Solidarity and Responsibility

Asian Settler Colonialism: From Local Governance to the Habits of Everyday Life in Hawai’i

Candace Fujikane and Jonathan Y. Okamura (eds), University of Hawaii Press, 2008.

The contemporary migrant justice movement has done an admirable job educating sectors of the Left and sustaining struggles to address the concerns of migrant workers. Grappling with questions of racism, workers’ rights, imperialism and gender oppression, the migrant justice movement has encouraged us to expand our analyses of oppression and resistance.

But what do we understand about the relationship between the forced migration of people of colour into settler-colonial states and the coinciding displacement of Native peoples? What happens when immigrant groups successfully challenge oppressive conditions and gain collective power in settler-colonial states? Have struggles to attain civil rights and equity for people of colour within settler-colonial states contributed to the dispossession of indigenous people?

The archipelago of Hawai’i provides a helpful case study for examining these questions. Hawai’i is the homeland of the Kanaka Maoli. In 1778, they discovered British Captain James Cook anchored off Kaua’i. Cook’s arrival began an era of conquest and genocide of the Kanaka Maoli that profoundly re-organized the islands’ economic and social life. Of the missionaries that began arriving in 1820, it is often said that they “came to do good, and did very well.” Along with new settlers from Europe and the United States, the missionaries’ immediate descendents began large-scale sugar and pineapple operations. In order to supply the plantations, mills, and canneries with workers, haole2 recruiters set off to various ports along the Pacific Rim, to places where war and imperialism had created intense pressures on impoverished populations to migrate to Hawai’i.

Waves of migrant workers arrived from Japan, China, Korea, and the Philippines. The conditions they faced in Hawai’i were brutal and racist. Organized resistance began almost immediately. Sugar workers on Kaua’i organized Hawai’i’s first strike in 1841.

By the 1890s, a powerful new capitalist class backed by the US military, with its own geopolitical reasons for establishing a new military outpost in the Pacific, engineered the overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom. Hawai’i became a territory of the United States. This arrangement granted wealthy business interests the protection of US power without the immigration restrictions inherent in outright US statehood. Nevertheless, by 1959, Hawai’i had become a state. Some of the strongest backers of statehood were Hawai’i-born Asian labourers who saw the move as a way to secure their rights as workers and full citizens. Statehood paved the way for the Asian working class to rise to prominence in local Democratic Party politics, the labor movement, and private enterprise.

Especially in light of mainstream media’s account of Barack Obama’s childhood on O’ahu, it is common to hear people describe Hawai’i as a multicultural paradise, an embodiment of the concept of “a nation of immigrants.” Yet this completely elides the impact that colonialism and US hegemony have had on the Native population of Hawai’i. Between 1778 and 1900, the K?naka Maoli3 population fell by approximately 90 percent, from 800,000 to 37,000. Today, the Native people of Hawai’i fill the bottom ranks of critical social indices including longevity, income, incarceration rates, health statistics, and so on.4 In response, Kanaka Maoli anti-colonialism has reasserted itself in a fierce struggle for independence and cultural survival.

The Hawaiian sovereignty movement arose during the earliest days of the US occupation of Hawai’i. Its modern era began in the late 1970s with a series of land struggles. These included the occupation of Kalama Valley on O’ahu and the attempt by K?naka Maoli to reoccupy land in the island of Kaho’olawe that had been used for years as a military bombing range. The movement combines a variety of political strategies and tactics including direct action and legal battles in US and international courts.

While people of Asian ancestry – Hawai’i’s majority – celebrate their history of resistance and carve out an identity distinct from (and sometimes hostile to) that of the continental US, a growing body of contemporary criticism interrogates both Asian-settler collusion with US power and the notion that Asian settlers have any more of a rightful claim to Hawai’i than do settlers from the US continent.

Asian Settler Colonialism: From Local Governance to the Habits of Everyday Life in Hawai’i is a new and controversial collection of essays by Asian settler and K?naka Maoli scholars, activists, artists, and writers. It examines the relationship of Asian-settler society to the ongoing occupation of Hawai’i and suggests that people of Asian ancestry in Hawai’i establish a new and more self-conscious solidarity with the Native Hawaiian struggle for self-determination and sovereignty.

The editors divide the book into two sections, labeled “Native” and “Settler.” As Candace Fujikane asserts, this reflects what she and others consider an appropriate positioning of settler allies in relation to Native peoples in struggle. Quoting from Imaikalani Kalahele’s poem “Huli,”5 which asks allies to “stand behind” Natives, and referring as well to Fanon’s concept of a colonial world divided in two, Fujikane tells us that “the structure of the book reflects the structure of colonialism in Hawai’i and the lesson from Kalahele’s poem. ‘Native’ comes first, ‘Settler’ follows and supports from behind.”6

Much of the thinking in the multi-disciplinary volume draws inspiration from the critical analyses of the prominent Kanaka Maoli nationalist and academic Haunani-Kay Trask, whose ground-breaking essay “Settlers of Color and ‘Immigrant’ Hegemony: ‘Locals’ in Hawai’i” opens the first section of the volume.

Trask was one of the first activists to openly contest the liberatory discourse of “local” identity; the shorthand used to refer to Hawai’i-born descendants of the migrant plantation labourers. Exposing the term “local” as a gloss for “settler,” Trask asserts that the children of Asian settlers “claim Hawai’i as their own, denying indigenous history, their long collaboration in our continued dispossession, and the benefits therefrom.”7

While acknowledging the historical value of local identity in strengthening solidarity among migrant labour groups and their descendents, the contributors to Asian Settler Colonialism grapple honestly with Trask’s challenge. This is done not to invalidate necessary struggles against racism but to build a solid foundation for social justice struggle based on the primacy of Native self-determination. The book emphasizes accountability, obligation, and action, rather than paralyzing guilt. As Fujikane puts it in her introduction to the collection:

The status of Asians as settlers … is not a question about whether they were the initial colonizers or about their relationship with white settlers. The identification of Asians as settlers focuses on their obligations to the indigenous peoples of Hawaii and the responsibilities that Asian settlers have in supporting Native peoples in their struggles for self-determination.8

More directly, adopting the term “Asian settler” is thought to shatter “US paradigms by forcing non-Natives to question our participation in sustaining US colonialism while making important political distinctions between Natives and non-Natives.” As Fujikane explains, “I do not see the term as derogatory or, as some critics suggest, as pitting Natives against settlers.” As contributor Dean Itsuji Saranillio states:

The word “settler” is a means to an end. The goal is not to win in a game of semantics or to engage in name calling, but rather for settlers to have a firm understanding of our participation in sustaining US colonialism and then to support Native Hawaiians in achieving self-determination and the decolonization of Hawaii.9

The book argues that the organizing function of “local” identity in cementing class solidarity has lost its meaning in today’s Hawai’i. It’s a controversial position to people invested in organizing along class lines. Some veteran organizers of Asian ancestry have raised this concern and made the point that the appeal to class solidarity in Hawai’i does not preclude honest alliance building with the Hawaiian independence movement. For these critics, repositioning locals as “Asian settlers” needlessly alienates otherwise motivated people from engaging in anti-capitalist struggle. One friendly critic of the book’s premise sardonically described to me the reception he would get if he greeted people in his working-class Filipino community with a phrase like, “Greetings, fellow Asian settlers!” Although nothing in the book promotes such an approach to grassroots organizing, this particular organizer’s point was clear: a “settler” analysis was not going to move the people with whom he worked into action.

One of the book’s central themes is the critical difference between anti-racist civil-rights-based movements and what Fujikane calls “the uniqueness of indigenous struggle.”10 In light of the Right’s appropriation of the civil-rights framework and the language of “colour-blindness” in its efforts to undermine Native self-determination, it’s important that we closely examine the relationship between civil rights and indigeneity. Several contributors take pains to illustrate that race is not the central issue in the independence movement. This can seem confusing to those who have tacitly absorbed the racialization of Kanaka Maoli. However, while colonialism has imposed notions of blood quantum and other racializing tools designed to wrest control of Native lands, the central injustice for the Native Hawaiian movement is the illegal overthrow of a sovereign state and the subsequent losses inherent to that original act.

Two essays in particular take on the question of Asian settler identity, anti-racist struggle, and the relationship of “civil rights” to Native Hawaiians. Jonathan Okamura’s “Ethnic Boundary Construction in the Japanese American Community in Hawai’i” deconstructs the neoconservative use of civil rights and the quest for a “colour-blind” society, and considers the impact of ethnic boundary construction in the dispossession of Native peoples. Okamura explores recent legal challenges to various ethnically based clubs and events – including the Americans of Japanese Ancestry (AJA) Baseball League – and challenges to various “race-based” entitlement programs for Native Hawaiians. From the neo-conservative perspective, there’s no difference between these disparate institutions. Okamura points out that the result is to distract attention from the significant political and economic disparities that exist between all settlers and the Native people. It also ignores the fact that Native people have a unique political status as peoples under occupation that distinguishes them from racial minorities seeking civil rights.

Dean Itsuji Saranillio looks more explicitly at the impact that settler advances in gaining US citizen rights has had on K?naka Maoli. His essay “Colonial Amnesia: Rethinking Filipino ‘American’ Settler Empowerment in the US Colony of Hawaii” carefully compares the experience of colonization in the Philippines with that in Hawai’i and highlights the ways that Filipino migrants and their descendents have been systematically discouraged from supporting the Native struggle in Hawai’i. For Saranillio, “anti-racist projects that celebrate an American nationality must be rethought, for the grim reality is that US citizenship and ‘success’ as a good citizen is contingent upon the success of US settler colonization of indigenous peoples.”11

Although the book tackles the political and economic conflict between K?naka Maoli and Asian settlers, it also draws attention to the steady (if insufficient) history of settler solidarity with Native struggles. In particular, Ida Yoshinaga and Eiko Kosasa’s “Local Japanese Women for Justice Speak out Against Daniel Inouye and the JACL” demonstrates the ways in which social justice activists of color in Hawai’i have linked race, class, anti-colonial, and Native struggles even in the face of tremendous pressure to uphold a united ethnic front. Yoshinaga and Kosasa revisit an op-ed they published in which they side with Hawaiian nationalist Mililani Trask against Daniel Inouye, Hawaii’s powerful senior senator and Japanese-American World War II veteran, who is seen by many as the embodiment of immigrant success in the US. The op-ed was seen as a breach of ethnic solidarity and highlighted the courage required to challenge such a powerful figure.

As I write this, a battle over Native lands in Hawai’i is reaching a fever pitch in the courts, the statehouse, and the streets. At issue are 1.2 million acres of “ceded lands.” These lands are the remaining Crown and Government lands of the Kingdom of Hawai’i. The United States seized these lands at the point of annexation and theoretically held them in trust for Native Hawaiians with the understanding that the question of sovereignty needed to be settled before the state could sell or transfer them. Some of the lands are undeveloped and pristine. Others include airports, harbours, military bases, and military-training facilities. Along with several other US states, the Governor of Hawai’i and her attorney general have convinced the US Supreme Court to hear an appeal of a recent Hawai’i Supreme Court ruling. This ruling essentially maintained the land in trust and reaffirmed the need to address the question of Native sovereignty. If the US Supreme Court hears the case, it’s likely that the decision will not be favourable to Native Hawaiians and that the seized lands will be sold to the highest bidder in a massive act of dispossession.

The mythology of a gentle and willing transfer of Native lands to the US has clouded the central question of nationhood in the struggle over the “ceded” (seized) lands. It has created a rhetorical framework that emphasizes civil rights in opposition to greater state control over the lands. Although the central players on the State side of the battle are haole Republicans, the civil rights argument – that all races must be treated equally, and that treating Native Hawaiians differently hurts both them and the rest of the population – appeals to a multi-ethnic population for whom the route to justice depended heavily on the acquisition of civil rights under US law. As such, the State can also disingenuously propose that the sale of the lands will ease a budget crisis and provide for the needs of working people in Hawai’i through social services and affordable housing. In the process, the national question is thoroughly averted. Those that raise it are portrayed as divisive.

A concurrent and equally urgent fight concerns the Akaka Bill in the US Congress. This Democratic Party-supported bill would essentially recreate the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 for Native Hawaiians and establish a semi-autonomous government. It’s particularly dangerous because it would legally extinguish the sovereignty claims of the K?naka Maoli, which remain unresolved even in the eye of US law. Needless to say, most K?naka Maoli independence advocates are squarely against the bill and deeply concerned that Obama’s election will assure its passage. In contrast, the majority of Hawai’i residents consider the Akaka Bill to be a fair and just approach to Native Hawaiian rights and fail to see the devastating consequences it will have for K?naka Maoli national interests.

The great strength of Asian Settler Colonialism is that it offers social movement organizers a scholarly lens through which to view issues like the seized lands and the Akaka Bill. Although the question of “settler” terminology replacing “local” identity remains unresolved, the underlying premise of the book — that living on Native lands entails specific challenges and obligations — can help all of us to improve our solidarity with Native peoples’ fight for decolonization.


1 The author thanks Candace Fujikane, Dean Saranillio, Raymond Catania and Kyle Kajihiro for insights and education. All misrepresentations of the book, its contents or the surrounding political climate are the author’s own.

2 Haole is a common Hawaiian-language term to refer to white settlers.

3 K?naka Maoli is a Hawaiian word for Native Hawaiian.

4 David Stannard, “The Hawaiians: Health, Justice, and Sovereignty,” Asian Settler Colonialism: From Local Governance to the Habits of Everyday Life in Hawai’i. University of Hawaii Press, 2008.

5 Huli a Hawaiian word meaning flip over or turn, as in revolution.

6 Candace Fujikane, “Introduction,” Ibid.

7 Haunani-Kay Trask, “Settlers of Color and ‘Immigrant’ Hegemony: ‘Locals’ in Hawaii,” Ibid.

8 Fujikane, Ibid.

9 Dean Itsuji Saranillio, “Colonial Amnesia: Rethinking Filipino “American” Settler Empowerment in the US Colony of Hawaii,” Ibid.

10 Fujikane, Ibid.

11 Saranillio, Ibid.