Hokulani K Aikau’s A Chosen People, A Promised Land: Mormonism and Race in Hawai‘i critically reflects on the history and contemporary life of Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders in the Mormon Church, with a focus on how the North Shore town of Lā‘ie, O‘ahu, developed into the Mormon community it is today. The book’s central concern is with the seeming paradox of how “colonial religious traditions such as Mormonism can be lived and inhabited as sites and sources of indigenous cultural vitality” (xii), which Aikau argues hinges on an “ideology of faithfulness” embedded within the discourse of Polynesian people being designated a “chosen people” by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (lds). The book provides both an essential history of the establishment of Mormonism in Hawai‘i and an ethnographic account of what Mormonism means to Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders who first migrated to Lā‘ie to serve the Church in the early to mid-twentieth century. In productive conversation with Pacific studies, Indigenous studies, and Hawaiian studies, Aikau is deeply critical of the roles the lds Church [End Page 505] has played in the US colonization of Hawai‘i. At the same time, acknowledging her own Native Hawaiian family’s experience within the Church, Aikau is thoughtfully attentive to the multiple spiritual, material, and political reasons why Pacific Islander members find participation in the Church meaningful.
As the book explains, Mormon missionaries first arrived in Hawai‘i in 1850 seeking primarily to convert Hawai‘i’s haole (white, foreign) residents but unexpectedly found Native Hawaiians the more accepting audience. At the time, the Mormon Church explicitly discriminated against Black people (for example, a ban on Black men receiving the priesthood was lifted only in 1978). Despite their apparent racial otherness, Polynesians were deemed worthy of inclusion in the Church due to the Mormon missionary George Q Cannon’s vision in 1851 that Polynesians were one of the non-black Lost Tribes of Israel (a theory that dovetailed with others of the time about Polynesians being the descendants of Aryans, as detailed in chapter 1). Throughout the book, Aikau grapples frankly with the legacies of this history and the racial politics that Native Hawaiian and other Polynesian Church members continue to negotiate due to the history of being “chosen,” yet still experiencing, daily and generationally, racial discrimination in the Church.
A major contribution of the book is its demonstration of how Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders have often found the lds Church to be an outlet for pressing community needs that are a result of colonization. For example, chapter 2 illustrates that the Church’s purchase of six thousands acres of land in Lā‘ie in 1865, and the subsequent establishment of Lā‘ie as a Mormon gathering place, provided a compelling reason for Native Hawaiians to join the Church. In Lā‘ie, Native Hawaiian members of the Church could gain access to ‘āina (land) and kai (sea), where they could grow kalo (taro) and fish. This was significant because after the privatization of land through the 1848 Māhele land laws, Native Hawaiian access to ‘āina was greatly diminished. In addition to providing access to ‘āina, Aikau argues that the Church articulated Mormon ideas about the “promised land” in conjunction with the Hawaiian understanding that Lā‘ie traditionally served as a pu‘uhonua (refuge or sanctuary), effectively linking Mormonism and Hawaiianness (67). The access to ‘āina in Lā‘ie would not be forever, however, as the Church’s priorities shifted and Native Hawaiians’ lo‘i kalo (terraces for growing kalo) were bulldozed to build the Polynesian Cultural Center.
The book’s latter chapters demonstrate how such strong connections between Mormonism and Hawaiianness continue to be forged in more recent times, including the building and opening...