Waves of Knowing: A Seascape Epistemology by Karin Amimoto Ingersoll

Amimoto Ingersoll, Karin. 2016. Waves of Knowing: A Seascape Epistemology. Durham: Duke University Press. 216 pages; $22.75 paper.

In Waves of Knowing: A Seascape Epistemology, Karin Amimoto Ingersoll invites a sensorial, mnemonic, experiential engagement with Kānaka Maoli epistemologies of the sea. Marking a critical shift away from land-based theories of indigeneity and decolonization, Ingersoll situates the ocean as an entry point into Native Hawaiian embodied knowledges and ocean-based histories that shape decolonized futures. Through an interdisciplinary analysis of Native Hawaiian storytelling, mythologies, surf practices, songs, and photographs, Ingersoll produces a theory of “ocean literacy” emerging from surf culture as “a portal toward reclaiming Kānaka history” from the colonial erasure of indigenous Hawaiian genealogies and knowledges (129). In critical dialogue with other Oceanic thinkers and activists, Ingersoll elegantly centers the ocean as a site of decolonial knowledge and Native Hawaiian histories in order to illustrate the surf tourism Islands as an extension of colonization.

Ingersoll draws on an archive of postcards, tourism promotion materials, popular music, photographs, and other “visual vocabularies” to trace the emergence of surf colonization as an extension of American neocolonial power, beginning at the end of the 19th century (50). One notable example is Ingersoll’s analysis of the “discovery” narrative that shapes surf tourism’s quest for unseen beaches, hidden pleasures, and undisturbed waters—a colonial drive that mirrors Columbus’ seafaring voyages. In this colonial geography, Paumalū becomes Sunset Beach, displacing “the memories of prince Kahikilani, Hawaiian lessons of pono fishing in the area, and a knowledge of how the waves break along this shoreline” (65). Where Indigenous Studies has theorized terra nullius as the colonial fantasy of uncharted land, Ingersoll demonstrates oceania nullius as the site of surf colonization. While the analysis of colonial re/naming is not novel, the book demonstrates how ocean-specific modes of colonization are driven by the pursuit of fantasy that consumes littoral spaces, peoples, and cultures. Ingersoll thus joins Native Pacific scholars who draw incisive connections between the expansion of tourist industries and neocolonial power. In particular, the book’s focus on the appropriation of Hawaiian indigeneity and the pleasure-seeking drive of colonization brings to mind Adria Imada’s Aloha America: Hula Circuits through the U.S. Empire.

Waves of Knowing deftly offers a theory of colonization that does not totalize, but rather leaves fissures in its wake. In theorizing colonization as an ongoing and expanding project that produces neocolonial desires and colonial erasures, Ingersoll centers, and even produces, an archive of Kānaka Maoli knowledges, traditions, and practices that already imagine a decolonized future. Ingersoll guides a nuanced and layered approach to ocean literacy, embodied and inherited knowledges of the ocean, as a form of cultural sovereignty that marks a Kānaka Maoli “fluid identity anchored in place,” changed by—and changing—the currents of modernization on the island (93). Ingersoll impressively poses, and answers, critical questions that extend beyond the realm of disembodied critique into experiential praxis; for her, decolonization must always be embodied and communal. Chapter 5, which is dedicated specifically to the application of oceanic literacy, demonstrates the care of “community spaces, members, and values” that unfolds from Kānaka Maoli relation to the ocean, a relational history that must be taught and applied in action. (181).

Ingersoll positions Hawaii in a decolonial constellation with the other Pacific islands that comprise Oceania, in critical conversation with key Native Pacific thinkers and activists, such as Epeli Hau’ofa and Teresia K. Teaiwa. As other scholar-activists before her, Ingersoll theorizes ocean literacy not only as an intellectual framework, but a tool to inform educational and political practices on the islands. Diving in and out of theory, visuality, embodiment, and experiential practice, Waves of Knowing paves the way for new theories of decolonization that extend beyond land, toward the shore, into the sea, submerged underwater. The book is at once an invitation and provocation toward the ocean, asking what can be known, and has long been known, through oceanic modes of living.


Rebekah S. Park is a doctoral candidate in the Department of American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. Her dissertation, titled "A Life Aquatic: Jeju Oceanic Epistemes", traces the ocean-centered practices of the haenyeo divers of Jeju-do, South Korea, in the wake of expanding militarization in the Pacific.

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