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  • The Persistence of Plantation PaternalismMoving Image Representations of Agriculture on O'ahu, Hawai'i
  • Monique Mironesco (bio)

Using moving images from the 1940s–60s, this Forum contribution examines the development of cultural representations of food systems in Hawai'i, detailing a series of erasures enacted by promotional films from the pineapple and sugar industries of the 1940s and 1960s.

Approximately 85–90 percent of the food consumed in Hawai'i is imported from the U.S. mainland or farther afield. This is a far cry from traditional Native Hawaiian agriculture, which was based on a land stewardship system whereby there was/is no ownership of the land. The concept of mālama 'āina (commonly referred to as caring for the land) actually reflects a deeper meaning, because 'āina isn't just defined as land but rather as "that which feeds." The notion that food and agriculture are integral to the well-being of people is intrinsic to indigenous views of land stewardship. To this end, Native Hawaiians worked through an ingenious system of land divisions, or ahupua'a—wedge-shaped sections of land that included mountains from which to gather/ harvest wood for canoes and homes; freshwater streams; flat land for taro cultivation using stream water as irrigation in lo'i kalo (irrigated taro fields); shallow reef areas for nearshore fishing; and access to the ocean for deep-sea fishing. Stewardship of these resources was ingrained in the Hawaiian culture through a series of kapu, or taboos, strictly dictating certain seasons for cultivating, harvesting, and resting both the people and the land.

While this is necessarily an abbreviated view of Hawaiian history, it is clear that the Native Hawaiian food and watershed system fed from three hundred thousand to one million people, independent from any outside inputs until about fifty years after the arrival of Captain James Cook in 1778.1 After this period, and with [End Page 141] the support of American business interests,2 the Māhele of 1848 took place, dividing all of the lands in Hawai'i and rezoning them into three categories: Crown lands (about 23 percent); konohiki lands, to be divided among 245 chiefs (40 percent); and government lands, to be awarded to commoners who worked the land as active tenants (37 percent).3 With the subsequent Kuleana Act of 1850, a great theft of land from Native Hawaiians occurred because the law facilitated the consolidation of land into large congruent tracts ripe for plantation owners to take advantage of cheap imported Asian labor.4 Large plantations provided economies of scale for capital investments, the funding for which only wealthy landowners could afford.

Owing to a lack of understanding of and/ or access to the process for petitioning for ownership of the land, eligible commoners, or maka'āinana, were not able to claim their land titles. The law was purposely written to make the procedures onerous to prevent claimants from pursuing their appeals for fee simple ownership. After the Māhele and the Kuleana Act eased the way, the plantations became larger and larger, importing thousands of laborers from a variety of Asian countries to do the hard labor of growing and processing sugarcane and pineapple.5 Both territorial and state government in Hawai'i gave legislative and material support to the plantation system to foster its continued growth and development. However, as a result of globalization, cheaper labor available in developing countries, and other factors, most plantations closed in the 1990s, leaving large swaths of land fallow on all the islands. This land remains idle and is now ripe for (re)development. Focusing on media representations of plantation life and labor demonstrates how the plantation system continues to influence agricultural and land policy during a critical juncture in Hawai'i's land use history. The state can continue to support large landowners through legislative policy, or it can pivot toward a new narrative that encourages less dependence on imported foods and promotes smaller-scale farming operations, with a variety of sustainable models and distinct emphases.


The strategic erasures enacted by promotional films from the pineapple and sugar industries of...


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