Hawaiian History, Colonialism, and the Polynesian Cultural Center

By December 28, 2012

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.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. A friend of mine recently visited the PCC and brought me back a postcard. She’s been going there for years, but this is the first time she and her family realized it’s Church-owned. (I like to think that’s my influence there.) We talked about it for a while, including the many problematic aspects you encountered. Thanks for your post!

    Comment by Saskia — December 28, 2012 @ 10:50 am

  2. American Samoa is a place dominated by the U.S. military? That may have been true in the early 20th century, when the port of Pago Pago was a major coaling station of the U.S. Navy, and during World War II, when there were more U.S. Marines on the island than native Samoans. But there are no U.S. military bases and no active-duty U.S. military personnel in Samoa now.

    It is true that the part of Samoa is a territory of the United States, but recent suggestions by its governor and by its delegate to Congress (Eni Faleomavaega, who happens to be LDS) that it move toward greater autonomy or even independence received mixed responses, at best.

    Maybe the supporters of a continued tie to the U.S. have simply drunk the Kool-Aid, but the world is full of Kool-Aid drinkers.

    Comment by Mark B. — December 28, 2012 @ 11:16 am

  3. Fantastic–and important–points, Amanda.

    Also, your opening sentence reminds me just how misguided I was in choosing my area of dissertation study.

    Comment by Ben P — December 28, 2012 @ 11:24 am

  4. Mark B. – Good points, though, I was thinking more of the disproportionate number of Samoans who serve in the U.S. military and the fact that the reason that American Samoa is well, American, is because of the military. Even if it is no longer a big part of our military strategy, U.S. military recruiting thrives on the island (there’s been a small dip in recent years because of the war of Iraq and the deaths of Samoans) because of its poverty and the opportunities the U.S. military offers. But, you are right, dominated might be too big a word. Samoa isn’t Kwajalein.

    As far as independence, reactions to independence are usually mixed. Colonialism creates economic and cultural ties to the metropole that aren’t easily dissolved.

    Comment by Amanda — December 28, 2012 @ 11:42 am

  5. Saskia and Ben, thanks! Saskia, one of the things that has surprised me is how few people realize it’s owned by the Church (especially since it was initially promoted to the local community as a missionary tool).

    Comment by Amanda — December 28, 2012 @ 11:43 am

  6. Clearly, we all would be in Hawai’i if we we as smart as Amanda. 🙂

    The PCC has always struck me as a disneylandish sort of cultural relic focused on entertainment….certainly not a complete cultural portrayal of anyone. People don’t shell out a minimum of $50 a piece for a real educational and cultural experience.

    Comment by JanieceJ — December 28, 2012 @ 12:33 pm

  7. Great piece Amanda – thanks for covering this so thoughtfully!

    Comment by Gina Colvin — December 28, 2012 @ 1:15 pm

  8. There’s a recent book on precisely these issues by an LDS-reared Hawaiian: Hokulani Aikau, A Chosen People, A Promised Land: Mormonism and Race in Hawai’i. Well worth a read for the many indigenous voices (both LDS and non-LDS) it introduces. Another complicating piece here is that when Mormons first arrived in Hawai’i they were not, for all intents and purposes, U.S. citizens–and they presented themselves to native peoples as an alternative to the colonial powers (U.S. and British) that threatened them. Obviously that has changed considerably in the 20th century, but that history of a different kind of identity does mean that Mormons haven’t always been so easily conflated with state-sponsored colonial oppression.

    Comment by Laurie MK — December 28, 2012 @ 1:35 pm

  9. The whole BYU-H/PCC relationship is interesting to me, as we have a son who attended all four years of his undergrad work and met his future wife there. I have understood that it is now harder for mainland students to get accepted to BYU-H, in preference to Pacific Islanders and PacRim students. When my wife and I attended our son’s graduation, we visited the PCC, but not the whole meal deal (ie, we skipped the luau). It all seemed a little contrived. There is no question that the latent colonialism is evident in many ways in Hawaii, when you compare the many beachfront/golf course/hill top condos and homes with the average living conditions of the resident population. They seem to be mostly present in service jobs related to tourism.

    Comment by kevinf — December 28, 2012 @ 2:35 pm

  10. Laurie – thanks for the comments. I second the recommendation for Aikau’s book. I planned on citing it for this blog post but don’t have access to the book while I am in Hawai’i. Your chapter in Practicing Protestants also deals with the implications of the complicated relationship between Mormonism and the United States in a helpful and insightful way. I’d recommend it for anyone interested in a more complex and full history of Mormonism in the Pacific than I was able to give here (http://books.google.com/books?id=z-MxJ4iFqi8C&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false).

    Kevin – One of the things that surprised me when I looked at the demographics for BYU – Hawaii online was how few Polynesian students BYU-H actually has. It’s around 17%. UH-Manoa is at 15%. Although the two are comparable, I would have expected BYU-H’s number to be even higher considering its explicit emphasis on helping Polynesians receive a quality education. BYU-H is about 30% Asian compared to 40% at UH-Manoa. What I wish I had is data over time to know how BYU-H’s demographics have changed.

    Comment by Amanda — December 29, 2012 @ 1:13 am

  11. I’m coming to this a bit late, Amanda, but wanted to say thanks for the post. It’s been several years since I’ve been to the PCC; I’m anxious to get back and observe more closely what you discuss here.

    Comment by Christopher — December 29, 2012 @ 4:57 pm

  12. Does anyone find it weird that the Church runs a for-profit theme park?

    Comment by Steve L — December 29, 2012 @ 5:21 pm

  13. Thanks Chris (and Janiece whose comment I just saw). My husband went for the first time in years. What surprised him the most was how little time we were allowed to explore on our own. We were given a tour guide from the moment we got there and didn’t even get to choose what villages we went to. It was frustrating at times.

    Steve L – The PCC claims nonprofit status. It’s mentioned several times throughout the day that every penny of profit goes to BYU-Hawai’i. People (including the US government) have contested its nonprofit status over the years, but as far as I know, it’s stuck.

    Comment by Amanda — December 30, 2012 @ 12:56 am

  14. I visited the PCC many years ago but didn’t give this a thought at the time. Thanks for bringing it up. I’m generally anti-development anywhere and think the only appropriate church-owned structure on the island is the temple.

    Comment by Aaron — December 30, 2012 @ 11:28 am

  15. Amanda, sorry for the long post. This issue is near and dear to my heart.

    You made some good points in your post. I can especially appreciate what you wrote about property values and displaced Hawaiians. For your dissertation, are you studying any of the Polynesian diaspora issues that result from the property value issue? As an uncomfortable haole that lived and studied there for four years, I also can confirm your advisor’s warning that La’ie is not a “happy place where American colonialism wasn’t an issue,” despite the lamp styles on Hale La’a Blvd. These are important issues to be aware of.

    Be sure to visit the BYUH library and look at the old Zion?s Securities Corp and Hawaii Reserves Inc. minute books from their community meetings. They shed light on the conflict between the local community and the actions of the church’s corporations in the post-colonial era.

    Some of the post did seem a little sloppy and/or one-sided in its presentation. Take the issue of hula. There is no effort to differentiate how Mormon Polynesians present the hula vs. (more sexual) other sources. Some credit Mormons with preserving the authentic (and hapa-haole) hula. In the 19th century when many puritanical missionaries were condemning and forbidding authentic hula as being too overtly sexual, the Mormon missionaries appreciated it as a sacred cultural practice and encouraged the wise Auntie?s to teach and pass down hula.

    In your discussion of the PCC you highlight anecdotal interviews. While they are real and important in their time, it is one side of the story–and for the most part, a historical one. For better or worse, the PCC is not currently siphoning money from La’ie. It did change the informal economy based around the Mormon-sponsored Hukilau that preceded it, but today, all La’ie residents make a living either directly or indirectly through the PCC or BYUH. (BTW it is spelled Hukilau not Haukilau.) You give the impression that the sole purpose of Hukilaus was to give money to the poor. Hukilaus were church-sponsored events (the first in the ’40’s to fund the rebuilding of an LDS chapel). The route may be different, but the church is still an active partner in the community, and works to take care of the poor, amongst other things.

    You bring up some good questions about Polynesians working at PCC but other statements are confused or outdated. As far as the comment that “other people critiqued the PCC for requiring too much time from [Polynesian] students,” this may be historically accurate, but if you are going to include a biased historical argument, consider including the counter-argument. Today anyway, ALL students are held to 19 hours a week regardless of whether they work at the PCC or on campus. Furthermore, pointing out that you had a White and Asian tour guide weakens the argument that “Polynesian students [are] somehow worth less than white students,” especially when you include the arguments about Monday nights and coffee. Like the guides and translators, most of the various restaurant and luau student staff are not Polynesian.

    Overall, I love the topic and think more people should grapple with it. I just thought it included too much, out of context historical statements and too many statements that started with “Many…”, “Some…” “Other people…” “Others…” followed by some group’s opinion. These statements hide the full spectrum of views on issues and can seem kind of cheap since they allow a writer to form whatever argument she chooses as long as she is quoting some other opinion.

    For me, I think the fact that many BYUH faculty and students (and locals), are aware of, and struggle with these issues should not make things “odder” for people, but should be a credit to the fact that many are trying to deal with these complex issues and that they are not being swept under the rug. Don’t assume that PCC leadership doesn’t struggle with these things too. It is complicated and it is good for us to feel uncomfortable. Your visit to the PCC helped fund Polynesian students’ university education through the iWork program. But it also contributed to a complicated post-colonial economy with still-thriving historical inequalities.

    Keep struggling and good luck in your studies.

    Comment by Palangi — December 30, 2012 @ 4:12 pm

  16. Palangi, Thank you for your comments. This was a blog post, and like all blog posts, it can’t cover everything. You present an important other side of the argument. A few thoughts:

    1. As a historian, most of what I present is historical. Hence, my focus on the oral interviews. I think, for the people who were being interviewed, what they felt had been lost and why life seemed harder was that prior to the opening of the PCC, most of the money from the Hukilau was spent locally. After the PCC, the money gained from the PCC was spent on students from other parts of the Pacific. In both cases, the events were church-sponsored but the money was no longer staying within local wards. It would be like a small, locally managed event in St. George being replaced by something managed by Salt Lake. Is it still within the church? Yes, but the sense of local control is lost. From what I read from the oral interviews (and I understand they are oral interviews), the Hukilau was partially ran by the Relief Society who chose to use the money within their community to support local events and local people. That was lost when the PCC started.

    2. The issue of the hula is complex, and one I didn’t want to get into in this post. I felt there wasn’t enough time. Let me just say a few things: 1. The hula was sexualized from the beginning. The songs sung at the hula celebrated the lineage, birth, fertility and genitals of the ali’i, which were considered sacred. 2. Polynesian activists often accept this celebration of sex as healthy. It is the sexualization, commercialization, and objection of Hawaiian women that they find troubling. In Waikiki and other commercialized spaces, the hula is no longer a celebration of sacred sex. It’s a dance designed to elicit the desires of white and Asian tourists. It sells sex. 3. In many ways, the PCC tries to ignore the sexual nature of the hula, but according to the comments of the men next to me, people are still ogling the young women participating.

    3. I get that many people at the PCC and BYU-H understand and are troubled by these things, but they still choose to present a Disneyland version of Polynesia. And, that troubles me.

    4. As far as the white and Asian tour guides, what troubled me about the experience was that Polynesians were being presented to me an exhibit. I chose not to use the language in the post because I think it stretches the point but many people use the word “zoo” to describe the PCC. It felt like I was taken around to see Polynesians who were on display. The fact that my tour guides were white and Asian highlighted that experience.

    5. I am biased, so are you, so is everyone. My use of “some,” “others,” etc. was meant to suggest that not everyone agreed. I’m sorry you found it cheap. I use the words to soften the statements I make, not to “pick” and “choose.” All historians do the latter. No account is unbiased. I plan to still use “some,” “others,” and “many.”

    6. Finally, my dissertation is actually on 19th C Mormon missionary work, so it ends well before the PCC and the issues with diaspora. Although that work needs to be done, it’s well beyond my expertise. The PCC is more of a side project that I am just starting. I expect and plan for my views to become more complicated as I do more research.

    Comment by Amanda HK — December 30, 2012 @ 9:09 pm

  17. A few comments from a white male (Christian, but not-LDS) from St George, Utah. I’ve spent a lot of time in Hawai’i, though more in Maui than O’ahu. I have visited all six islands that we can visit. I have visited the PCC, though not in about a decade. I recall feeling that the PCC was a cross between a zoo and a museum. (Side point, is a zoo a museum?) I’ve read extensively in Hawai’ian history, especially missionaries.

    All that being said, in entry 16, point 2, I’m assuming the “objectification” of women, not the “objection” of women. I agree that the hula is presented in many commercial luaus as excessively sexualized, but also find it objectionable, as a mature male, that you say we’re all “ogling” the young women. I, at least, can appreciate an attractive woman of any age and state of dress or undress without “ogling” or “lusting” or anything like that. I’ve never seen a hula in a commercial environment that I considered nearly as sexualized as half the shows on TV or in movies. In addition, the hula costumes are nowhere near as revealing as the bathing costumes on any beach in Hawai’i, or in Utah.

    Finally, I’d appreciate a recommendation for the best book that gives an overview of LDS missionary work in the Kingdom of Hawai’i and the Territory of Hawai’i.

    Comment by Dan Lester — December 30, 2012 @ 9:44 pm

  18. Dan — I had originally written a much longer response but the computer ate it, so my response will be much shorter this time.

    I should have qualified what I said there. I know not all men ogle… but many of the ones around me were. There were two men in particular in their mid-twenties who were constantly making comments about the women’s hips and thighs that were lewd enough to make me want to punch them.

    The church does try to desexualize the dances and the women in many cases are more covered than many women in Hawai’i, but I don’t think the church will ever be able to completely desexualize that dance. The image of the hula is a sexualized one and that’s how many – if not most – people see it when they see a hula. If the church were willing to acknowledge that the dance was a celebration of the sacredness of sexuality, it might be able to counter the prevailing images of the hula. But it’s not willing to do that – for obvious reasons. Sex makes the church as a whole squeamish. And, as a result, the PCC is silent about the sexuality of the dance. In that silence, people interpret the dance the way they have been taught to by videos, commercials, etc.

    Still, I should have qualified with a “some” or “many.” And, you’re right objection was a typo.

    Finally, I’m not sure what to recommend to you. Aikau’s book (mentioned earlier in the comments) is probably the best, but she doesn’t provide a detailed history of missionary work. Her focus is on La’ie itself, rather than the Kingdom or Territory of Hawai’i as a whole. R. Lanier Britsch’s Moramona provides a detailed history but his analysis isn’t as sophisticated. I’d probably suggest you read them in tandem.

    Comment by Amanda — December 30, 2012 @ 10:23 pm

  19. Are you discussing the Hawai’ian hula or the Tahitian tamure? In my experience, the hula is often danced by women of an uncertain age whilst wearing mu’u mu’u. Generally, slow and, well, “elegant” is the word that comes to my mind. Costuming (if any) before the haole missionaries came to steal the land and change the culture was probably more appropriate to the climate. Hotel “hula” is a different dance tradition entirely.

    The tamure, in contrast to the hula, seems – to my mind – to be a more clearly sexualized form of dance.

    Both the tamure and the hula, of course, are staples of the PCC show experience.

    Comment by PaulB — January 7, 2013 @ 8:42 pm

  20. I would strongly encourage anyone who is planning to do research on Mormonism in the Pacific Basin to review these three books. As I worked on my thesis I turned to this three books a lot. They have provided me with historical overview of influences that Mormonism has had on the Pacific Basin. I them found to be both historical and informative resources on the studies of Mormonism in Hawaii.

    R. Lanier Britsch?s book, Moramona: The Mormons in Hawaii, gives a very detailed history of the first missionaries that were sent to Hawaii. Also discussed are the trials behind the founding and establishment of Laie as the site for the LDS Temple, Brigham Young University Hawaii and the Polynesian Cultural Center. This book gives an in-depth historical look into these religious beliefs, personal beliefs and social conflicts that plagued these pioneers in the beginning. Of all of these three books, I found Britsch?s book to be the most useful in connecting the people with time, space and history.

    The second piece of literature I found interesting is the book edited by Grant Underwood titled, Voyages of Faith: Explorations in Mormon Pacific History. This book contains a wide array of essays that examine the interactions Native Hawaiians, Mormon leaders, missionaries, and members had in building the ?Kingdom of God? in Hawaii. The essays range from a detailed history on the establishment of the Church College (now named BYU Hawaii) to a summary of each of the presidents of the Polynesian Cultural Center (PCC) and the role they played in advancing this center of entertainment. Also discussed were religious tools used to stimulate visitors to investigate the Mormon Church and its beliefs. This book links faith and traditions together and parallels how they intermix with each other over time. Traditional dance and song and style of dress has changed in some ways, but remained the same in others. Vernice Wineera writes in her essay, The Polynesian Cultural Center, ?Polynesian Saints feel a depth of connection, a sense of belonging as members of the LDS Church.? She continues, ?The Book of Mormon sustains Polynesian identity as a covenant people of the Lord. In this way, Polynesian Church members feel confirmed in their heritage by birth, by blood, and by blessing.?

    Finally, Proclamation to the People: Nineteenth-Century Mormonism and the Pacific Basin Frontier is a collection of essays by Laurie Maffly ?Kipp, Reid Neilson and others, which provides the reader with a theological overview of Mormonism in the Pacific Basin. The writers explore the meaning of Mormon settlements and movements and how Mormon missionary efforts parallel and contrast with other religious groups? missionary efforts. What I enjoyed about this book is the combination of insider and outsider scholarly work. The essays in this book vary from tales of missionary work in Hawaii to the migration of Polynesian populations to America and their conversion to Mormonism.

    Comment by DF Martinez — January 7, 2013 @ 10:49 pm

  21. Paul B. – In different points in this conversation, I have referred to both the Tahitian tamure and to the Hawaiian hula. It’s important to keep in mind that both have changed since the 18th and 19th century. The Tahitian tamure, for example, was originally performed topless, but obviously isn’t at the PCC. It would certainly make the boat show more interesting if it were.

    DF Martinez – Thanks for the suggestion. I use them to varying degrees in my own work.

    Comment by Amanda — January 9, 2013 @ 1:10 am


Recent Comments

David G. on Book Review: Colvin and: “Thanks, Charlotte!”

J Stuart on Book Review: Colvin and: “Can't wait to read the rest of the review in JMH. Thanks, Charlotte!”

Ben S on MHA 2020 Networking Materials: “Thanks for this.”

Th. on Book Review: Jake Johnson,: “. Just commenting on your first paragraph: Egad.”

Steve Fleming on A note on the: “No but haven't really looked.”

J. Stapley on A note on the: “Have you seen anything like on this side of the Atlantic, Steve?”