Monday, July 26, 2010

Haole, Palagi, Pākehā, Aoe: Am I White?

A couple weeks ago I had a mild, 24-hour breakdown about the whole idea of "doing" history. What triggered it was, actually, camping outdoors at night, looking at the stars, and remembering how often I used to experience such wonderful things, and yet how rarely I have those experiences now that I am always spending my time reading and writing about other people's lives.

This breakdown made me question two possible "careers" and whether one was more valuable to me than the other: whether to research and tell stories about other people from the past (as I do now), or whether to create my own story like the ones that I read about? Should I try and live such a life that future historians would find interesting or inspiring, or should I simply resurrect the forgotten stories of those who came before me who have lived their own incredible lives? Or can historians have it both ways: to write about awesome lives from the past and also live their own awesome life?

My immediate answers to this question took the form of two commitments: the easier one, 1), to tell my own story (as in, to share with readers an autobiographical memoir that I wrote four years ago); and perhaps a historian of youth or of attitudes towards nature in the first decade of the twentieth-first century will find something useful here! The second and harder of my commitments is, 2), to make the process and product of "doing" history more self-reflexive. That is, I need to think more openly about why I "do" history, what it means for me to "do" it, and how my historical narratives relate to my life and how my life relates to what I say and think about the past.

So here goes...

Rethinking Race

The day after American Independence Day (July 4th), my girlfriend and I went to Coney Island, Brooklyn's most famous beach, boardwalk, and amusement park. I remember sitting on my towel, next to her, on the most crowded beach I had ever experienced, with men, women, and children of all shapes, sizes, and colors all around me. I experienced the same sensation in the water as I attempted to swim (but barely could because of the crowd of people in the water): I was surrounded by a crowd of humanity, each of us with unique facial structures, bodily statures, skin complexions. My historian's mind got to thinking about how novel this was! How all of our ancestors (just one, two, three, maybe ten generations back) had all lived somewhere else, somewhere where they were surrounded by more of our/their own kind. In my mind then, we were all ambassadors - as if every block of NYC was its own United Nations - representing different peoples and processes of the past.

And of course, taking my historian's hat off for a second, I realize that not everyone saw it that way. Probably few of us splashing around in the water, or sunbathing on the beach, felt like ambassadors of distant peoples and places or as representations of historical processes; no, I am sure that most of us felt like "Americans," felt at home, felt that there was no other us than that right here: this community.

As much as I admire such an ahistoric (not necessarily a bad thing) view that we are all "Americans" or all "New Yorkers" and that the histories of how we all got here do not matter, at the same time I worry that by forgetting how we all "got here" we get stuck in the over-simplicities of what "being here" really means to/for most of us. That is, I worry that "here," in New York City, or in America, that we oversimplify and marginalize ourselves: there are whites, and there are blacks, and there are Asians, and there are Hispanics, and that is it. (I use these four categories as an example, because they were the options I recently saw on a New York City survey questioning "race." Of course, there was also a category for "other," but do we really want to make "others" out of our neighbors? Do we really want people of mixed heritage to feel/be "othered"?)

In an ahistoric view of that moment at Coney Island, I was just "white." And our neighbors on the blankets next to us were "black." And those people who looked neither white nor black, but were shaded somewhere in between, were "Hispanic" (never mind that it is their language [whether or not we could hear it], not their "race," that would make them so). And remarkably, if you were either Arab, Persian, Indian, Tibetan, Yakut, Mongol, Chinese, Indonesian, or maybe even Pacific Islander, that day on the beach you were just "Asian."

As I swam, and as I bathed, and as my historical mind span around, I saw the great fallacy of these categories: these categories that force us to rudely squeeze ourselves and others into boxes that cannot properly or respectfully hold us. There is no dignity, but only rudeness, in the American conception of "race." Recognizing it as simply a social construction, which it is - a highly subjective one at that - it struck me that every single person sharing that sand and that water with me on that day saw the swarm of people around them through slightly-differently shaded glasses. Perhaps it was only me who battled against what I had been brought up to believe: that there was white, black, and others. What did the immigrant family from East Asia see when they swam past me and my neighbors? Did they see "Asians" as holding the same components as me, a white American, was taught to see? How about the African-American family laying next to us on the sand? Perhaps they saw greater differences among "blacks" than I did, but what if all white-skinned peoples, from Jews (like me) to Chinese or Koreans, were all "white" to them? How many boundaries were crossed in each person's mind that day, and how could we ever unravel what all those different boundaries looked like, and where the lines were drawn, amongst the thousands of us splashing in the water???

The Wonder Wheel, built 1929: my favorite ride at Coney Island.

What is the point of this exercise? I'm not sure. What I do know is that nearly 75% of my great-grandparents and almost all of their ancestors before them (as much as I can determine) once lived in Russia. But they were not "Russians." I can only imagine that in the eyes of the dominant "white" Russian class that my ancestors were not "white": they were Jews. They were an ethnic minority. When my great-grandparents came to New York City in the late 1800s and early 1900s they were still not "white." Their Ellis Island immigration records (specifically, the manifests of the ships carrying them) categorized my family as "Hebrews." That is, their "race" was assigned as "Hebrew." Another category. When did my family become "white"? I guess when all New York City Jews became "white," and they by and large have...sometime in the mid-twentieth century perhaps? I don't know. But here I am: 27 years in the United States and no one has ever categorized my race as anything other than "white."

Whiteness in Polynesia

Perhaps there is nowhere left in the world (with the exception of parts of Europe) where I would be characterized as any other race than "white." I just assume that if I moved to Hawaiʻi, that I would be seen as and thought of there as a haole. That in Samoa I would be a palagi. That in Aotearoa I would be a Pākehā. That in Tonga I would be a pālangi. That in the Marquesas I would be an Aoe.

That each of these terms means something slightly different is not just because of pre-contact cultural and linguistic divergences between the Polynesian peoples of each island group, but also because of the different post-contact interactions and relationships between Polynesians and outsiders. Greg Dening tells us that these new racial terms sprung up out of contact experiences; that in the Marquesas, the Enata first tried to categorize outsiders using a pre-existing term (to call them atua: gods from the sky); only in time did the Enata recognize that white peoples were incongruent with their former conception of the world and that a new category, Aoe, had to be created for them.

In Hawaiʻi, the term haole originally meant "outsider/foreigner." But as the racial composition of the islands began to significantly change with the importation of East Asian contract labor in the second half of the nineteenth century, haole's definition became stricter: haole meant white. Chinese were called pākē; they were not haole. What about the Portuguese laborers who came to work the sugar plantations in the last few decades of the nineteenth century: were they haole? Or was haole both class and race? Could any plantation laborer truly be haole, or only the owners, luna (supervisors), and financiers? I don't know the answer, but we might found out more in a new book that just came out from University of Hawaiʻi Press called Haoles in Hawaiʻi.

This is me as a haole: we are in a Chinese restaurant in Honolulu; my skin is pretty white (much more so than the local sun-tanned haole!); and I am wearing the quintessential haole shirt: the "aloha shirt."
Since I do not normally look like this in NYC, I take this as proof that "whiteness" and all its cultural baggage is relative to where you are, who is watching you, and who you are trying to be.

Interestingly, many of these terms - haole, palagi, aoe, for example - can be used as adjectives as well as nouns. There were and are types of palagi houses, haole clothing, aoe plants and animals. White missionaries (as well as traders and merchants) tried for a long time to replace native objects, species, and behaviors with "white" ones. I am not sure if the goal was ever to assimilate native Polynesians to the point where there would no longer be any "us vs. them." Some whites actually believed (and hoped for) that the native Islander populations would simply die away. Of course, if that had happened, then there would be no need for haole, palagi, pākehā, aoe, because these terms would no longer exist. These terms symbolically identify the presence of intruders, of occupiers, in native country. They are terms given by indigenous peoples to identify all that is non-indigenous. The power, and promise, of these terms is that they keep alien peoples, things, and practices separate, and by doing so, native Islanders can likewise keep their own selves, things, and behaviors separate and thus extant. Indeed, without "race" - without all these classifications and categorizations - how could Polynesian peoples have ever preserved their unique cultural identity? Wow..."race" suddenly never looked so good! It is in fact essential to maintaining indigeneity.

While I have absolutely no problem being called haole, palagi, aoe, "intruder," "outsider," "foreigner," whatever - because that is exactly what I would be if I moved to any of these islands - it is the ambiguity of the flip-side which troubles me more. On the flip-side are the indigenous racial categorizations: in Hawaiʻi, the kānaka maoli; in Aotearoa, the māori; in the Marquesas Islands, the enata.

There was a time, in the mid to late nineteenth century, when Euro-Americans called all Polynesian peoples, especially Polynesian laborers, "kanakas." The term, from the Hawaiian kanaka (s.)/kānaka (pl.), originally meant, simply, "humans." It is, or at least once was, a very powerful term. Think about it: of all the categories comprising the Hawaiian worldview before contact with outsiders, the category of "human beings," of "people" was kanaka. As a Hawaiian laborer told Richard Henry Dana in California in the 1830s (as I wrote about in an earlier blog post about Hawaiian migration), there were just two types of people in the Hawaiian worldview: kānaka and haole: humans and strangers. In the Marquesas, as Greg Dening shows, the native people knew themselves as "human beings," or as "the Men," as he translates it: the enata. Aoe, outsiders, were not men; they were not human. These terms for indigeneity therefore do not just confirm the Islanders as natives of their volcanic frontiers in a vast ocean, but confirm the Islanders as the people of the world, of all that exists, as the original and extant "humans."

But in Hawaiʻi, the indigenous people at some point could no longer use the term kānaka to define themselves - perhaps because haole (outsiders) had come to associate the term "kanakas" too strongly with pan-Polynesian contract and slave laborers. It must have been a sad thing for the term that once encompassed the essence of what it meant to be "human" to now be a near-racial epithet used to differentiate Polynesians from other colonial/imperial subjects. So, at some point, the indigenous term for "Hawaiian" changed to kānaka maoli. Maoli means "native/indigenous." So, kānaka maoli means "the native people." I assume it is related to the word māori, the descriptive name of the natives of Aotearoa.

I wonder what the world would be like if every linguistic group referred to their own kind as "native" or as "human." The people of England would never have referred to themselves as the "English," but rather as "the Men," "the natives," or simply as "humans." When Captain James Cook landed in the Hawaiian Islands in 1778-79, he would have said to the Hawaiians that "we are humans and you people are not." Wait...he (and those who came with and after him) did pretty much say that!...

But the trouble with "race," whether on the beach at Coney Island or at the beach in Waikīkī, concerns those people of mixed heritage and complexion. The Hawaiians called half-native, half-white children hapa haole. It is an interesting term, in that - like whether a cup is half-empty or half-full - it focuses on the addition of "white" blood rather than on the persistence (or loss) of native blood. Hapa haole suggests that the cup is half-empty: that the offspring is polluted - literally, "half-white" - rather than "half-Hawaiian." Hapa haole suggests a loss of Hawaiian-ness. But being hapa does not necessarily have to been seen as a state of pollution or dilution; many hapa haole were and still are successful and influential leaders within the Hawaiian community.

But with multiracial peoples, what full-blooded Hawaiians saw as hapa haole might have been (and often were seen) by full-blooded Euro-Americans as kanaka. That is, half-white Hawaiians were often still just "Hawaiians" in pure haole eyes; just as the many shades of "black" in American history have always for such a long time been seen as all black. Euro-American obsessions with "white purity" are a history upon themselves, and cannot be adequately discussed here. Ideas of purity, pollution, and blood are prominent in the European and Euro-American conceptions of "race," and unfortunately I think that these conceptions have had a major influence on Polynesian peoples as well.

My final example concerns the concept of "blood quantum." In Hawaiʻi, various governmental organizations and laws require authentication of Hawaiian ancestry for access to certain benefits or provisions. The U.S. Congress, when Hawaiʻi was a territory of the U.S. (1898-1959), passed the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act (1920) to give native peoples access to the former lands of the Hawaiian Kingdom. But the law requires an authentication of ancestry which states that one must have at least 50% Hawaiian blood quantum to qualify as a "Native Hawaiian." In essence, the law defined what it meant to be racially "Native Hawaiian." On the other hand, on the U.S. Census, people can self-identify as they please, and so anyone of any amount Hawaiian blood quantum can list "Native Hawaiian" as one of their races on the U.S. census (see my earlier blog post about the census).

As the sun goes down at Ala Moana Beach in Honolulu, the bobbing heads of people swimming in the water are silhouetted; they are race-neutralized. They are all kānaka: humans, in the broadest sense, in a lost sense of the word.
I must remember that our similarities are just as beautiful as our differences.

As many Hawaiian peoples of all backgrounds and complexions move forward with dreams of Hawaiian nationhood and national sovereignty, issues of "race" - issues of who is Hawaiian and who is not - may become more important than ever. It is incredibly important for Polynesian peoples, wherever they are in the diaspora, to feel comfortable and permitted to self-identify with any of their own racial heritages, to call themselves what they will, to be free to see the world through their own system of boxes, or to simply tear all those boxes apart.

While languages go extinct with each passing day, and as histories once known die with their last storytellers, what a wonderful world this would be if we could comfortably accept there being so many more races, rather than moving towards some utopian "post-racial" world that some Americans mistakenly call for. Since "race" is simply our subjective distinctions of phenotypes, why not look harder rather than to turn away, to see the beautiful quilt of our diversity, to celebrate that, rather than to try to lump people together. I am proud to be haole, palagi, pākehā, aoe, Jew, "white," American. Each term has a history with some ugliness and some beauty. The terms are history, and losing them is to lose the ways in which people once knew and tried to make sense of our world.

That's why I enjoyed Coney Island, and why I enjoy "doing" history. I saw history in all of their faces: bathing, swimming, laughing, smiling. Yes I am glad we are all New Yorkers, but oh, how glad I am that we are all so many other things to each other, too!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Museum Review: Hall of Pacific Peoples, American Museum of Natural History

Some people have wondered why there are exhibits on human culture in the American Museum of Natural History. They are mistaken to wonder like this, because humans are indeed part of nature. The same natural forces that shape the lifeways of other biological species shape our own. We are dependent on nature for sunlight, water, food to eat, oxygen, &c, and today we are becoming increasingly aware of just how delicate and specific our environmental needs actually are. Besides, some would argue that other biological species also produce and experience "culture," just as we do. So there really is no hard and fast line between "nature" and "culture," or between "human history" and "natural history."

But critics are also right to wonder about the specific inclusion of human groups into the American Museum of Natural History, because only certain human groups are represented here: there is a hall for Northwest Coast Indians, a hall for Eastern and Central US Indians, a hall for the peoples of Central America, a hall for the peoples of South America, a hall for Asian peoples, and a hall for African peoples. And, of course, a hall for Pacific peoples. But what is missing? Duh...the hall of European peoples! There are at least 87 different European ethnic groups. I am the descendent of some of these peoples, including Jews and Finns. The criticism leveled upon the AMNH is that by including all human groups except Europeans, the museum is basically saying that all peoples besides the Europeans are the product of "natural," rather than "human," forces, as if biological evolution was the only explanation for why Asian peoples are different than African peoples, as if human agency is solely the province of white peoples and all others are motivated only by the tides, winds, and sexual selection. The flip side of this is that, for a long time, human history only encompassed (from the Euro-centric perspective) the stories of the Bible, with events in Egypt and in the Levant. Then came the great Roman and Greek city-states and empires and so on...then 1492...and human history in a nutshell was about the expansion and development of the white race(s). Of course, much of the Museum of Natural History has been planned and designed by white peoples, and, much of the history of natural history museums concerns the theater of empire: that the USA could get its hands on so many biological species and cultural artifacts from around the world demonstrates to that very world the global and hegemonic reach of American empire. So it is no wonder that Euro-Americans have refused to place themselves on equal footing among the other ethnic groups on the museum floor. That a US museum could taxonomically organize all the world's peoples (sans Europeans) and the world's species showcases our nation's ability to control the way that people understand the relationships of peoples and species in this world. The signature of the curator at the entrance of the exhibit hints at the true power dynamics (the dynamics of representation) that work to present the world to us in this way. (For an example of something completely different that a museum can do to represent human culture in a way that honors the equality among all of us, check out the National Museum of the American Indian, where American Indians curate the exhibits themselves, where indigenous groups A-Z share equal space together, and where contemporary creations are given equal weight with traditional anthropological collections.)

...Anyway, I promised myself I would write an optimistic review of a museum exhibit for once...or at least try to! (See my previous reviews of Oceanian art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and at the Brooklyn Museum of Art.) The truth is, I love visiting the American Museum of Natural History. Furthermore, they have the greatest gallery of Oceanian material culture in the entire city of New York, if not this side of the Bishop Museum.

You enter the Hall of Pacific Peoples, and the first thing you encounter are the private objects of Margaret Mead, the famous anthropologist and founder/designer of the Hall of Pacific Peoples.
On the left are objects gifted to Mead by the indigenous peoples she lived and worked amongst in the Pacific. At right is her cloak and walking stick.

You turn the corner and, before entering the actual Hall, you travel past rows of photos of contemporary life in Oceania.
I really appreciate this opening experience, because it reminds us, the viewers, that the present is not locked in the past, but rather that Pacific peoples are still here, still changing with the times.

Margaret Mead's touch is everywhere in the Hall of Pacific Peoples. And she was undeniably an amazing person with an amazing influence upon Pacific peoples and upon Western views towards Pacific peoples. She studied at Columbia University in the 1920s with revolutionary anthropologist Frank Boas. While working on her PhD (awarded in 1929), she conducted fieldwork for nine months in 1925-26 on the island of Taʻū in the Manuʻa archipelago, American Samoa. The outcome of her fieldwork, besides her PhD, was the book, Coming of Age in Samoa (1928). It is considered a groundbreaking work in American anthropology, especially for someone who was only in their 20s at the time, as Mead was.

Map of American Samoa showing Taʻū in the Manuʻa Islands.
What was life like in Taʻū during the 1920s? How strong was the American presence? I don't we'll have to read Mead's book!

More on Mead a little later....

Upon entering the actual Hall, to the left is a large map of Oceania. The different cultural groups on display in the hall are color-coded here on the map.
Indonesia: Orange
Philippines: Yellow Orange
Australia: Red
Micronesia: Light Blue
Melanesia: Greenish Blue
Polynesia: Light Green

Museum visitors beware: the Micronesia section is just one small wall in the far back, right section, tucked away behind all things Polynesian. Why does Micronesia always get such a small area? Australia, Philippines, and Indonesia - although these groups are not always considered part of "Oceania" - encompass about half of the Hall of Pacific Peoples. The rest is split between Melanesia and Polynesia, most likely because these are the two cultural areas where Mead did her fieldwork and research.

In 1928-29, Mead left Columbia again to live among the Manus people of Great Admiralty Island (aka Manus Island) in the Admiralty Islands. On the way to the Polynesian section of the Hall, I stopped to learn a bit about the Manus people...

In the spirit of showing at least one exhibit item not related to Polynesia (sorry, I am so obsessed with Polynesia!), here is a diorama of a Manus village on Manus Island.

Mead's use of dioramas in the Hall of Pacific Peoples is one of the highlights of the exhibit: children especially enjoy transporting themselves into the worlds of people other than themselves by viewing scenes of daily life in a diorama village.

On the other hand, these dioramas fail to explain the chronological date of when this scene is supposed to be taking place. With this omission, the dioramas falsely offer an "essentialist" explanation of Pacific life, as if this is the regular, traditional, original, essential way that people lived here. But as Mead should have known, cultures are dynamic and fluid rather than static. If this Manus scene is what she saw in 1929, then it is very likely not what we would have seen in 1829, nor what we would see in 2010....

On to Polynesia....

I was not quite sure where the Polynesian section began, but then, as I turned away from the Manus diorama, I saw this dark image stenciled onto the back wall of a divider in the room. I looked closer at it: it is a Marquesan tattoo design! Aha! Polynesia!

First stop in the Polynesian section: the Māori. This whole gallery here, pictured behind the main object, is devoted to Māori material culture.
The object is a pataka (storehouse) used by a Māori chief. Here the chief would store those mana-rich objects that he hoped to protect from theft. Many types of animals (real and mythical) appear to guard the storehouse door...
Besides the intricate carvings, I also appreciate the quality of the wood itself, especially the rich red color...

Detail of the pataka door. This may be a type of human figure, but also perhaps a lizard figure. (I still haven't figured out why the lizard figure is common in Polynesian art. I know that lizards are not indigenous to any of the volcanic Polynesian archipelagos, because there was no way for a lizard to get to any of those oceanic outposts! But in Aotearoa, there was this guy: tuatara.)
Regardless, the figure on the pataka door is meant to frighten away would-be-thieves. He assumes a stance, including the extended tongue, which reminds me of Māori haka (a traditional dance form).

I continued to poke around the Māori section, and found this most interesting object: it is just one of many cloaks made of flax exhibited in this glass case. But this cloak is fascinating because of the red and green material used to decorate it: wool!

I found it interesting that the Māori, of all Polynesian peoples, had little success with making tapa clothing. Like all Polynesian voyagers before them, the original Polynesian settlers of Aotearoa brought the paper mulberry tree (Hawaiian: wauke) with them. The bark from this tree was, until Aotearoa, the primary material used by Polynesian peoples in the production of clothing.

But the climate in Aotearoa was different than that experienced by the Polynesians elsewhere, and paper mulberry just would not grow that successfully. So the Māori turned to the native flax plant and made most of their garments from flax.

The finest Māori flax cloaks (on display but not pictured here) were decorated with feathers from the kiwi bird; these cloaks were called kahu kiwi. Just as Hawaiians used colorful bird feathers to decorate their olonā fiber cloaks, kiwi bird feathers provided extra mana to the wearer of a kahu kiwi cloak.

But this cloak is different, because it exhibits some refreshing historicity! That is, we can probably date this cloak to the late nineteenth century, if not the twentieth century, because of the use of wool as a replacement for kiwi feathers. I don't suggest to know anything about the status of kiwi feather harvesting at this time, but rather I suggest that wool was a new product, a newly locally produced product, perhaps cheaper and easier to acquire, or if not, then more mana-rich than kiwi because of its rarity and associations with foreign power. Sheep and wool signaled a changing New Zealand, and this cloak shows how Māori could adopt to those changes without losing any of their artistry or identity.

I next turned to Hawaiʻi. Here is a beautiful yellow, black, and red ʻahuʻula (feather cloak). I will spare you the details about the birds and ideas involved in the production of this cloak, and direct you to a previous post where I discussed Hawaiian featherwork at greater length.

A comprehensive view of the Hawaiian collections on exhibit. These include another beautiful, even larger, ʻahuʻula (cloak); some unfeathered olonā objects, such as a mahiole (helmet), and a religious figure; at bottom left are calabash gourd poi containers, poi pounders, fishhooks, etc.
This provides a nice overview of traditional Hawaiian material culture, but unfortunately there are no objects here to express how Hawaiian material culture evolved after 1778. This exhibit could learn from the Māori one with the wool in it...but what type of "modern" object should they include?

Detail of the mahiole (helmet) on display. This is an unfinished helmet; it would normally have feathers attached to it and completely covering it. But this unfinished mahiole gives us the opportunity to appreciate the intricate fiber work performed by Hawaiians using olonā fiber. This type of fiber work similarly provides the foundations for the larger ʻahuʻula capes.

A Night at the Museum....(sigh)....

A very cute American child standing in front of a replica moʻai.
It was hard for me to take a photo of this moʻai without other people in the way. Most of the time, crowds of children (and parents, too) were grouped around the moʻai as relatives took photos of them. Different than this well-behaved girl, most visitors also made funny gestures or made verbal comments of a strange order while standing in front of the moʻai.

What is it about this object that attracts Americans (and tourists) so much?!

"Dum Dum"...Take One

"Dum Dum"...Take Two

"Dum Dum"...Take Three (even in another language!...Gee, and I thought all Easter Island statues only spoke English!)

Take Four: the "reel" deal, from the movie Night at the Museum (2006).

OK. So I get it now. There was a pretty bad movie in 2006 that lots of people seemed to really enjoy called Night at the Museum. It took place at the American Museum of Natural History, and viewers of the movie were led to believe that among many other objects in the museum, the Hall of Pacific People's moʻai statue could come alive at night and converse with Ben Stiller. Not only that, but this moʻai could only speak in a very simply language, frequently using the words "dum dum" and "gum gum" to try and get his point across. (Note that these syllables are not necessarily found in Polynesian languages.) Somehow kids across America (and apparently across the world) have come to think of this moʻai's name as "Dum Dum," and that if he is not fed "gum gum," then he will be very unhappy.

And so the whole two hours I was in the Hall of Pacific Peoples I could not stop hearing for even one minute the constant sound of kids entering the Hall and screaming "Look, dad, it's Dum Dum!" or worse: "He wants gum gum." I actually even overheard a security guard mentioning that some visitor in the past had placed gum into the moʻai's mouth and then the museum staff had to clean it out! Thankfully, this moʻai is only a replica, not a real one.

So what does this crazy fascination with moʻai...excuse me, "Dum Dum"...mean for peoples' understanding of Polynesian cultures. It does not appear to have helped at all. I witnessed incredibly few people reading informational text near the moʻai. I even saw a group of children led by a tour guide to the moʻai and even the guide said very little about why moʻai were built, what they symbolized, or anything about the people, the Rapa Nui, behind the construction of moʻai.

What a missed opportunity for all of us to learn more about Rapa Nui and its people. And can you imagine how it would feel to be a Rapa Nui tourist in NYC and see the way that these kids (and adults) respond to what is a sacred object in your culture?!

The Samoan Diorama

Another prominent diorama in the Hall is this one of a Samoan village. Remember that Mead spent nine months in 1925-26 in American Samoa during her first fieldwork.
This view of the entire diorama shows the geography of this ocean-side village. Each structure apparently has its own unique purpose, as further images will demonstrate.

This detail shows a taro plantation at foreground, and people in a hut in the background cooking the taro (?) It is not clear to me what gender these taro workers are, but if "ancient" Samoa was anything like "ancient" Hawaiʻi, then these taro producers would be male.

Here, women are making tapa from the bark of the paper mulberry tree. It appears that they are keeping colored dyes in the overturned calabash gourds, and they are using bamboo stamping rods (Hawaiian: ʻohe kāpala) to create designs on the tapa.
The man at front appears to be drinking from a coconut...
These men are dancing. I don't know, however, what type of dance this is called....

Inside the largest hut, a man appears to be receiving a tatau (tattoo) on his back.

There is something, of course, somewhat comical about this diorama scene, in that it is hard to believe that everyone in the village would be engaged simultaneously in all these traditional arts and practices. What we don't see are those Samoans who traveled into town to go to market, to buy objects, or to trade objects, or those engaging with foreign traders offshore (should this scene reflect an earlier age of cultural contact). But in fact this ahistoric scene reflects a time in space that is impossible to pinpoint. The men dance for no one -- no one is watching -- perhaps they are only rehearsing. Everyone is at work, and yet early white settlers and missionaries considered Polynesian peoples to be the laziest on earth (which is just to say that, it wouldn't hurt to show some Samoans sitting around watching TV, depending on what time period this is supposed to represent). There is so much not going on here, that even though I think it is an interesting and beautiful diorama, it really tells us very little about Samoan people and how they negotiated their lives among each other and among outsiders.

Continuing along, there are displays on tapa manufacture, like this one showing the use of the bamboo stamps, as mentioned above.

Detail of various tapa from across Polynesia.

Beautiful Marquesan uʻu (clubs)
I have long thought that Marquesan uʻu might just be the most beautifully carved wooden objects in the whole world!

And here is some more tapa....but wait! That's not real tapa. It is actually cotton cloth (not paper mulberry bark cloth) decorated as tapa!

Yes, in fact, I was about the leave the Hall altogether when I took a double-take glance at this faux tapa. Just like the Māori advantageously began to use wool to decorate their cloaks, apparently some Polynesians (it is unclear where this faux tapa is specifically from) began to use cotton as a simple substitute for producing tapa. Consider how the utilization of foreign cotton may have liberated women from the labor of having to pound bark into tapa all day. On the other hand, we might regret the loss of indigenous knowledge that takes place when a women gives up bark for cotton, but still there is the process of dying the cloth, that which gives the cloth its distinctively Polynesian look.

I find this object incredibly interesting, because it may very well have any of many stories behind it. Perhaps it was produced for a foreigner who preferred cotton, or for a foreigner who simply did not recognize the difference between cotton and bark and got scammed (I am checking right now to make sure that my tapa from Hawaiʻi is the real deal! Phew! it is.) Or perhaps it was produced for local use, because cotton was cheaper, or because, as I said, it liberated women from their labors. Whatever the story, we can be sure that this peculiar object - cotton decorated as tapa - speaks much more to the historical realities of Polynesian life over the past two and a half centuries than any of the other, more "traditional" objects in the museum do.

In Conclusion

(Note the cotton tapa at bottom right.) I looked up and noticed this gallery before me, all of what we could term "hybrid" objects: variations on traditional Oceanian material culture in the wake of cultural contact with Europeans and Euro-Americans. There are ornaments utilizing shirt buttons, harmonica sidings, watch parts, glass, &c.

The exhibit text states that native societies underwent greater cultural change than Western societies did when confronted with cross-cultural contact and material exchanges.
Is that really true?
For every example displayed here of a Oceanian production that has incorporated aspects of European or Euro-American material culture, could we not also display objects of European or Euro-American production that have incorporated aspects of Oceanian material culture?
I think that we could...and I hope to design such a virtual exhibit in a future blog post.

In the gallery next to that one, I found this: Oceanian objects visually representing white peoples. There is a Balinese shadow puppet representing a German. A Polynesian statue depicts a man with beard and top hat, perhaps an American.
These objects are so fascinating, and yet they comprise such a small part of the Hall of Pacific Peoples. But at least they are here! -- here to remind us that Pacific peoples exercise their own agency (and are not just acted upon) when in contact with foreign peoples, materials, and power.
It is not just that Europeans and Euro-Americans have long commented on Pacific peoples, but look: they have also commented upon us. If the museum could be more like this - more like a conversation - then I think we might all become a tad bit happier with the role of museums in society...even Margaret Mead, I think, would agree with that (had she lived to see this day)...and, yup, I think even "Dum Dum" would be happy!

So go visit a museum! And look at everything critically! And above all else, have fun!

Monday, July 12, 2010

Book Review: Three Plays by John Kneubuhl

It is Christmas day, 1929, in the village of Leone, American Samoa. In one fale (home), the adults are preparing for the arrival of a special Christmas guest - no, not Santa Claus, but rather, Tamasese, the supposed distant-cousin of the matriarch of this fale, Luʻisa Kreber. A little bit about the Krebers: Luʻisa is an afakasi (or half-Samoan); she is the descendent of Samoan aliʻi (ruling chiefs) and white missionaries. Her husband, Frank Kreber, is a fully white American who moved to American Samoa. They have one son, David.

The Krebers and their story are fictional; they are the product of the playwright John Kneubuhl. But the character Tamasese is not fiction. On Christmas day, 1929, he was a real man, a young man, returning with courage to Apia, the colonial capital of Western Samoa, to confront the misrule of Western Samoa's occupiers, the New Zealand government. He was the leader of the Mau movement, the Samoan movement for independence. In Kneubuhl's tale, the Krebers are preparing for Tamasese to stop by their fale on Christmas evening before his triumphant return to Apia...but he never shows up. In the days following that Christmas evening, Frank Kreber and Luʻisa's brother Lilo spend much of their time in town waiting for news from Apia of Tamasese's whereabouts and well-being. 

In the early morning of December 28, 1929, a peaceful demonstration by the Mau movement and their supporters in Apia was disrupted by stone throwing and, eventually, the firing of guns. Tupua Tamasese Lealofi III was shot and critically injured. He died the next day. December 28, 1929, known as Black Saturday for Samoans, marked a major turning point in the Mau movement's struggle for Samoan independence: the New Zealand colonial administration began a crackdown on Samoan rebels, and the movement's momentum, which was reaching a climax by the late 1920s, was suddenly stifled. Now, with Tamasese's death, and under the tightening grip of New Zealand's colonial occupation, it would still be another three decades before Samoa would achieve independence in 1962.

Photograph of Tupua Tamasese Lealofi III, leader of the Mau movement, with other Mau members (1929)
"Samoa Mo Samoa" (Samoa for the Samoans): the Mau's motto
(Source: Wikipedia)

Tamasese's gravestone in Lepea, Samoa
(Source: Wikipedia)

Think of a Garden

Kneubuhl sets his play, Think of a Garden, amid the hope, despair, and tumult felt by Samoans in the wake of Black Saturday. We, as the audience of the play, see the events of late 1929 through the eyes of David, the young son of Luʻisa and Frank Kreber. And David, as a young man of mixed Samoan and European/Euro-American heritage, sees the events through his own tinted lens, as he himself confronts what it means at this time and place to be, or not to be, Samoan.

The adults in Think of a Garden continually express concern that David lacks other friends of his own age. Some of the adults hope that David will make friends in the local village, but Luʻisa and Frank, David's parents, both seem opposed to the idea of David mingling with Samoan children. As much as Frank supports the Mau, he slips up now and then referring to the local Samoans in Leone as "savages," and as "ignorant." Luʻisa makes similar remarks. Frank and Luʻisa are interesting because while they both strongly believe in Samoan independence (at least in Western Samoa, if not in American Samoa where they live), at the same time they believe that the future of Samoa belongs to those who orient themselves to the Western world, to modern technology, education, and ideas --- as if to say "yes, Samoa mo Samoa" (Samoa for the Samoans), but only for those Samoans of the right class and upbringing, as if hoping to send Samoa back to an age when aliʻi and missionaries held power rather than to propel Samoa forward into a fully democratic future. 

When it comes to their own child, both Frank and Luʻisa apparently see greater potential in David's European and American heritage than in his Samoan heritage. So when David speaks in Samoan, both of his parents correct him, forcing him to speak English instead. And when David seeks to relate to Samoan neighbors, his parents shelter David from this outside world, fearing his corruption by these peoples' ignorant superstition and backward beliefs. When David goes fishing one day in the village with his uncle Lilo and his white teacher Brother Patrick, he is pelted in the head by a stone thrown by a local villager. Despite the stories the adults want to tell about why David was stoned, in the end we are finally told that David was stoned because he is different, because he does not belong. He was stoned because he is more white than black. And he was stoned because he relates to a ghost from the village that the locals do not want him to resurrect (this is a little confusing, but more on the ghost in a little bit)...

Tamasese's death on Black Saturday forces all the adults in this fale to reflect on the relationships between their own ideas (and ideals) and their own self-identifications. For example, Luʻisa is crushed by Tamasese's death, feeling that all hope is now lost for independence in Western Samoa. But she is also confronted by the fact that she is but an armchair supporter of the Mau; she supports Samoan independence in principle, and she supports it from a distance, but back in Leone, she cannot even acknowledge any sort of relationship with her Samoan neighbors, and she struggles to repress her own Samoan-ness in certain ways. The villagers in Leone shun her, because her ancestors were aliʻi and whites; they do not see her as one of them. And she shuns them. So for Luʻisa, Black Saturday forces her to realize that she is neither here nor there: not Samoan enough to be on the front-lines of the Mau movement in Western Samoa, and yet not Samoan enough (in a different way) to belong among her own neighbors in Leone. And so she retreats inward, placing all her hope in her son, David, that he might reject his Samoan-ness in order to find more peace without having to struggle, like she has (and like Kneubuhl has), to be someone.

For her husband, Frank, the American, Tamasese's death provides a new calling: he travels to Apia to fight with the Mau; then he travels to New Zealand to petition for Samoan independence; he even travels to the League of Nations, if I recall correctly, to plead for Samoa. And he never comes back to Luʻisa. She resents him for many reasons, perhaps most of all for being/acting "more Samoan" than her. And he resents her, perhaps because she is so undeniably stuck within her own cage.

Luʻisa's brother, Lilo, also goes to New Zealand with hopes of petitioning the government to end its occupation of Samoa, but he meets only his own failure and despair there, turning eventually to alcoholism, and dying just a few years later, his soul and spirit crushed.

And David, the boy? He is burdened by all the anxieties and pressure that the adults in his life have placed upon him. At the heart of his struggle is his very Samoan-ness, that which seems to scare his parents the most. Perhaps believing that Samoan-ness is more of a hindrance than a help to a young man in a world where whites are the dominant race, Luʻisa forces herself to believe that David must leave Leone - there is too much Samoan-ness here - and he must go to New Zealand to be re-educated.

Here is where the ghost comes in. David's only real friend his age - because his parents won't let him play with the local Samoan children, and the local Samoans likely won't let their children play with David - is a ghost named Veni. Veni was a young boy who died in the village. He had no great education, no real knowledge of modern things, but he was a through-and-through Samoan. David speaks only the Samoan language with Veni. They often "meet" in the garden of David's family's fale. This is why all the adults in this narrative become scared for David, because they often see him in the garden speaking to himself (where in reality he is speaking to the ghost Veni, whom only he can see). 

The tragedy of Think of a Garden is that David's friendship with Veni is a struggle against all odds. His friendship with Veni represents David's link with his own Samoan past and with his own Samoan identity. As his parents push the modern, Western, palagi (white) world upon him, David's opportunities to explore his own Samoan-ness are stifled. It is tragic that his only true Samoan friend is but a ghost. It is a symbol of how quickly the faʻa Samoa (the Samoan way of life) was becoming a thing of the past in colonial Samoa (East and West) in the 1920s. In the end, when David is sent off to New Zealand, he mourns for what he has to lose: most of all his one Samoan friend, Veni. David and Veni say goodbye in the garden one last time. His uncle, Lilo, tells him that he can always keep Veni (his "Samoan-ness") with him, even in New Zealand. But the reader of Think of a Garden, like myself, is left in doubt: can David really maintain his connection with the Samoan past without this garden in Leone? without the Samoan people of his village? without the Samoan ghosts whom inhabit this place, his homeland?

The playwright, John Kneubuhl

Think of a Garden is, in many ways, an autobiography of the playwright John Kneubuhl. Kneubuhl (Samoan name: Sione Nupo), was born and raised on the island of Tutuila, American Samoa (where Think of a Garden takes place). Kneubuhl's mother was half-Samoan, and a descendant of a Samoan ruling family, just like Luʻisa Kreber. Kneubuhl's father was Euro-American, from Iowa, who moved to American Samoa as a navy surveyor, stationed at Pago Pago. So we can see that Kneubuhl himself grew up in a bi-racial and bi-cultural household just like David did. Did he have his own "Veni" in the garden of the fale of his childhood? I don't know, but clearly Kneubuhl himself struggled with finding acceptance both from himself and from others.

Kneubuhl went to school in Honolulu, Hawaiʻi, at the Punahou School. He then studied at Yale University under the tutelage of Thornton Wilder. In World War Two, he traveled back to Hawaiʻi in the armed forces. Following the war, he stayed in Honolulu in the 1940s writing and directing plays with a community theater. He spent the 1950s and much of the 1960s in Hollywood, California, writing for television series. In 1968, Kneubuhl returned to American Samoa as an educator and activist, and in the 1970s he returned to writing for the stage. He lived much of the last decades of his life in Hawaiʻi. The three plays reviewed in this blog post, Think of a Garden, Mele Kanikau: A Pageant, and A Play: A Play, comprise Kneubuhl's great trilogy of these golden years of his career. He died in 1992 on the opening day of the theatrical production of his final play, Think of a Garden.

Mele Kanikau: A Pageant

The thing about Kneubuhl's trilogy is that each play is successively more convoluted and more complex than the last. Both Mele Kanikau and A Play: A Play are plays within plays. Both examine the very act of theater itself: the way in which theater serves to represent and misrepresent people and their stories. And so Mele Kanikau is the story of a pageant put on by Hawaiians for an audience of, we assume, tourists. This pageant is set to take place in Honolulu, perhaps in Waikīkī. It is post-statehood Hawaiʻi, perhaps the 1970s (this is also when Kneubuhl wrote Mele Kanikau). A voice is heard welcoming the audience with a big "Aloha!," inviting them into a story about historical Hawaiʻi, "when the aliʻi reigned in their regal splendor over their loyal and carefree subjects..." Basically, this is neatly-packaged hogwash for tourists seeking a paradisiacal Hawaiʻi. Hula dancers arrive on-stage, and yet Kneubuhl immediately reveals them to be but actors, not real hula dancers. We are also introduced to the aliʻi and even the mōʻī (king) who are the central figures of the pageant, but Kneubuhl once again reveals them only as actors. These men and women, the actors playing the aliʻi, are mostly hapa haole (half-whites/half-Hawaiians), and at least one actress, Lydia, identifies as a descendant of aliʻi, just like the character she is playing. These actors and actresses feel strongly about their portrayal of aliʻi: they want to believe that the Hawaiian past was grand and awesome and blemish-free, just like the tourists want to believe as well. They are here, in this pageant, to claim/reclaim Hawaiian identity. And so, Kneubuhl's pageant inside a pageant is really about how Hawaiian people use performance to redefine themselves; it is Kneubuhl's personal process exposed: his struggle to use theater to come to terms with his own biracial and multicultural self-identity.

Kneubuhl is critical of this pageantry, of the misrepresentation of Hawaiian-ness that he saw Hawaiians themselves creating in the wake of Hawaiʻi's ongoing Americanization. The half-hearted devotion to Hawaiian history expressed by the pageant's faulty hula, fake ʻahuʻula (feather cloaks), and image-projected rainbows irks Kneubuhl; he seeks to expose it for what it is: a mirror upon the Hawaiian people themselves. Kneubuhl's muckraker is the character Noa Napoʻioanaakalā, a Hawaiian hermit who lives on the north shore of Oʻahu. He is a kumu hula (hula teacher) with his own hula school populated by young Hawaiian men and women who only speak the Hawaiian language and adhere, almost religiously, to Hawaiian traditions. Noa is married to Frances, a haole (white) woman, who apparently motivated by the myth of the "noble savage," voluntarily gave up modern, urban, Western life to live in the backwoods with Noa, to speak only the Hawaiian language, and to learn the arts of traditional Hawaiian life.

Noa is hired by the producer of the pageant, Carl Alama, a hapa haole (half-Hawaiian/half-white). Carl has also cast himself as mōʻī (king) in the pageant. The whole pageant idea of presenting the Hawaiian past as if seen through rose-colored glasses is of Carl's making; indeed, he makes his living by packaging Hawaiian history for tourists. But as Kneubuhl reveals to us, Carl cannot speak Hawaiian; and in Kneubuhl's view of things (as evidenced in all three plays), lack of fluency in the native language is tantamount to having rejected one's very own indigeneity. (Note that Kneubuhl deliberately uses Samoan and Hawaiian language at length in all three plays. Even though this might alienate much of his audience who do not understand the languages, the Samoan and Hawaiian passages provide important texture to Kneubuhl's work. These dialogues signify the tangible reality of what Polynesian heritage really is: it is something real from the past, the language of ancestors; it is not the English "pageant"-speak with its phony "alohas" and hula dancing. This heritage is the manner of representation, the way we talk about ourselves, the language we use; but it is not the representation itself. That is, Kneubuhl is arguing that it is how we put on this play that matters, not the very play itself.)

So Carl, the director, hires Noa, the Hawaiian hermit kumu hula, to direct the pageant. And what happens? Noa fires all of Carl's fake hula dancers and replaces them with his own, passionate, sexualized young male and female hula students. Their raw dancing - its raw authenticity - disgusts some of the "pageant" Hawaiians. But so does everything else about Noa and his crew. Noa also alters the play to have Carl read lengthy passages in Hawaiian, but Carl stumbles over the unfamiliar language. Noa also alters the pageant's story, so as to reveal hidden truths about Carl and other actors themselves. Everything about Noa and his crew is about seeking raw truth and reality. It is as if he and his hula dancers are saying, "we are the true Hawaiians, and we have come here to expose you and what you are doing as utterly fake."

One of my favorite lines in the play is at the very end of Act Two when the narrator asks himself, "ʻWhat was it? What flew away, out of our lives?'" I could think only of...oʻo...mamo...iʻiwi...oʻu....A mele kanikau of birds' names....Where did all those little lives go?" In a previous post I wrote about the Hawaiian birds from which feathers were obtained for the production of ʻahuʻula and mahiole (feathered capes and helmets). These bird populations were decimated by this production, all for the sake of providing the aliʻi with grand, beautiful clothing. Kneubuhl uses the disappearance of the ancient Hawaiian birds as a metaphor for the disappearance of traditional Hawaiian practices. Mele Kanikau, the name of this play, means "song of mourning or lamentation." As much as Carl's pageant seeks to give life to Hawaiʻi through theatrical performance, the pageant is really a "song of mourning": behind the scenes it is revealed that Noa's way of life is dying off like the oʻo and mamo birds, while men like Carl Alama who profess to express Hawaiian identity don't even notice or care that the true, tangible remnants of the Hawaiian past are disappearing. Indeed, Noa's full name, Noa Napoʻioanaakalā, means "setting of the sun": we are led to believe that he may be the last authentic kumu hula, and when he dies, all we will be left with is the "pageant," this misrepresented memory of what Hawaiian-ness is all about.

Photograph of Hawaiian hula entertainers at a circus in Salt Lake City (1920)
With Mele Kanikau: A Pageant, Kneubuhl sought to reveal how modern "Hawaiian" performance, as in the photo above, was leading toward the loss of indigenous cultural knowledge rather than helping to preserve a cultural legacy.
(Source: Wikipedia)

A Play: A Play

"You can only define a Hawaiian today by what he has lost - by what he no longer is or can ever be again." 

You can begin to see the theme cutting across this trilogy, no? In A Play: A Play, once again Kneubuhl seeks to address the role of theater in representing and misrepresenting Hawaiian past and present identity. And once again, Kneubuhl is expressing his fear that what it means to be Hawaiian (or Samoan, or Polynesian) is becoming harder and harder to define. A Play: A Play, is the story of a comedic play about a beautiful hapa haole couple who live in Volcano, Hawaiʻi, their Filipino and Chinese male servants, and the unexpected visit of Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of fire and volcanism, who becomes their house guest after the leading woman, Julia Brandt, accidently hits her in the backside with her automobile on the road outside their home. Once they take Pele in, she begins to haunt their house in strange ways. She takes on the form of a Hawaiian māhū (used here as "homosexual," but sometimes meaning "transsexual"/"transgender") who seeks to go to bed with Severino, the Filipino male servant. She also takes on the form of a sexy Hawaiian man who slips into Julia Brandt's bed at night and makes love to her (she thinks it is James, her fiancee, though). And Pele also becomes a nubile young wahine (Hawaiian woman) who makes love to James Alama, the man of the house, on the living room couch.

Behind the scenes, Kneubuhl reveals that this is just a play within a play. The actors themselves appear to feel quite ambiguously about the play that they are rehearsing. They feel unsure and uncomfortable about the way that the play represents Hawaiian people (as well as Filipino and Chinese people), and they feel unsure about the way the play sexualizes Pele. And yet, they cannot escape the play. In the end they recognize that they too, as actors, are only the creation of the playwright himself. 

I had trouble understanding A Play: A Play. But perhaps if I saw it performed on stage, it would come across differently to me. Indeed, that is true of all three plays in the trilogy. Reading the plays was a lot of fun, but I do not profess to have a great understanding of any of them as of yet, because Kneubuhl intended for us to see these plays on the stage, not in a book. That said, I still recommend that you read this book! All three plays provide excellent commentary on race, gender, sexuality, colonialism, culture, and the very act of theater/representation itself in Polynesia. If there is anything that Kneubuhl does not do in his plays, it is to fantasize about a mythical Polynesian world. Rather, he continually seeks to disrupt our comfortable imaginings of what Polynesian peoples and cultures were/are like by boldly interjecting native languages, native arts, and in all three plays, native "ghosts" into our line of vision. The ghosts come back to haunt the more forgetful Polynesians, reminding them exactly what, and how much, is at stake should they choose to continue to deliberately forget or erase their connection to that within them that holds the history and traditions of these islands.

Read: John Kneubuhl, Think of a Garden, and Other Plays (Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press, 1997).

For reviews of other works of contemporary Pacific literature, see my previous posts on Samoan author Albert Wendt and Māori author Witi Ihimaera. And please suggest other literature that I should read!


Saturday, July 3, 2010

Book Review: Albert Wendt's Leaves of the Banyan Tree (1979)

I don't know much at all about Samoa or Samoan history or Samoan culture. But as I move forward with my research about the Pacific world, and as I hope to learn more about the Samoan past, I am inspired and engaged by Albert Wendt's book, Leaves of the Banyan Tree.

Wendt's Samoa
Map of the Samoan Islands. 
At west are the islands of the Independent State of Samoa. At east are the islands of American Samoa, a colony of the USA.

Albert Wendt, born in 1939, is a Samoan writer of novels, short stories, and poetry. In 1979 he finished writing Leaves of the Banyan Tree, his most famous novel. Previous to beginning his career as a writer of fiction, he studied history in New Zealand. Wendt's knowledge of Samoan history - he wrote his Masters Thesis on the Samoan independence (or anti-colonial) movement known as the Mau - is reflected in Leaves, a novel set between the late 1920s and the late 1960s, and concerned with issues of colonialism.

Leaves may have been Samoa's first great postcolonial novel. Written in the 1970s in the wake of Samoa's 1962 independence from New Zealand, Leaves relates the troubled history of how colonialism under New Zealand rule altered the faʻa Samoa, or traditional Samoan way of life. One of the book's theses appears to be that even in the years following Samoan independence, Samoans were still trapped in a colonial world and in a colonial mindset. Under New Zealand rule, some Samoan leaders had learned the ways of the papalagi (the white people) and had, in essence, recreated themselves in the image of these men, their former colonists; these Samoans had recreated the behaviors and the treatment of others that they had learned from the papalagi, behaviors that appeared to be key to the papalagi's power and status in an imperial world. Wendt shows, then, how Samoans became their own captors, how they recycled the evils of the outside world within their own communities and families.

Leaves of the Banyan Tree concerns the life of a man named Tauilopepe. When the book begins in the late 1920s, Tauilopepe's father has just died, and Tauilopepe is yearning for a way to prove himself to his aiga, his family. He demands of himself to make lots of money like the papalagi, to be able to send his children to the best schools in Apia, the colonial capital, and to be able to build himself a nice papalagi house. He imagines he can achieve this by breaking ground on a new plantation (of bananas, cacao, and other plant commodities) on the outskirts of his village, Sapepe (a fictional village on the island of Upolu). 

His new plantation is called "Leaves of the Banyan Tree." The significance of the name, and why it was chosen as the title of the book was not immediately clear to me. In Tauilopepe's plantation stands a mighty old and large banyan tree. When Tauilopepe and his aiga first begin to clear out the "bush" that will become his profitable plantation, they swing they knives all around them, cutting everything in sight. Tauilopepe takes a few swings at the Banyan tree, and then gives up. As the following decades go by (from the 1920s to the 1960s), much goes on in Sapepe and in Tauilopepe's life, but the Banyan tree remains. And as time goes by, he and his aiga take greater responsibility for the care of the tree, to ensure that it survives. 

I think that the tree is the aiga, the Samoan family unit - and on a larger scale, the Sapepe/Samoan community -, and the leaves are the individual people within those groups. Ultimately, Tauilopepe has to maintain the Banyan tree so that it continues to leaf, just as he must maintain his aiga so that his family line, their land, and their status, does not fall apart (as it so nearly does a thousand times over throughout the book). The leaves of the banyan tree are thus the many generations of Samoan families and communities, the faʻa Samoa that goes on and on as traditions are passed down. And yet, the "Leaves of the Banyan Tree," the plantation itself, is a symbol of Tauilopepe's ruthless ambitions for profit and status, and thus it is the very cause of the degeneration of the Samoan family/community that the tree is meant to represent.

Banyan trees behind ʻIolani Palace, Honolulu, Hawaiʻi

A map of the Independent State of Samoa. The island of Upolu, on which Sapepe is fictionally located, is at right. Apia, the nation's capital, is on the north coast of Upolu.

Tauilopepe seeks money and status, knowing in his heart that the faʻa Samoa (Samoan way of life) is incompatible with modernity, and that the papalagi (white people) way is the only path to success in twentieth-century Samoa. His son, Pepe, is ignored by his father as a child. So Pepe is raised to a degree by the village tuʻua (senior orator), Toasa. Toasa raises Pepe to believe in the spiritual power of the faʻa Samoa, to understand the power of traditional songs, dances, mythology, cosmology. Tauilopepe, however, thinks that these traditions are what is keeping Samoans back from success, so he sends Pepe off to Apia to learn the papalagi ways at a boarding school. Pepe does learn the papalagi ways in Apia, and ironically, this disappoints and pains his father. See, Tauilopepe hoped that Pepe would learn about how papalagi run successful businesses and governments, and that Pepe would learn how to make professional connections, money, etc. But Pepe learns instead how to drink, how to curse, how to steal, how to use women, etc., from the Apia crowd. Wendt is masterful here in making it impossible for readers to mentally separate the good from the bad. Apia is presented as a world where money, status, etiquette, and success exist side-by-side with greed, corruption, racism, and colonialism. I think Wendt is saying that Tauilopepe's romantic dream of using papalagi ways to improve upon the faʻa Samoa is unrealistic: those very behaviors he admires of the papalagi (good business dealings, cheating out your competition, money, status, etc.) are the very machinery of the colonial enterprise itself! The more Tauilopepe hopes to modernize his town of Sapepe, the more he strips away the Samoan-ness that used to be the glue that held that town and community together.

Without giving away too much of the ending, Leaves of the Banyan Tree presents the back-stabbing, greedy, jealous, status- and money-craving Samoan people themselves, as the simultaneous victors and losers of their country's twentieth-century effort to overcome colonialism. Samoa's independence in 1962 barely figures in Leaves, and that's because the true transformation of the Samoan people took place in the aiga (the family, the home), not on the geopolitical stage. It was the small things, the way the people of Sapepe treated each other and outsiders, and the way they tore apart the very foundations of their community, that signaled the true change in Samoan history at this time. Behind the facade of political independence, the Samoans of Sapepe remained enthralled with the mechanics of colonialism and hegemony even after their country was "liberated." That so few of the characters in Leaves find any sort of liberation from the fears that strangle-hold them suggests that, from the vantage point of the 1970s when Wendt wrote Leaves, Samoa's postcolonial future looked incredibly uncertain. As one character of Leaves states in one of the closing paragraphs of the novel:

"I am...a product of the history and whole movement propelling our country towards an unknown future. Or, shall I say, I am that future. If I am evil then our whole history has been a drift towards evil."

This remains a rather unhappy place to cut off this review. But as depressing as Wendt's assessment of Samoa's twentieth-century history is, we can take comfort that over thirty years have now passed since Leaves was published, and I would hope that in the meantime the people of Samoa have found greater joy and deeper meaning in the faʻa Samoa that seemed almost extinct when Wendt wrote his book. These thirty years have witnessed a remarkable cultural renaissance in Hawaiʻi, where the native language, history, and art have all attained greater significance in the lives of kānaka maoli and haole alike. I hope that something similar has or is occurring in Samoa. And as for myself, I recognize that Wendt is but one window into the Samoan past; only a greater commitment on my part towards the study of Samoan history and culture can help me overcome the deficiencies in my interpretation of Leaves and in my understanding of the greater Pacific world.