It was raining in Hana, Hawai’i, like it does on most evenings, when some friends and I hitch-hiked as far as we could to get to a party we’d heard about, giggling while getting poured on in the beds of pickup trucks. Having turned off of the highway to a less-trafficked road, we were walking the rest of the way to the land the party was being held on. I’m not much for partying all night in general, and I especially was not then, when I had been going to sleep at dusk and waking up at dawn. But we were on a remote island in the South Pacific, where, as one friend put it, “you take any kind of social situation you can get.” There, I was forced to do nothing much more than relax and read books from the library all day. On the way to the party, we were stopped by a man standing in his driveway, telling us that we were on a private road.
“I didn’t see any ‘private road’ signs,” one of my friends told him.
“Um.. it’s dark, we probably just missed it,” I explained, knowing that that was probably not the case, but feeling like I didn’t want to piss this guy off any more. I also wanted to respect him. He was a Native man and he was upset that one of his white neighbors was having a party. It seemed like his neighbor had parties a lot. He had asked him not to have any more, the pulsing electronic music vibrating through the earth and keeping him awake too often, but the person throwing the party was not going to stop.
“He has no respect, he’s not even Hawaiian!” The man told us, and then he asked us how long we had been on Maui. Three weeks. We are not Hawaiian either. He said that it was dark, we had never been on his road before, and he was worried that we would wander onto his family’s land (His whole family lived there, he told us) and “mess up their quality of life.” He said that we would have to go back and that, if we saw the person throwing the party (who, of course, we did not actually know), we should tell him that he’ll call the cops if he keeps sending people up the road. One of the four of us was angry at this man, but the others quietly apologized and turned back, the angry one in tow. I didn’t know anything about where we were going, what the relations between that person and his neighbors were or anything like that. But I did know — not from school or the newspaper, or from conversations with other people on Maui, but from books in the libraries — that non-Natives have caused a lot of damage to Native people in Hawai’i and that I didn’t want to represent that or perpetuate that. I had just finished reading a non-biased account of the colonization and annexation of Hawai’i, and I was about to read a collection of essays by a Native woman named Huanani Kay-Trask. In one of Kay-Trask’s essays about tourism, she writes, “If you are thinking of visiting my homeland, please don’t. We don’t want or need any more tourists, and we certainly don’t like them. If you want to help our cause, pass this message on to your friends.”
The things the man on the road said to us about “quality of life” and calling the police are examples of the ways in which Euramerican colonization has drastically changed life on Hawai’i. Hawaiians are left with no choice but to assimilate and work within the system imposed on them starting when James Cook made the islands common geographical knowledge to the rest of the world. With this came a lot of aggressive visitors and the introduction of many things: disease and poisons that the island’s inhabitants had previously not known or built immunities to, killing off over 90% of the Natives in the first 100 years of European contact; Capitalism–money and the idea of ownership, a lesson taught by the cession of Native land by foreigners for cashcrop plantations; Mass migration of people brought in to work on those plantations, since the Native population was declining so rapidly; weapons and the idea (or threat) of war; Christianity and the demonization and consequent banning of Hawaiian spiritual and cultural practices. The dispossession of Native land began with a dream of importing sugar cane and pineapples to the United States which continued through the 20th century as the military took over many areas, including the entire island of Kaho’olawe, and is still real today in the ever-expanding tourist industry. As things are now, there are something like 7 million tourists who visit Hawai’i each year, while the population of Hawai’i is around 1.2 million. The land continues to be encroached upon by outside interests which destroy endangered plant and animal species through destroying their habitat. These species are further endangered by the introduction of invasive species. There are entire towns dedicated to resorts, elaborate second — or third — homes stand vacant 10 months out of the year while folks are arrested for sleeping on the beaches their families have slept on for generations. Elaborate cruise ships dock beside endless shopping centers a few miles away, and there are plans in place to expand some of the airports.
When thinking about Hawai’i, even as an anarchist adult, I embarrassingly would recreate images the mass media had put in my mind, from the Brady Bunch to the Tiki Room at Disneyland: images of Native people practicing their culture the way they always had; Images of volcanoes, Hula dancers, legends, rituals. This is the image we are shown of Hawai’i as outsiders, or even as visiting tourists not venturing far from the resorts, and I had never challenged it. It was always peripheral, always untalked about. I had never read a political piece about the status of Hawai’i until I was there, searching the Hawaiiana section in the Makawao library. I felt ashamed and ignorant. My privilege had allowed me the comfort of never wondering how things got to be the way they are. In fact, I had never known how things are. The image of Hawaiian Natives as tribal primitives is so common even today, so fetishized, though forced into near extinction by those who present its iconography. Since just after Hawai’i’s annexation, tourism campaigns have relied heavily on the perpetuation of staged images of Natives as an unevolved people taking part in primitive practices that had actually been outlawed or otherwise altered by Euramerican invasion and acculturation. These images are typically of beautiful Native women posed as if they were dancing the Hula. The prevailing scientific racism of the period of Hawai’i’s annexation and early tourism used skull structure of different racial demographics to justify a peoples’ mistreatment by Europeans, stating that no race was evolved as the anglo-teutonics. “Scientists” of the time asserted that Hawaiians were closer to caucasian blood than that of any other “lesser” race. Thus not seen as lesser by race, Native Hawaiians could be seen as lesser by practice if the illusion of their primitivism alongside modern society could be withheld. The allure of standing in the sand watching a foreign person practice an archaic ritual while knowing that the next day you could put your shoes back on and take a plane back to your color television was a sure hit.
When I got there, I wondered where that Hawaiian culture that tempts tourists all over to visit was. I didn’t see it or hear it until I was soaking in a hotel hot tub I’d snuck into with my mainland friends. It was all around me there, a script performed by actors for the pleasure of elite dining tourists. But the culture I experienced elsewhere on Maui was that of entitled white neo-bohemians: The surfer bra, the burner, the mid-life crisis purger, the raw foodist who can afford it, the voluntarily impoverished. And they were all so happy; they were all so calm; nothing was wrong. Since these were the people I was meeting and interacting with the most, I started talking with them about the acculturation of the people Indigenous to their chosen home or vacation destination. Across the board, none of these people thought anything was wrong. “This is tropical paradise.” “There’s nothing we can do about it. Leaving won’t help anything.” “I totally have a Native friend.” “Maui has a plastic bag ban, what else could you possibly ask for?” “The colonization was actually a good thing because it helped them defend themselves from other colonizers.” And — this is the one I heard the most — “It depends what our intentions are.” If we don’t intend to silence a culture by increasing the number of outsiders whose very presence is a reminder of that culture’s silencing, then we won’t actually do that, will we? Who do these people think they are kidding?
These people are living the good life and don’t want politics to get in their way. They don’t want to think about how living in Hawai’i is good for them but is not always so good for the people who have a real connection to the land. One of the few people who was not a foreigner I got a ride with was a woman going to visit her father in the hospital. She must have had ten rosaries hanging from her rear view mirror. On her dashboard were pocket-sized pictures of her darling children, so she would always see them as she drove. I was hitch hiking with a woman I’d just met who had been living in Haiku for a few months. The two of us were happily unemployed, but for the woman giving us a ride, unemployment would mean not being able to provide for her sick father or three children. She told us that she had left Maui once, but had never left Hawai’i, not because she was in a tropical paradise and had no desire to visit other places, but because she never had the opportunity. She smiled at us and quickly closed her mouth, insecure about her missing teeth, a reminder of an abusive relationship. She was one of the kindest, most sincere people I have ever met. And she didn’t say “aloha” to us.
Few of the Native Hawaiians I met spoke Hawaiian to tourists. The times I encountered overly used words like “aloha” and “mahalo,” they were coming from white mainland tourists or transplants, or were printed on receipts in the mall trash cans. These are people and situations incapable of understanding what the words mean. Cultural assimilation cannot be reversed like that. Euramericans came to Hawai’i and forced the people of the islands into Christianity and capitalism. And now Euramericans are going to Hawai’i and willingly choosing to adopt a slaughtered language and what whisper of revived lifestyle they please; setting things that don’t suit them aside, incorporating their own favorites from the cultures of others. This entitled imitation is called cultural appropriation and it is insulting to people oppressed whose lives and beliefs have been forcibly changed.
The time I spent on the island of Maui was so peaceful, so healing, so good for me in so many ways. And I will not go back. If I’d known then what I learned during that trip, I would have never gone in the first place.
From a Native Daughter, Huanani Kay-Trask
Hawai’i’s Story by Hawai’i’s Queen, Queen Liliuokalani
Aloha Betrayed, Noenoe K. Silva
The Blount Report, James Blount
“Picturing Hawai’i: The ‘Ideal’ Native and the Origins of Tourism, Jane C. Desmond
Cultural Appreciation of Cultural Appropriation?, zine available on zinelibrary.info
It has been so inspiring to hear folks I have not had the pleasure of meeting before Occupy Oakland speak out about how we need to be open to hearing criticism from each other and be constantly working on ourselves. At one general assembly, some people spoke out about not feeling comfortable in the camp because they were being hit on by older men or because they were being insulted by homophobes. A proposal to section off a wimmin/queer/trans safer space for camping passed overwhelmingly, and next on stack was an older man announcing a men’s group meeting. Angela Davis came to speak at our general strike and her speech was dominated by “kill the ___ inside your head” rhetoric. This kind of thought is obvious to more people than I’d thought before and it is being spread even further. If only one thing comes out of this movement, I have hope it will be more of a willingness to work together and work on ourselves. There is a lot to work on, because behind all of this positive momentum, there are some ugly challenges.
Occupations become their own cities. The people participating find new neighbors, new local activities at the library tent or craft tent, new local cuisine at the kitchen tent, and new ways to get even more involved, with various meetings all day long, and then of course there is the general assembly. We can create our own cities and work together every day without the cops and without money. We can create our own cities and provide services for each other that the city will not provide. We can provide free education, free food, free medical attention. We can listen to our neighbors. We cannot create a utopia, a safe space, a zone free of all oppression and confrontation.
There will be violence. There will be arguments. There will be theft. There will be abuse. These things exist within all of that which we exist within: patriarchy, class struggle, gentrification, racial tension, queer- and transphobia, misogyny, dishonesty, greed, and on and on. This is the system we all live in, we were all brought up in, we all know. All we know. Welcome to the real world, in which we are poisoned every day. We can take the time to care for ourselves but we will always be interrupted by more damage, more abuse. The occupy movement does not claim to be a network of tent city islands unaffected by this real world.
The homeless are not the problem, the homeless are our family. The problem is lack of jobs and options for those who cannot work, privatized and inflated education, gentrification, and a plethora of other things which aid in one’s becoming homeless. The problem is also the media’s installation of fear and detestation of the homeless into the minds of those who have not experienced this lifestyle. The violence is not the problem. The problem is the idea implanted in the minds of young kids that they must fight to survive, living in a violent state, a desensitization to violence as seen in movies and on TV–including the news broadcasts. We are all products of a sick system. How dare this very system criticize us for not being less affected?
In the 1980s, the CIA introduced crack cocaine into low income communities of color. At the same time, a large number of psychiatric hospitals were closed and the ex-patients scarcely had alternatives to the streets. For decades, community members have been losing their housing due to the development of posh studios and condos appealing in aesthetic and available in price only to more wealthy, more white, transplants from other parts of town or other towns altogether. Recently we have seen this phenomenon reach a new level with the housing collapse, bank bailouts and foreclosures. These are the kind of things the Occupy Wall Street movement may be speaking out and camping out against.
People who are products of generations of legislation and city planning like this have already been occupying cities everywhere. Perhaps creating a space for people to exist together, laying their struggles out right in front of city hall to dry from the rain, is a good way to make the city face the problems like homelessness, illness and hunger that they ignore every day. Since city officials are not homeless people, they may not understand this like others do. They hand out eviction notices along with vouchers for and information about a local shelter, which will not open for another three days (many shelters in the bay area are only open during the more rainy months), and which requires a rent payment (How long are those vouchers good for? Long enough for the city to forget?) They may even think they are doing good. (Have you ever heard of the city reaching out to folks being kicked out of their homes like this?)
The corporate media, city officials, and internet commentators have done their best to point out how crazy and out of control those involved with the occupations are. Reports of urinating in public! People gotta piss. Reports of dogs biting reporters! Hey, we said we did not welcome the mainstream news. Reports of drug usage! Just because it’s out in the open doesn’t mean it is unique. There was even a person murdered outside of the Occupy Oakland encampment, as well as a suicide in Burlington, VT and another death in Salt Lake City, UT. These are tragic occurrences, but do not stand solely in the occupy movement. People die, people are murdered every day. This is not a problem with the occupations.
I am unsure whether I have a place writing about the things I’m writing about. I am just some white lady, but I feel it is urgent to have these dialogues. The occupy movement brings people from so many different backgrounds and paths together and few of us share the same story. I have been homeless and I have been unemployed and I have never experienced wealth, but I will never fully understand the feelings and experiences behind the racial tension present in our communities. I feel like even this racial tension is a product of the system and a tool to render us powerless, pitted against each other before a common enemy.
Is it wrong to believe the state is smart enough to put white cops in black neighborhoods and vise versa? Smart enough to portray young black men as criminal-aged violent gangbangers and young white men as college-aged upcoming entrepreneurs? Things like this can frustrate and paralyze, but communication is a beautiful thing so I may as well try my best. I believe that is all we can do.