Shown above: “Year 6,210, The Anuisoto of the War-Eaters,” pencil and digital by Solomon Enos from his Polyfantastica series. 2014.
One hundred twenty-one years ago, Hawai‘i was a sovereign nation. Community discussions during the last year indicate that it may one day regain that status. This process will only succeed if it incorporates the complex legal and cultural arguments crafted by the most progressive minds in the Pacific, and maybe, the fantastical images of Pacific art. Considering the history of Hawaiian leadership, this process will be peaceful despite great contention and will acknowledge the transience of our moment in time and space.
The current political system warrants the metaphors of science fiction. What’s more sci-fi than Hawai‘i? The earth created anew from the depths; an imprisoned queen deposed by a violent oligarchy that derived power from afar; a language nearly lost; night marchers; night rainbows; the most technologically advanced military scattered across an improbable archipelago; multicultural dystopian inequality; and from the highest peak, the last place on the planet where we can truly see the stars. What would happen if an endogenous political system was developed in a lush tropical environment, overthrown by the hegemony of military and industry, and reestablished over a century later? We are about to participate in a great adventure. We are about to experience the awe and mystery that reaches from the inner mind to the outer limits.
THE EMPIRE STRIKES
The events of the 1970s in Hawai‘i, now collectively referred to as the Hawaiian Renaissance, are still vividly remembered. When the U.S. Department of the Interior held informal listening sessions throughout the islands in the summer of 2014 to hear, among other things, what the community thought of federal recognition for a Native Hawaiian government, most testifiers set their phasers to kill. The hearings were, by many accounts, a wreck. The overwhelming majority of testifiers, most of whom were Native Hawaiian, voiced a deep sense of distrust of the federal government. And no wonder: The community is overrepresented in homeless populations, the criminal justice system, and negative health indicators, the imbalanced socio-economic conditions common to indigenous communities around the world. The Department of the Interior has since held hearings with Native Hawaiians throughout the continental United States. The response has been the same: ‘A‘ole, no, to federal recognition.
There are valid reasons to advocate for federal recognition, all of which have been argued to death since the introduction of the Akaka bill 15 years ago. The current protections afforded to Native Hawaiians in housing, health care, education, employment, and culture through the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, the Department of Hawaiian Homelands, Kamehameha Schools, and other smaller organizations have been under constant attack from lawsuits based on state and federal equal-protection laws. Federal recognition would both preserve state-funded institutions providing support to Hawaiians and extinguish claims of nationhood. For most who have testified, it isn’t worth it.
An op-ed co-written by Ilima Long, Jon Osorio, and Andre Perez in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser titled “It’s an international rights issue, so U.S. must step back” sums up many of the arguments: “These actions violated our rightful existence under international law in the 1890s, and now violate our collective right of self-determination and individual human rights,” the activists wrote. “The Department of the Interior and the State of Hawai‘i should not attempt to influence or interfere with the nation-building that has been ongoing among kanaka for the past 30 years.” In advocating for a sovereignty movement that is peaceful, they requested simply that the federal and state governments do not interfere with a process that grows at its own pace and according to its own ideals. “We do not want just any governing body,” they concluded. “We want the restoration of our independent government and we deserve nothing less than that.” What this governing body might look like once the process is completed is as yet unknown, but sci-fi helps reimagine the past, as well as the future.
THE FORCE IS WITH YOU
That speculative fiction has real relevance to our discussion of subjective politics should come as no surprise. Author Junot Diaz has been extolling the merit of genre narratives in the wake of his 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which follows the tribulations of a sci-fi-loving Dominican nerd in New Jersey and Santo Domingo. “Without our stories, without the true nature and reality of who we are as People of Color, nothing about fanboy or fangirl culture would make sense,” he says in a podcast in 2013. “What I mean by that is, if it wasn’t for race, X-Men doesn’t make sense. … If it wasn’t for the history of colonialism and imperialism, Star Wars doesn’t make sense. If it wasn’t for the extermination of so many Indigenous First Nations, most of what we call science fiction’s contact stories doesn’t make sense. Without us as the secret sauce, none of this works, and it is about time that we understood that we are the force that holds the Star Wars universe together.”
The possibility of alternate universes makes absolute sense to some in the sovereignty discussion. In Hawai‘i’s small contemporary art circles, Solomon Enos is something of a celebrity. He works as fast as he speaks and has been known to sketch complex murals with a brush on a stick in minutes. Though much art in Hawai‘i is sold in galleries aimed at the visitor market, Enos is one of a handful of local painters making a living as an indigenous artist without pandering to outsiders’ concepts of native culture. But Enos’ work also sells in tourist markets: His paintings line the halls of Aulani, the Disney resort, and several Waikīkī hotels. He has illustrated books, prints, and paintings for businesses and community groups. “I’ve loved Frank Herbert, Ursula K. Le Guin, Kurt Vonnegut for years now,” Enos says of his inspiration. “They created worlds, what-if narratives.” Having grown up with both the mo‘olelo of his grandmother and the science fiction of his generation, his paintings can be as beautifully grotesque as H.R. Giger’s (who inspired, among other things, the noir look of Aliens) or as eerily romantic as Alan Lee’s Lord of the Rings illustrations. “I figure by looking back at our narratives, there’s a lot of my, and our, reality that depends on the same sort of what-ifs. I’d say this is a sort of activist escapism. When I put the book down, I can engage with the world in a better way.”
Over the last two decades, Enos’ most ardent passion has been Polyfantastica, a science fiction inspired narrative that spans 40,000 years of Hawaiian history. He has completed nearly 400 images representing centennial vignettes, which are the prospective book covers for a narrative that reaches far into the future. “At that point, good guys and bad guys become moot,” he says. “We’re in the process of uploading it all online to make the narrative accessible and workable by anyone with a computer. It’s been a garage project, but we’re getting to a critical mass now.” Enos’ hope is that other Pacific sci-fi buffs will assist in the project and fill in the narratives he has begun to illustrate—an activist fan-verse, a Polynesian sort of Dungeons and Dragons.
Enos lets his what-if scenarios play out with his recent Human Seed Ships series. In dozens of paintings, he imagines a Hawai‘i where Polynesians never encountered Captain Cook in 1776 and the archipelago goes undiscovered by the rest of the world until a global apocalypse. When ships do wash up in Hawai‘i, they are filled with the corpses of environmental refugees and hyper-modern technology. “Then these Hawaiians are affected not by disease, but by fear, the things we’d have to flush out of our system if we were contacted or not,” he explains. The resulting paintings are fascinating. With Enos’ skill as a draughtsman and painter, they are Salvador Dalí-level trips that draw from the Polynesian-centric world to create a pantheon of characters. “What does nationalism mean in the future? What about sovereignty? I’m trying to be as long-viewed as possible. I think to change things on the consciousness level, we need to get somewhere mystical. We knew we could navigate to islands because we knew they were there. Now we have to navigate through the current future. It’s not American or Eurocentric. As much as I love Lord of the Rings, I realize we need our own way of telling things. One-third of the world is the Pacific Ocean. It’s time we hatched our avatars, our origins, our crazy.”
A NEW HOPE
“The sovereignty discussion of the last year has been as spirited as it’s been in decades,” professor Kamanamaikalani Beamer tells me at his office in University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa’s Hawaiian Studies building, “but I’ve never been as optimistic.” Beamer’s new book, No Mākou ka Mana: Liberating the Nation, discusses the intelligent and creative ways in which the ruling ali‘i of the Hawaiian Kingdom engaged with aggressive foreign powers, blending Hawaiian governance with ideas from the West. It also diligently explores ways in which natives were at times complicit in 19th century imperialist agendas.
“No Mākou ka Mana is not concerned with what missionaries or foreigners did for or to Oiwi (natives), but rather what Oiwi did for themselves, in the midst of depopulation and constant threats of colonialism,” he writes in the introduction. “I believe that living cultures are dynamic and always in a state of change. I believe the dichotomies of the traditional and modern, with all their connotations, are false. They compose the conceptual shackles that preserve European hegemony and often reinscribe links between the colonizer and the colonized, occupier and occupied.” Many of the people Beamer researched were non-Hawaiian patriots for the Hawaiian Kingdom. Though imported labor and capitalism played a role in racial and economic stratification, the citizens of the kingdom were enfranchised people with universal suffrage, all races cooperating in government—so thoroughly different from the governments of that era.
In lieu of a deep textual analysis of a little-known anti-annexation letter signed by Queen Lili‘uokalani, which she addressed to the British government, Beamer presents it in its original form. “It’s a gorgeous letter, isn’t it?” he says with wonder. “Probably not written in her hand, but it’s clearly her thoughts. Something like that, it’s best to just present it directly,” he says.
The letter articulates what residents of this archipelago, Hawaiian and non-Hawaiian alike, have accepted as an inconvenient history. This is now taken as fact: The kingdom resisted takeover using peaceful, diplomatic means; the United States did not execute a valid treaty of cession or annexation, as was required in 1898 for an annexation to be valid under international law. Beamer spares no criticism of the provisional government that took over the kingdom in a series of events that, by modern analysis, was a takeover supported by the American military—the men who formed a Republic as megalomaniacal grabbers of empire.
The takeover was as much cultural as it was political. The way Beamer describes it, annexation was akin to a Star Trek temporal disruptor bomb, the kind that warps the space-time continuum, destroying past, present, future, everything. After annexation, Native Hawaiians experienced the taking of land by non-native peoples under quasi-legal arrangements supported by racism and xenophobia, resulting in a collective downward social mobility in their own homeland. But throughout this experience, the record kept in Hawaiian was tight, like a time capsule that has taken a century to open, and academics in Hawai‘i and throughout the nation have been accessing decades of communal dialogue. The translations are chilling in their prescience and erudite analysis of global political events. “It wasn’t until I was fluent [in Hawaiian] that I could get it,” says Beamer, pointing to a Honolulu newspaper clipping from the 1890s taped to his office door that discusses the annexation. “‘News from America’ is what this part translates to. Their readership realized that America was a foreign place. It’s part of why I structured this mo‘olelo this way: to tell the story of Hawaiians doing things their way, in their own voices.”
By relying on the narrative of history, Beamer eschews the patchy inadequacy of American jurisprudence to highlight substantive equality and effectuate justice. The sovereignty conversation has painfully moved past America’s problematic, possibly intractable, issues with race. The equal protections afforded by the state and American constitutions, for which a civil war was fought and countless Americans marched in the streets decades ago, have proven inappropriate tools to remedy a problem rooted in political history. The movement that was the impetus for the civil rights era, community organizing directed at specific empowered targets, and the critical legal scholarship that developed as a result over the last several decades—these are indeed helpful. This organizing influenced the world: from the Māori land march of 1975 to South African apartheid resistance to the environmental and sovereignty movements in Hawai‘i.
“We haven’t yet contextualized Hawai‘i in terms of pacifist struggles around the world, but that’s exactly what this was. This was one of the first non-colonized, non-European modern nations in history. And it’s a story about myself as well,” notes Beamer. “How do I, as a native person navigating this space, work with the tools around me? I’m a family man and come from entertainers, farmers, activists. But here I am using an iPad in air conditioning.”
Beamer and his colleagues have used technology to both archive and research original documents, many of which are in ‘Ōlelo Hawai‘i. By referring directly to native voices, No Mākou ka Mana adds to the literature written in the intervening decades since occupation, the basis of which reconstruct a historical framework. By fully articulating the rich legal, cultural, and social history of the nation of Hawai‘i prior to overthrow, the academic work of Haunani-Kay Trask, Jon Osorio, Noenoe Silva, and dozens of others become the foundation upon which to rebuild a nation. By refusing to see Hawaiian leaders merely as passive victims, Beamer comes to grips with the need for modernity, for future-thinking, and for mediating value systems in an inhospitable universe.
The community of social-justice nerds agree. A course titled “Political Science Fiction” at UH Mānoa uses the Star Trek universe to discuss the fluidity of identity and political systems. Bryan Kamaoli Kuwada, an English-department PhD candidate who concentrates on Hawaiian translation, recently published “Of No Real Account,” a fantasy adventure story featuring Hawaiian mythology, in the literary journal Hawai‘i Review. “Sci-fi’s a way to get past the whole crabs in a bucket, pulling each other down while trying to get out metaphor,” he says at a Hawaiian sovereignty event over the summer. “That’s old. We need new stories. Plus this kind of writing is actually fun.”
Though fictional, Enos’ paintings and Kuwada’s stories speak to the trepidation some feel about the future of a Hawaiian state and its relationship with America. No one is sure how this will work out. But the arts community has answers that are at least more interesting than temporal politics, with creative ideas about the worlds we should inhabit rather than the dismal one we do. With so much of our modern lives regarding communication and technology predicted decades ago by science fiction, it is possible, necessary even, to apply the same utopian fantasy to political systems.
Nerds know how the story ends: Not without struggle, the destructive, inequitable rulers are defeated. Peace and order eventually reign throughout the galaxy. Our heroes are explorers who embark on intrepid missions of peace. Optimistic adventure takes precedent over conquest, as do exploring new worlds, seeking out new life and new civilizations, going where no one has gone before.