Indigenous Narrative Methods: A Hawaiian Perspective

Noelani Ka'opua

We’re now up to the ninth post in our consistently excellent methodology and narrative mini-forum, and this one was contributed by Noelani Goodyear-Kaʻōpua. Noelani is an Associate Professor of Political Science, with an emphasis in Indigenous Politics, at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa. She has published on issues of identity, indigeneity and praxis in Hawai’i. Her first book, The Seeds We Planted: Portraits of a Native Hawaiian Charter School, was recently published by the University of Minnesota Press. Her second book, Ea: Hawaiian Movements for Life, Land and Sovereignty (Duke University Press, forthcoming), is a collection co-edited with Ikaika Hussey and Kahunawai Wright that explores late-20th and early 21st century Hawaiian organising for justice and self-determination. More recently, she has also become interested in the intersections of energy and food politics with Indigenous social and political health.


Ka'opua - Kaneohe Bay

Kāneʻohe Bay

Native novelist and scholar, Thomas King, reminds us that “stories are wondrous things. And they are dangerous.” In The Truth About Stories, he argues that’s all we are: stories. Empires are built on great stories. But on the other hand, anti-imperialist movements have also been motivated and sustained by narratives of personal and collective experience.

In my own home—Hawaiʻi—we lived for almost a century with the narrative that the US takeover was legitimate and that Kanaka Maoli (Indigenous Hawaiians) did not resist the US annexation of the islands. This story is even memorialized in a statue of US President William McKinley that fronts the public high school in Honolulu named after him. He is portrayed stately holding a document. If one were to climb up onto that eight-ton statue and peer over McKinley’s shoulder, she would see ‘Treaty of Annexation’ carved into the bronze. And this is one of the dangers of stories; sometimes they are completely false. In fact, an approved Treaty of Annexation never came to President McKinley’s desk for his signature.

The groundbreaking work of Noenoe K. Silva, in her book Aloha Betrayed, demonstrated that through a massive organized effort, Kanaka Maoli successfully defeated attempts to push a treaty through the US Congress in the mid-1890s. Over 38,000 Hawaiians defended their political sovereignty and recognized independence by signing petitions against the merging of the Hawaiian Kingdom and the United States. It was only when scholars began taking the narratives in Hawaiian language newspapers, Native oral histories and in Hawaiian songs and chants seriously that a century-long fiction was peeled back. The recovery of these stories has been incredibly generative for a new generation of scholars and activists who are now describing the relationship between the US and Hawai‘i as a prolonged, military occupation.

Narratives can be powerful because they have material consequences. Stories can be written on the lands that we inhabit. I grew up flanked by the consequences of the ways imperial narratives are made reality and Indigenous narratives dismissed as archaic. I grew up alongside the largest sheltered body of water in the Hawaiian Islands, Kāneʻohe Bay, approximately 12.7 kilometers from farthest northwest and southeast points and about 4.3 kilometers wide. Kāneʻohe Bay contains one of the only barrier reefs in the Hawaiian Islands and can be quite shallow in parts, filled as it is with coral reefheads and sandbars. As such, it was Pearl Harbor, rather than Kāneʻohe Bay, that became the US Navy’s center in Hawai‘i because of the Navy’s need for deep water portage for its massive warships. However, the south side of Kāneʻohe Bay is shielded by Mokapu peninsula and upon that headland, the US built a Marine Corps base complex that includes airfields, military housing, training and recreational facilities. For Native Hawaiians, the name Mokapu speaks to the significance of the place. “Mokapu” is a contraction of the words “moku kapu,” literally a “sacred and reserved land,” and it is known in Hawaiian mo‘olelo (narratives) as a site of godly creation and of human burial.

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