Paradoxes of Hawaiian Sovereignty: Land, Sex, and the Colonial Politics of State Nationalism


Review by Umi Perkins

A confession: when I first saw the title of Kehaulani Kauanui’s second academic book, The Paradoxes of Hawaiian Sovereignty: Land, Sex, and the Colonial Politics of State Nationalism, I thought it would contain the major sin of academics: making concepts unnecessarily complicated. Sovereignty to me is a very straight-forward concept: the status of being a country. But what I found was an impressively accurate and fair overview of the last decade in the Hawaiian movement, which has mostly not been documented. And in the world of academia, if it’s not documented it’s as if it didn’t happen.

Kauanui, Professor of American Studies and Anthropology at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, summarizes “the politics of sovereignty:”

Scholars within Native studies robustly debate the concept of sovereignty. Some suggest that it be abandoned altogether due to its Western roots … others suggest that, rather than discarding the term, we need to theorize Indigenous sovereignties and how they distinctly differ from the Western concept of sovereignty.

Kauanui takes on the debate that rages in Hawaiian intellectual circles over whether Hawaiʻi was colonized or occupied (a sovereign country invaded by another sovereign) and has, in other publications, asserted that Hawaiians are both simultaneously. In the Hulili journal, she proposed ways to “bridge the divide between de-occupation and decolonization without compromising our claims under international law.” In her book she holds that “despite the disavowal of colonialism by kingdom nationalists, it is precisely Western European and U.S. settler colonialism that creates … the conditions for kingdom nationalism to articulate itself in the modern Western terms of nation, manhood [and] law…”

Kauanui is very effective in describing the chronology of events, including the Akaka Bill, the 2009 ceded lands case, the 2014 Department of Interior hearings, Kanaʻiolowalu and the Naʻi Aupuni convention, and how these were shaped by disparate views on the meaning and ends of attempts to reclaim sovereignty. But this chronology is also grounded on an analysis of fundamental aspects of Hawaiian identity – notably land and land law. On this she notes, ironically, “a paradox of Hawaiian sovereignty is that we have a legacy of land privatization…”

The arguments in the book are somewhat difficult to fully explain without resorting to, or defining, some of the jargon of the critical theories it uses: indigenous, critical race theory, gender and other perspectives are used in what is called “intersectional” analysis. This looks at how factors like race, class, gender and sexual orientation act across each other to produce effects. Sovereignty activists who are simultaneously fervent Christians, for example, act in ways that affect gender relations and interpretations of Hawaiian culture:

The pattern that we see time and time again within national liberation struggles is the rejection of same-sex practices and women’s power and authority by invoking tradition to say that they are Western colonial imports.

Kauanui points out that in Hawaiʻi, the pattern is altered. Here it is precisely our Hawaiian modernity that relegates traditional Hawaiian practices, such as same-sex relationships, to the past. This is consistent with many of the Pacific Islands’ view of Hawaiʻi as a cautionary tale of what not to do: sell your land, become modern, in short, be swallowed up.