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  • John Dominis Holt's Kanaka Maoli Modernism
  • Paul Lyons (bio)

'Auwe, he wā hou kēia [these are new times.]Eia nō na'e, koe ke 'ala [But the fragrance lingers].

—John Dominis Holt (1993)

Placing "Kanaka Maoli" (or "Hawaiian" or "'Ōiwi")1 before theoretical or periodizing terms with European histories has become one critical component of Kanaka Maoli scholarship in English. Kanaka Maoli scholars writing about Hawaiian epistemology (Meyer), Hawaiian aesthetics (McDougall), Kanaka geographies (Oliveira, Chang), 'Ōiwi methodologies (Oliveira and Wright) or Hawaiian literary nationalism (hoomanawanui), put Native well-being and ways of knowing first. The control terms are reordered, emphasizing that the European categories must be indigenized if they are to do critical work. That scholarship connected to indigenous resurgence (re)takes place within and often against terms that go on threatening to delimit and distort Native thought is a complex effect of ongoing colonialism, globalization, and linguistic hierarchies. The rearticulation of European terms has been enabled by increased access to the rich and diverse print archives in 'Ōlelo Hawai'i (Hawaiian language), yet translation remains necessary for those who do not know 'Ōlelo Hawai'i and for participation in trans-indigenous and global fora.2 Aligning terms and categories toward indigenous thought is one way that Maoli reclaim their own, allied in spirit with Aime Cesairé's pursuit of a French that would be "capable of communicating the African heritage" (qtd. Gikandi 1992, 16). Indigenizing keywords transforms English and the organizing rubrics used in English language criticism through which Maoli [End Page 93] scholarship engages in the struggle for ea (life, breath, sovereignty) and pono (balance, reparative justice).

Along the lines sketched above, this essay by a settler (non-Native) scholar suggests that it might be productive to put Kanaka Maoli in front of the term modernism in describing the Kanaka Maoli writing that emerged with the so-called Hawaiian Renaissance (roughly between the 1960s and the early 1990s).3 Positing a Maoli modernism might provide a more critical understanding of parallels and call and response relations among Ocenianian, Africana, and Native American modernisms, which are marked by creative renewal in different but interrelated "milieu[s] of dispossession" (Gilroy 1991, 110). To approach Maoli modernism in this way situates Hawaiian Renaissance texts within decolonial understandings of trans-indigenous and world literatures. At the same time, positioning Maoli modernism in relation to other "Renaissances" and post-colonial modernisms brings into sharper relief enduring aspects of Maoli aesthetics, such as the centrality of mo'okū'auhau (genealogy). In Marie Alohalani Brown's terms, "as an aesthetic construct, mo'okū'auhau refers to poetic devices we have inherited that inform and guide our artistic-intellectual expression" (2016, 27). These figures are shored up against what Brown refers to as "spears of change."

The need in Maoli thought to maintain distinct spaces of articulation within an increasingly interlinked world has deep cultural roots. As David A. Chang emphasizes, Maoli intellectuals of the Kingdom period were not anti-modern and insular; rather, they were intensely concerned with developing a "Hawaiian and Ocean centered perspective on the world" that "countered colonialist constructions" (2016, 103; see also Silva 2017, 41). Nineteenth-century Maoli intellectuals integrated introduced knowledge systems and learning technologies, and commented on disruptive changes at home and in other indigenous sites. The articulation of cosmopolitanism with 'aloha 'āina (love for and loyalty to the land) echoes forward a century in the writings of John Dominis Holt (1819-1993), a novelist, poet, playwright, essayist, independent scholar, publisher, and landscaper whose work I will discuss as foundational to Maoli modernism. Holt asserted that contemporary Hawaiians "want to make contributions to the world as Hawaiians…to add 'a Hawaiian presence' to the world community" (1990, ix), and to "find the path that joins the world's great offerings of art and knowledge with living in a beloved Hawaii" (1993, 235). Often considered the father of the Hawaiian Renaissance, Holt authorized the return through bodily senses to sites of "loss" that recurrently go "to history and the land" (1969). "In fusing the aesthetic image of the past with the present," Holt wrote, "I am led, first of all, to consider the land itself" (1974b, 14). [End...


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