Sunday, May 30, 2010

Review Essay: Race, Gender, and Tattoos in Marquesan and Māori Histories: Typee (1846); The Whale Rider (1987); and, Once Were Warriors (1994)

In a previous post, I told the story of my one-day search for histories of Herman Melville in lower Manhattan. In a Starbuck’s coffee shop, reading Melville’s Typee, I suddenly realized that Melville was all around me: in the name of the coffee shop (named after a character in Moby Dick) and in the ground below the shop where once sat the home where Melville spent his childhood.

I recently finished reading Typee, Melville’s first novel. Published in 1846, Typee is a semi-autobiographical recount of Melville’s experience on the island of Nuka Hiva in the Marquesas Islands during his Pacific tour on a whaling boat, Acushnet, during the years 1841-1844. Melville was only in his early twenties when he had these experiences and wrote the draft manuscript of Typee. In his book, Melville (as the narrator, Tom, or Tommo, as the Taipi called him) spent four months in the Taipi valley of the island, most of the time as the only white man present. His whaling companion, Toby, mysteriously leaves the valley early in the story and despite Tom’s efforts to learn of Toby’s fate, the whereabouts of Toby are never revealed either to Tom or to the reader. Toby’s fate is just one of many mysteries permeating Typee. Indeed, the beauty of the book is in how Melville places us under the forest canopy within the Taipi valley and allows us to see the world as only Tom saw it. Event after event in the book is understood by Tom through the lens he brings to the situation: he imagines that Marquesan people are savage, violent, cannibalistic, because that is what he has been taught by European and American representations of Pacific peoples. Tom often interprets what he sees and hears around him in Taipi as corroborative evidence of these representations, only later to discover that each little thing about Marquesan culture that he perceived was actually nothing at all like how Europeans and Americans had long represented it to be. Melville’s Typee was thus meant to open American reader’s eyes to see how Westerners had long constructed identities of Polynesians that were actually more a product of their own minds rather than accurate representations of Polynesian peoples. In short, the “Typee” were just an American construction (which Melville, in many ways, continues to create); the “Taipi,” on the other hand, (the correct/current spelling), were and are the real people burdened by these representations.

Two Views of Women in Polynesia

The 2004 Riverside edition of Typee that I read contained a large and quite useful appendix of supplemental reading on four themes related to Typee: Sex, Cannibalism, Tattooing, and Tapu (Taboo). Sex is interesting because of the way that Melville constructs the female Marquesans in his story: young Marquesan girls frequently bathe and play in the water in the nude, providing erotic interest to Melville and his readers, and one young Marquesan woman, Fayaway, becomes Melville’s companion and love interest for most of the story. For Melville, just twenty-three years old (or so) at the time when he was actually on Nuka Hiva, the Marquesan girls provided a sexual diversion (whether the sex was real or imaginary). When Melville, in the end, leaves his lover, Fayaway, crying on the beach as he escapes the island at the story’s end, he is acting out a scene common across the Pacific during the whaling era: young Euro-American sailors frequently engaged in romantic and sexual relationships with Oceanian girls, and, often enough, these quick sexual encounters ended in heartbreak, while clearly, each party got something quite different out of the encounter. The issue of sexual agency – to what degree Marquesan women voluntarily engaged in these relationships for potential advantage to themselves or to their community – is a complicated one that demands further attention.

In Typee, Melville frequently makes misogynistic remarks about women back home in the United States. To Melville, American women were too civilized, too well-mannered, and too concerned with material things. He praised Fayaway and the Marquesan girls for their simplicity, for their nudeness, for being “easy,” perhaps – or for being receptacles within which Melville could place his constructed ideas of what Polynesian women represent for the Euro-American mind. In the book The Whale Rider by Witi Ihimaera, Māori men of the 1980s applied their own constructions upon Polynesian women. The great-grandfather and leader of his community, Koro Apirana, is Ihimaera’s particular vehicle for expressing indigenous repression of Polynesian females. In The Whale Rider, Koro Apirana believes that his Māori people are losing their cultural identity; his grandchildren, for example, want to be anywhere but in Whangara, New Zealand, and they feel very few roots to their Māori past. So, Koro Apirana begins a school for teaching the Māori language and culture to the younger generation of Māoris in Whangara, but he only allows boys, not girls, to participate. Kahu (Paikea in the movie version) is the eight-year-old great-granddaughter of Koro Apirana. She is the whale rider, the descendent of the original ancestor of the Whangara people, but it takes an incredible series of events before Koro Apirana is willing to accept that a woman could fill such a special and essential role for his community. (This is a review of the 1987 book, The Whale Rider; I reviewed the 2002 film version in an earlier post.)

Ihimaera’s The Whale Rider is about the blinding power of sexism, and about how communities need everyone – both men and women – in order to be whole. The Whale Rider is a hopeful story about how men, such as Koro Apirana, can change, and how women, such as Kahu, or such as her great-grandmother Nanny Flowers, can win gender equality in their community through persistent courage and civil disobedience.

Another view of women in Polynesia comes from Lee Tamahori’s 1994 film, Once Were Warriors. Set in the early 1990s in urban New Zealand, Once Were Warriors tells the story of a poor Māori family living in the city, trying to make ends meet despite persistent barriers to their survival from both within and without their community. Few white people appear in the film at all, but for a few police officers here, social workers there, and judges and other court officials. The effect of this presentation is that we see how a Māori community lives largely segregated from the rest of urban society, in their own socio-economically and racially homogeneous ghetto. Whites are seen as symbols of authority lacking sympathetic understandings of what life is really like for a contemporary Māori family. As for the Māori themselves, the adult men are portrayed as all drunkards, spending their earnings on beer and nightlife. The young men in the community are drawn to gang life and street fashion and culture, the least fortunate of them caught in a viscous cycle of drugs and violence. The Māori family at the center of Once Were Warriors comprises an abusive, drunkard father; five children including a smart and innocent daughter, Gracie; a troubled son Boogie, who is sent away to a boys school by court mandate after engaging in criminal activity; and Nig, the oldest son, who joins a local Māori gang. And at the center of the family and at the center of the story is the family mother. She was raised in a high-class, traditional Māori family descended from chiefs, but she married a bad man and, over the course of the movie and of her life, she sees her family fall apart in horrifying ways.

Women, in Once Were Warriors, are seen as victims of contemporary male Māori misogyny, facing a battle for respect quite similar to that waged by the women in Whangara in The Whale Rider. Young Gracie, in Once Were Warriors, is continually told that when she grows up and marries, then she will learn her place. That is to say that the Māori men in the film believe that women are there to serve them, to cook for them, and to provide them with sex whenever desired. Becoming a woman, in Lee Tamahori’s Māori world, means becoming a servant to men. The solution to this problem offered by Once Were Warriors is, however, quite different than the one Ihimaera offers in The Whale Rider. The women in Once Were Warriors, especially the mother-heroine, seek not to reform men (as is the case in The Whale Rider), but to overcome them. If The Whale Rider showed how women’s unique gifts and talents could eventually win the respect of Māori men, Once Were Warriors demonstrates how women, if they can’t win the respect of the men in their community, can do without them. But raising five kids on her own would be too hard without other help, so Once Were Warriors suggests that the mother-heroine can utilize Māori heritage as another “glue” for holding her family together. Both narratives, The Whale Rider and Once Were Warriors, showcase this transformative power of Māori tradition and cultural heritage. Where The Whale Rider revolves around the story of one community’s effort to maintain a link to the past – specifically, to revive an ancient relationship with whales (a theme that is more explicit in the book than in the movie) – and about Māori women’s efforts to stake equal claim to that heritage, a side story in Once Were Warriors is the transformation of Boogie, the son sent away to the Māori boys school, who begins to learn about Māori song, dance, martial arts, and culture from a positive male figure, the school headmaster. When Boogie eventually returns to his family in the urban ghetto, he is able to use his new relationship with Māori tradition as a positive force for him and his family.

In Melville’s Typee, Ihimaera’s The Whale Rider, and Tamahori’s Once Were Warriors, two views of women in Polynesia are presented. One is the outside view: Melville’s “noble savages” in Taipi valley who have simple but pure minds and are unusually attuned to their bodies and their innocent sexuality; or the view of white New Zealanders in Once Were Warriors who see Māori women as irresponsible mothers unable to provide suitable care and love for their children. The outside view of Polynesian women has changed over time, from romantic and erotic representations of the Polynesian “other” to the racial fear and denigration of Polynesian “others” in the modern urban environment, but the one thing that has always remained constant is that outsiders will always make what they will of Polynesian women, if allowed the opportunity. The other view is the inside view: Koro Apirana’s stubborn belief that certain Māori rituals are “taboo” to women, specifically that Paikea, the whale rider, cannot be a woman; or the view of the drunkard Māori men in Once Were Warriors who believe that women are to be used and abused as desired and who persistently try to make Māori women in their community believe the same thing.

Tattoos, Bodies, and Racial Identity

Another topic explored in the Riverside edition of Typee is tattooing. Tattooing has an incredible history that must be told among and between Oceanian and European/Euro-American histories, as it is a hybrid tradition with multiple meanings among the peoples of both the U.S. and across Polynesia. The term “tattoo” is of Polynesian origin. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the tattoos worn by Polynesian peoples were noted as the most elaborate and remarkable in the world. Marquesan tattooing, for example, was noted as often covering most of the entire body. Men often wore more elaborate tattoos than women, but women also wore tattoos. In Typee, Melville notes that many of the Taipi had tattooing on their faces in addition to the rest of their bodies. The Māori were also well known in the nineteenth century for having elaborate facial tattoos called tā moko.

Image showing Māori moko (Wikipedia)

For Melville, tattooing was a desecration of the body that he rarely found physically appealing. He regretted that the beautiful Marquesan girls deformed their appearance through tattooing. He also regretted that Marquesan men and women, when they got older, could not escape the tattoos of their youth, which, as Melville noted, became misshaped and deformed over time. On his Pacific voyage from 1841 to 1844 Melville had opportunities to also meet European or Euro-American men who had received Polynesian-style tattooing on their bodies (and even sometimes on their faces). Melville noted how, in his opinion, these men could never return to Western society and still be regarded as racially pure. The very act of tattooing (changing the coloration of one’s skin) was an act of racial transformation in Melville’s eyes. Not only did tattooing darken a sailor’s white skin, but over time as the tattoo and the skin around it aged, Melville feared that these men’s skins would become totally “black,” and that their racial transformation into a Polynesian (or “negro,” as they would have been considered back home) would be complete.

Tattooing is also an important theme in Once Were Warriors. The father of the Māori family at the center of the film has a number of tattoos, but none of his tattoos involve traditional Polynesian patterns. Instead, his tattoos reflect prison, or perhaps seamen’s, cultures. It is worthy of note that European and Euro-American seamen’s tattooing was greatly influenced by the Polynesian styles encountered across the Pacific during the nineteenth century. Of course, the stereotypical ship’s-anchor tattoo, or other sailing symbols, were not distinctly Polynesian, but I wouldn’t doubt that other seamen’s tattoos are based on certain aspects of Polynesian tattooing. Once Were Warriors, set in the 1990s, documents a renewed interest in traditional Polynesian tattooing among Māori youth. The gang that the son Nig joins, for example, all wear facial and body tattoos comprising traditional Māori designs. Even the young women in the urban gang wear traditional Māori facial tattooing which involves coloration of the mouth/chin-area only. This gang tattooing is ironic because while it involves a resurrection of Māori cultural heritage, it is unaccompanied by other acts of ethnic renewal, such as the use of Māori language or the learning of song and dance, such as Boogie (not tattooed, mind you) learns at the Māori boys school. Tattooing, then, in Once Were Warriors, was not a vehicle of community renewal but rather was a gang symbol, a sign of the community’s declension. This is, of course, the beauty of Once Were Warriors, and the contradiction at the heart of the very name of the film: while Māori men of the 1990s thought that being Māori meant a particularly behavior of drinking, violence, and brotherhood, the mother-heroine of the story eventually sees these men’s behaviors not as brave and strong but as weak and cowardly, and she stresses to the men that Māoris “once were warriors,” not the fake-warrior, self-inflicted victims of drink, violence, and apathy that they now are.

For more on race, gender, and tattoos in Marquesan and Māori histories, see:

Herman Melville, Typee (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004).

Witi Ihimaera, The Whale Rider (Orlando, FL: Harcourt, Inc., 2003).

David A. Chappell. "Shipboard Relations between Pacific Island Women and Euroamerican Men, 1767-1887," Journal of Pacific History 27:2 (1992):131-49.

Nicholas Thomas. "The Art of the Body," in Oceanic Art (London: Thames & Hudson, 1995).

and of course, see the film Once Were Warriors (1994).

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Searching for Herman Melville

I have looked for the Pacific in New York grocery stores; on the walls of New York art museums; even in the comfort of my own New York home, watching movies about the Pacific on my laptop computer. And I have sure been reading a lot about the Pacific - piles of academic titles decorate our apartment floor. Still, I have not yet looked for the Pacific among New York's many historical sites. Are there any historic sites in NYC that speak to Pacific history?

My mind turned to Herman Melville this week. He was born (in 1819) and raised in New York City, and he, like me, spent at least some of his life (during his teenage years in the late 1830s) dreaming Pacific dreams while living a New York life. A lot of what Melville first learned about Oceania and about Pacific Islanders was from other Euro-Americans: from their published accounts of adventures and journeys in the "South Seas" and even from his own family members, some of whom had their own journeys in the Pacific that predated Herman's own Pacific explorations of 1841 to 1844. But for Melville pre-1841, the Pacific was not just stories, tall tales, and imagination. It was a tangible reality. It was tangible just blocks from his home in downtown New York - he heard it in the creaking sounds of boats docked in the harbor and in the chatter of voices of sailors coming in from the sea; he saw it in the commodities unloaded off ships and in the many-hued faces of sailors from around the world (including "kanakas": Pacific Islanders) who were in New York, be it for just a day or for months, between journeys. Something about New York harbor and its motley crew of characters attracted Melville...

View of New York Harbor from the Brooklyn Bridge

I decided to go on the search for Herman Melville's New York. I thus decided to look for the Pacific (its peoples, its commodities, its stories) in the place where Melville himself would have looked for it: where Manhattan island meets the sea.

Armed only with this fascinating guide from the American Academy of Poets (and you might also want this accompanying map which I discovered only after the fact) I set out, by bicycle, south to the harbor...

Typee, "Starbuck," and a very strange snack-stop

At first, I got a bit sidetracked. I stopped at Starbuck's for hot chocolate and coffee cake (surely not traditional mariners' food) and read a bit more of Melville's first novel, Typee, which I had started days before. I sat next to a window that looked out at Battery Park and beyond to the harbor. And as I read (and drank and munched) I wondered what Herman Melville would have seen out of the window of this Starbuck's. Would he have seen whalers and tubs of whale oil rolling in from a long Pacific journey? Would he have seen Hawaiian sailors and other Polynesians roaming through the park? Probably not, but he could likely have met these sorts of scenes on the docks and at the sailors' favorite grog shops located nearby.

Reading Typee at Starbuck's - I finally realized that this was actually Herman Melville Historic Site #1: not only was this Starbuck's (at the corner of Pearl Street and Battery Park) on the same block - just houses down perhaps, if not sitting right on top of it - as Herman Melville's childhood home at 6 Pearl Street, but also, the coffee shop chain itself was named after the first mate of the Pequod, the ship featured in Melville's Moby Dick. The first mate's name was Starbuck. What a weird historical site this is! At once, my coffee cake and hot chocolate seemed to have both everything and nothing to do with Melville and the Pacific.

View of Melville's childhood home (around 6 Pearl Street) today

Some mid-nineteenth century scenes that Melville would (perhaps) have recognized nearby

I really wanted to see ships and sailors much more than I wanted to see old buildings, though, and thus I diverted quite rapidly from the American Academy of Poets' walking tour and sought to find Melville on my own, at the sea, among the ships and sailors of New York...if any still existed?

Schermerhorn Row, South Street Seaport

So I walked down Fulton Street to where the East River meets the harbor, at South Street Seaport. The South Street Seaport Museum is headquartered in Schermerhorn Row. These buildings were used as merchants' offices, etc., during Melville's day. Depending on what was shipping out and in of this port during the early and mid nineteenth century, the Pacific may or may not have been a tangible reality here.

Inside Schermerhorn Row on the third floor. To the right is the exterior of 12 Fulton Street. Inside 12 Fulton Street are the museum galleries.

Museum galleries are also located on this quaint block of Water Street, including the old print shop at 211 Water Street

I visited all the galleries at the seaport, but of all that was currently on view, the nineteenth century maritime history of New York was almost completely absent from the museum's presentations. One gallery focused on Franklin Roosevelt's love of ships, another on a great ocean liner of the 1930s, and yet another on great ocean liners (and the history of cruise ships). Each of these exhibitions had a "recreation" theme, whether it was about recreational collecting (like FDR did) or recreational boating (as cruise-ship patrons did). Where were all the commodities? Where were all the laborers? Where was the dirt and grime? Where was Herman Melville's captains and sailors? Where were the "kanaka" laborers from Oceania?

I walked down Pier 16 to the river. The historic boats were closed to the public that day due to the rain.

View of the Brooklyn Bridge and the East River from Pier 16, South Street Seaport

I did enjoy seeing the ships' masts juxtaposed against the skyscrapers. The ships' masts provided a visual stimulus that Melville would have known quite well and that is so rarely encountered in today's "high-tech" New York economy. Yes, huge transoceanic vessels loaded with shipping containers marked with Chinese names on their sides go in and out of New York Harbor all the time; those workers, those commodities - those voyages - are all that remains of Melville's New York Harbor. If he lived today, would he write novels about the adventures of those sailors?

Ships between Piers 16 and 17

The Peking (1911) docked at Pier 16

Searching for Herman Melville in New York City, I had all along figured that because he grew up in New York, that it was here that he got the idea to jump on a whaling ship, the Acushnet, and head out to spend three years of his life in the Pacific Ocean. But he boarded the Acushnet in 1841 (at age 22) in the whaling town of New Bedford, Connecticut, not in New York harbor! It was New England that had a real Pacific connection at that time: whaling towns like Salem, Nantucket, and Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, not to mention Boston; Mystic and New Bedford, Connecticut; not to mention Rhode Island, and even Long Island, here in New York State, where whalers frequently docked at Sag Harbor and Cold Spring Harbor, were all points of contact between Euro-American peoples and Pacific peoples. But New York City does not appear to have been a big part of the Northeast United States - Oceania connection during the nineteenth century.

Evidence abounds that Pacific Islanders were frequent visitors - and residents - in all of the above-mentioned whaling towns during the mid-nineteenth century. By the 1850s and 1860s you just could not operate a whaling expedition without "kanaka" labor, most often Hawaiians, but also Tahitians, Marquesans, Samoans, &c. Many Polynesian whalers came to New England and lived New England lives. Did they do the same in New York City? What are the stories of the first Pacific Islanders to live in New York City? What were their lives like? Was Melville familiar with them? Or did they live almost completely in the shadows? Were they, like the unseen sailors on the huge vessels going to and from China today, the "ghosts" that fueled our economy, bringing us the commodities that we mindlessly consume?

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Museum Review: Oceanian Art at the Brooklyn Museum of Art

When I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art earlier this year, I walked away feeling disoriented and a bit disappointed by their presentation of Oceanian art (See my review of that exhibit). Looking back, I now realize that my somewhat negative evaluation at the time stemmed partly from the fact that I was most interested in seeing Polynesian art (and secondly, Micronesian art) that day. The overwhelming supply of (admittedly beautiful) art from one small part of the island of New Guinea (Melanesian art) was just not what I was interested in seeing. I guess my own idiosyncratic interests made my review quite biased...(but part of my bias was also towards valuing Oceanian art on equal footing with European and Euro-American art because I feel that the current imbalance between white people's art and non-white people's art in the modern museum is one of the most pernicious of all museum traditions). 

I found much more to my liking during a number of recent visits to the Brooklyn Museum of Art. In the interest of full exposure, I must admit that I also like much of what the Brooklyn Museum has beyond its Oceanian collection, particularly the American and Feminist art collections; I also simply think that the museum spaces are more comfortable, the objects more accessible, and the presentation more insightful than that at the Met; oh, and yes, my girlfriend is an intern there. Now, with all of my biases hung out like dirty laundry, I turn to an appraisal of the Brooklyn Museum's small but interesting collection of Oceanian art.

Polynesian Art
A map provides geographic orientation to "Polynesia."
The Polynesian Triangle includes Hawaiʻi to the north, Aotearoa (New Zealand) to the southwest, Rapa Nui (Easter Island) to the southeast, and just about everything in between.

The Brooklyn Museum's permanent exhibit of Oceanian art is located in a small room lodged between the elevators and the gift shop. This unusual location might seem like an insult to the art, but I actually have found that the location attracts a lot of traffic: people waiting for a friend, waiting to leave, waiting for an elevator, whatever, who look (perhaps not closely, but they do look) at the Oceanian art. One side of this small room is devoted to works from island Southeast Asia and the other side to works from Polynesia. I am concerned here only with the Polynesian collection.

Male figurine from Fiji, Samoa, or Tonga

According to the museum's curator, this remarkable object reflects the hybrid material culture of the people living in the nineteenth century Fijian-Samoan-Tongan geographical triangle. While Fiji is often characterized as "Melanesian" and Samoa and Tonga as "Polynesian," the truth is that for centuries people have been trading goods and knowledge between these three island groups. Not only that, but human migration and resulting multiculturalism (which then sometimes leads to cultural hybridity, as perhaps evidenced by this object) have also occurred for centuries. Tongans and Samoans living in Fiji for centuries have particularly influenced Fijian art and material culture, and I am sure that influential exchanges went the other way as well. How expressive, then, that this object likely held significance and meaning for a variety of different peoples back then (Fijians, Samoans, Tongans) and still does today (for Brooklyn Museum visitors who puzzle over it).

Detail of a Marquesan club (uʻu)

This might be the first time I have mentioned the Marquesas Islands in this blog. Today these islands are part of French Polynesia, and they have been, I assume, since the 1840s when France first took possession of these islands. But even earlier, another empire tried their hand at claiming the Marquesas: the United States of America. Yes, during the War of 1812 Americans made a tenuous claim to the Marquesas Islands, but annexation was never ratified. 

Map of the Marquesas Islands in French Polynesia

Why did the United States want the Marquesas? They were actively engaged in "sandalwooding" there around the time of the War of 1812: that's one reason. In fact, there was a very fast sandalwood harvesting boom in the 1810s in the Marquesas, but by the end of that decade the Americans had little need for the islands anymore: most of the best sandalwood had already been exploited.

Another (perhaps more relevant) fact to our discussion of Marquesan uʻu is that the Polynesians who first colonized Hawaiʻi during the period c300-600 CE were Marquesans. I often write about Hawaiian culture, so it is always important to remember the influence that early Marquesans had on forming that culture. Early Marquesans were incredibly adept canoeists and they may have also been the Polynesians who first visited South America (c800 CE) and brought back sweet potatoes to Oceania. In my opinion, their smoothly polished and intricately carved uʻu are without competition among Polynesian wood arts.

The museum curator suggests that this headdress was manufactured on the island of Ua Poa (see map above) and then was traded to Hiva Oa where the European scholar of Polynesian travel, Thor Heyerdahl, collected it in 1937. Heyerdahl is most famous for his Kon-Tiki expedition, which (once the movie about the expedition ever becomes available on Netflix [it is on my "saved" queue]) I will write about in a future blog post. (Of course, there is a book about the adventure, too, but I'd rather just watch the movie as I am already skeptical about the importance of Heyerdahl's work now that the Polynesian Voyaging Society is conducting more culturally significant journeys of the same kind out of Hawaiʻi.)

In Hawaiʻi, women's headdresses generally come in three different material forms: hala (pandanus leaves; no ornamentation or bright colors), flower lei (fragrant, colorful flowers, or sometimes even fake flowers from China, as Namahana wore in the 1820s!), and feather lei (perhaps the most prized of all, as the red and yellow feathers are laboriously picked high in the mountains and contain abundant mana). 

The availability of porpoise teeth on Ua Poa provided the Marquesans with their own unique material for constructing headdresses. I can only imagine that wearing a headdress made of porpoise teeth was a privilege of women from only the chiefly class, and that wearing such a headdress symbolized the transfer of mana from the many porpoises to the human consumer. How many teeth does a porpoise have? How were the porpoises harvested? Marquesan-porpoise relations will have to be the subject of future study by environmental historians.

Lizard figures (moko miro) from Rapa Nui

Rapa Nui (Easter Island) is best known for its large moai statues, perhaps thanks to that not-so-great film "Night at the Museum" with Ben Stiller. But these lizard figures at the Brooklyn Museum are just as interesting and incredibly enchanting. The swimming curvaciousness of the lizard bodies is particularly beautiful to me, not to mention the polished smoothness of the wood that reminds me of the Marquesan uʻu also on display. But what animal(s) inspire this mythical creature? Were there lizards in Rapa Nui during the nineteenth century, and if so, how the hell did they get there?!

I conclude this post with the object on display at the Brooklyn Museum that is most familiar to me: a Hawaiian lei niho palaoa. Many visual and textual representations of Hawaiian aliʻi (ruling class) women from the 1820s-period depict women wearing these necklaces. Made of a whale's tooth (perhaps from a beached whale, but increasingly in the nineteenth century from whale's teeth traded to Hawaiians by Europeans and Euro-Americans) and real braided human hair (lots of it), these necklaces had considerable mana. Not only did a privileged woman wear part of a whale on her chest (and whales were quite the distant, perhaps even mythical creature for Hawaiians until the 1820s and the advent of Euro-American whaling in the North Pacific) but also the hair of many humans wrapped her neck and infused her with mana.

But this object is particularly fascinating because of its history as a collected item and as a cultural ambassador to a European/Euro-American public. It was mislabeled by its collector as a "Sorceror's Necklace from Tahiti." But it was not a sorcerer's object, much less a Hawaiian kahuna (priest)'s object. And it was not Tahitian, although perhaps the collector or his audience at the time had more romantic visions of Tahiti than he/they did of Hawaiʻi...and thus the textual embellishment of the necklace.

Detail of lei niho palaoa showing a haole (foreigner) inscription stating:
"Sorcerer's Necklace from Tahiti"

You can learn more about the Brooklyn Museum's collection of Oceanian art online. You might want to start with this introduction by the curator of the collection.

There are 1,572 objects made by Pacific Islanders that are now held at the Brooklyn Museum on Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn. Who knew there was so much of Oceania in New York?

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Representations: Obesity in Hawaiʻi

L. Massard, Namahana (1830)
Private Collection 
(reproduced in Forbes, Encounters with Paradise)

Historians have recently paid more and more attention to the history of human bodies (for example, see this recent article on "Martin Luther's body" in the AHR). Words and ideas are surely important, but so is our humanness - our animalness - our very physicality. Of course, whether examining textual or visual representations of human bodies, we have to keep in mind how bodies are so often used as cultural symbols (with meanings that vary across race, ethnicity, gender, class, region, time, space) and thus I think it is particularly hard to read most any representations of human bodies as truthful ones. Yet these representations still tell us something....

Lydia Namahana Piʻia

She wears a blue European dress, European shoes (men's shoes in fact), and a lei poʻo on her head that, as Russian Captain Otto von Kotzebue tells us, was composed of Chinese fake flowers. Kotzebue is in fact an important actor in the construction of Namahanaʻs visual identity: a replica of this image of Namahana graced the frontispiece of the published account of his transoceanic voyages (1823-26), A New Voyage Around the World, published in 1830. I am not sure who the painter L. Massard was - either he traveled with Kotzebue, or made copies of sketches from the trip after the fact.

Map of Kotzebue's Transoceanic Journey, 1823-26

Namahana was one of the lesser known wives of Hawaiian King Kamehameha I. She had taken on a Christian name, Lydia, sometime during the 1820s after the arrival of American Protestant missionaries in the islands. At the time of her portrait (1823-26), she was a widow (Kamehameha I died in 1819). Her sister (and other wife of Kamehameha I), Kaʻahumanu, was a powerful leader in the Hawaiian Kingdom during these years. When King Liholiho and his entourage were overseas in 1823-25 she and Prime Minister Kalanimoku effectively ran the Kingdom. As for Namahana, she is hardly mentioned in the historiography of this period. She apparently had very little power or influence...

Thus I imagine she was pleased and honored to be painted by Massard. And she was pleased to be allowed to wear the articles of clothing that she felt most proud of - that she felt best expressed her status as an aliʻi (from a ruling family) and as a cosmopolitan consumer. (See my post on Princess Nāhiʻenaʻena for evidence of just how hard it was for Hawaiian aliʻi to convince European portraitists to depict them wearing "modern" European - rather than "traditional" Hawaiian - fashions.)

Massard (and Kotzebue) might have found their constructed image of Namahana comical. Perhaps they took delight that her legs and feet were so big that she must wear men's European shoes (although while shoe size might have been a factor in her purchase, she was not alone among Hawaiian aliʻi in purchasing cross-gender articles of clothing and it might have been that she just liked that particular shoe style). Furthermore, these haole (foreigner) men apparently took delight that a dress that was meant to sweep along the floor only came down to Namahana's ankles because of her large torso. And finally, perhaps they found it comical that she wore a lei poʻo of fake Chinese flowers rather than one of real Hawaiian flowers, which must have been easy enough to procure (although we cannot discount that the portraitist may have insisted that she wear certain aspects of this assemblage such as the Chinese lei).

Namahana might look awkwardly at the portraitist because the men behind the easel are snickering at her. Or, she might look awkwardly only because Massard and Kotzebue wanted us to see her that way, as a "misfit" who was trying to act European but could hardly pull it off. However strong and confident Namahana may have been in her consumption and fashion choices, and in her body, we cannot know because Massard and Kotzebue cannot see her that way.

(Mis?)-Representing Obesity

Descriptions of Hawaiian bodies, and especially obesity, abound in the 1820s European and Euro-American literature about Hawaiʻi:

- Sandalwood trader Charles Hammatt was surprised in 1823 that the king of Hawaiʻi, Liholiho, looked as he did laying at home "on an old canvas-covered sofa, almost entirely naked, having nothing on but a small 'marro' [malo: tapa loincloth], sufficiently dirty." Hammatt went on to call Liholiho both ugly and fat.

- Dutch Captain Jacobus Boelen, in 1828, similarly called the young King Kauikeaouli, who was only a teenager at the time, fat and ugly.

- Kuakini, Governor of Hawaiʻi, was frequently noted as being very large. Boelen even makes much a do about how difficult it was for his crew to hoist Kuakini up from a canoe to his ship's deck for a formal gathering. According to Boelen, multiple ship's crewmen had to hoist Kuakini up with ropes. Another incident onboard involved Kuakini falling down while onboard and Boelen remarks that the whole ship shook. 

- Most recently I have been reading accounts of Hawaiian whalers working on European and Euro-American ships...and again stories of huge men falling and bouncing around abound in the literature.

But Hawaiian wahine (women), more so than Hawaiian men, were subjected to the strongest European and Euro-American insults about their bodies:

- Captain Boelen in 1828 remarked that Kapiʻolani, wife of Nāihe, living at Kealakekua Bay, Hawaiʻi, was obese and ugly, even though she wore "a black nankeen skirt which she wore over a white cotton shirt." Respectable enough, except that Boelen said that she wore nothing else underneath (hinting that you could see her breasts through the shirt, which, apparently, he did not like).

- French Captain Auguste Duhaut-Cilly commented in 1828 about Queen Kaʻahumanu and the "princesses" who lived with her: to him they were all fat. Of a 20 year old "princess," Duhaut-Cilly had these not-so-nice words: "Even at that age she had become so enormous that she could not walk without being helped. She much resembled that huge seal, the sea elephant, which because of its great weight remains for weeks at a time in the same place, its soft body molding itself to the irregularities of the rock."

Duhaut-Cilly knew what he was talking about: transpacific traders frequently mixed seal hunting with provision-stops at Hawaiʻi: he was probably not lying to think that the women reclining on their tapa mats on the floor appeared to him like seals on rocks that he had also once seen. Of course, he is dehumanizing these women... highlighting their animality in a way that he would never apply to himself, much less to his own wife or daughters!


Stereotypes are, in a sense, exaggerated truths. Based on the overwhelmingly frequency of references to Hawaiian obesity in the early European and Euro-American literature, there must have been a kernal of truth there. But, that Hawaiian men and women shared a different conception of bodily beauty than haole (foreigners) did is probably also quite true. That Hawaiian women had control over their bodies in ways that white women back in Europe or America did not also probably made most haole men uncomfortable with Hawaiian femininity. Indeed, another stereotype, of the powerful (and often obese) Polynesian matriarch, has great cultural capital in haole minds (for example, see the representations of the Tongan matriarch in the film The Other Side of Heaven, or just think of "Bloody Mary" in the musical South Pacific).

Hawaiian public health experts and policy makers remain concerned about obesity in Hawaiʻi, which, just like all across the United States today, is considered to be an epidemic.

In the end, it is apparent to me that while some Hawaiians were indeed quite large during the early nineteenth century (importantly, these are almost always aliʻi elites, not commoners, who are depicted as obese), "obesity," as a concept suggesting bodily abnormality, was (and still is) a relativistic construction placed upon Hawaiians by others. Europeans and Euro-Americans who favored/idealized skinnier body types looked down upon Hawaiian men and women and used their large bodies as one of the unique, defining "Hawaiian" attributes for their categorization of Hawaiian people into a larger taxonomy of the world's "races". That Hawaiian bodies appeared to these haole as abnormally obese, a taxonomic stereotype - a major generalization - was thus constructed about Hawaiian bodies. We should even question, by the 1820s, if textual and visual representations of Hawaiian bodies were more the product of stereotypical expectations rather than actual appearances. Perhaps Massard's Namahana was meant to meet viewer expectations of what a Hawaiian woman should look like, rather than to represent this woman as she really was. Furthermore, I am convinced that male haole representations of female Hawaiian obesity were a reflection of white male anxieties over Hawaiian femininity, matriarchy, and sexuality. 

For more on representations of Hawaiian bodies, see:

David W. Forbes, Encounters with Paradise: Views of Hawaii and its People, 1778-1941 (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1992).