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Book Review


Noenoe K. Silva, Aloha Betrayed: Native Hawaiian Resistance to American Colonialism. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004. Pp. x + 260. $23.95 (paper).


     On July 6, 2011, Hawai‘i Governor Neil Abercrombie signed Senate Bill 1520 into law, recognizing Native Hawaiians, or Kanaka Maoli, as the state's only indigenous population. Hailed by supporters as a historic step toward enfranchising a people whose self-determination was usurped when the United States overthrew the Kingdom of Hawai‘i's monarchical government in 1893 and annexed the islands five years later, the legislation tasks a commission with compiling a roll of Hawaiians qualifying to participate in forming a semi-autonomous government, should Congress one day recognize their native status at the federal level. For indigenous politics professor Noenoe Silva, however, political enfranchisement first requires reinserting accounts of native resistance into historical narratives about events preceding annexation, which frequently exclude Hawaiian voices in order to whitewash colonial subjugation as something passively accepted and inevitable. It is precisely these kinds of categorical myths that Silva explodes in Aloha Betrayed, a sizzling and sophisticated work of anti-colonial scholarship.

     Though focused on aboriginal concerns, Silva's project is heavily influenced by the conception of power put forward by the French philosopher Michel Foucault, whereby power relations are studied at the everyday, in addition to institutional, level, as fluid mechanisms that structure individual experience. Theorists working in the Foucauldian tradition upon whom Silva draws, like Lawrence Levine and Michel de Certeau, located colonial resistance within processes of assimilation, arguing that the colonized refashioned the suppressive customs, norms, and protocols imposed by the colonizer into tools for deflecting acculturation and opening space for the solidification of sovereign identity. For example, a primary means of cultural erasure in missionary Hawai‘i involved the valorization of writing over speech, since native histories and cosmologies were orally transmitted from one generation to the next, through chants, stories, and songs. Interrupting oral traditions with the power of the pen was, thus, designed to fracture indigenous ways of ordering space and time, making identity formation and social communication impossible, while buttressing missionary attempts to "civilize" a people that lacked the literacy skills necessary for learning scripture. In just a few decades, though, Kanaka Maoli became one of the most literate populations in the world, eventually employing their newfound textual prowess to publish Hawaiian language newspapers that challenged linguicidal initiatives by their very existence and circulation.

     Hawaiian language papers are among the most important documents analyzed in Aloha Betrayed, serving as validation of indigenous epistemologies that contravene Western representations of the colonial encounter. During the early 1860s, according to Silva, Hawaiians created the kingdom's first paper free of Puritan control, Ka Hoku o ka Pakipika, which ran scathing editorials about the abuses of missionary planters alongside Hawaiian moʻolelo, or communal legends. Unfortunately, the paper only lasted for three years (1861-1863), but it nonetheless became the model for ensuing anti-hegemonic presses, including some that lingered into the twentieth century. Within the pages of Hawaiian language papers, Kanaka Maoli were able to preserve stories, mele (songs), and hula (dances) significant to their heritage, permitting the reimagination and articulation of sovereign nationhood. Ergo, at a time when some Hawaiian rulers, known as aliʻi, were colluding with foreigners to codify a capitalist class system in the islands, the newspapers allowed the makaʻāinana, or common people, to contest discursive and psychological domestication, while reclaiming a measure of control over their political lives.        

     More than a decade after the cessation of Ka Hoku o ka Pakipika, its most celebrated editor, King David Kalākaua, ascended to the throne and, in turn, fought the onslaught of colonial othering by bringing back public performance of the hula and ancient legends, which church edict had banned. Additionally, Kalākaua ordered the printing of the Kumulipo, a cosmogonic chant that binds the genealogy of reigning royals to the beginning of the universe. To assert the legitimacy of their rule, monarchs situated themselves within the sacred genealogies regulating Hawaiians' self-understanding, both in terms of bloodlines and existential continuity. Committing the Kumulipo to written form, therefore, functioned not simply to sanction the ascent of Kalākaua, who was not connected with the Kamehameha dynasty that had overseen the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi for over sixty years, but also to strengthen the spiritual core at the heart of Hawaiian nationalism by clarifying the cultural gulf between Kanaka Maoli and their oppressors, turning the eliminationist logic of colonizing forces against themselves.

     Kalākaua's vision of cultural revival ultimately succumbed to the threat of an anti-monarchical militia, culminating in the Bayonet Constitution of 1887 that transferred authority from the throne to predominantly American and European elites in the Hawaiian legislature and king's cabinet. Nevertheless, the national unity fomented under Kalākaua's newspaper management and forged during his reign was crystallized in the 1897 petitions protesting annexation, punctuated by 21,269 signatures. Organized by three groups—the Hui Aloha 'Āina for Women, the Hui Aloha 'Āina for Men, and the Hui Kālai'āina—with support from Queen Lili‘uokalani, who had been deposed in 1893 by a group of foreigners favoring annexation, the petitions appealed to the federalist ideals of equal justice and popular democracy, contending that Hawaiian condemnation of annexation rendered such an act antithetical to the stated principles of the United States government. On December 9, 1897, Senator George Hoar, a Republican from Massachusetts, read the text of the petitions on the floor of the United States Senate, after which they were formally accepted by the chamber.

     As a legislative director and an indigenous scholar, the educational value of the anti-annexation petitions is inestimable. Too often, the story of annexation is enunciated from the locus of the colonizer, as if the only struggle surrounding annexation was the United States' march toward imperial completion. More problematically, historiographical expositions of the era have, for generations, relied mainly, if not entirely, on English language sources, naturalizing the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy as a progressive achievement, while obfuscating contrasting evidence pregnant with the possibility that Hawai‘i can be comprehended as a separate nation coupled with a unique identity. Despite its failure to fully address the manner in which the legacy of the colonizer may be emancipated by an acknowledgement of native defiance, Aloha Betrayed is an important corrective to these historical inaccuracies perpetrated upon the Kanaka Maoli and an essential volume for critics of indigenous abjection, particularly those striving to construct spheres for aboriginal populations to speak for themselves.

Kris Coffield is an independent scholar and legislative director for the IMUAlliance, a nonpartisan political action organization devoted to advancing educational and economic equality. He is the creator of the political theory website, and is completing his first book, The Object of International Relations. He can be contacted at


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