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The Contemporary Pacific 13.2 (2001) 359-379

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"What Kine Hawaiian Are You?"
A Mo'olelo about Nationhood, Race, History, and the Contemporary Sovereignty Movement in Hawai'i

Jonathan Kamakawiwo'ole Osorio

Abstract: In the summer of 1887 a small group of conspirators representing about five hundred mostly Caucasian residents and citizens of the Hawaiian Kingdom forced King David Kalakaua to sign a new constitution of their own design that explicitly humiliated him and the largely Native Hawaiian electorate. In the political rallies that followed, Natives who supported the new constitution and who exhorted Hawaiians to rally around it were ridiculed by opponents, who nevertheless were often divided over whether to boycott the coming elections or to try and take over the government through the vote and remove the most egregious clauses from the constitution. As the recent reconciliation hearings in Hawai'i have demonstrated, the tension between participating in practical politics and nurturing a defiant national spirit persists today and continues to afflict and enliven the issues of nationhood and identity.

Keywords: cultural studies, decolonization, Hawaiian history, Hawaiian sovereignty, Pacific studies

On 23 February 2000, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Rice versus Cayetano that the ancestry qualification for voters of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs was unconstitutional because it violated the Fifteenth Amendment of the US Constitution. Although a politically narrow ruling, the court dispensed with one of the agency's most significant political functions, namely, acting as a form of self-government for over two hundred thousand Hawaiians in the islands, while temporarily at least sustaining that agency's continued function of dispensing funds and services to Native Hawaiians. The significance of the ruling depends on one's point of view. There is no unqualified Hawaiian perspective on this issue, partly because of the history of Hawaiian sovereignty in Hawai'i and partly because of the perplexities among Hawaiian Natives and residents about race, nationality, and culture.

In the past thirty years cultural theory has helped to create a kind of academic uncertainty about the functions and nature of culture. From Geertz and his thick descriptions to articulation theories in the past decade, the disciplines of culture have steadily moved from a kind of fixed position in which the ethnologist knows and observes the ethnographic subject, to a much more fluid and dynamic study in which every participant, ethnologist, Native subject, and even the study itself evolves and changes as a result of their interaction with each other.

There is an existing metaphor for this process in the emergence of Hawaiian studies at the University of Hawai'i. Those of us who teach and [End Page 359] research the Native point of view are also participants on one level or another in the political sovereignty movement, in the movement to revitalize our Native culture and language, or both. Thus, any history that we tell, whether it comes from the oral traditions that are centuries old, from the published accounts of nineteenth- and twentieth-century writers, or even from the correspondence and editorials of contemporary scholar-activists, is not merely informational, but carries an activist content. The stories are meant to persuade and motivate, but they are also meant to explain our lives. These stories are all mo'olelo, whether they tell of mythic beings, of "real" individuals whose power and influence affected the society in which they lived, of personal occurrences and family stories, and whether remembered in the mind or committed to writing. In mo'olelo, the teller has the obligation as well as the right to be critical, to make pointed judgments of the subjects, to mock and anoint them, and even to claim a special knowledge of the subject that makes a particular mo'olelo worth heeding.

Such assertive scholarship can be traced from the writings of mid-nineteenth-century historians like David Malo and Samuel Kamakau to contemporary scholars like Lilikala Kame'eleihiwa and Haunani-Kay Trask at the Center for Hawaiian Studies. Over more than a century, all of...


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