- Navigating Our Own “Sea of Islands”Remapping a Theoretical Space for Hawaiian Women and Indigenous Feminism
Why Our Sea of Islands?
Epeli Hau’ofa, Tongan artist, intellectual, and cultural critic, turned colonial descriptions of the Pacific inside out in his 1993 revolutionary refiguring of the Pacific as space of plenitude and connection, not emptiness and distance. Rather than a landscape of isolated, scattered islands, the ocean becomes the space that connects the peoples who are both land-based and traveling, communicating and interacting across great distances and differences. Hau’ofa brings islanders and island cultures to the center of his analysis. His theoretical intervention is an expression of metaphorical and literal decolonization: the refusal to think of continents as the “mainland,” as they are so often figured.
I take inspiration from the reverberations of his fundamental reframing in thinking through the historical and contemporary experience of Native Hawaiian (Kanaka Maoli) women. Feminist theory remains integral to the process of decolonization for Hawaiian and other indigenous women because colonialism takes place through gendered and sexualized forms that reconstitute both individual and communal indigenous identities in stigmatized and disempowering ways. Whatever the disagreements are about the nature of the precolonial [End Page 15] status of women within various indigenous societies, there is no ambiguity about the negative consequences of the views and actions of European missionaries, soldiers, and settlers.
The deliberate destruction of non-heteronormative and monogamous social relationships, the indigenous languages that could conceptualize these relationships, and the cultural practices that celebrated them has been inextricable from the simultaneous colonial expropriation of land and natural resources. The reverberations of the past coexist with a thoroughly colonized present. Indigenous societies struggling to maintain cultural integrity and political sovereignty do not exist untouched and apart from the influence of a dominant culture whose deeply racist, sexist, and violent values are spread throughout the world through television, film, and advertising. Indigenous feminism grapples with the ways patriarchal colonialism has been internalized within indigenous communities, as well as analyzing the sexual and gendered nature of the process of colonization.
In the last thirty years, U.S. feminists of color have developed a substantial body of work focusing on the concept of intersectionality, where the interrelationships and co-constructed nature of analytical categories such as race, gender, sexuality, and class are at the center of analysis. But the legacy of colonial conquest and hyper-commodification has made Hawaiian women’s experiences invisible or unintelligible within both dominant and counter-hegemonic discourses produced by non-Hawaiians. For Native Hawaiian feminists, this means a constant struggle to be seen and acknowledged. Within U.S. feminist theory we struggle for recognition within white feminist theories in which race remains a binary black—white paradigm; black feminist theories in which race remains a binary black—white paradigm; Asian American feminist theories that insist on retaining an “API” nomenclature while having no Pacific Islander–related analyses or constituencies; indigenous feminist theories that presume a North American indigenous land-base; and postcolonial feminist theories that ignore the colonial possessions of the United States and their ongoing struggles. The experience of Kanaka Maoli women is not contained within any of the islands of feminist work I am discussing but nevertheless resonates with all. Hau’ofa pushes me to think about the ways that literal and figurative mapping determine what can be seen. In this essay, then, I am mapping out the wide sea of issues in which Hawaiian women are immersed for later, more in-depth exploration.
Strategies of Erasure
My earliest graduate training was in African American studies, with the guidance of Barbara Christian, a Caribbean American feminist who was deeply invested in attending to writers, artists, and thinkers who had been left out of the exclusionary curriculum and canons of [End Page 16] the university system. The insights of U.S. black feminist thought have been crucial to the development of my critical consciousness even as these theorists often displayed the same kinds of omissions and erasures (in this case, directed toward non-black women of color in general and indigenous women in particular) that they brilliantly critiqued within the work of white scholars. Both Toni Morrison...