The Link Between Tourism & Settler Colonialism in Hawai’i #Dispatch: Maile Arvin

I’VE BEEN CHATTING with travel writers, activists and personalities of color about their experiences navigating the media industry and the globe with an intersectional lens, while exploring themes like power, privilege, place, and identity, themes that are rarely touched on in the mainstream travel space. Read previous #Dispatches here.

Maile Arvin is a Native Hawaiian feminist scholar who writes about Native feminist theories, settler colonialism, decolonization, and race and science in Hawai‘i and the broader Pacific. She is currently a University of California President’s Postdoctoral Fellow in Ethnic Studies at UCR and will be officially joining the department as an assistant professor in July. She is part of the Critical Ethnic Studies Association working group and a member of Hinemoana of Turtle Island, a Pacific Islander feminist group of activists, poets, and scholars located in California and Oregon. You can find some of her academic writing here.

Bani Amor: Tell us about yourself, the work that you do, and how your identities play into that work.

Maile Arvin: So I’m Native Hawaiian, and my family is from Waimanalo, a small town on the windward side of O’ahu. I’m an academic – I research and teach about race and indigeneity in Hawai’i, the larger Pacific and elsewhere. Being Native Hawaiian grounds my work, motivates me to write about Native Hawaiian lives and histories in complicated, respectful ways.

One of my current projects is working with Hinemoana of Turtle Island, a group of Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander feminist women, many of whom are also academics but also poets, activists, artists. We support each other in the academic world and are accountable to each other. We talk to each other a lot about current issues that affect Pacific Islanders, usually in news that erases the existence of Indigenous Pacific Islanders altogether, and sometimes write up responses on our blog, muliwai. We’re currently working on a response to the movie Aloha. Or maybe more about the criticism of the movie that is entirely focused on Emma Stone’s casting.

Bani Amor: Word. That leads me to my next question: I often find that travel media and tourism are complicit in settler colonialism, in that it still purports an archaic, false image of indigenous peoples as smiling caricatures who are ready, willing and able to serve at the beck and call of the (white) tourist. Any idea why this is especially the case for Hawai’i?

Maile Arvin: For Hawai’i, because it is actually a U.S. state, there is this incredible sense of entitlement that white Americans in particular feel to being at home in Hawai’i. Since World War II in particular, and the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, there was this narrative of Hawai’i as being the place that militarily makes the rest of the U.S. safe. And along with that, there is also a need to justify and naturalize U.S. military occupation of these islands that are over 2000 miles Hawaii-postcard--OTRCAT.comaway from the U.S. continent. So Hawai’i becomes this feminine place in need of the masculine U.S. military to safeguard both Hawai’i and the rest of the U.S. And Native Hawaiian women in particular become these symbols of a happy, paradisical place, a place where white military men will have fun, will get their own Native Hawaiian girl.

Then there’s just the economic situation of Hawai’i. The two biggest industries are the military and the tourism industry, so a lot of Native Hawaiians have to work for one or the other. So there will be a lot of Native Hawaiians working as performers, staff, etc. in Waikiki hotels. And they are asked to project a certain image, which is in line with this old but also current colonial idea of Hawai’i as a carefree place, a vacation place for white people.

I think there is also sometimes a sense that the U.S. has “helped” Hawai’i and Native Hawaiians, through “civilization” and through conferring statehood status on Hawai’i. So Native Hawaiians are supposed to be grateful to white Americans for those things. Which actually signify settler colonialism and genocide.

Bani Amor: Right! Travel media – mainstream and “indie” alike – seem to hold on to this theory that the tourist presence = savior presence, that indigenous people somehow *need* tourists to better their economy, keep things “civilized,” i.e. colonization is progress. In Hawai’i, does the tourist presence ever feel like another form of occupation?

Maile Arvin: Absolutely. Which is not to say that Native Hawaiians hate all tourists. But just that tourism is this structure that furthers U.S. occupation of Hawai’i. One example is that Waikiki, the site where most hotels are clustered on O’ahu, can often be actively hostile to Native Hawaiians who look out of place there. The City Council keeps passing these resolutions to ban anyone from sleeping or lying on the sidewalks. Which is a blatantly anti-homeless measure that forces Native Hawaiians out of sight of most of the tourists.

0245df7f927adca0db31a24729f65474I live in California, and a lot of people who live here go on vacations in Hawai’i. Sometimes they ask me where to go, or they just want to tell me about where they went. And usually they go to outer islands, not O’ahu where I’m from, to Moloka’i or Kaua’i islands, where I’ve actually never been. I’m glad many people love Hawai’i, but it’s hard not to feel upset sometimes when it seems like my Californian neighborhood has seen more of Hawai’i than I have. But then again I wonder what they really see, and think about how much they must miss.

For Native Hawaiians, it’s really important to try to have a relationship with the places you visit, or at least to acknowledge the relationships that other people from that place have with that land. So it’s not really about just seeing as much of Hawai’i as possible but having relationships, honoring responsibilities to places.

Bani Amor: Yes, and it’s hard to communicate that to (white) people who want to visit our lands. It took me 21 years to be able to get to Ecuador, where my fam is from, and leading up to that time white people would like to tell me how many times they’d been there, what they did, what I should see when I finally go. It was torture! And when I’m living in Ecuador (white) people are always talking about the Galapagos, a mostly inaccessible place for actual Ecuadorians. I’ve never been, nor has 99% of my family.

Maile Arvin: Yeah! It’s really hard to get people to truly acknowledge how much privilege structures their ability to travel places. To not just try to explain it away, but to sit with that however uncomfortable it may be. It’s also hard to get them to see the ways their comments are often structured by the expectation that Indigenous peoples are tour guides or that there is one authentic Indigenous experience that they can casually ask for and receive.

Bani Amor: Yup, it’s a transaction. Places are sold to tourists as brands and their consumption of place forces indigenous Hawaiian_rights_activists_line_Kuhio_Highway_alohaanalyticspeople to become culture hustlers, in a way. Getting back to perceptions of tourists – do you feel that there’s a sentiment that some or many Kanaka Maoli/Native Hawaiians have towards tourists that the media is intentionally erasing?

Maile Arvin: I definitely think the media (local or national) does not see Native Hawaiians as a primary audience, and so even when there is reporting on Native Hawaiian issues, it is often very shallow and tries not to make any non-Native person uncomfortable.

For example, the best coverage around the Kanaka Maoli protectors of Mauna Kea blocking the road to the summit where a thirty meter telescope is proposed to be built has largely come from international media outlets or just from folks using social media to get information out. Local and national media often tries to present “both sides” in ways that are disingenuous and don’t acknowledge power dynamics. Then Native Hawaiians get called out for being “uncivil” for disagreeing with the priorities of Western science.

Mauna Kea is a very sacred site within Hawaiian epistemologies. It is the piko, or umbilical cord, signifying the birthplace of our people. But the protectors are not fighting simply to preserve the site for Native Hawaiians. They are also fighting to stop environmental destruction, and the possible poisoning of the water aquifer that would effect everyone who lives on Hawai’i Island. But the media rarely acknowledges that, they represent the “Native Hawaiian side” versus everyone else, which is a false binary.

mauna-keaBani Amor: So often, the consequences of tourism directly lead to environmental racism, is complicit projects that natives actively fight against. I’m wondering how that binary is false though, can you clarify?

Maile Arvin: I just mean that the media often treats Native Hawaiian views as this specialized, boutique kind of opinion which is relevant only to a very small number of people. When actually the knowledge Native Hawaiians have to share, and the struggles Native Hawaiians are engaged in, often impact everyone. Especially in regards to the environment. So it seems false to me to tokenize Native Hawaiians into this one box that is sometimes acknowledged, but is set up as necessarily being against the needs/desires of the larger public, when that isn’t even always the case. Does that make sense? Maybe false binary isn’t the right phrase for it.

Bani Amor: Yes, thanks for clarifying. Seems like the media has done a lot of work to invalidate those “boutique” opinions. My final question is just about getting some resources up in here so that people can do work that continues after this conversation ends: For folks looking to balance their perceptions of Hawaii, can you name drop some Kanaka Maoli/Native Hawaiian activists, groups or creatives that are working towards decolonization?

Maile Arvin: Gladly! This is a really wonderful blog, He Kapu Hehi Ale, written by a group of Native Hawaiians and others in Hawai’i. It covers a lot of current issues in the Pacific, including Mauna Kea, and it is really creative and just great writing. To keep up to date on Mauna Kea, you can follow Sacred Mauna Kea Hui on Facebook. Another blog I love is by Teresia Teaiwa, an academic and activist working in Aoteraroa/New Zealand. And finally Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, a poet and activist from Micronesia who has a blog. Also she gave a killer speech/poem to the UN recently.

Bani Amor: Awesome, thank you!

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23 thoughts on “The Link Between Tourism & Settler Colonialism in Hawai’i #Dispatch: Maile Arvin”

  1. This gave me a whole new perspective! I enjoyed this piece. As a Black American, I sometimes forget about other poc facing oppression.

    1. I feel that, Jelissa. Since white supremacy is global, I think it’s mad important for people of color and other marginalized folks to foster cross-cultural connections with each other, because WS affects all of us, and not always in the same ways. And it’s especially important for POC in the U.S. to self-educate on international struggles against oppression. In this case, where Hawai’i is a U.S. state, it’s actually pretty shameful (and definitely intentional) how little we know about the true history of our own country.

  2. thanks for sharing this interesting interview Bani! As a non-American I know even less about the history of a place such as Hawaii. Unfortunately the world is littered with the effects of white colonialism and the disregard for the indigenous cultures and people.

  3. This is an excellent read. My teachers were very dedicated to teaching early on about the evils of missionaries/colonialist (both in Hawaii and other places), the problems with how Hawaii became a state, the genocide of native Americans, the Japanese internment camps etc. These weren’t often in our school books (see book Lies My Teacher Told Me), but my teachers were dedicated to teaching these truths throughout my elementary and jr. high years. It was a stark difference when I moved to The mainland, where I don’t think I ever heard about another one of these subjects again (with the exception of native Americans in a very quick manner). However, even with the dedication to teaching these truths, the tourism industry (at least when I was a kid) makes up 80% of the economy, and natives are often still forced to do all the things she pointed out so well in this article. So a lot of natives grow up learning exactly why things are the way they are and aren’t able to do anything about it. And she nailed it on the local news- it’s def catered to non-natives. Thanks for sharing this important subject.

  4. “It’s really hard to get people to truly acknowledge how much privilege structures their ability to travel places. To not just try to explain it away, but to sit with that however uncomfortable it may be. It’s also hard to get them to see the ways their comments are often structured by the expectation that Indigenous peoples are tour guides or that there is one authentic Indigenous experience that they can casually ask for and receive.”

    This. THIS! All of the snaps to you both, from a Vietnamese-American woman who has been that visitor to Hawai’i (I was much younger then), and someone who has received those comments about Viet Nam, a place I’ve never been but am inextricably linked to. Thank you both for this post and your thoughts.

  5. very interesting! as a white person who travels a lot, i’m growing more and more aware of my privileges, and of how much my tourism may affect the areas that i visit. but i still have so much to learn. i think i became most aware of my privileges in my visit to Laos, where a few of us took a tour and stayed in small villages. i felt so uncomfortable…it was exactly like what you both say in this piece – a supposedly ‘authentic’ experience of Laos minority groups’ lives. i felt so bad because i had paid for some people to be a tourist attraction for my benefit. we were gawping at people’s lives just because we had enough money. But what was more interesting for me was seeing the way that people in northern Laos villages were pretty self-sufficient in the way that they lived, co-operated with each other and grew their food, and i felt that i could learn a lot from people there if only i could speak the language.
    i’m still learning a lot about the white mindset when doing travel writing. i’m sure that i still make lots of mistakes in my blog.
    thanks both of you for educating us!

  6. Such a complex set of circumstances, both as to Hawaii and to Maile Arvin. I will not try to address everything in this blog, but speak from my own heart.

    I live on Hawaii Island by choice. I am from California, where it became impossible for me to have independence from working within the corporate systems and still maintain a life that included a car and a home not too far from an urban center. I miss California too, especially being close to my family. I feel that in some ways Maile and I share that displaced feeling where we have made the best choices we can under less than ideal circumstances, and they are far from bad choices.

    The movement on my island that resents the presence of the telescopes on Mauna Kea has divided friend from friend and family member from family member. Many will not talk about this very important movement as they do not want to lose friends or anger family. I find sometimes that dedicated cultural practitioners are personally deeply divided about the opposition to the telescope, and that scientifically minded people feel that the rights of the Hawaiian have been under seige for so long that the blocking of the telescope is a step in the right direction.

    The educational opportunities Maile has in California are not so present here on this island. The presence of the telescopes and the telescope community and the scientific enrichment of the TMT brings those opportunities. There are many parents of young children who are Kanaka Maoli who live on this island who are deeply troubled that the struggle for Hawaiian identity has turned against the science of astronomy and all it brings to us. To call it a tool of oppression is to ignore the fact that astronomy brings together people from nations around the world in efforts to understand our universe. This is no less important that understanding any other aspect of humanity and our place in the world. We are one people with divergent cultures. We all deserve equal standing, equal respect, equal honor. The study of astronomy is no less important than ethnic studies. We all stand to gain by each, and there is room for both, even on Mauna Kea.

    1. The only opinion on Mauna Kea that’s relevant here is that of Kanaka Maoli. Seeing as you are not one, I’m gonna go ahead and presume that they know and have the right to decide what goes on their land and what doesn’t.

    2. I would like to applaud my daughter for her extremely respectful and intelligent responses to your questions regarding the issues that have continued to plague Kanaka Maoli since I was a child.

      1. Thank you for reading and for your comments, Wanda. She has educated me so much on many of the struggles Kanaka Maoli face especially as it relates to tourism, and these are things a lot of us are so uninformed about. When we are informed about them, it is by the people in power who don’t have Indigenous people’s best interests in mind.

    3. To blogthisthought:
      The only people that will gain from all of this are those who continue to ignore the voices of Kanaka Maoli because they chose to do so and have done just that since the overthrow of our monarchy.

  7. Awesome piece on a very important issue! As a high school student having done research on the destruction of the Hawaii Kingdom, it seems that a lot of these issues stem back to the U.S.’s and American missionary’s rhetoric of “civilization,” and the way they portrayed Hawaii to the general public in order to justify its annexation.

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