Johns Hopkins University Press

The notion of authenticity implies the existence of its opposite, the fake, and this dichotomous construct is at the heart of what makes authenticity problematic.

—Regina Bendix, In Search of Authenticity: The Formation of Folklore Studies (1997)

I begin with a story about my initial encounter with the concept of authenticity, during my undergraduate studies at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa in the 1970s. In Hawai‘i, youth and young adults had begun to question the socioeconomic and political disenfranchisement of indigenous Hawaiian people in our ancestral homeland, and to repudiate the waves of Americanization following the overthrow of the monarchy in 1893, and especially following admission to statehood in 1959. An awakening of consciousness brought to light the suppression of Hawaiian language and cultural practices and laid bare the dispossession of land and livelihood razed by the unrelenting march of capitalist political economies during decades of settler colonial government. These energies coalesced into a movement that became known as “the Hawaiian Renaissance.”

Both my part-Hawaiian parents were born after Hawai‘i was annexed to the United States. They lived through the Great Depression and World War II—decades in which they had Hawaiian language punished out of them, and “lazy” and “dumb” became common epithets applied to people of Hawaiian ancestry. Educators generally held no expectations for educational, economic, or social achievements by Hawaiian children,1 and those attitudes carried through to my own generation.

The cultural renaissance empowered us to assert pride and claim dignity in our Hawaiian ancestry and heritage. We engaged in reclaiming and revitalizing Hawaiian language and cultural practices not taught in our formal K–12 schooling, and we sought to deepen our knowledge of ancestral heritage beyond the living memory of elders.

It was in this atmosphere that my peers and I matriculated into the University of Hawai‘i. And it was here that I encountered a dis-ease. Our professors were credentialed academics (translation: not Hawaiian). The readings they [End Page 161] assigned portrayed some version of an “ancient” society long gone, “salvage ethnography” on a culture on the brink of (then) dying out, or ethnographic studies of abject communities. The message was clear: our present-day life experiences were unlike the society and culture we were being taught in the classroom. “We” did not match the lifeways of our ancestors. The gap between our contemporary modernity and the vanished culture we studied condemned us to lessons about our lived inauthenticity. I sat in those classrooms processing repeatedly that, by the metrics of my professors and their colleagues, I was not an authentic Hawaiian, and neither were my parents. (At least my grandparents were native speakers of Hawaiian language.)

It got worse. In our rush to reclaim what was left of “ancient” culture—particularly in the domains of Hawaiian music and hula performance—a hierarchy of value had coalesced into a vicious cultural politics. Knowledge and access to older pre-twentieth-century styles of hula collectively called “hula kahiko” (ancient hula) enjoyed elevated prestige over the popular entertainment fare understood as “hula ‘auana” (modern hula). We were ensnared in a double paradox. On the one hand, because we were reviving “ancient” traditions, that gap of discontinuous practice between demise and revival was held against us in scholarly discourses over “evolved” and “invented” traditions. On the other hand, we had internalized the hierarchy of value that led many at the time to repudiate “modern” Hawaiian traditions that had sustained our parents. It is a testament to the successful epistemological indoctrination and enduring nature of coloniality when Indigenous people weaponize concepts like authenticity and tradition for use against each other, in quests for prestige and power.

My experience related above is echoed widely by and among Indigenous friends and colleagues, as well as in ethnographic and empirical scholarship. Such a profoundly toxic sense of invalidation and erasure sparked my determination to contribute to dismantling these narratives of disempowerment. I chose to pursue academic credentials; I sought to face those upholding the long-entrenched Eurocentric regimes of intellectual traditions within academe, and to say and write, “we are who we are, and our existence matters.”

Shifting tides of scholarship since the 1980s have brought forth wave upon wave of new (his)stories that connect stories of conquest, subjugation, dispossession, and domination to legacies of settler colonialism that continue to shape the lives of Indigenous peoples. Concurrent proliferation of critical theorizing, moreover, in fields such as cultural studies, postcolonial studies, subaltern studies, and critical Indigenous studies has also fostered paradigm-shifting disruptions in established disciplines of study; and new conceptual [End Page 162] frameworks and methodological innovations have radically altered the horizons of both vision and possibility.

The occasion of an ASA roundtable convened by Jonna Eagle in 2019 on authenticity as a keyword, then, was a welcome opportunity to unpack the toxic workings and subsequent epistemic violence of the concept upon Indigenous peoples. The call thus became an imperative to engage in epistemological decolonizing and to find pathways around and beyond the coloniality of knowledge production. I am particularly emboldened by the critical Indigenous studies vision articulated by the Māori scholar Brendan Hokowhitu, to exercise “an independence of will and the freedom and responsibility to construct knowledge beyond the ramparts of colonial taxonomies.”2 My question, then, is this: Is it time to cleave the concept of authenticity from the realm of indigeneity? The stepping stones I lay out here point precisely in that direction.

To begin with, the concept of authenticity is not an Indigenous invention. Its origin in Western European epistemology is clear. The Oxford English Dictionary traces usage back to 1657; subsequent usages, heavily influenced by Enlightenment thinkers (especially Jean-Jacques Rousseau) have expanded the concept from authority, broadly construed, through values that include essentialized notions of purity in historical origins, and/or in acknowledged “genuineness” of identity.3

Authenticity is part of the assemblage of coloniality4 that sailed out of Europe with imperial conquerors and subsequent colonial settlers. Colonizers took control and justified doing so by subhumanizing—or even dehumanizing—colonized populations, using racialized and gendered logics that privileged European and American colonizers as superior. This partitioning underscored an incommensurability between the colony and the metropole,5 with no points of equivalence or reciprocity between the two. The dividing line between the world of the colonizers and that of colonized Indigenous peoples has been fittingly named an abyssal line,6 one that marks an unfathomable fissure.

The abyssal line between the worlds of colonizers and colonized also carried into the realms of knowledge and epistemology. Within colonial knowledge regimes, indigenous knowledges were assessed as illogical, irrational, flawed, and so forth, and thus their subjugation and erasure was justified, in turn affirming the superiority of epistemologies of the colonizers. When used to uphold hierarchies of superiority and inferiority, an abyssal line that maintains separation between the worlds of colonizers and colonized serves the colonizers’ interests. While the abyssal line has been used by Indigenous people to turn the tables by asserting advantages of Indigenous wisdom that had been displaced by colonizers’ practices, any assignment of “value” on either side of [End Page 163] the line will be always already operating within a colonialist framework, and thus against the existence and epistemologies of Indigenous peoples.

The regulation of Indigenous identity is one of the most consequential regimes in which the symbolic and structural violence of exclusion7 is enacted. It matters not whether the metrics of identity verification are state-implemented (e.g., tribal recognition and enrollment) or implemented within a group (e.g., residence on tribal lands, pursuit of indigenous lifeways, speaking indigenous language). The end result will always be affirmations of inclusion, or exclusion by means of identity violence. Authenticity operates as a binary—either one is, or one is not.

As with any system of organization that imposes hierarchy, the elevation of one entity over another will instantiate a framework capable of inflicting violence one way or another.8 This is precisely the case for Indigenous peoples living with the legacies of settler colonialism. Multiple fault lines laid down under the aegis of coloniality place Indigenous folks on the wrong side of the abyss separating colonizers and colonized. Moreover, the power to define distinguishing criteria is not held by those consigned to the inferior side of abyssal lines of differentiation but by those privileged to be located on the superior side of the dividing line. For Indigenous people, it appears that the concept of authenticity will always involve some form of oppression—even when the oppressor may be an Indigenous person invoking some form of power over another.9

Further complications arise when debates on criteria and processes of determining authenticity involve the simultaneous coexistence of parallel manifestations of authenticity.10 Looking nostalgically from the present across an epochal divide to a primordial past for measures of authenticity often occludes regimes of hierarchy and value that may have arisen in the intervening temporal span. Likewise with any intergenerational time span: members within a group may select markers of identity and authenticity from different time periods, or from different locations. Whose authenticity gets to prevail? Whose authenticity is denied? Tourists in search of stereotyped expectations of exotic primitivism only add to the noise. The now infamous scholarship of the judgmental voices wielded in the very odious “invention of tradition” debates11 inflicted even more pain, as cultural practices argued to be “invented” were relegated to the detritus of inauthenticity, regardless of the politics of culture that underlay such invention/s, and to the complete denigration of any Indigenous exercise of agency.

Given that the concept of authenticity is part of the colonial apparatus of knowledge production whose objective is to displace Indigenous knowledges, it [End Page 164] follows that, for Indigenous people, there is neither rehabilitating nor escaping the colonial violence of authenticity, as long as the concept leans on abyssal lines that perpetuate the structures of colonialist measurement and erasure. It is little comfort that recent scholarship has argued that “there are no single, bounded, and self-contained cultures, and neither is there a unitary, fixed, and all-embracing anthropological definition of authenticity.”12 As long as we continue to give voice, space, and time to the term, the concept remains centered on the analytic dashboard, and with it, the abyssal lines dividing authentic and inauthentic, with their specters of structural violence and exclusion. We are still dancing in the same circle. It’s time to dance in different circles.

The broad analytics of decoloniality and indigeneity13 provide powerful frameworks in which to enclose scholarship on authenticity, and to change the terms of the conversation. I draw inspiration from the Maliseet linguist Bernard Perley’s “Manifesto: Toward a Critical Indigeneity,” declaring that Indigenous peoples “must continue to practice living our traditions on our terms, in our homelands, in our belief systems.”14 While such actions have been interpreted, by non-Indigenous scholars, as manifesting intentional resistance against hegemonic “mainstream” culture, I like to think that embracing Indigenous life ways constitutes insistence on living as we have done and will continue to do so. This perspective owes gratitude to two other developments.

First, the turn to Indigenous languages has opened a portal onto experiencing the world through Indigenous worldviews. Language revitalization movements have given birth to new scholarship in Indigenous archives that ranges from revisioning historical narratives15 to reconstructing knowledge systems.16 The fact that these narratives are recoverable suggests that at the base of that chasm ostensibly maintained by the abyssal line between Indigenous knowledge survival and loss lies a river of Indigenous epistemologies and ontologies that has never stopped flowing: in a word from the Chippewa literary critic Gerald Vizenor, “survivance.”17 The ability and capacity to reconstruct knowledge systems and epistemologies points to the fundamental fact of their continued existence.

Second, the concept of density, drawn by the Michif (Métis) scholar Chris Andersen,18 names the multitudinous layers of experiential inheritance and knowledges from the past that saturate contemporary modernity for Indigenous peoples. For example, Hawaiians love hula kahiko, but rap speaks to us as well. Claiming both does not bifurcate us. Nor did it bifurcate our ancestors—they did not transform into something radically different the moment colonial agents arrived, as the abyssal line (and those who apply it) between pre- and post-contact would have it. Rather, embracing all of our realities affirms that [End Page 165] our present and presence actively engages the multiple affiliations in ways that are, for us, complementary rather than mutually exclusive.

Boaventura de Sousa Santos, writing in The End of the Cognitive Empire, throws down a challenge: “Between the past and the future there is an abyssal line that must be defined by whoever has the historical will to denounce and put an end to it . . . if political and epistemological forces are available to put an end to it” (emphasis added).19 The abyssal line, drawn by colonizers, does not serve the purposes of Indigenous peoples. A new generation of scholars is courageously documenting the pathways and futurities20 that Indigenous peoples are already pursuing.

Authenticity as a keyword? Indigenous peoples own the decision to recognize and reject its coloniality and proceed to walk around it. Is an “us / not us” (instead of “real / not real”) framework sufficient for Indigenous communities to guard effectively against imposters and wannabes? Such questions are not for me or any other individual to presume to address. Certainly there are existing notions of lineages of knowledge transmission to look to. But these are matters for Indigenous nations and communities to consider how they wish collectively to move forward.

This brings me back around to Hokowhitu’s statement about “constructing knowledge beyond the ramparts of colonial taxonomies” cited above. Thinking outside the concept of authenticity offers the possibility of recognizing it for what it is, with deep roots in colonial knowledge regimes. That, in turn, affords Indigenous peoples an opening to weigh the historical experiences of epistemological violence wrought by the imposition of authenticity’s distinctions, and to explore alternatives beyond coloniality and based in Indigenous knowledge systems and ontologies instead. We are who we are, and who we have always been.

Amy Ku‘uleialoha Stillman

Amy Ku‘uleialoha Stillman (Kānaka Maoli) is professor of American studies and music at the University of Michigan and affiliated with the programs in Asian / Pacific Islander American studies and Native American studies. Her research honors the resilience of indigeneity in performance traditions in Hawai‘i and Tahiti, as relocated in historical and archival sources, and re-membered in continuous practice through the era of settler colonialism.


1. For a historical overview of the policies that underwrote assessments of Native Hawaiian student decline in Hawai‘i schools, see Maenette K. P. Benham (Kanaka Maoli) and Ronald H. Heck, Culture and Educational Policy in Hawai‘i: The Silencing of Native Voices (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1998).

2. Brendan Hokowhitu (Māori), “Monster: Post-Indigenous Studies,” in Critical Indigenous Studies, ed. Aileen Moreton-Robinson (Goenpul) (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2016).

3. Regina Bendix, In Search of Authenticity: The Formation of Folklore Studies (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1997), chap. 1; Charles Lindholm, Culture and Authenticity (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2008), 1–10.

4. Complementing the historical specificities of colonialism per se, the concept of coloniality refers to the operations of social control, imposed during colonization, that are hidden and continuously ongoing. See Boaventura de Sousa Santos, The End of the Cognitive Empire: The Coming of Age of Epistemologies of the South (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018); Walter D. Mignolo, Local Histories / Global Designs: Coloniality, Subaltern Knowledges, and Border Thinking (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000); Mignolo, The Darker Side of Western Modernity: Global Futures, Decolonial Options (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011); and Walter D. Mignolo and Catherine E. Walsh, On Decoloniality: Concepts, Analytics, Praxis (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018).

5. Santos, End of the Cognitive Empire, chap. 1.

6. Santos, esp. chaps. 1, 6.

7. See Sara Maddison, “Indigenous Identity, ‘Authenticity,’ and the Structural Violence of Settler Colonialism,” Identities 20 (2013): 288–303.

8. Bendix, In Search of Authenticity.

9. On “oppressive authenticity,” see Jeffrey Sissons, First Peoples: Indigenous Cultures and Their Futures (London: Reaktion, 2005), chap. 2.

10. For a detailed anthropological case study, see Dimitrios Theodossopoulos, “Embera Indigenous Tourism and the Trap of Authenticity: Beyond Inauthenticity and Invention,” Anthropological Quarterly 86 (2013): 397–425.

11. The repeated citation lists of “usual suspects” ensures continued illumination on a topic I do not wish to valorize further.

12. Theodossopoulos, “Laying Claim to Authenticity,” 339–40.

13. On indigeneity, the Kanaka Maoli scholar Maile Arvin connects historical and contemporary effects of colonialism, anticolonial objectives and aspirations, and displacement of Indigenous people from aboriginal territory; see “Analytics of Indigeneity,” in Native Studies Keywords, ed. Stephanie Nohelani Teves (Kanaka Maoli), Andrea Smith, and Michelle H. Raheja (Seneca) (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2015).

14. Bernard Perley (Maliseet), “Living Traditions: A Manifesto for Critical Indigeneity,” in Performing Indigeneity: Global Histories and Contemporary Experiences, ed. Laura R. Graham and H. Glenn Penny (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2014), 32–54. For a trenchant theorizing of indigenous existentialism, see Brendan Hokowhitu (Māori), “Indigenous Existentialism and the Body,” Cultural Studies Review 15 (2009): 101–18.

15. The Kanaka Maoli Noenoe Silva’s reading in nineteenth-century Hawaiian-language newspapers led to her recovery of the anti-annexation petitions delivered to Congress in 1897, which has dramatically shattered narratives about Native Hawaiian acquiescence; see Aloha Betrayed: Native Hawaiian Resistance to American Colonialism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004); and The Power of the Steel-Tipped Pen: Reconstructing Native Hawaiian Intellectual History (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017). For other work that stands on Hawaiian-language materials by Kānaka Maoli scholars, see Noelani Arista, The Kingdom and the Republic: Sovereign Hawaii and the Early United States (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019); and Marie Alohalani Brown, Facing the Spears of Change: The Life and Legacy of John Papa ‘Ī ‘ ī (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2016).

16. The Anishnaabe scientist Robin Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teaching of Plants (Minneapolis: Mildweed Editions, 2013) follows the lifecycle of sweetgrass from growth to harvest; the Kanaka Maoli geographer Renee Pualani Louis maps three cultural domains in Kanaka Hawaii Cartography: Hula, Navigation, and Oratory (Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2017).

17. Gerald Vizenor (Chippewa), Survivance: Narratives of Native Presence (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2008).

18. Chris Anderson (Michif/Métis), “Critical Indigenous Studies: From Difference to Density,” Cultural Studies Review 15 (2009): 80–100.

19. Santos, End of the Cognitive Empire, 158.

20. See, e.g., Noelani Goodyear-Ka‘Mpua (Kanaka Maoli), The Seeds We Planted: Portraits of a Native Hawaiian Charter School (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013); Laura Harjo (Mvskoke), Spiral to the Stars: Mvskoke Tools of Futurity (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2019); and Audra Simpson (Kahnawa:ke Mohawk), Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life across the Borders of Settler States (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014). In Hawai‘i, developing culturally relevant curriculum has galvanized a wealth of publications by Kānaka Maoli scholars.

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