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Hawaiian Sovereignty and Island Knowledge

Rebekah Garrison | University of Southern California

We include this interview in “The Decolonial Gesture” issue to signal the importance of native political struggles in relation to land claims and anti-militarization organizing in the Pacific Islands, and specifically for the case of Hawai‘i. For Kãnaka Maoli the ongoing colonization of their land space, language, education, and cultural heritage since Captain Cook’s arrival on the island in 1778, and illegal US annexation in 1898, amounts to ongoing violence and depletion, but also motivates fierce political activism for a future where sovereignty remains on the horizon. Dr. Haunani-KayTrask lays out an urgent vision against the vestiges of colonial usurpation and a legal system that discriminates against indigenous populations, beyond the new colonialisms brought by US settlers and the multi-billion dollar tourist industry. In this interview, Trask draws together the histories of the Pacific and the Caribbean, and invites new generations to challenge the projects of militarization, settler colonialism, and tourism as they are currently configured in the archipelagos. 

On January 28, 2010, I sat down with Dr. Haunani-Kay Trask at the Kamakakūokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies to talk about the complex decolonial processes that islands around the world confront.  It was through this conversation, and the many more that came before and after as Trask mentored me in her final year teaching, that I began to explore how islands linking the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean Sea can be positioned within a greater dialogue of oceanic solidarity.  

As demonstrated by the International Women's Network Against Militarism, which includes chapters in Vieques, Hawai‘i, Guahan, Philippines, Japan, Okinawa, South Korea, Puerto Rico, and the United States, from the Pacific to the Caribbean, islands are connected to each other through their archipelagos, global waterways and cross-cultural kinship ties. Trask describes in the interview these connections between islands and a path forward for Kãnaka Maoli in the present history where the land and sea are captured by many forms of colonization and resistance.  Included with this text is video of a fragment of this interview:

Haunani-Kay: My name is Haunani-Kay Trask.  I got involved with Kahoʻolawe and the whole archipelagic idea of bombing ranges when I came back from college [in the mid-1970s from the University of Wisconsin Madison].  My mother, who was very straight, said you better come home, these people are going out there [to Kaho‘olawe] and getting arrested, and some of them are dying.  It sounds like something you’d like.  So that’s how I got into it. I did come home, and I didn’t write my dissertation for two years because I was so engaged in this process.  So, that was the beginning of the great drama for us.  Getting the people to go, and so many people said, we’ll donate the boat; we’ll take you over there. Then it became an everyday thing and practically everybody I knew wanted to go. So, to me, even if some things appear to be absolutely impossible, you never know.

Rebekah Garrison: The US Navy began land expropriations and military training on both Vieques and Kahoʻolawe in the 1940s.  Also, similar to Kahoʻolawe, in the 1970s there was a big demilitarization movement in Vieques. Could you expand on these connections?

H-K: People in Vieques helped us understand that we had so much in common.  So that every time, for example, I gave a speech or I was in a rally, I would always bring them up, and it’s kind of like comradeship.  You become part of somebody’s struggle because you’re suffering under the same conditions.  It was great because [the movement] started growing and other people started to say, well where are the rest of the other places?  I said, they’re everywhere.  That’s what the Pacific is for.  It’s a bombing range for the countries that want to beat each other upWhy did the French take Tahiti?  Where do you think they tested the bombs?  They didn’t test them in France.  And that’s what Vieques is for, and we have 26 military bases [in Hawai‘i].  You don’t think [the military] came here for what we call “bonga-bonga land?”  You know coffee and the beach, and a boyfriend.  No, that’s not why they’re here.  It’s a mid-Pacific location, and it goes on and on and on.  And you can really see it.  All you have to do is just pick up a map of the Pacific and look at FR for France, and England, and the U.S.  All you have to do is look at a map, but maybe people don’t look at maps anymore.

RG: Could you talk about how you were taught Hawaiian issues and the illegal annexation? How did you understand Kahoʻolawe as you grew up?

H-K: My grandfather was a territorial senator, and my father was a lawyer, and they had nine children, of which five were lawyers.  So, my whole youthful life was my father telling me, this is what they took away from us.  So by the time I went to Kamehameha Schools, I knew everything about that.  Who took what, when they took it, and that’s the great thing about having a nationalist father, who was a lawyer who taught us when they banned the language, why they banned the language. It was amazing, because you don’t realize it until you’re older.  Going to college, because I went away to college, I realized how much people don’t know about Hawaiʻi.  In fact, 90% of it is made up by the Hawaiʻi Visitor’s Bureau that says: “Oh we’re soft and kind and we wanted to be part of the United States.” It’s all a lie! So it later became a part of the [sovereignty] movement. Reclaiming what was ours.  Not just our language, but the truth of what happened to Hawaiʻi, when they [the United States] took it, why they took it.  Now I don’t think, at least for the Hawaiians, that there’s anybody who doesn’t know about the overthrow, that there’s anybody that doesn’t know about the banning of the language.  And if there’s anything that we contributed to the next generation, it’s those two things.  So, lots of young people speak Hawaiian now, including all my nephews and nieces.  And lots of them want to do things that are beneficial for the next generation. We are not Americans. We will never be Americans. We’re going to die as Hawaiians.  

RG: So, growing up, there was a dichotomy?  

H-K: That dichotomy is definitely the result of the takeover by the United States. That’s when they banned the language. So now, the language has come back, and it’s an intellectual renaissance. I hear it all the time. I’ll be in the building [the Kamakakūokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies] and the younger generation speaks it like that (snaps her fingers).  I’m so proud I’ve lived long enough to see that. 

RG: Could you explain the similarities between the histories of Hawaiʻi and Puerto Rico?

H-K: What happens is that little archipelagos are swept up by gigantic nations and that’s true for the Pacific. So everybody who suffers it is from a small place.  But then there are other reasons that they [gigantic nations] want [islands], like bombing ranges here in Hawaiʻi so that the U.S. can control the ocean. The real problem is that, first of all, we’re separated from each other. So we speak English, The Tahitians speak French, all of that was done by the colonizer. The first time I ever said that in class, I thought my students were going to fall on the ground. They said that’s absolutely correct

But they separated us. Here’s the Tahitians, here’s the Māoris, here’s the Hawaiians. We are actually one people.  Even though we speak different dialects, we are ocean people, and that’s what we need to go back to.  And so we started visiting people. Oscar Temaru is one of the leaders in Tahiti, and he was so wonderful because he traveled around getting the message out that we are indigenous people.  When I met him I said do you know what you’ve meant to us?  He said, we know all about you Ms. Trask. I said, good, that’s great

We are in an ocean that makes us very aware that we are small countries in a big place, and that place is controlled by the United States. So, we’re all comrades in that moment. And that’s why when the Māoris first came here, they did a whole chant for me because they know that we’re fighting for what they’re fighting for on the other side of the ocean. A comradeship builds up all over the place, and it’s like the engine inside that keeps you going.   

RG: How does this relate to 1898: Cuba, Puerto Rico, and then Vieques and the connections with Hawaiʻi and Kahoʻolawe, the Philippines and Guam? 

H-K: Yes, yes.  I have never seen a bigger base than [on Guam], and Guam is so small, that the base is like this: (forms a circle with her fingers) and you just think, where’s the rest of the Chamorus?  Well, they’re away in the diaspora.  It’s the same thing with Hawaiians.  The Americans took over Hawaiʻi and now we have all of these Hawaiians living in California, suffering from heartache and alcoholism because they lost their home.  It’s so repetitive to see it everywhere you go; that conquerors ruin the Native place. They did it in the U.S., otherwise known as Indian Country.  So these poor people get jailed essentially in these horrible little places that are just, the same as us.  That’s why I’m always pleased when people invite me, because there’s the solidarity. Whether it’s the American Indians, or Vieques, or whoever it is, Okinawans. I can’t believe Okinawa -- It’s unbelievable. I was so shocked, I cried. They said, Oh we should have told you. And I said, you did tell me, I just didn’t expect it. I didn’t expect planes coming and going on a tiny little island. The sound! Those jets, I don’t know how the people don’t go deaf.

RG: What is the Pacific history of resisting U.S. militarization?

H-K: All of these little places, Tahiti, Aotearoa, Hawaiʻi, Vieques, everybody now who is Native is fighting, and it’s an insurgency, is really what it is.  And it took a long time because the Pacific is a big ocean.  Not everybody has been to Aotearoa, or Tahiti. The whole ocean area needs to be liberated.  Vieques, Hawaiʻi, Aotearoa, everybody, Guam – it is so tiny and they only have the perimeter.  

RG: Where is the movement now? Where do you hope to see it go in the future?

HK: The younger generation has to pick it up because we’re old already.  It’s really true that young people know things we don’t know because they come through in another era. You’re working for the next generation.  We don’t know who they’ll be. Go out there and make a contribution. You got to get out there and do something. Now it’s your turn for public exposure.

RG: I have this quote from you in 1978 from the Advertiser.  It says, “Gentleman, if you must bomb, destroy, and annihilate, why not practice on your own historic sites?” Please expand.

H-K: The imperialist decides that history begins when they arrive, and so therefore, that’s why movements are absolutely imperative. That’s how we got the building [the Center for Hawaiian Studies], and that’s how we stopped the bombing even though people died in the [Kaho‘olawe] struggle [George Helm and Kimo Mitchell].   I think that it’s true that movements come and go. As we age, the next generation either has to pick it up, or do something else. You need to see young people because it’s young people continuing.  

RG: What would you say to visitors?

H-K: Learn something about a place before coming, because it might be that like Hawaiʻi, we don’t need any more visitors.  We have millions and millions of people, and so we don’t need that. What we really need is for people to understand that Hawaiians have their own issues: We lost our country. So stop doing this to places like Vieques,Tahiti, Aotearoa, Hawaiʻi, and Guam.  


Rebekah Garrison is a doctoral student, Department of American Studies and Ethnicity, University of Southern California.  Her research interests include the intersections of empire and island epistemology, indigenous cartography, and decolonial theory.