Defiant Indigeneity

The Politics of Hawaiian Performance

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Stephanie Nohelani Teves
Critical Indigenetities
  • Durham, NC: 
    University of North Carolina Press
    , April
     240 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Stephanie Nohelani Teves has written one of those rare books that captures the spirit of a moment twice over: at the level of its subject—contemporary Hawaiian performance—and by way of the author’s layered engagements with politically charged theoretical concerns. Defiant Indigeneity even has a prophetic quality, gesturing towards a space of Indigenous futures. But a warning: don’t expect to have your stereotypes confirmed. This isn’t postcard Hawai`i and it isn’t theory for theory’s sake, mere jargon and flash. At first glance, the kinds of performances Teves analyzes (e.g., rap, drag shows, and ghost tours) might appear to be staged for the sake of yet another theory-as-performance extravaganza. Bright and dazzling, but to what end? The end, it turns out, is nothing less than an argument about a community’s ability to self-define and mutually affirm in lasting ways beyond the bonds of calcified expectations and stubbornly internalized normativities, including that of the aloha spirit itself.

For scholars working in Hawaiian contexts, it will be imperative to engage Defiant Indigeneity. Teves has moved the needle in a way that can’t be undone or ignored. For Indigenous studies, the comparative salience of her examples, which are so often at the edges of cultural and political legibility, will no doubt resonate in many contexts, pushing scholars to rethink forms of indigeneity that too frequently go unnoticed, ignored, or maligned. For scholars of religion, the relevance of the book is less obvious. However, for those of us who have an interest in seeing how someone with deep community connections and commitments sorts through issues we typically have the privilege to navigate in the abstract, foregrounding questions of identity performance, time with this book will be well spent. If questions about the performance and politics of “authenticity” inform and bedevil your work, then this book is for you.

Let me explain why I am so compelled by Defiant Indigeneity. Teves nests some of her key insights with reference to the political events of 2014 and 2015, which marked a watershed in terms of Hawaiian performance and politics. In 2014 this was due to widespread and vocal resistance to a federal recognition agenda promoted by the Department of the Interior. Still-reverberating protection actions on Mauna Kea were the focal point in 2015. So much was going on in these political dramas. Layer upon layer of Hawaiian culture, tradition, and language were on display, which suggest the reach and depth of Hawaiian belonging, emplacement, and education. Striking too was the unconventional means of engagement by Kānaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians) with the state and its apparatuses, the media, and, notably, with one another. In the case of the Department of Interior meetings, they were almost entirely usurped from the margins, being converted from an “opportunity” for Hawaiians to learn about the “gift” of recognition to being a theater wherein Hawaiians performed themselves to themselves in a range of registers, including comedy, song, and prayer. The federal representatives didn’t have the foggiest sense about what had just happened to “their” forum. Events on Mauna Kea the following summer were similarly revealing and pivotal.

Defiant Indigeneity does so much important work helping us to understand these events and subsequent ones such as the 2019–2020 actions on Mauna Kea. Teves’s book invokes both contexts and frames them relative to various modes of Hawaiian performance. The book is not about these events in a direct sense, but it is very much about how dynamics of Hawaiian self-presentation and community reciprocation operate and what this tells us about the persuasive and sometimes coercive nature of culture. When Teves does take readers to these and other real-time political contexts, her poignant analyses of under-the-radar performances and performativity enable her to frame matters in a profoundly productive manner that pushes hard on binaries that rely upon authenticity versus invention constructs. Teves doesn’t claim to lead anyone out of the thickets of performance politics, but she is among the most careful and bold guides I have encountered for helping us see perils and promise in the path.

An example of Teves’s edgy care is her book-framing struggle with the modes and meaning of aloha. She asks: To what extent is aloha “real”? With whom is it shared and under what conditions? And, provocatively, what constraints does the demand for aloha place on individuals and the community as a whole, including in diasporic settings? Her way of parsing the problem space of aloha brings Teves into conversation with various important strands of work in our field. Not least, Teves explores confessional modes of truth-making that lay bare the disciplining force of even loving and lovely modes of being. Teves’s meditations on aloha can be read metonymically as a standing challenge to critique and recuperate cultural tropes that sediment and sometimes cement identities. Not content to deconstruct, Teves explores how aloha can “be reclaimed as a practice of insurgent world-making that exceeds the limits set by the colonial order of things” (2–3).

In terms of limitations or weaknesses, Teves’s close readings of her case studies can feel tedious at times. How much, really, did I need to learn about this rap song or that ghost tour? But, letting the pendulum swing back, isn’t that exactly her point?—to give sustained and critical attention to apparently marginal examples of Hawaiian performance as a means of substantiating her argument as to the ways they matter. I get that. But I wasn’t entirely persuaded until she came back to the events of 2014 and 2015 described above and read them in ways her prior analyses enabled. Now I see the pay off. As Teves shows, if the goal is to reimagine what constitutes a community, including at the baseline level of political recognition and by way of sharing but not abusing aloha, then it is necessary to rethink what forms of performance register in this accounting.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Greg Johnson is Professor of Religious Studies at University of California, Santa Barbara.

Date of Review: 
March 29, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Stephanie Nohelani Teves is Assistant Professor of Ethnic Studies and Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Oregon.


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