a foundational text for those interested in indigenous rights. Equally important is the award-winning documentary film Act of War: The Overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom (1993), which Trask co-wrote and co-produced. A poet whose work explodes with anger, profound beauty, and eroticism, Trask has published Light in the Crevice Never Seen (1994) and Night Is a Sharkskin Drum (2002). Her work as a scholar and activist is featured in the CD Haunani-Kay Trask: We Are Not Happy Natives (2002).

Trask's activism on behalf of Native Hawaiians and other indigenous groups extends beyond her writing. A founding member of Ka Lahui Hawai'i, the largest sovereignty organization in Hawai'i, Trask is a foremost leader in the Hawaiian sovereignty movement. Since 1986, she has anchored and produced First Friday, a monthly public access television show spotlighting cultural and political issues important to Hawaiians. She has represented Native Hawaiians at the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Peoples in Geneva, and at numerous Indigenous gatherings in Samiland (Norway), Aotearoa (New Zealand), Basque Country (Spain), and Indian nations throughout the United States and Canada. In 2001, she went to Durban, South Africa to participate in the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance.

As Trask reflects on the Hawaiian struggle for sovereignty, she also provides insights into popular forms of testimony that often go unrecognized as such, and she does so in a way that brings together theory and practice. [End Page 222]

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Figure 1
Display by Leandra Wai at 'Iolani Palace during the 100th Anniversary Commemoration of the 1898 Annexation of Hawai'i. Photograph © and reproduced by courtesy of Ed Greevy.

Cynthia Franklin and Laura E. Lyons (CF & LEL): Could you talk about the role that testimony and/or forms of life writing have played in the struggle for sovereignty at various moments? We have particular events that we would be interested in having you respond to. First, can you describe the petitions that Hawaiians signed in 1897 opposing annexation, and discuss how important the recovery of them has been for Native Hawaiians? In other words, can you discuss the importance of these documents as a form of testimony, both at the time they were signed and presented to the US government and their significance now?

Haunani-Kay Trask (HKT): Several years ago, I realized how Noenoe Silva's work in recovering the anti-annexation petitions would change the way Hawaiians looked at contemporary sovereignty.1 At the time, many Hawaiians were undecided about sovereignty: should they support the sovereignty movement which, for most of them, meant a move away from supporting the Democratic Party—i.e., the dominant political force—or should they wait and see? The petitions moved a lot of unaware or indecisive people toward supporting the sovereignty struggle. The growth of the sovereignty movement, its acceptance by many Hawaiians beyond the activists, was given added strength by the petitions. Of course, my parents' generation already [End Page 223] knew about our people's resistance, like my grandfather on my father's side and my grandmother on my mother's side, whose...


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