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CR: The New Centennial Review 1.3 (2001) 201-287

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Marshall Sahlins and the Apotheosis of Culture

Victor Li
Dalhousie University

Our fascination with the native, the oppressed, the savage, and all such figures is therefore a desire to hold on to an unchanging certainty somewhere outside our own "fake" experience. It is a desire for being "non-duped," which is a not-too-innocent desire to seize control.

—Rey Chow 1

Captain Cook and the Culture Wars

When Captain James Cook sailed into Kealakekua Bay on January 17, 1779, little did he know that he was sailing into a Hawaiian cosmological drama in which he would be the main protagonist. Cook was not aware that he was, in Marshall Sahlins's words, "a tradition for Hawaiians before he was a fact." 2 In several essays and book chapters published in the seventies and eighties, Sahlins, the anthropologist most cited in anthropology journals according to one source, 3 argued, in characteristically bold fashion, that Cook's alleged reception by the Hawaiians as a manifestation of Lono, their god of fertility and agriculture, can be verified by correlating Cook's arrival, sojourn, and death in Hawaii to indigenous cosmological or cultural categories. [End Page 201]

Returning to the Hawaiian Islands after failing to find the Northwest Passage, Cook and the crew of the Resolution and Discovery arrived off Maui on November 26, 1778, and then proceeded, in a slow and leisurely manner, to circumnavigate the island of Hawaii before anchoring at Kealakekua Bay on January 17 of the new year. Cook's arrival in November and his protracted clockwise circling of Hawai'i island, with the coastline to his ship's right, appears to have matched in date and direction the annual Makahiki celebration honouring Lono's seasonal advent, an occasion during which an image of Lono—"a cross-piece ensign, with white tapa cloth hanging from the horizontal bar" 4 — is carried in ceremonial procession in a "right [hand] circuit" of the island. Sahlins argues that though the "correlation between the ritual movements of the Makahiki image of Lono and the historical movements of Captain Cook in 1778-79 was not perfect,... it was sufficiently remarkable" (Sahlins, Historical Metaphors,20) that Hawaiians, already myth-minded and ritually primed, greeted and apotheosized Cook as their god, Lono. In short, the remarkable coincidence of dates and movements allowed Hawaiians to incorporate Cook's foreignness into their familiar ritual observances.

According to the Hawaiian ritual calendar the popular Makahiki celebrations mark both the ascendancy of the peaceful and bountiful Lono and his eventual defeat and exile through the restitution of the king's war god, Ku. Arriving at Makahiki time, Cook, according to Sahlins, was received joyously by the Hawaiians as Lono and accorded more respect and honour than he had ever experienced on any other South Sea island he had visited. After a stay of some eighteen days, Cook and his ships left Hawai'i island on February 3, 1779, right on ritual schedule. The Makahiki had ended and it was time for Lono to exit, ceding paramountcy once again to the war god Ku and his human representative, the king. Unfortunately, Cook's ships, soon after departure, ran into a storm that damaged the foremast of the Resolution, forcing Cook to sail back to Kealakekua Bay on February 11. This time Cook-Lono's return was out of phase with the ritual cycle. He was, as Sahlins puts it, "hors cadre" (Sahlins, Islands,127). Moreover, Cook-Lono's return precipitated a "mythopolitical crisis" (Sahlins, Islands,127), since it now evoked another cosmological myth that recounted how [End Page 202] Hawaiian kingship or chieftainship was achieved through usurpation when a foreign chief with his patron god Kukailimoku (Ku-snatcher-of-the-island) came by sea from an invisible land (Kahiki) and conquered the local indigenous rulers (Sahlins, Historical Metaphors,10-12). The current king, Kalani'opu'u, and his chiefs, who traced their lineage to the usurping foreign chief, thus interpreted Cook-Lono's return as a sinister, cosmological reversal in which...


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