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Contested Public Memories Hawaiian History as Hawaiian or American Experience Carolyn Anderson On January 27, 1997, in his introduction of Hawaii's Last Queen to a national PBS audience of nearly seven million viewers, historian David McCullough, host of TheAmerican Experience, labeled the 1893 overthrow of the hereditary monarchy ofHawai'i as "an unfamiliar story to most Americans today."1 Then McCullough acknowledged another audience of people not only familiar with, but invested in, this story: "In Hawaii, however, the subject is anything but old hat, and interpretations of what actually happened differ sharply, depending on who's telling the story." McCullough recognized —but located elsewhere—the production of history as an essentially political project; he linked an environment of contestation to local politics and familiarity with "the story." His allusion to the current political environment in Hawai'i was oblique, yet nevertheless a reminder of the situated nature of public memory, of the importance of not only who's telling the story, but who's hearing it, and where. This essay considers how historical stories are told on public television through an examination of Hawaii's Last Queen and five recent productions from the island state that share a focus on 1890s Hawai'i. It follows the lead of public historians who recognize the significance of the local in the creation of public memory and of Cultural Studies scholars who emphasize the centrality of the acts of formation and dissemination of cultural products.2 It is thus assumed that general contexts and the particulars of the production and use of historical products shape understandings of those texts. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Hawai'i shares, and seriously extends, nationwide challenges to notions of a homogenized present cultural identity 144 | Carolyn Anderson and a unified sense ofAmerica's past. Michael Roth's simple but penetrating questions are relevant: "What is the point of having a past, and why try to recollect it? What desires are satisfied by this recollection?"3 Two crucial flashpoints in Hawaiian history—the overthrow of Queen Lili'uokalani and the Hawaiian nation in 1893, and the U.S. annexation of Hawai'i in 1898— function as symbols of, and necessity for, a growing movement for native sovereignty in Hawai'i, a movement that deeply complicates the concept of nationhood. Where the story of the overthrow and annexation fits in a Hawaiian centennial narrative or in an ongoing American narrative of expansionism , imperialism, and treatment of native peoples is a matter of contestation. National History: Hawaii's Last Queen for TheAmerican Experience (1997) The American Experience, produced at WGBH in Boston, is the only regularly scheduled prime-time television historical documentary series in the United States; it is arguably the most influential and certainly the most awarded series. Created in 1987 by Peter McGee, who "wanted to do for American History what Nova is for science,"4 the series takes an aggressive stance in (re)organizing the discourse of national memory and in presenting itself as sensitive to the multicultural diversity contained within what is nonetheless a metanarrative labeled "the American experience." In 1991, with an eye on the 1993 centennial of the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy, independent producer Vivian Ducat submitted a proposal to The American Experience for a project that would consider the overthrow as a factor in the debates around "what it meant to be imperial" that took place in America at the end of the century.5 Ducat had become interested in Hawai'i while on location there as writer-director of the final segment of an eight-part BBC documentary series, Nippon. After returning to her home in New York, Ducat read the work of historian Merze Tate, who introduced her to "this incredible story of the overthrow" and inspired her proposal. Ducat met with executive producerJudy Crichton and senior producer Margaret Drain, who expressed concerns about the expense of such a project and encouraged Ducat to seek additional funding. Ducat contacted possible backers , including Hawai'i Public Television, but was unsuccessful. Unable to devote herself to fund-raising, Ducat moved to other projects. Several years passed; then in 1994, Ducat was contacted by Crichton, who indicated interest in "the Hawaiian idea," but cautioned that The American Experience thinks in terms of characters an audience could relate to, and suggested that Contested Public Memories | 145 the story be told through the life of the Queen. Ducat was interested, but hesitant to get involved in such a time-consuming...


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