- A Chosen People, a Promised Land: Mormonism and Race in Hawai’i by Hokulani K. Aikau
In her historical examination A Chosen People, a Promised Land: Mormonism and Race in Hawai’i, Hokulani K. Aikau traces the complex and unique history of Native Hawaiian Latter-Day Saints (more commonly known as Mormons) from the mid-nineteenth century to today. This fascinating account explains in five chronological chapters, starting with the arrival of the first Mormon missionaries in Hawai’i in 1850, how the Native Hawaiian experience of Mormonism converged with the traditional cultural as well as ethnic traditions and identities of Native Hawaiians. Although the book contextualizes the history of Native Hawaiian Latter-Day Saints within the framework of postcolonial discourses, especially since Western religions played an important role for colonization processes, Aikan does not depict Native Hawaiian’s who joined the Church of Latter-Day Saints as passive victims of Western colonizing forces. Instead, she sheds light on the only sparsely investigated cultural and religious exchanges between Native Hawaiians and American Latter-Day Saints. By explaining the fusion of Native Hawaiian identities with ideas of this Western religion, the book scrutinizes how Latter-Day Saints shaped and influenced Native Hawaiians and vice versa.
Furthermore, Aikan’s thorough research, which includes interviews with Native Hawaiian Latter-Day Saints, journals of Mormon missionaries, as well as her own autobiographical accounts, provides an interesting insight into issues of race and religion in nineteenth-century America and the attitude of the Latter-Day Saint Church at that time. Given the predominant social evolutionary mindset of the Mormon religion during the 1850s, according to which Anglo-Mormons were perceived as superior to African Americans and Native Americans, it seems contradictory that Native Hawaiians were considered to be “chosen people.” This peculiar position of Native Hawaiians in the Latter-Day Saint Church is explained with the fact that the Mormon missionary George Q. Cannon had visions in 1851 that traced the Polynesian lineages to The Book of Mormon and Israel (1). However, it was indeed difficult for Native Hawaiians to preserve their cultural and ethnic identity and, at the same, be accepted as faithful Latter-Day Saints. The book further reminds the reader of the almost forgotten deep roots of the Mormon community in Hawai’i, and emphasizes the importance of the small town Lā’ie, where the first permanent site for gathering in Hawai’i was established (66) and a Mormon temple was built. Finally, Aikan examines the modernization efforts of the church from 1890–1940 and closely investigates the influence of tourism that led to the creation of the Polynesian Cultural Center in 1963 [End Page 182] (91). Although she is critical about “selling an image of the happy native to tourists” (129) Aikan also acknowledges the positive effect that working at the Polynesian Cultural Center has on many Polynesian workers who describe their experience as “a time when they were able to learn about their culture as well as the diversity of their culture” and a time “when they took pride in their cultural heritage” (128), thus further hinting to the complex nature of intercultural exchanges. This groundbreaking, transnational, and more inclusive approach to Hawaiian studies grants Native Hawaiians agency and offers a much needed alternative representation of Hawai’i within the national history of the United States.