Is sovereignty necessary for Hawaiian culture to survive and strengthen?

(c) Copyright 2000 - 2003 Kenneth R. Conklin, Ph.D. All rights reserved

Is political sovereignty necessary for kanaka maoli to preserve and strengthen their spiritual and cultural heritage?

The obvious answer is that sovereignty is not necessary. Kanaka maoli spirituality and culture have survived for well over a hundred years since the overthrow of the monarchy and the annexation of Hawai'i to the United States. Actually, the suppression of kanaka maoli spirituality and culture due to outside influences goes back much farther than that.

During the forty years between Captain Cook's arrival (1778) and the death of Kamehameha the Great (1819), profound changes took place. Still in the 1700's, British captain George Vancouver made several trips to Hawai'i. He gave Kamehameha a British flag, which Kamehameha accepted not only as a token of British respect but which Kamehameha also flew as a token of Hawaiian acknowledgment of a British protectorate over Hawai'i. Vancouver also gave Kamehameha some cattle for breeding, which Kamehameha placed on the big island at Waimea; and as a result of a long-term kapu on the cattle, they multiplied greatly and became the basis for the cattle industry of the Parker Ranch and the Hawaiian paniolo (cowboy) culture including guitar and 'ukulele music. But the most important outside influences were probably the kanaka maoli observations of the foreign sailors and businessmen, who failed to abide by kanaka maoli religious practices and who nevertheless prospered. For example, the traditional kanaka maoli prohibition against women eating with men was routinely violated among the foreigners, to the point where some kanaka maoli also became lax in observing that rule; and nobody got struck by lightning. Foreigners went to places where kanaka maoli commoners or even non-priestly ali'i were forbidden to go. Foreigners worshipped a strange single god, if indeed they worshipped at all. A few days after Kamehameha's death, the new king, his son Liholiho Kamehameha II, together with Kamehameha's politically powerful wife Ka'ahumanu, intentionally sat and ate a meal together in public, thereby breaking a very important traditional probibition and symbolically overthrowing the ancient religion. Orders were given to destroy all the gods and burn all the temples throughout Hawai'i. There was some resistance to this command, and eventually the Battle of Kuamo'o was fought and won by warriors loyal to the new king, who defeated a group of renegade priests and supporters of the old religion.

With the old religion officially abolished in 1819, the Christian missionaries arriving in 1820 found a religious vacuum which they soon filled. Christianity was eagerly embraced by chiefs and commoners alike. The missionaries created an alphabet for the Hawaiian language and translated the bible into Hawaiian, and it didn't take too many years before virtually 100% of kanaka maoli learned to read and write and were taught the Christian religion. Kauikeaouli Kamehameha III and his sister Nahi'ena'ena, who were deeply in love and who, according to the old religion were supposed to marry incestuously so they could have children with extremely high geneological rank, were prohibited from doing so by the missionaries. This was a constant struggle for them. They did have a child out of wedlock who soon died, and Nahi'ena'ena, still a teenager, died soon thereafter. A heartbroken Kauikeaouli never produced an heir. As time went by, the missionaries were successful in suppressing the hula, both because of its sacredness in the traditional religion and also because of its lasciviousness. Later in the monarchy, King Kalakaua rebelled against the missionary influence and brought the hula back to popularity with public performances, but some of the most sacred ancient hula were probably lost during the period of suppression.

Following the overthrow of the monarchy in 1893, the political leaders of the Provisional Government, the Republic, and the Territory actively worked to consolidate their shaky political dominance and to suppress the culture and language of their kanaka maoli political enemies. As time went by, kanaka maoli parents mostly went along with the program of assimilation by encouraging their children to speak English and adopt American cultural ways, for the good of the children. It was forbidden to use Hawaiian in the public schools. Most kanaka maoli children grew up with English as their primary language both at home and at school, although some might occasionally hear parents or grandparents speaking Hawaiian among themselves, if not with the children.

The point of this historical discussion has been to show that traditional forms of kanaka maoli spirituality were actively suppressed by both the kanaka maoli themselves and by the foreigners. The old gods were destroyed and the temples burned. Incestuous marriages were prohibited. The hula was suppressed. All that happened under the authority of sovereign kanaka maoli monarchs, eager to embrace Western technology, culture, and religion. And after the overthrow and annexation, the suppression of the traditional culture and language intensified for political reasons. Yet kanaka maoli spirituality, culture, and language are very much alive and flourishing during the Hawaiian renaissance of the past twenty years, without sovereignty.

Important aspects of traditional culture and spirituality are probably gone forever, such as human sacrifice and rituals of warfare. Very few kanaka maoli nowadays pray to the old gods or observe the rituals required when entering the ocean or the forest, or when killing a wild pig. Not many kanaka maoli nowadays seem interested in adopting a traditional subsistence lifestyle of taro farming or fishing with net and spear. Yet some cultural and spiritual traditions survive, including love for the land and recognition of the ahupua'a concept of watershed land management. The spirituality of the hula is being revived, geneologies are being traced, heiau are being restored and maintained, and proper ceremonial protocol is being recreated for important occasions. And all this is happening without political sovereignty.

To read an in-depth analysis of the way religious myths are used to support political claims for racial supremacy in Hawai'i, see:

(c) Copyright 2000 - 2003 Kenneth R. Conklin, Ph.D. All rights reserved