PRINT March 1994


Andrew Ross

WE HAVE NOW HEARD hacks on all sides proclaiming that we increasingly live in cyberspace and that physical location on the ground is an old-school redundancy—have PC, will travel the info superhighway, Route Whatever. Try telling that to anyone without a roof over their heads, or without a nation that will grant them asylum, let alone a minimum-wage job. Landed property empires and rentier fiefdoms may not be the unchallenged sources of power they were, but land speculation and land-use contests are hardly becoming ghosts in the RAM machine of cybernetic real estate.

Ditto for struggles over the environment. You don’t need to mystify organic village life to recognize that physical habitats and environments, even the high-density built environments of the city, are intrinsic components of people’s identity. Their deterioration, and our dislocation from them, can have catastrophic effects. Urban modernity may have shortened the average community’s memory of its environment, but even the most concrete-bound urbanites are more than rootless, abstract ciphers, blips on the map of SimCity. And as for indigenous peoples, their “cultural survival” often depends directly upon certain environmental rights enjoyed through traditional inhabitation of a region.

Last November, President Clinton issued a formal apology to Native Hawaiians for the United States’ overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893, and for the annexation of the islands five years later. This small gesture came at the end of the United Nations’ Year of Indigenous Peoples, which had been ushered in by a similar apology to Australia’s aborigines from Prime Minister Paul Keating in December of 1992. No skin off the Clinton nose (his favorite kind of politics), the apology came as a late acknowledgment (for some, a century too late) of Hawaiians’ sovereignty claims, pursued for over 20 years now by a movement that reached its symbolic apogee in the centenary year with a series of spectacularly planned events and demonstrations. These scarcely warranted a mention in mainland media, and were barely noticed by the 6 million or so tourists who visited Hawaii in 1993, but they had a crucial impact on popular sentiment in the islands.

By August, Ka Ho’okolokolonui Kanaka Maoli, a “people’s international tribunal,” had convened to adjudicate the record of U.S. crimes—political, economic, ethnocidal, ecocidal—in Hawaii. (In November, the U.S. Congress’ Defense Appropriation Act was to set aside $400 million for the Navy to restore the flora and fauna of Kaho’olawe Island after forty years of using it for bombing practice.) The tribunal’s work, conducted with an eye on the U.N.’s new Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, was partly aimed at reestablishing Hawaii’s claim as a non-self-governing territory eligible for decolonization under Article 73 of the U.N. Charter. The state of Hawaii has now established a sovereignty commission, and results are expected in the next year or so.

The sovereignty movement was initially modeled on black, Chicano, and Native American nationalist movements of the ’70s, but it has just as much in common with other Pacific nationalist movements in their decolonizing efforts to create an independent and nuclear-free Pacific. (This in a region where megatrend economists still talk of the Pacific Rim, as if there were nothing inside it.) Pursuing the drive for self-government is an association called Hui Na’auao, a consortium of over 40 different organizations spearheaded by the largest sovereignty group, Ka Lahui Hawaii. Ka Lahui’s political goals are currently focused on the attainment of “nation-to-nation” status—of a relationship similar to that between several hundred American Indian nations and the federal government. In the meantime, however, the movement has generated a massive renaissance of traditional or customary local culture: Hawaiian language, arts, sports, and ritual performance (including the hula kahiko) are now routinely taught to all schoolchildren in the islands.

Bound up with the cultural revival (nothing is more hip among the young) is the issue of land, specifically the reclaiming of a native land base, to be carved out of the 2 million acres of ceded homelands entrusted to the state and predominantly leased out to nonnatives. Activists have made the principles of aloha ’aina (oneness with the land) and malama ’aina (care of the land) the cornerstones of the movement’s philosophy. An ecological ethic has been a crucial vehicle for the recovery of land, water, and gathering and access rights according to customary law. Its antiquity as a lived practice among Hawaiians has been questioned, but aloha ’aina and malama ’aina have emerged as appropriate responses to the state’s misuse of native lands.

Tradition itself is a malleable notion. As with other Pacific movements, nonnative islanders and anthropologists of the “invention of tradition” school have analyzed the revival of indigenous customs as a creative construction based on urban intellectuals’ ideas about rural life. All over the Pacific, moreover, indigenous elites have presented idealized versions of the past in order to promote unity among peoples whose ancestors were often divided by clan and language, or were even warring antagonists. As in postcolonial nations around the world, ideas of tradition and solidarity are useful tools to rulers who feel structurally compelled to suppress internal cultural diversity. (Precontact chiefs surely employed equally selective representations of the past—by constructing their own genealogies, for example—to consolidate their power.) The tradition may be cited in the continuing name of anti-colonialism, and understood as the opposite of Western ways. Yet it often includes cultural forms that developed during the colonial period, or as a result of colonial entanglements.

In the Pacific, claims based on indigenous birthright and customary tradition have been employed to establish the sovereignty of peoples long denied their “native” right to self-determination. They have also been used, however, to deny rights to recent immigrant minorities, or to interracial islanders who do not meet the requirements of the blood quantum. Fiji is the best-known example, but in Hawaii too, where Asian-American communities have a lot of commercial and political power, the descendants of imported laborers from China, Japan, and the Philippines have reason to be wary of nationalist arguments that position them as junior partners of colonialism and challenge their legitimacy on account of their lack of ancient ties to the land.

The populist appeal of the Hawaiian sovereignty movement has always resided in local actions, usually against developers’ plans to build another hotel, or highway, or condo complex. Spurred on by the triumph of Kaho’olawe Island, Native Hawaiian activists are increasingly challenging U.S. law in the name of customary Hawaiian law, under which they can gain access to undeveloped lands for religious and cultural purposes. The aim of this politics is not to reassert native animism but to confront developers who do not consult kama ’aina (children of the land) about the land’s history and use. What is at stake is not simply the revival of customary ways, or the protection of religious and burial sites; the larger contest is over whether the ethics of land use on the islands should be dominated by possessive individualism or communal access.

Hawaiian appeals to malama ’aina entail a fundamental ecological struggle. This is not an argument of the sort fiercely pursued by many mainland environmentalist organizations, an argument about fencing off wilderness or conservation areas. The aim is not to keep humans out; it is about the social reoccupation of space according to sustainable principles. Nor does it really matter whether the medium of the argument—aloha ’aina or malama ’aina—was chosen more for its appeal to the current moral power of environmentalism than for its centrality to ancient Hawaiian culture, when land was not viewed as an alienable possession. The point, after all, is not to establish another national park, but to establish a lived relation to the land that promises not to be one of domination and destruction.

It seems likely that some form of self-government will be established soon in Hawaii. If so, Hawaiians are poised to reclaim a substantial part of their island homeland, much of it from military occupation. What happens then will be a test of a cultural politics that has embraced an ancient land ethic in the belly of one of modernity’s peripheral centers. The sovereignty leaders will have to decide what to do with their power—a power accumulated through precarious appeals to blood and nature.

Andrew Ross’ next book will be Microphone Fiends: Youth Music and Youth Culture, coedited with Tricia Rose, to be published at the end of this month by Routledge, New York.