Historical narrative will incite political passion
Don't let this book's academic credentials fool you. In fact, it is a bold intervention in modern Hawaiian politics, a summoning to the barricades that by its end will have you cheering. "Na Kua'aina" is the inspiring story of a culture that refuses to die, of a resurgent nation poised to reclaim its embattled heritage.
"Na Kua'aina: Living Hawaiian Culture"
by Davianna Pomaika'i McGregor
(University of Hawaii Press)
Davianna Pomaika'i McGregor, professor of ethnic studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, is a well-known sovereignty activist. "Na Kua'aina" is the book she was born to write -- impeccably researched and presented in the best academic way, yet uncompromisingly committed to transformative political action.
McGregor's vehicle might be the cool English of the Senior Common Room, but her narrative is driven by a passion for freedom and justice that will not be denied. This is no dry-as-dust tome destined for library basements, but a solidly grounded set of political demands cast in historical mode. It is good research leading to intellectually honest conclusions with real-world applications.
The combination is exhilarating. As history, "Na Kua'aina" is the tale (told often in their own words) of small groups of indigenous Hawaiians who successfully clung to their traditions through the long years following the 1893 overthrow, World War II, statehood and the rise of Hawaii's tourism/defense economy.
Surviving in rural pockets throughout the islands, these kuaaina (the word originally meant "back land" or "back country") grew their taro, took care of kupuna (elders) and quietly preserved time-tested, eco-friendly subsistence strategies.
Small farmers in a rapidly industrializing world, the kuaaina passed on their skills and knowledge from generation to generation. McGregor's subtitle, "Living Hawaiian Culture," is thus neatly ambiguous: The kuaaina lived Hawaiian culture, and through them Hawaiian culture lives.
"Na Kua'aina" is divided into six main chapters, followed by commentary and appendices. Each details the history and way of life of what McGregor calls "cultural kipuka," natural kipuka being small oases of land untouched by the devastating flow of Pelean lava. Their beauty lies "in their ability to resist and withstand destructive forces of change" while displaying a capacity to "regenerate life on the barren lava that surrounds them."
The image is a potent one. McGregor's cultural kipuka, remote but politically and culturally sacred (as she would put it), survived the caustic onslaught of modern capital, industrial development and McDonaldization. They include Waipio and Puna on the island of Hawaii, Hana on Maui, rural Molokai and Kahoolawe itself.
Each remains a living community "from which Native Hawaiian culture can be regenerated and revitalized in the setting of contemporary Hawai'i." Together they reveal "the strongest and most resilient aspect" of the traditional way of life.
The best and most exciting chapter in the book deals with Kahoolawe (or Kanaloa, the more ancient name that McGregor prefers). In moving and supple prose, she describes the struggle over the island's return to local control after years of U.S. military abuse, and the way that struggle focused, revived and galvanized the sovereignty movement.
As a principal activist herself, McGregor bears firsthand witness to the courage and sacrifice of those who fought peacefully but determinedly. She quotes the Kaho'olawe Island Reserve Commission: "The piko (navel) of Kanaloa is the crossroads of past and future generations from which Native Hawaiian lifestyle spreads throughout the islands."
"Na Kua'aina" will excite controversy among even its most enthusiastic readers because it supports the Akaka Bill as Hawaii's next way forward. It speaks to McGregor's honesty and political courage that she makes no bones about where she stands on the issue.
is a published author, scholar-in-residence at Brigham Young University Hawaii and adjunct professor of English at Trans Pacific Hawaii College. E-mail him at email@example.com