I am honoured that she took the time to talk to The Nation. She is controversial. She is a scholar, a professor, an intellectual, a communicator, apoet and a fighter, above all else, she is Hawai’ian. Her beauty, power and magic embodies everything that she is and everything she does.
Her power comes through as magic. The magic is revealed in her presence and her manner of dress and how she carries herself, and of course in her writings. Her name is Haunani-Kay Trask I had the opportunity to meet and talk with Haunani at the Aboriginal Publishers Conference in Vancouver.
Her power is called manna in Hawai’i. It is the same as in Cree country when a person is recognized as an uuchimao when something needs to get done. She is along with her sister a leader of Ka Lahui, a movement for Hawai’ian sovereignty. She is an author, filmaker and a poet. She writes for newspapers, she has a television show, she has a film called “Act of War: Overthrow of the Hawai’ian Kingdom”. She wrote a book on feminist theory and a collection of speeches and essays entitled, “From a Native Daughter: Colonialism and Sovereignty in Hawai’i.” Her latest book of poetry,
“Light in the crevice never seen,” has been the most controversial to date. She is almost finished the next one. As a fight her weapons of choice are her words. Judging by the reaction she gets, they are effective.
The Nation: I heard you talking about the conditions you have to go through in terms of bringing out a book or a magazine, that you have censors at the university press. Where does the First Amendment come in—isn’t it held sacred by the so-called Americans? Haunani: Yes, Americans like to talk about the First Amendment but in reality, as anybody knows who lives on the other side of the border, the support is very thin in actuality. The First Amendment is a political game that’s played between different parties in the Congress, but in practice there’s all kinds of censorship and suppression. Certainly suppression of Native voices, suppression of what manages to get out In the state of Hawai’i, there’s an attorney who sits on the review for the University of Hawai’i Press books. He overlooks the work that comes through the press to see if there’s anything libelous or if there is anything they find unpalatable. Of course the press has long denied this is true but we know it’s true. We’ve been told that by people who have thought of being published by the University of Hawai’i Press but have changed their minds.
One book in particular was about land and power in Hawai’i, which are almost synonymous. The book came out and sold almost 15,000 copies, then all of a sudden the UHP was interested in picking it up for distribution. But they let the risk be taken on the first run by the authors who set up a little company so they could publish it.
That’s a real problem for Native people because we’re very critical of the existing system and that includes the political system, the economic system—the cultural exploitation of Hawaiian dance and Hawaiian land, Hawaiian women, Hawaiian values. So it’s really not likely that they would publish anything really critical, particularly critical of tourism. And if that’s going to continue to be the case—and I don’t have any reason to see or to believe it won’t be the case—then we’re left with no other alternative but to set up our own publishing arm.
We don’t have it now but we are going to have to do it The problem I see immediately of course is financial. Then the next problem is getting people who are willing to write stuff that is very critical. There are some critical voices in Hawai’i but you know we are an oppressed people so people have learned the lesson that all oppressed people learn which is that if you say anything publicly, you run all kinds of risks. Since we’re already at risk why increase it? Rather than increase the risks, people are silenced. Part of being at this conference was to link up with other people who are strengthening our voice.
For me, which I’m sure is true for a lot of other people, when I heard that the Hawai’ians are starting to assert themselves and assert their sovereignty and everything that goes with that, I think to myself, “Wait a minute!” What about all those images you see, the dances, the smiling faces? There must be more to that. There must be something behind that. I’m sure there is a parallel between the Native Americans—I don’t know how you would say it… the “cigar store Indian”—how does that come into play for the Hawai’ians? Actually I think our major form of oppression at the moment is the tourists. Imaging of the people, the culture and the land, since they are inseparable. I myself have written on this. I call it cultural prostitution such that Hawai’i plays the role of the female. Hawai’i is alluring, she’s beautiful, she has many attributes, including her people’s culture, the beauty of how we live or at least used to live before tourism came in.
And that’s transformed like a beautiful woman is into a saleable commodity and that saleable commodity needs a pimp that in our case is the state of Hawai’i, and the pimp controls the gate the access and the exit to this beautiful woman—the counties, the permits for buildings, density and height, water requirements; the airlines that fly everything in.
So it’s definitely a very organized form of exploitation. And it’s very slick so there’s a lot of advertising. There’s lots of degradation just as a woman is degraded by whorish clothes and makeup. Hawai’i is degraded and our images are degraded by the same kinds of things so that our dances, our people and our women—who are profoundly erotic because Hawai’i itself is so erotic—became smutty and salacious instead of being naturally sensuous.
Now what’s happened is that our dancers have been made over and made up at the same time. And trotted out at the convenience of… Yep, exactly… That really for our people is the most degrading thing. They work in the industry essentially selling their culture, prostituting their own labour and they make a pittance. The industry is booming in terms of money that is generated, but the money is repatriated back to exploiting countries, the United States being number one, then Japan, Hong Kong, Australia, Taiwan, the so-called dragons of Asia.
It’s a vertical monopoly so the airlines and the buses and the hotels and the tourists’ recreational spots are all owned by one company, say, Japan Airlines. All that money is circulated through that cleverly arranged system and it goes back to the countries. Although tourism does generate income, it’s an exploitative, unnatural income base and as soon as there’s a downturn in the world economy or in Japan’s economy, the tourism declines.
At the moment, we have 6 1/2 to 7 million tourists per year. 1 1/ 2 mil come from Japan alone. They spend four to five times as much as American tourists do. The States in general send us 4 mil in tourists, who we call “mashed potato tourists” because they come in large packages. They spend very little but they leave a lot of pollution. They don’t generate as much income or profit because they don’t have as much money. Then the Commonwealth, Canada, New Zealand and Britain and Europe in general bring in about a million tourists a year. We have a big trade with Canada in terms of tourists. There’s a part of our island called Little Canada where rich Canadians like to come and buy up the land and laze around on the beach. That’s akin to Hollywood East, as one part of the island Maui is called where Hollywood and rock stars buy up land. The NBA bought up estates in Kaua’i. They’ve all divided up the islands. Our historic destiny is to sort of wait and serve on those tourists in the industry.
Do you think anything positive could come out of tourism, because there are different nations that are betting on tourism. What advice would you pass on to them? Don’t do it. If you do it make sure the scale is very small. Make sure it’s totally controlled by whatever nation decides to do this. I’ve visited the Oneida Nation in Wisconsin. They have a gambling area and they have a small inn. They’re in total control of it. And they regulate it pretty tightly, they’re generating a lot of money which goes right back to the nation and not to the state of Wisconsin.
In that sense, if Native nations are looking at tourism, make the scale small and the profits big, and don’t get greedy about expanding because it brings with it terrible problems. And certainly alcoholism, which Native people don’t need, is always generated by that kind of vacationing atmosphere. There’s a lot of loose money, so in Waikiki for example petty theft, robbery and burglary and larceny are way up because there are a lot of poor Hawai’ians and a lot of rich tourists, and so there is all kinds of raiding that goes on.
And because Americans love guns that passes on to the colonies. Like Hawaii, there is a lot of weaponry going on and tourists are getting beat up and gun-whipped and shot and the evils that follow in that kind of exploitation are endless and things I don’t even think about when I’m studying this. Things like the transmission of AIDS, because it’s such a fast breeding ground for all kinds of people. Now AIDS is being transmitted incredibly in Waikiki because a whole part of it is like a decayed city, it’s like a ghetto.
It swallows up a lot of money—that’s the other advice I would give to people. If the scale is small the necessity to keep it in shape is small, but if the scale is large to keep it attractive it is a problem. So, if nations could afford it I would tell them not to get involve in tourism. There is a cultural prostitution that comes out of tourism, that comes out of being a servile person, that is very difficult to control.
Pretty soon there will be whole generations that have done nothing but work in tourism their whole lives. In Hawaii, that is particularly true among entertainers, because Hawaiian music is so beautiful and Hawai’ians are a musical people. They wind up thinking of the tourism industry as employment and before you know it your own people end up being divided amongst themselves as ours are because there are some who support the tourism industry as the only game in town. Sort of what the state of Hawaii says and then there are some of us who say, No, it’s bad.
But see, we don’t have an alternative for them. Until we do have that alternative we’re telling them essentially to give up a job, however poorly paid. It’s more than I can give offer them because we don’t have any jobs to offer them. There are all kinds of problems you don’t foresee when you get into something like that The other thing about Hawaii is we don’t have a land base, we don’t have a nation in that sense. We haven’t constituted our nation on a land base but we have reconstituted it as a sort of volunteer organization. But we don’t have a land base because the federal government hasn’t recognized us yet Although we have occupied lands for 20 years, we keep getting arrested and evicted.
So at the moment we don’t have any control over what the tourism industry is doing and frankly neither does the state of Hawaii because it depends on global downturns. When the Japanese were rich, there were a lot of Japanese tourists. Now that the Japanese are less rich there are lot of empty hotels. Occupancy in some places is at 30 per cent, you can’t even maintain the building at 30-per-cent occupancy! The over-building of Hawaii is really beginning to show.
During the colonization and the building of the tourism industry was there a base of people who stayed true to what Hawaii should be? I think on some of the smaller islands, yes. There are eight major Islands. On the smaller islands, definitely. But on the main island most Hawai’ians were driven to the city… In order to do that you need a land base or at least you have to be unmolested by massive development On the smaller islands people have managed to stay despite unemployment and all kinds of impoverishment It’s better to be impoverished in a rural area than in the city because the cities are so expensive and dangerous.
Tourism didn’t become a major source of income until after statehood. That’s 60 years after the overthrow of the kingdom of Hawaii and a tremendous decline of the people. We had kingdom in the 19th century and the U.S. invaded, occupied and overthrew the Native government and put its own government in place. It’s been a hundred years since that happened.
The result now is we’ve got all these chronic problems, one of which is out-migration. There’s so many Hawai’ians leaving Hawaii because people follow capital. They go to San Francisco or to Vancouver or Seattle looking for jobs. Then their children grow up away from Hawaii and they don’t have any identification with the people of the land.
It’s very similar to other Native people who’ve been moved off their homeland. It’s very difficult to maintain ties for any critical sense at all if you don’t have a connection. In the case of Native people, that connection has to be direct It can’t just be through letters and music.
What prompted you to write? Was it because of what’s happened to Hawaii and its people? In part, yes. But I always wanted to be a writer because I think writing is a way to stay in touch with the deepest part of you. The deepest part of me is Hawaiian underneath all my western education and everything else. It’s a form of survival, the kind of person you really are. It’s an absolute truism.
I’ve heard other writers say this but I didn’t know it was true until I felt it myself that if you write you will be surprised by your own writing, because it really does, once you have a rhythm of creativity it really does take you to places where all the noise of modern urban life is destroyed or is blotted out A performance artist David Campbell last night said, “You’re able to pierce the veil.” At first I didn’t know what he meant, then he went on to explain it. I thought that’s a good image because in many ways there’s a veil. Not that we Native people want a veil there, but it’s been put there. To get through that becomes a very necessary thing to do. It takes time, work and patience. But if you do it you become very empowered because you have a place to stand on. You know who you are no matter what else the dominant society says.
There are other essays about racism in the university—I’m an intellectual and a scholar—about all the scholarly debates with anthropologists who I really detest, archaeologists, grave robbers, the tourist industry, historians. But the major part of the book is about sovereignty. After that book came out there was a lot of pro and con about it in the reviews and in the general political atmosphere. Then when the poetry book came out I think people were just shocked because, which I think is false, the American ideology says you can’t have political poetry.
Americans are probably the only people in the world who still cling to that myth, that art isn’t political. If it’s not political why is the National Endowment for the Arts funding slashed to ribbons. Of course it’s political. I think the surprise by my people that I write poetry was a pleasant surprise. It wasn’t a bad one for me and for them because poetry takes us to places that scholarly analysis and political essays don’t take you to. The response has been overwhelming. People come up to me after I read, my people who listen to what I’m saying, some of which is terribly, terribly sad and they’re crying because they know that’s true.
Even if we’re not sort of allowed to say that publicly because of all the propaganda surrounding the tourist industry, they know that’s true. They feel that loss and that suffering and that fury because they go together. Fury and loss go side by side. You lose your land, then you’re furious, then that turns to depression because you can’t say that And lots of people who are Native Hawaiian, including people on the continent, I gave a couple of readings on the coastal states—it was the same response, they’ve been driven away from their homeland and they feel just as dispossessed even though some of them haven’t been back to Hawai’ia for decades.
The pain is very real. And the beauty, of course. Hawai’ia is incredibly beautiful, just adds to the pain. Because it’s being destroyed at a very rapid pace. The response is very heartening for me because writing is very hard, as you know yourself. When people respond to you it makes you want to write more. The poetry book came out in ’94 and I’m about 3/4’s of the way through another book because I was so inspired.
This one took 10 years during which time we founded a sovereignty movement and I wrote two other books and built the centre for Hawaiian Studies. It was sort of a private little thing that I did. But now it’s out in the open and I know people support it so they gave me a lot of energy to start writing. Now I write on a regular basis. I’m very pleased to say I’m a poet I don’t think I said that before. I would have said I like poetry, I want to write poetry, I’m going to write poetry. Now I say I’m a poet.
Personally for me, that’s a big move. I think it’s something we as writers need to, and writers do who do write… you get to that poi nt where you can say it, you know, without flinching or without feeling pretentious. I always thought poetry was something other people did. And I was just someone who wrote. Lots of writers have said, Yeah,
I didn’t tell anyone I wrote when I first started writing because… you feel self-conscious. Yes, you feel terribly self-conscious.
Then you don’t want people to say, “Oh! Well, let me see your poetry.” You’re afraid to, that they may not understand it or not like it. Or make fun of it. Which is very strange because I write publicly all the time in Hawaiian. I write for the newspapers, I’m attacked all the time in the papers, I reply. I have my own television show, my own radio show.
It comes from so deep within you. Yeah, it’s pierced that veil, as that man said last night It’s very, very private for one thing. You’re much more vulnerable with poetry than with political analysis. The reviews, when the book came out, the first couple of reviews were really good. After that, it was just an unrelenting attack. I got attacked at the University of Hawaii. I was attacked in the local newspapers. There is a poem in the book called, “Racist white woman.” All the white-controlled press was very upset about it People were copying the poem and drawing terrible hateful vicious pornography and hate messages and sending it back to the Center for Hawaiian Studies. I got hate calls. How people could say that poetry is not political, I don’t know. That’s crazy, of course it’s political. In one sense it’s made me want to keep on writing.
Can it change the world? I don’t know, I would love to say yes it can. I would love to say that writing of any kind can change the world. I don’t know that it can, but it can change the way people think about things. I know that for sure because I’ve been changed by other peoples writings. I’ve been changed by people like Linda Hogan who’s a Native writer now living in Colorado. I’ve been changed by political theorists, especially African political theorists and novelists. I think writing can change people and to that extent, yes it can change the world. But it can’t do it by itself.
Are you optimistic? It’s amazing, I really am, although I don’t think of myself being optimistic. But being at this conference everybody comes up to me and says, “God, you’re so full of energy and anger, it’s so good.” I think of myself as a pessimist but I don’t behave the way I feel so I guess I’m optimistic. I think oppression makes me angry. And that conveys optimism but what I think of is resistance. As long as I resist then I’m optimistic because obviously you must believe you’re going to have an effect, otherwise why do it Does that anger give you energy? I guess so, but it makes me tired. I’m just always exhausted. It’s so much better than being just depressed. I’ve watched my own students come in to our program at the university very depressed. Having all the symptoms of a depressed, oppressed people and when they graduate they walk differently, their heads are in the air. They have some terminolgy and analysis that we’ve taught them. Anger has got to get out of you. If you turn against yourself then you’ve got suicide, drug abuse, alcohol abuse. If you turn it against the system that’s causing you this pain, the tourism industry, the Democratic Party of the State of Hawaii, the Military, it’s much easier to control what you’re doing.
But if you’re depressed all the time there’s nothing. I really think that Native peoples are terribly, terribly depressed because the control over their lives has been taken away from them. Then they just follow that path of alcoholism, violence and everything else. If anger can get us out of that, great It has to be focused, it’s better than just blotting everything out.
I think where a lot of people get confused is how they express that anger.
Absolutely, I think that’s what gangs are. To me it’s a pre-political phenomenon. When I talk to my students about that stuff I tell them, “Listen, here’s some good political analysis. Let’s analyze capitalism, let’s analyze imperialism. You need to understand what forces are directing you to this path.” It’s like petty thievery against tourism, that’s pre-political stuff. Pre-political means there isn’t any political consciousness, it’s just random violence that’s generated by instant dislike or hatred of whatever is in front of you. If you’re going to target the tourist industry then you should do it the way organized resistance does.
So I tell my students to study the IRA, the PLO and the ANC and compare what became—particularly in the case of the ANC, the stategy of what overturned the white aparthied system. Random violence doesn’t do anything. First of all, the victims are almost always innocent in an immediate sense if not in an historical sense.
So what’s the point? That really helps my students because then they begin to understand, which as an educator I hope is always the key, that if you understand your environment, the conditions under which you are being victimized, then you can do something about it But if you just go home at the end of the day and beat up the kids and wife and fight with your neighbours and go out randomly and attack tourists, your’re not doing anything. There’s nothing constructive that comes out of that even for yourself. You have to politically focus your anger, you have learn how to express it, in writing for example.
I teach my students how to write politically specific essays— that’s what their assignments are. Some of them do it well, some of them do it poorly, but at least they can see there’s a way to express that anger without having to participate in things that are destructive.
It’s really hard, it’s really hard to train people because they don’t see it They’re subjected to all the pressures of oppressed people. They’ve got diversions. American television for example is so violent, all the stuff on television is violent. Their daily lives are violations, if not physical violence, of their personhood, their nationhood.
So it’s a tough one. The few students who have made the connection, they’ve gone on to become very responsible contributors to the struggle for sovereignty. They’ve gone to the sovereignty organizations; they’ve been helpful in trying to get more people to understand to de-colonize. But that is a long process.
(Now for the standard Nation question… ) If you were given a magic wand and were given one wish, what would you wish for? I’d wish for a land base of at least a million acres that Native Hawai’ians control with definable boundaries with water rights, with sub-surface mineral rights, that we could set up the government on and begin to litigate for our past injustices against the federal and state governments. My whole life is geared to establishing that. When we started I thought that we wouldn’t get past 30 people. Now we have 25,000 members. I’m very hopeful, although it probably won’t happen in my lifetime. We might get something but I don’t think we’re not going to get that. Real estate is just too expensive in Hawaii. But we’re going to get something. The little bit that we’ve made, the progress, I’m grateful.
If you want a copy of Haunani’s book You can get in touch with: CALYX Books, PO Box B, Corvallis, OR 97339. Or you can phone: (503) 753-9384 Fax (503) 753-0515