What is the place of Hawai‘i in religious studies? It certainly isn’t the center of the world. Here at Reading Religion there are only two books, including the one whose review you are currently reading, listed for the region “Oceania.” A search through this year’s national AAR program shows “Hawai‘i” or “Hawaii” only in the names of universities. The word “Pacific” likewise appears almost exclusively in institutional names. Searches for “Polynesia,” “Tahiti,” and “Kanaka” come up empty. So, religious studies scholars apparently aren’t saying much about Hawai‘i. But should they? And, if so, what should they say, and how?
David Chang’s excellent new book The World and All the Things upon It suggests a number of potential ways forward. The book focuses on nineteenth-century Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) geographical knowledge about the world. Chang documents Kanaka knowledge production and cultivation as they explored the world through histories, stories, texts, and travel, and in so doing offers Native perspectives and voices on topics such as race, capitalism, colonialism, and, of course, religion. Religious studies scholars probably will not constitute this book’s primary or largest audience, but there is much they could learn from it.
The World and All the Things upon It is based in postcolonial studies and builds on recent scholarship in Hawaiian/Pacific studies from scholars such as J. Kēhaulani Kauanui, Jonathan Kamakawiwo‘ole Osorio, and Noenoe Silva, whose influential 2004 book Aloha Betrayed has encouraged primary-source work in nineteenth-century Hawaiian-language periodicals. The actors in Chang’s history are Kānaka (Native Hawaiians). They engaged with colonialists’ ideas and institutions, including Christianity, and they used those ideas dynamically as they generated more knowledge. Specifically, they generated broadly geographical knowledge, which is Chang’s primary focus.
The book begins with an exploration of what “Kānaka Maoli knew about the world far from their shores before [Captain James] Cook sailed into the waters of Hawai‘i” (7). Only with that perspective can we see—or know—colonial encounters as Kānaka understood them, as they analyzed information and tested hypotheses. The shape of this history looks different from most European and American histories, even those recently written by academics. Chang critiques the historiography of ‘Ōpūkaha‘ia (aka Henry Obookiah), for instance, engaging histories from the nineteenth through twenty-first centuries, and offers a more accurate history that incorporates Kanaka voices, including ‘Ōpūkaha’ia’s (81–92).
The book’s centerpiece is a close examination of geography textbooks in Hawaiian schools. Chang argues that “geographical education was a crucial site of contestation between missionary and planter-aligned Haole educationalists and Kanaka educationalists” (107). Hawaiian schools used American English-language textbooks in translation, and in those translations we can see important differences, such as how the “view from nowhere” approach contrasted with “the perspectivalism of Hawaiian geographical thought…[which] described places as being in relative space such as ma uka and ma kai (toward the uplands or toward the sea), and so forth” (117). The books also contained lessons about human geography, especially race and civilization. Kānaka were taught to view themselves, because of their geographical position, as inferior to the rational, cool-weather, civilized Europeans and Americans. At the same time, though, these books taught that “heathens” were lower than Christians. Here, American Indians were the paradigmatic examples against whom the more civilized, Christian Kānaka were to measure themselves.
Kanaka ideas about race—which is “in part a geographical concept” (158)—were complicated and adjusted as they traveled throughout North America, as they met and lived with American Indians on the West Coast and African Americans in the east. Especially in California, Kānaka and American Indians forged partnerships and started families, “both an autonomous act and an act shaped by imposed racial categorization” as Kānaka moved on “a trajectory toward Indianness—but not an abandonment of Hawaiianness” (179). Native Hawaiians, American Indians, and African Americans were all nonwhite, and they lived in a colonialist empire in which they were not the colonizers, even when they shared the religion of the empire. Here, Chang argues, “we can see an earlier manifestation of a politics that is very present today in the notion of the indigenous as a category that connects Kānaka, American Indians, and others who have faced the onslaught of settler colonial impositions” (161). (Indeed, one of the few places we find Hawaiian topics at the AAR is in postcolonialist and indigenous studies.) The final chapters offer nuanced, careful, and fascinating discussions of Kanaka geographical knowledge and “politics of recognition,” as they contemplated the benefits and drawbacks of identifying with or against other Pacific Islanders or American Indians.
On this point scholars of religion have an opportunity to build on Chang’s work. He includes some analysis of religious categories like Christian and heathen, but there is more to be said about the complex workings of religio-racial politics. Bringing this book (and scholarship on Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders in general) into conversation with the work of scholars who have studied the construction of religions in colonial contexts—such as David Chidester, Sylvester Johnson, Webb Keane, or Cassie Adcock—could add exciting and productive dynamics to these discussions. In particular, scholars of American religion and U.S. empire (who now have their own AAR group) will find in Chang’s work much to learn and build on.
The World and All the Things upon It is sophisticated and at times complex, but the prose is readable and clear. The number of Hawaiian terms might initially daunt unfamiliar readers, but Chang provides translations and explanations throughout the text. Chang has a way of sketching detailed scenes and characters, interweaving narrative with critical analysis, and then punctuating sections and chapters with sharp, lucid theses. The book has real momentum to it, especially because Chang so skillfully transitions from chapter to chapter, setting up new questions and problems, then moving on to address them. It was—and I mean this earnestly—hard to put down. Scholars of religion from a variety of subfields would be well advised to pick it up.
Charles McCrary is a PhD candidate in American religious history at Florida State University.
Date Of Review:
August 22, 2016
David A. Chang (Native Hawaiian) is associate professor of history at the University of Minnesota. He is the author of The Color of the Land: Race, Nation, and the Politics of Land Ownership in Oklahoma, 1832–1929.
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