Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Big (Pine)Apple

You have probably heard New York City referred to as the "Big Apple." I think this is a strange name for our city. Don't you? What does New York have to do with apples? Actually, upstate we have lots of apple orchards, and apples have been a part of New York State agriculture for a long time, but do apples really matter here in the city?

I have come to think that "the Big Apple" only describes certain aspects of New York City's diverse community and rich history. I'd suggest that if you really want to know New York City, consider taking a Big Onion Walking Tour. Their walking tours of New York City neighborhoods are really excellent. But today's post is neither about apples nor onions. I want to make the case that New York is also the "Big Pineapple."

Really? Shouldn't that designation go, say, to the great metropolis of the Pacific, Honolulu, with its population of over 300,000 pineapple-loving residents? And considering that Manhattan is an island, isn't there a conflict here between my island (Manhattan) and Lānaʻi, the official "Pineapple Isle" of Hawaiʻi?

Yet New York City is a Big Pineapple (among other fruits), and to explain this, I need to return to the very beginning of what I do. When I began this blog, it was my intent to discover and share the ways in which New York City and the Pacific Ocean intersect. I know they can't actually intersect. I know that light blue Pacific waters will not just suddenly show up crashing against the sand and rocks at Coney Island beach. But I did suspect that New York City was home to migrants from the Pacific Diaspora, and I knew that beyond my incessant trips to museums to look at feathers and fishhooks and beyond my obsession with watching Pacific-themed movies on Netflix, that there must be more direct connections to be had here on Manhattan Island with the people and cultures of the Pacific. This is the "Big Apple," but it is also a "melting pot": as I mentioned in an earlier post on the U.S. census, there are nearly 20,000 people who identify as at least part-Pacific Islander living in New York City. So with the fifth largest Pacific Islander population in the United States, now tell me that my city is not a "Big Pineapple," too!

Pineapple (Source: Wikipedia)

Pineapples are an interesting metaphor (though no stranger than apples, right?). One can look at the pineapple as a symbol of early U.S. colonialism in Hawaiʻi, since, without doubt, it was during the early territorial years after annexation when Hawaiʻi's pineapple industry really took shape. The fact that Lānaʻi is called the "Pineapple Isle" can thus be seen as a good or bad thing, depending on how you think that island's aina (land) should have been put to use. If you doubt me that pineapples are tied to colonialism and imperialism, you need to pick up Gary Okihiro's 2009 book Pineapple Culture (part of his trilogy on Hawaiʻi's place in world history). And if you want the "Cliff's notes" version of Okihiro's take on pineapple history, in less than three hours you can watch Charlton Heston play a pineapple "farmer" (or, industrial agriculturalist really) in turn-of-the-century Hawaiʻi in the 1970 film The Hawaiians. The one scene in which Heston leads a gang of laborers into a South American country in the middle of the night to pirate pineapples from a competitor's plantation is straight out of Okihiro's book. And that's truly how Hawaiʻi got its pineapple industry going: through U.S. imperial intervention, not just in Hawaiʻi, but in South America, and all across a global field of power, piracy, and pineapples.

Of Language (ʻŌlelo)

So what is so Hawaiian about NYC? In this essay I will describe two different ways in which this city takes on the characteristics of a "Big Pineapple": one, through language; two, through community.

A reader of this blog kindly emailed me a month or two ago to tell me his manaʻo (thoughts) about ʻiliahi, Hawaiian sandalwood. He had read that I was interested in ʻiliahi - this is true; you may find many posts semi-related to sandalwood elsewhere throughout my blog - and he wanted to tell me that he had some beautiful sandalwood trees on his property on the Big Island of Hawaiʻi. Some day when I have more money, I would like to visit him in Hawaiʻi and see those trees. But in the meantime I am stuck here in the "Apple" doing research. So he was nice enough to point me to a wonderful resource for studying Hawaiian environmental history, which is what I am doing in the meantime: www.nupepa.org.

Nupepa is the Hawaiian word for "newspaper." And Nupepa.org is a digital catalogue of Hawaiian language newspaper articles from a variety of island newspapers dating from the early nineteenth century to the era of World War Two. I do not know exactly how many newspaper pages are available on this site, but tens of thousands would not be a bad guess. (If you visit the site and it makes no sense to you, click the button in the upper right corner that reads: "English text.")

What a find, right? So I typed in a keyword from my current research on Hawaiian labor and environmental history: "guano." 40 pages came up! Great, but...I can't read Hawaiian!!! So then my mind quickly went to that dark place where historians' minds often go when they think: how in the world can I tell this story without source x?? Sometimes a historian knows an important primary document is in an archive half a world away, and he or she must build up an arsenal of money just to be able to fly out there to look at that little piece of paper. For me, I realized that Kānaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians) were actually talking about "guano" in the 1850s and 60s - a lot - and, better still, the sources were right here on my computer - in the "Big Apple"! But the language issue of course presented a real barrier to me. The historian who has to travel half-way round the world for a source does not publish his or her work until he or she gets that source. Depending on the source, it might really mean that much. Well, for me, what Hawaiians said about guano, or pineapples, or just about anything, really matters. Why? Partly because histories of Hawaiʻi and of the Pacific in general have too long and too often relied completely on English language accounts by outsiders, colonials, or highly-educated creoles. Not that Hawaiian language sources aren't selective, too. I don't know what the literacy rate was in the 1850s in the Hawaiian Kingdom, but surely not everyone could read and write.

But here's the point. Last year I wrote a prize-winning paper about Hawaiian sandalwood, but I had failed to use any Hawaiian voices in that paper (except those rare words overheard [or imagined] and transcribed into English by haole [foreigners]). Now with a topic like guano, how can I continue to ignore the writings of, and about, the Kānaka Maoli who actually dug the guano and did the heavy labor of the industry? How can I still tell a convincing story of labor, environment, and sacrifice on these forgotten guano islands without source x, the Hawaiian language newspapers?!

Solution: I looked for, and found, a Hawaiian language teacher in New York City. His name is Manuwai Peters, and you can read more about him in this wonderful little New York Times article. I hope that he doesn't mind me posting this, but he deserves all the recognition possible for his contributions to the New York City/Hawaiian Diaspora community. I have met Hawaiians here in the "Big Apple," some who have lived here for three or four decades since leaving their native isles, only now finally getting the chance to reconnect with their native ʻōlelo through these language lessons with Manuwai. That's very special.

Language is social power: it connects people. It is also cultural power, and historical power: it not only connects Hawaiian speakers in the here and now, but it connects modern-day speakers in the "Big Apple" with those on the "Pineapple Isle" and with those all across the world, and it connects modern-day speakers with their ancestors, whether biological or cultural ancestors, who also spoke ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi. I am not Hawaiian; I am haole through-and-through (see my earlier post called "Am I White?" for my take on racial identity). But even for me the Hawaiian language is social power: it has brought me new friendships with people of similar interests in this crowded, sometimes lonely, city. And it is cultural and historical power for me, too. I spend a lot of my time now reading the words of Native Hawaiians from over one hundred and fifty years ago talk about their lives, their experiences, and their perceptions. How cool is that? (And what a better historian it is making me...)

Of Community

Hawaiian language is a crucial component in making this city a "Big Pineapple." But there is also more than language, and lack of Hawaiian language skills should not keep any New Yorker from feeling welcome within the New York Hawaiian community. (As I should know. I barely even know the language!) When I found Hawaiian language lessons in NYC I also found Hālāwai. Hālāwai is a Hawaiian word meaning "to meet." I encourage you to explore their website and see what this community is up to. There are hula classes and musical performances, parties with lots of tasty food, and of course the language classes I have already mentioned, too.

I can't say much more about what is going down in the "Big Pineapple," because - I must be honest - I spend 99% of my time here in the "Apple" - without the "pine" part - all along neglecting to hālāwai - to meet up - to be part of a community. I wasn't raised in the islands, and my native tongue is ʻōlelo Pelekane (English), not Hawaiian, so perhaps I am excused from being such a novice at all this. Stepping into the world of 1850s-era Hawaiian language newspapers is adventure enough sometimes. On those evenings as I sit there with my Hawaiian-English dictionary sorting out the words of strangers from the past, I feel a real thrill. What a challenge this is. But how great the rewards! Our "Big Pineapple" comprises different elements for different New Yorkers. Some are interested in what I am researching; others I'm sure could care less. But each individual's motivations for reaching out for language and/or community are of course valid. That's what binds the "Pineapple" together! So this essay is my little way of saying mahalo - thanks - to all those neighbors who make up this community and who share their precious manaʻo with us.

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