Friday, July 23, 2010

July 21, 2010, 21:48 HST

N 21°17.567’, W 157°51.404’
Hawaiian Culture…

Richard and I went to the Bishop Museum today and I have to admit that I have mixed feelings about that visit. On the one hand, it was great to see all the artifacts from pre-western contact Hawai’i. The feather capes, helmets, and royal sashes were remarkable; the official royal sash that Kamehameha I wore actually had been handed down through the generation of Hawaiian chiefs dating back to the 1400s. The museum officials know this because a feather fell off of the sash in 2007 and scientist carbon dated that feather to that time period. There was also a room filled with feather standards (think big sticks with a feather hat attached to the top) dating back to Kamehameha I.

In addition to the royal artifacts held by the museum, there were also artifacts from everyday life in Hawai’i. Fishing hooks, cordage, poi pounders and poi bowls, kapa (cloth made from pounding paper mulberry bark), drums, leis, jewelry, and other tools were also displayed. A very well-rounded collection.

The main exhibit, however, centered around early Hawaiian mythology and religion. The Hawaiians understood their world as being one created by, organized and subject to theirs gods, who they collectively referred to as . There were four main , and rather than make a mistake in trying to outline their responsibilities, I would rather just direct anyone interested in this subject to do a simple internet search to research this topic. Simply put, the main represented the male aspects of the world and Hina represented the female aspects. The exhibit was entitled, “E Kū Ana Ka Paia: Unification, Responsibility and the Kū Images,” and I highly recommend it to anyone who will be in Honolulu between now and October 2010.

The other major exhibit at the Bishop Museum was entitled, “Surfing: Featuring the Historic Surfboards in Bishop Museum's Collection” and is definitely worth seeing, especially if you have ever surfed or attempted to surf.

Most of what we hear about in Hawaiian history is post-Cook history; that is, “history” given to us through the writings of Captain James Cook who visited the islands in the late 18th century. Very little is told of the Hawaiian people and culture prior to his “discovery” of the Sandwich Islands, despite the islands being populated for centuries and a major culture emerging in the area. My mixed feelings about going to the museum stem from the fact that once the Hawaiian peoples were contacted by westerners, specifically the missionaries of numerous denominations, they were doomed to lose everything that distinguished them as a cultural entity. In their efforts to “civilize” the Hawaiian people through the introduction of their various religions, the missionaries effectively erased from the collective consciousness of several generations of Hawaiians their culture and traditions that had existed for centuries prior to western contact. John Krakauer coined the phrase, and titled one of his books, Under the Banner of God, and I think that the principle behind that phrase can rightly be applied in this context as well. No doubt the missionaries thought they were saving the souls of the people they saw as ‘savages”; but isn’t that always how it starts? The imposition of one set of beliefs above another rarely ends well and history is replete with examples of this type of mindset. One has to wonder what motivates an individual to decide that an entire culture needs fixing.

Now before some of you go off on me and start citing examples of cultural wars that were worth fighting, and I admit there are some, please take even a cursory look at the Hawaiian culture pre-western contact. The society was based on equality for most; yes, there was a monarch system of government in place, but within that system, women were recognized alongside men as being rulers and ancestral lines of royalty followed both men and women. There were also well established orders and rules that the people understood to come from their gods and the consequences for breaking those rules were known and understood as well. Things weren’t arbitrary or subject to the fickleness that some first world judicial systems appear to be bogged down by. My favorite aspect of the early Hawaiian code of law is the “get out of jail free” clause that basically allowed a rule-breaker to be spared the death penalty if he/she could simply outrun his/her fellow citizens and make it to a place of refuge called a heiau.

I did not intend for this blog entry to anger or offend anyone. My life experiences have taken me to certain places where I have seen this destruction of culture (specifically the Navajo and Apache tribes of northern Arizona, and now the Hawaiians). Luckily, in the mid-twentieth century, Hawai’i experienced a resurgence of cultural pride and took steps to bring back the traditional ways of their island heritage. It goes beyond the hula dancing and luaus and is more connected to the efforts to put Hawaiian lands and governance back in the hands of native Hawaiians. And even though Hawaiians make up a minority of the current population of the state of Hawai’i, their efforts towards self-determination in those things Hawaiian should be recognized as a movement worth supporting.

And this is what I’ve been thinking about for the past few days…no apologies.

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