Hokulani K. Aikau’s book, A Chosen People, A Promised Land, published in 2012, is an important work on Mormonism in the Pacific, addressing the colonial legacy of the church and its racial ideologies. Back in 2013 here on this blog, Aikau’s work was listed as an important work in Mormon history and the history of indigenous peoples. But the Juvenile Instructor blog has never had a full review of Aikau’s book published. In order to fix this error, this post includes a portion of my review of Aikau’s book that was just published in the most recent issue of the Journal of Mormon History.
A stable link to the rest of the review is included at the end of this post. If you are interested in subscribing to the Journal of Mormon History, you can find more details on the Mormon History Association website.
Hokulani K. Aikau’s A Chosen People, A Promised Land: Mormonism and Race in Hawai‘i analyzes how Native Hawaiians have negotiated their Hawaiian and Mormon identities, found meaning in this colonial religious tradition, and also used this religious institution to meet their cultural needs. Aikau skillfully shows how native Polynesian Latter-day Saints have found strength and meaning in the belief that they are a chosen people, and have used this position to meet their needs in times of conflict with the Church hierarchy. The author focuses on the town of La‘ie, O‘ahu, and its history as a place of gathering. By looking at the development of this Mormon community, Aikau is able to explore the tensions and negotiations between an American religion and its Polynesian members. Land was central for both the institutional needs of the Church, and cultural needs and desires of the Hawaiian members. The Church used an “ideology of faithfulness” to maintain power and silence dissent, which Aikau defines as a “way to leverage faith in order to solicit community consent to church projects, even when they are in the interests of the church and not the community” (2). The economic and business interests of the Church pushed out the desires of Native Hawaiians, but Aikau demonstrates how Hawaiians worked within the system to perpetuate traditional practices and cultural regeneration.
The book explains the historical circumstances that led to Hawaiians being viewed as a chosen people. In a time when the Church was solidifying its racial hierarchies and saw black skin as a mark of sin, Polynesians were instead marked as chosen. They were a part of the House of Israel, and needed to be saved and their culture preserved. Despite this designation as a chosen people, Church leaders placed Polynesians on the racial hierarchy below whites. Mission leaders selected La‘ie as a promised land in the 1860s to serve as a gathering place for Native Hawaiians and provide a refuge. But it was also a place to domesticate the native population, and provide important revenue for the mission. La‘ie became a colonial outpost of Salt Lake City, using natives as laborers. Despite the colonial nature of La‘ie, Aikau shows how Native Hawaiians used the town as a way to reconnect with the land and return to native living practices. Two competing meanings of land—land as source of nourishment and land as commodity—are traced throughout the rest of the book.
Aikau traces the changing geography of La‘ie, which demonstrates how the interests of Hawaiian Church members were marginalized as the economic needs of the plantation, and later the business ventures of the Church, increased. The author focuses on the construction of the Church College of Hawai‘i and the Polynesian Cultural Center (PCC) by labor missionaries in the 1950s and 1960s. The Church and the missionaries saw this as an exchange, where the laborers had opportunities opened to them by learning construction skills and strengthening their religious connections, and the Church received cheap labor. But this exchange was not entirely equal. It continued to reproduce power relationships with the racial and gendered assumptions of the program leaders.
Aikau’s excellent chapter on the PCC places this center in the larger context of the tourist industry. The author shifts the focus of the scholarship to the production side of the industry. With her analysis of interviews of workers from the early days of the center (1960s–1980s), she shows how the workers challenge a binary thinking about culture. Boundaries are blurred between the division of the sacred and the profane. Though the tourist industry, including the PCC, relies on racial tropes of the “happy Native,” to workers their performances were about more than just selling race. Workers saw it as a place to gain cultural capital, and used the center for cultural education and to learn from previous generations. Though faith was a part of the worker’s experience, Aikau explains how Church leaders continued to use an ideology of faithfulness to convince the community of La‘ie to give freely of their labor to this capitalistic project. Only the performative elements of Polynesian cultures were preserved, those that would be appealing to tourists, often devoid of cultural meaning.
To read the rest of the review, use this stable link to see the full review in the Journal of Mormon History.