- The Botany of Emergence:Kanaka Ontology and Biocolonialism in Hawai‘i
The Biotechnology Industry . . . in Hawai‘i cannot succeed without the manipulation and ownership of our Mana or biodiversity and related traditional, Indigenous knowledge. They have taken our lands and now they come to take our Mana, our very soul.—WALTER RITTE AND LE‘A KANEHE
Though the plant is distinguished from the animal by fixity and insensibility, movement and consciousness sleep in it as recollections which may waken.—HENRI BERGSON
He po‘o ulu ko nā mea kanu. (Plants have heads that can grow again.)—MARY KAWENA PUKUI
THIS ESSAY HAS TWO PURPOSES and proceeds in two voices. The first is to observe the steadily growing resurgence among Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians) of a Native Hawaiian world and to argue for a more elaborated recognition of the spiritual and familial dimension of plants (as well as animals and other elements of nature) within it. The second is to analyze the ongoing colonial/imperial efforts of the state and global corporations to use Hawai‘i’s land to propagate genetically modified organisms, especially seed corn, replacing our Native life on the land, despite the continual protest of Native Hawaiians and environmentalists. We argue in this essay that plants provoke and organize necessarily incommensurate colonial and Indigenous ways of thought and practice. We therefore ask, what are the effects of contemporary and past biocolonial labors on the efforts toward resurgence of a Maoli1 world, and vice versa?
Our argument proceeds historically and philosophically in order to examine Kanaka struggles against the biocolonial genomic industrialization of corn in Hawai‘i, whose roots we discover in the European encounters with ‘ulu (breadfruit), and the plantation colonialism of pineapple. We present, first, a brief theoretical inquiry into the political and philosophical meaning of plants in the colonial and settler-colonial contexts of the Pacific, and introduce our concept of emergence for comprehending the distinctiveness [End Page 1] of Kanaka ontologies. We then discuss the colonial investment in botany—comprising multiple specialized forms of knowledge about plants—that has ordered many of the political theories, scientific institutions, and laws underlying settler colonialism in Hawai‘i. Finally, we turn to a discussion of genomic corn production and Kanaka resistance, seeking to understand what is currently emergent in this struggle.
What does it mean to restore a meaningful Kanaka life amid ongoing colonial occupation? Jeff Corntassel and Taiaiake Alfred suggest that one answer for similarly situated Indigenous peoples can be found in the maintenance of interconnection: “There are new faces of empire that are attempting to strip Indigenous peoples of their very spirit as nations and of all that is held sacred, threatening their sources of connection to their distinct existences and the sources of their spiritual power: relationships to each other, communities, homelands, ceremonial life, languages, histories. . . . These connections are crucial to living a meaningful life for any human being” (2005, 559). For Kanaka Maoli, I (Silva) argue that living a meaningful life should also include reviving and maintaining our interconnections with divine spirits embodied in trees, herbs, water, fish, animals, clouds, winds, sunlight, rain, and so on. Let’s imagine the thought world or ontology of my Kanaka ancestors. They live/d in a “honua ola,” a living earth (Kanahele 2011). In this world, many plants, animals, birds, and other beings precede/d humans in our cosmogonic genealogies. Thus, as Kaleomanu‘iwa Wong often comments, they, too, are our (Kanaka Hawai‘i’s) kupuna (ancestors).2 The deities of our ancestors took many forms, inhabiting many bodies, a concept called kino lau. Pukui and Elbert (1986, 153) describe kino lau as “many forms taken by a supernatural body, as Pele, who could at will become a flame of fire, a young girl, or an old hag” (see also Goldberg-Hiller and Silva 2011). Kino lau means that many plants, animals, birds, clouds, and so on are the bodies of deities, either the powerful akua nui (major akua) like Kāne, Kū, Pele, Haumea, and others, or less powerful but just as meaningful ‘aumākua, family spirits. In the Hawaiian world then plants (and many...