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  • Imperial Ocean:The Pacific as a Critical Site for American Studies
  • J. Kēhaulani Kauanui (bio)

In responding to the central question of this forum, “On what terms might the intersections of (currents between) American studies and Native Pacific studies be most productively engaged?,”1 I turn to a discussion of my syllabus for a course I teach undergraduates at Wesleyan University, “The United States in the Pacific Islands.” I begin with the course description:

The relationship between the United States and the nations and territories that comprise the Pacific Islands is complex and has historical and continuing significance in international and global affairs. American involvement in the Pacific was and continues to be primarily structured by strategic interests in the region. … How did the US come to dominate the Pacific basin? Using an expanded definition of the Western frontier, we will examine the Pacific as a region that was subject to imperialist development that was an extension of the continental expansion. The course will focus on the history of American influence in Hawai‘i that culminated in the unilateral annexation in 1898 and statehood in 1959, as well as the historical and contemporary colonial status of Guam and American Samoa, where questions of self-determination persist. We will also examine the Pacific as a nuclear playground for atomic bomb testing by the US military, and the US administration of the Trust Territory of the Pacific after World War II.

I use this sketch merely as a grounding point as I take up just a few examples from my teaching experience to illustrate some of the ways that the currents between American studies and Native Pacific studies can be productively engaged—not simply to offer better “coverage” within the field of the former but to show that taking up the Pacific is instructive for understanding multidimensions of US domination. Analyses of different island situations can function as a civics lesson while providing insights into often-ignored principles at work in American studies itself, whereas Native Pacific studies resists the terms—or finds itself in complex relations to them. Introducing Native Pacific studies into American studies, the course I teach (which addresses students who usually come to the course with little prior knowledge of the Pacific region) illustrates central issues in the distinctions and overlapping historical and legal conditions of imperialism, settler colonialism, franchise colonialism, occupation, [End Page 625] and decolonization. I offer an overview of my course as device for thinking about pedagogical approaches to a subject all too often obscured because of World War II, which has left Oceania cast as “the Pacific theater,” along with the tourist-industrial complex, which perpetuates the myth of the Pacific as “island paradise.”

One of the first exercises I do in the class is to hand out a map of the Pacific Islands in which the region is at the center of the frame. This is immediately striking for students, as they realize that if they have ever seen any of Oceania, it is most likely from a map in which the Pacific is literally split down the middle and relegated to the left and right margins. This typical consignment distorts the vastness of Oceania as well as the islands in relation to each other. As we remap together, we read various essays on the construction of “the American Pacific” and “Asia Pacific” to examine how these regional designations have been constructed by geopolitical interests of dominant nations in the Americas and Asia—and to understand what forms of representational violence continue to haunt the Pacific Islands and peoples. Next, we engage Epeli Hau‘ofa’s influential essay “Our Sea of Islands,” in which he addressed a pervasive problem in the dominant ways people have configured the Pacific to the detriment of Island peoples. He summarized the persistent image of the Pacific as “islands in a far sea,” where small island states and territories are considered “too small, too poor, and too isolated to develop any meaningful degree of autonomy.”2 This is largely due to the imperial overlay, whereby independent states that once held, or continue to hold, island nations as colonies regard them as burdensome while casting them as insignificant...