Review by ‘Umi Perkins
There are many myths surrounding Hawaiian history, most of which stem from a lack, until recently, of Hawaiian historians who can employ a Hawaiian lens through which to understand Hawai‘i’s past. These myths create a narrative that often made Hawaiians look inept and ultimately deserving of being subjugated. Kealani Cook undermines some of these myths, and in doing so he makes a major contribution to a revision of Hawaiian history that is ongoing. One major purpose of Kealani Cook’s book Return to Kahiki: Native Hawaiians in Oceania is to undermine the myth that Hawaiians were always the recipients of exploration and “colonization.” Like David Chang illustrates in his book The World and All the Things Upon It, Cook shows that Hawaiians themselves were the explorers – and sometimes even the colonizers.
We do not know exactly when they came, why they came or how many of them there were, but we know they came from the South.”
— Kealani Cook
Kealani Cook is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Hawai‘i, West O‘ahu, where he teaches Hawaiian and American history. Originally from Waimea, Hawai‘i Island and trained at the University of Michigan in its Department of American Culture, Cook’s work is part of the ongoing extension of the boundaries of the American Studies field. As part of a newer generation of Kanaka ‘Oiwi scholars, Cook is aware that we are ready for more complex debates than those previously engaged. On the topic of Hawaiian missionaries to the South Pacific, Cook uses the uniqueness of his topic to undermine these narratives:
“Yet this narrative, like many narratives of about Hawai‘i, fails to examine the range of Kanaka existence outside the Haole/Kanaka dynamic. In examining how the Kanaka missionaries understood and interacted with their Oceanic hosts a more complex picture of these missionaries emerges. In particular such an examination uncovers the somewhat disastrous effects of Kanaka defining themselves so ardently through their desire to expand the kingdom of Christ and defeat the forces of Satan.”
One example from this substantial work of undermining myths is Kalakaua’s delegation that was tasked with creating a Polynesian Federation with Samoa. Most accounts depict this mission as a “gin-fueled, incompetent attempt at empire building by a naīve Native monarch and a set of buffoonish amateurs” – a debacle in which the Hawaiian delegation was drunk most of the time. Even I – for nearly two decades a Hawaiian history teacher at Kamehameha – believed these accounts. Kealani Cook, in contrast, points out that the Hawaiian delegation was successful in gaining the signature of Malietoa, King of Samoa, officially beginning the Confederation. Cook shows that this attempt at empire instead shows how Kalakaua “consistently promoted Hawai‘i as part of the European/American diplomatic and cultural world while still deeply enmeshed in Ka Wa ‘Oiwi Wale,” a term Cook uses for “ancient Hawai‘i.”
Cook is also aware that there is still much we don’t know. He starts the book, almost poetically, with an ongoing debate, if not a myth: “They came from the South. We do not know exactly when they came, why they came or how many of them there were, but we know they came from the South.” By opening the book this way, Cook paves the way for his take on the various debates he addresses: debates over Hawaiian agency – the ability of our kupuna to be the makers of their own world even after contact, Hawaiians’ negotiation with capitalism, their conflicted adoption of Christianity, and their comfort with migrating out of Hawai‘i, even as agents of a foreign ideology.
At root, Cook shows a different picture of Hawaiians in the nineteenth century, one that is epitomized by the picture on the cover – a picture of John Tamatoa Baker, a “Kanaka capitalist, politician and traveler.” Baker travelled to Tahiti, Tonga and Aotearoa/New Zealand promoting, like Kalakaua had, a “Pan-Oceanic Lahui.” A larger-than-life figure, Baker used similarities between Hawaiian and Tahitian language and notions of hospitality and generosity to build this bridge, and he was largely accepted and endeared himself to the natives of Borabora, who essentially claimed him as one of their own. In doing so, Baker gained a larger perspective on Hawai‘i and its place in the world. Today, we are similarly gaining a new, global perspective on Hawai‘i’s place in the Asia-Pacific sphere, buoyed by works like Kealani Cook’s.
Meticulously researched, Return to Kahiki is an exciting contribution to a growing literature that is nothing short of a revision of Hawaiian history, one that casts Hawaiians in a central role as shapers of their history, rather than victims of an imposed set of ideas and actions. This new narrative reflects the very empowerment of Hawaiian voices that it examines.