Sunday, August 22, 2010

Polynesia in the American Imagination

Earlier this month I went down to Washington, D.C. for a few days to visit my brother. I was hoping that there, in our nation's capital, I might find some interesting signposts for and about Polynesia. I mean, 1/50th of our nation's senatorial representation comes from Polynesia (Hawaiʻi), and one of those senators, Daniel Akaka, is even Native Hawaiian himself. That is to say that 1 of our 100 senators is a Hawaiian man, even though the Native Hawaiian population of the United States is far below 1% of the population. I guess I expected then that somewhere between 1 and 2% of the street culture and the historical storytelling of D.C. and its many signposts (mostly monuments and museums) would concern Polynesia and Polynesians. But in reality, as my brother had warned me before my visit, Polynesia - indeed, the Pacific in general; indeed, the whole history of American Empire - is mostly hidden here in this small city on the Atlantic.

National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution

I figured that the Smithsonian Institution, the U.S. government's agency for researching and interpreting the past and present of human culture and history, would be overflowing with Polynesian artifacts back from the days of contact/conquest in the name of science (from the U.S. Exploring Expedition of 1838-1842 to the famous anthropological work of Margaret Mead, etc. [on Mead and her collections, see my previous blog post about the American Museum of Natural History in NYC]). Apparently, the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History once had a gallery of Pacific Islander ethnographic objects, but that gallery was at some time removed. Clearly the museum has tons of Polynesian objects (88 Hawaiian objects in the collection can be studied online), but these items are no longer on view. We did not end up visiting the Natural History Museum, so I cannot say with certainty where these objects now are located nor whether what replaced them on the walls is just as interesting.

Instead, we went two days in a row to the National Museum of American History. Millions of Americans (and foreign visitors) come to D.C. every year to visit this museum (among others) and learn about the story of the United States of America. It is a huge museum, and we were unable to visit all but just a few of the exhibits. Here I will speak of my two favorite: "On the Water," and "Creating Hawaiʻi."

On the Water

"On the Water: Stories from Maritime America" weaves together various narratives from American maritime history into an overall picture of the many ways in which American peoples (broadly defined) have engaged with inland, coastal, and oceanic waterways. Here is where I figured I might find some signposts of Polynesian history.

The impact of the "Atlantic turn" in the historical scholarship of recent decades is evident upon entering the "On the Water" gallery space. The exhibit begins with explanations of the transoceanic economies that engendered the movement of humans, biological species, and ideas between the United States and its Atlantic neighbors. Here, tobacco is important, as is sugar, as is slaves. Since I was reading Sidney Mintz' Sweetness and Power on the bus ride to D.C., I at once thought that this was an introduction to American maritime history that would surely make Mintz, and many other Atlanticists, quite proud!

A still shot from a computer display near the introductory galleries of "On the Water." You can use the computer to reveal the various transoceanic exchanges and explorations that occurred in the early modern Atlantic World.

But this left me wondering why the Pacific was getting short shrift. Were not Pacific exchanges of human bodies, biological resources, ideas just as important to American history as these Atlantic exchanges? Of course, chronology matters here, and during the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries the Pacific was truly not as important to American maritime history, because, well, American ships were just not going out there then. That is, at least not until the 1780s when the Pacific became extraordinarily important with the Northwest Coast - China fur trade. But, for now I tried to keep my cool, keep my hat on, and I believed that that exhibit - about the Pacific World - would reveal itself around the bend in the gallery...

So, I kept looking for a while - until we got well into the nineteenth century, in fact - and then I found a small exhibit about the California Gold Rush. Here, I thought, is where the "kanakas" (the Polynesian migrant laborers who fed the gold miners, hauled goods for the miners, even mined for gold themselves) would come into the story. But there was little here but for the whole ballyhoo over the hundreds of thousands of whites - the Euro-Americans - who traveled around Cape Horn to settle California and turn San Francisco into a thriving metropolis. This narrative is intimately tied to the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) and the 1850 annexation of California. This is a narrative of conquest and empire in the Pacific told triumphantly in praise of the pioneers who accomplished it. The Amerindians of California, the East Asians, the Polynesian "kanakas" who were also there are barely mentioned in the exhibit's narrative.

Finally, a signpost: a little sliver of gold that belongs, in part, to a community of Hawaiians...

On January 24, 1848, this little bit of gold, on exhibit at the museum (and viewable in greater detail online), was discovered by James Marshall at John Sutter's mill on the South Fork of the American River in California. Sutter had settled there in 1839 with a community of laborers who had traveled with him from Hawaiʻi: ten Hawaiians - eight male, two female - settled this small part of California with Sutter and helped him establish his agricultural empire. Gold was not initially part of the plan - and I am not sure how the discovery of gold affected the lives of Sutter's ten Hawaiian helpers, but I would like to find out - but nevertheless, if Sutter had not had Hawaiian labor to help him, he would not have been constructing sawmills, and Marshall - constructing the mill - would never have discovered gold. So when I look closely at this little sliver of gold, yes, I see a story of Polynesia there. But this is a story that still remains to be adequately told.

Then, of course, there is the history of American whaling in the Pacific, which is richly told in the "On the Water" exhibit; indeed, this was our favorite part of the whole museum. Of course, Pacific whaling is just about ingrained in our national psyche; what American has never heard of (or was not forced to read in school) Herman Melville's Moby Dick. Then you know Queequeg, the Pacific Islander harpooner, and the narrator's best friend, from the story. And that's just one example - a fictional one of course, but based on countless truths - of the importance of Pacific Islanders, especially Polynesians, to American whaling, and of the importance of American whaling to our American identity.

But there was little of Queequeg in this exhibit...very little. The whaling exhibit included an important section on the role of African-Americans in Pacific whaling, one that need be told, but I wonder, and I would like to know, whether or not more Pacific Islanders were employed in American whaling than African-Americans were.

I looked for images of Polynesia or of Polynesians on the scrimshaw carved by New England whalemen (as I always do). And as always, I looked in vain. I always hope that I will find an example of art by a New England boy who has fallen in love with a Pacific Island, or its people, or simply a beautiful Hawaiian wahine. We know they had these encounters, but instead these young men always seemed to have carved images of hometowns, of lovers left behind, etc. Or, perhaps this is just what the museums hold, or what they choose to show. But perhaps it is that these whalemen knew that their scrimshaw would come home with them, as gifts or as keepsakes, and they hesitated to carve any images representing experiences that they would rather not visitors to see on their mantlepieces... Honestly, I just don't know the answer.

The best signpost I could find for the Pacific and its people was this map in the collection of the Library of Congress, and on view in the exhibit. The map tells us a lot more about whales than about people. Red blocks mark the best locations for finding sperm whales; green blocks are where the right whales congregate. Most blocks are also labelled according to the best season(s) when to find these whales. In short, this map from 1851 tells us of the transoceanic migrations of whales, and in doing so tells us just as much about the migrations of the whalers that followed these mammals. During these migrations, islands were passed, stopped at; provisions were sought and obtained; now and then, violence occurred - physical and sexual - and at times, love was there too. And often New England men deserted and stayed on an island, and just as often Polynesian men jumped ship and went somewhere strange and new. But at the heart of these transoceanic migrations and exchanges - indeed, the very engine behind these specific pathways - were the whales. They set the course, and humans followed.

These scrimshaw busks were carved by New England whalemen for lover's corsets back home. The images are of home, where the lover supposedly waits for him. He sees her, and the world they once inhabited together, in his representation of the cityscape. She will wear his representation on her body, ever feeling the bone of the mighty beast that he helped slaughter and procure for her to wear.

Creating Hawaiʻi

The other exhibit that I viewed at the Museum of American History was "Creating Hawaiʻi", just a small window into everything that Hawaiʻi is, at least in the American imagination, that is. The title, "Creating Hawaiʻi," bothers me, but I also admire it. So it is worth exploring. But first, here is the exhibit:

"Creating Hawaiʻi." You have to look closely to see more than surfboards and lei.

By the title "Creating Hawaiʻi," the museum is acknowledging the impact of imperial eyes and colonial constructs on not just the way Hawaiʻi has been represented overtime, but even in the way Hawaiʻi has become Hawaiʻi: in the way that the past two hundred and thirty years have been shaped by American inputs into Hawaiian society. Those inputs have included American consumer demands for Hawaiian products, such as sugar and coffee, not to mention hula, luau, and other Hawaiiana that American consumers have demanded. Inputs also include the settlement of American Christian missionaries in the islands, the inputs of Euro-American politicians who achieved powerful positions in the Hawaiian Kingdom's legislature, and the inputs of the American sugar companies who brought East Asian contract laborers to the islands to the point where they rapidly outnumbered the Native Hawaiians. But, as Gary Okihiro has nicely shown in his book Island World, these inputs went both ways. Surfing, for example, was invented by the Hawaiians, became incredibly popular in California, and in turn has transformed Hawaiian recreation and culture once again. Then there is the ukulele, which was a Portuguese input, mixed with some Hawaiian inputs, that now is distinctly Hawaiian in our American imagination.

And so, yes, Hawaiʻi has been "created," as the exhibit suggests. And, as I would argue, Hawaiʻi also "creates." The exhibit could just as well be called "Hawaiian creations." That name would acknowledge the agency of Native Hawaiians in directing these cultural changes over the past two centuries, rather than just being acted upon by a foreign power and its representatives. To throw another stick into these gears, there is also the aspect that the Smithsonian, by putting on this exhibit of Hawaiiana, is doing its own "creating." As it attempts to move the conversation about Hawaiʻi beyond surfing and lei, it is attempting to re-create Hawaiʻi in a new image, one that acknowledges the multiplicity of inputs and agents that I have mentioned. (And as I write this, a remake of the television series Hawaii Five-0 is being advertised all across New York City, and I wonder: which agent has more potential to re-create the American idea of Hawaiʻi? The Smithsonian's small window dressing or this prime-time television spectacular?)

Well, now I feel I am beginning to "create" too much discourse, and what is more important is to focus on the objects themselves:

This was my favorite little part of the "Creating Hawaiʻi" exhibit, mostly because it spoke to the time period that I find most interesting: the 1810s-1830s. The casual visitor might look at these few objects and think that they are simply the primitive objects of a people from their own dark age. But that's not true!
The spear was not used to hunt nēnē, but rather was used by Hawaiian harpoon men traveling the globe on foreign whaling ships. These men had amazing experiences and attained incredible skills and knowledge.

This lump of volcanic rock on the left was not meaningless to the Hawaiians; nor was it revered as some symbol of the goddess Pele. No, but it was a lamp for holding kukui nut oil which provided illumination for Hawaiians inside their homes. The irony is that Euro-Americans had to travel around the Pacific for years looking for their source of illumination: whale oil, while Hawaiians, through the cultivation of the kukui tree, had their own domestic, and potentially sustainable, resource.

This is the most interesting object of all. No, it was not one of Kamehameha's fans to keep him cool in steamy island weather. Rather, it is a fan carved by a Chinese artisan, intended, no doubt, for a wealthy Chinese consumer of exotic decorative objects. The wood - sandalwood - was considered highly valuable by Chinese consumers, who mostly used sandalwood as an ingredient in incense. But the best sandalwood was carved into decorative objects for household decoration. There is a large story behind this fan: about the Hawaiian commoners who labored to harvest and transport the wood in the mountains, about the Hawaiian aliʻi (ruling chiefs) who sought the wood's extraction in exchange for European, American, and Chinese commodities, and about the American transpacific merchants who linked Hawaiʻi and China together into this complex transpacific maritime market. But for more on all this, start with my previous blog post on Hawaiian sandalwood.

Who am I kidding, though? Are my interpretations of these few objects (which most visitors probably do not see, or perhaps see but do not consider) going to re-"create" anyone's idea of what Hawaiʻi is?

Taking a step back, and now weeks since I visited "On the Water" and "Creating Hawaiʻi," I still think it is a crying shame that Polynesians are, on a whole, simply not in the American imagination as represented by the signposts of our nation's capital, Washington, D.C. It is not that they are misrepresented; rather, they are just not there. Actually, to be literal, there is one Polynesian signpost in Washington, D.C.: the street sign marking Hawaii Avenue, one of the fifty avenues in the capital named after the states of the Union. Of course, because Hawaiʻi joined the Union in 1959, it is way off in a rarely-visited corner of the district where there was still land left for either making a new road or there was a community that did not care if a road's name was changed to something a little Polynesian-sounding.

I should have visited Senator Akaka and asked him what he thought about all this, but of course, I am not his constituent, so why would he see me? And so I returned to New York City, where Polynesia continues to exist in the American imagination only on my idiosyncratic Pacific-themed Netflix queue, in the dark recesses of the internet (such as on wikipedia), on the television at night on Hawaii Five-0 (that is, if I had a television - I will have to wait for it to come out on Netflix!), at the independent theater screening Princess Kaiulani (but I will have to wait until it comes out on Netflix because they cancelled the showing after just one week!), on the whiteboard at the jewelry store (where I bought an engagement ring for my fiancee) listing the top ten honeymoon destinations (Hawaiʻi was at number two just behind Mexico).

And in case all this still fails to satiate your appetite for Hawaiiana, you can always listen to the Hawaiian songs streaming on the "Creating Hawaiʻi," website, starting off with the king himself - no, not Kamehameha, but Elvis Presley!


  1. Is it revealing my philistine, sentimental impulses too much to comment not on this thoughtful post but on your buying "an engagement ring for [your] fiancee"?! That's wonderful! You guys should start reading

  2. I've read this very poignant post maybe 3 times over the last week and a bit .. I'm still trying to decide how much it matters to me that Polynesia barely registers in the imagination of most Americans. Would playing a more visible role in the telling of American history have helped Congress to make a better decision regarding the exemption of minimum wage in American Samoa? Would more Hawaiians know how to speak their own language if their contribution to the Gold Rush and whaling was taught in US high schools? Has the stronger acknowledgement of the US's shared history with Native Americans benefited their communities more than ours?

    I have no idea. (I'm studying to be a physicist - what do WE know about social things? lol) I do appreciate the food for thought, though.

    Oh, and having grown up mostly in Hawaii, I experienced a powerful *cringe* reflex at your 'Creating Hawaii' exhibit...probably because I can completely understand the sentiment.

    Enjoyed this piece. Thanks! :)

  3. Dear Hamo Geek Girl:

    I really enjoyed your comment. (And I definately appreciate that you have read the post many times over! That's an impressive commitment!)

    You are right to question if it even matters whether or not Polynesia is present in the contemporary American imagination. And you are very insightful to question whether Americans' lack of knowledge about Polynesians is really such a disadvantage to Polynesian communities anyway.

    I suppose in some ways, Hawaiians can preserve their language and other aspects of their culture and history better BECAUSE most Americans ignore them. When I consider the American Indian example, as you suggest, then yes, there is an element that by assimilating Native Americans into the mainstream American historical discourse (and imagination) that American history has "stolen" American Indian histories as its own, and left Native Americans with few opportunities to direct or steer the conservations about their own history.

    But of course, I (as a student of history) maintain my belief that historical understanding can lead to cross-cultural (and cross-temporal) empathy. Surely the past fifty years of historical writing in the U.S., which finally began to add the histories of women, of blacks, and of other marginalized actors back into the American imagination has helped countless students develop a more nuanced view of American history --- that it is about much more than just old white men!

    Ahh...but I don't know what this all looks like from out in the Pacific, and from a contemporary Polynesian perspective. That's why I am so grateful for your thoughts. I hope you will keep reading.