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  • Beyond the Coloniality of Authenticity
  • Amy Ku‘uleialoha Stillman (bio)

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...


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