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Reviewed by:
  • Exalted Sits the Chief: The Ancient History of Hawai'i Island
  • Kēhaunani Cachola-Abad
Exalted Sits the Chief: The Ancient History of Hawai'i Island. Ross Cordy. Honolulu: Mutual Publishing, 2000.

In Exalted Sits the Chief, Cordy strives "to form an overview of the history of Hawai'i Island prior to its unification by Kamehameha in 1792" by "blending archaeology, oral history, and history" (pp. vii, 2). Cordy uses these domains in an additive, descriptive fashion but does not analyze them cohesively to produce new landmark interpretations.

Cordy's opening chapter on c. 1795 Hawai'i Island geography is a useful reference including particulars expected in more specific regional studies. Excellent maps play strong supporting roles here and throughout the book.

Chapter 2, which describes Hawaiian society during Kamehameha's rule, balances generalizations of the society with the [End Page 315] diversity of Hawai'i Island's geopolitical regions. Cordy skillfully employs historical and archaeological records to substantiate many of his depictions. However, missing among the representations are insights revealing the core traits underlying Hawaiian society, exemplified by Cordy's cursory discussion of the relationship between Hawaiians and their deities-a crucial topic for understanding Hawaiian chiefly life. Also begging greater consideration are debatable stances Cordy adopts. He skirts Stannard's (1989) 800,000-1,000,000 1778 archipelago population estimate and, without explanation, uses 300,000 (p. 49). Cordy also casts doubt on whether labor specialization generally occurred outside "a high chief 's or the ruler's court" (p. 54), in opposition to authoritative sources (e.g., Goldman 1970 : 494; Kamakau 1992 : 19; Malo 1996 : 172, 179) and absent justification. He further contends that the extended family or 'ohana, as described by Handy and Pūku'i (1972), existed nowhere in Hawai'i in the late 1700s (p. 53), again without adequate rationale. Such incomplete scholarship is also apparent in this chapter and elsewhere in the form of numerous editorial oversights.

Closing the background section, Cordy evaluates in Chapter 3 the strengths and weaknesses of his sources. Although he offers appropriate cautions about firsthand accounts and oral traditions, his assessment of Hawai'i Island archaeology is insufficient. He ignores the incomplete and skewed record resulting in part from widespread commercial sugar production and recent decades of contract archaeology focusing on leeward environments-critical issues for an islandwide research scope.

Also disregarded in Chapter 3 are obstacles involved in linking chiefs in oral traditions to sites not referenced in those traditions. The problems arise from the wide temporal range of radiocarbon dates for sites (when present) and the rough calendrical approximation of the reigns of rulers derived by assigning an arbitrary number of years to each generation in the chiefly genealogies. Whether described sites were used before, during, or after a given ruler's reign remains unclear, thus limiting Cordy's ability to infer relationships among variables in the oral traditions and the archaeological record.

In some respects such constraints proved irrelevant to Cordy in his largest set of chapters, wherein he describes Hawai'i Island's history using the temporal flow in the oral traditions, for here he unfortunately presents the archaeological record and oral traditions as largely separate realms. Cordy summarizes the oral traditions, weaving in segments describing archaeological sites that are organized geographically (e.g., we learn of the archaeology of Waipi'o in the section on Līloa, of Hōnaunau in the portion involving Keaweikekahiali'iokamoku). In such extended sidebars, Cordy often introduces information about eras beyond the estimated reign of a given focal ruler, which might have been better placed with discussions of other chiefs and times. When Cordy occasionally analyzes the archaeological and traditional records in concert, the difficulties of temporally correlating the data remain unresolved, creating questions regarding which factors in his reconstructions were indeed causes and which were effects.

Regardless of Cordy's primarily descriptive and somewhat disjunct approach, his archaeological and historical portraits interspersed throughout the oral traditions add dimension to those traditions and are valuable synthetic summaries. Moreover, incorporated in this patchwork are gems of information that will be new to many researchers-evidence of Cordy's facility with Hawai'i Island's archaeology, history, and...