About a week ago, I landed in Honolulu on a research trip for my dissertation. Although I have been studying Mormon history in the Pacific for about three years, it was my first trip to Hawai’i and the Pacific. Initially, this post was going to be about the Polynesian Cultural Center but after my week in Hawai’i, I have decided to write a much more general reflection about being an American and an American who studies Mormon history in the Pacific traveling in the islands. Unlike many people traveling to Hawai’i, my first real introduction to the islands came through Pacific Island Studies. One of the co-chairs of my dissertation is a Samoan who is deeply interested in the politics of the American presence in the Pacific. As a result, I read the Hawaiian scholars Huanani-Kay Trask, Noenoe Silva, and Ty Tenga as part of my prelims lists on colonialism and knew that America’s claim on Hawai’i was based on an illegal coup, which was originally rejected by President Cleveland. I had also read their critiques of American tourism, which has contributed to Hawai’i’s crime rate, exploits native Hawaiian culture, turning the once sacred hula into a sexualized, heavily commercialized dance, and has raised property values beyond the reach of most local Hawaiians. 2 or 3 bedroom houses sell for $900,000 in Hawaii. To help pay for these houses, many people in Hawaii live with 9 or 10 other members of their family in the same dwelling.
As a result of reading these books, I felt awkward in Hawai’i. How do you stay in Waikiki when you know that most of the land in Hawai’i is land that was alienated from native Hawaiians in the devastating, if completely legal, Great Mahele of 1848? Do you buy hula girl souvenirs when you know that many Hawaiians are upset about sexualized depictions of native Hawaiian women? How should knowledge that some people regard your country as a colonial power and illegitimate government change the way that you act in an area?
In many ways, I felt the most awkward at BYU-Hawai’i and the Polynesian Cultural Center (PCC). Both of these are billed as promoting the culture and well being of the Pacific Islands. BYU-Hawaii offers students from throughout the Pacific an education in exchange for their work at the Polynesian Cultural Center. It boasts a Pacific Studies Center and an extensive holding of archival and library materials relating to Mormon history in the Pacific. When I initially decided to travel to Hawai’i, my advisor warned me not to think of BYU-Hawai’i as a happy place where American colonialism wasn’t an issue. He told me that people there read the same books that I had read and many were angry about the treatment of the Pacific by the United States. They knew about the fact that the American military had destroyed the Bikini Islands, destroying them with nuclear tests and not being completely honest with the thousands of men and women that this action had displaced. One of the faculty members there had even written a book exploring the relationship between surfing and colonialism.
The PCC has similarly been a site of contest. When the PCC was first built, some locals were angry that they had not been consulted and doubted that it would be able to provide the scholarships that had been promised. Many would remain dissatisfied even after it proved more successful than any had hoped. Reading through the oral histories collected at BYU-Hawai’i, I discovered that some local men and women felt that the PCC was actually siphoning money away from La’ie. Proceeds from the haukilau that had preceded the opening of the PCC had gone to support the community’s poor. Individuals had also been able to supplement their income by making necklaces and goods to sell at the haukilau. Although the church initially allowed locals to sell souvenirs outside the PCC, they took some of the profit. None of the proceeds were given back to the community to support the poor. Speaking of the difference between life before the PCC and after, a woman named Ruby Enos simply remarked, “Life wasn’t as hard as it is now.” Other people critiqued the PCC for requiring too much time from students. In the 1980s, a Polynesian professor remarked that he never saw Polynesian students at the library. Instead, they were dancing or working. He wondered what kind of education they were receiving at BYU-Hawai’i. Others critiqued the center for slowly losing its cultural authenticity to make the show more entertaining. Still others for sacrificing the students’ spirituality in the name of center’s profitability. They asked why Polynesian students were allowed to wear revealing clothes when the expectation for white students was that they never remove their garments. They were puzzled about why the center didn’t close on Mondays to allow the students to attend Family Home Evening, or why the center decided to serve coffee in spite of the church’s ban on hot drinks. For them, the only reason that made sense was that the Polynesian students were somehow worth less than white students.
When I visited the PCC, all of these issues were swept under the rug. Samoa was presented not as a space where half of the nation was considered a territory of the United States and dominated by the American military but as a happy place where people constantly joked and climbed cocoanut trees. Fiji was a place of little cultural diversity – the rapid influx of Indian workers was never mentioned or even nodded to. And, the Maori of New Zealand who have been demanding the return of land promised by national treaties were never discussed as anything more than a people who played stick games or danced the haka. Although I wasn’t surprised by the presentation of Polynesian culture at the PCC, it was still disconcerting, especially since my guides were a blonde girl from Taylorsville, Utah and a foreign student from South Korea. The happy image that they presented just didn’t square with my knowledge of the Pacific. It’s odd to be told over and over again by tour guides and returned missionaries about how hospital and happy Polynesians are when you know about the tense relationship between the military, the American government, and Pacific Islanders throughout the Pacific Region.
What made it even odder is that I know that many of the faculty at BYU-Hawaii and many of the students there know about the same issues that I do. I’ve been through their bookstore. The titles about American colonialism are there.
I’m not sure what I expected from the PCC, but I do know that I left feeling dissatisfied and slightly unnerved.
Note: I should mention that disagreements between the La’ie community and the PCC continue. The Marriott Hotel Chain is currently planning to build a 250-room hotel in La’ie, which considers itself a rural community. Many people believe that this hotel will destroy the character of the North Shore of Hawai’i and have urged local governments not to approve the hotel. The hotel is part of a larger development on the part of a local group called Envision La’ie. Any drive on Kamehameha Highway reveals the anger that many local Hawaiians feel about the project. There are signs asking others to “Keep La’ie Rural” throughout the surrounding area. Although Marriott is not owned by the church, the religious faith of its owner and the involvement of many Mormons outside of Hawai’i in the Envision La’ie project have caused many to associate it with the church.