New book offers 'decolonial guide' to Hawaii

The new book "Detours: A Decolonial Guide to Hawaii" is a collection of works examining dominant imagery and conceptions of the Aloha State and how they are shaped by its top employers, tourism and the U.S. military.
The new book "Detours: A Decolonial Guide to Hawaii" is a collection of works examining dominant imagery and conceptions of the Aloha State and how they are shaped by its top employers, tourism and the U.S. military. Photo Credit: HTA/Tor Johnson

Growing up in a Hawaiian family living in Utah, Hokulani Aikau was confronted early on with the stereotypes often applied to the Aloha State and its native people.

"The dominant imagery about Hawaii is filtered through the lens of paradise and a tourist gaze," said Aikau, associate professor of gender studies and ethnic studies at the University of Utah. "When people in Utah interacted with me, it would start with interest in my name. And when I'd say it's Hawaiian, they would immediately say: 'Oh, so do you do hula?' Well, I didn't do hula, but there was this dominant image of the hula girl and it was so gendered and overdetermining about Hawaii. It was the way I was read by people. I had that experience over and over again growing up here. Now, I'm a mom with three children and the same things are happening to my kids."

Aikau, who was born in Hawaii before moving to Utah as a child, was brought back to the islands by her research, serving as an associate professor in the University of Hawaii, Manoa political science department focused on Native Hawaiian and indigenous politics until two years ago. At UH she met Vernadette Vicuna Gonzalez, associate professor of American studies, who was also interested in analysis of representations and images of Hawaii and its culture. They both attended a 2016 conference where many of the presentations and speakers touched on the decolonization of Hawaii through various topics, and they had the idea to create a compilation that would serve as an alternative to the typical guide book.

Three years later, "Detours: A Decolonial Guide to Hawaii" has been published, a collection of stories, essays, travel guides and art that puts Hawaiian history, culture and experience at the forefront, even if that means informing the reader while instructing them it is not appropriate to visit the locations mentioned.  

"There is this notion of Hawaii as a paradise belonging to the U.S.," Aikau said. "The tourism industry is structured around tourist desires and access, and they use 'aloha' in a misrepresented way to perpetuate this notion of an open invitation to come to Hawaii and everything is open and available."

"Detours" examines the mythology of Hawaii as an exotic destination and encourages a more holistic and nuanced understanding of the development of the Islands and how that impacts the people living there today, particularly the influence of the state's two biggest employers: tourism and the U.S. military.

Hawaii is, especially on the U.S. mainland, dominated by images related to tourism such as surfing, hula, and pineapples, which, unlike the first two, are not indigenous to Hawaii and are no longer grown in great quantities in the state. 

"There is this transactional assumption to tourism," Aikau said. "They have saved money and spent a lot on this vacation and they feel a right to do what they want without interference. What that does is create an environment where a lot of the decisions being made are not based on the needs of residents and native Hawaiians."

The book is not meant as a lecture for Hawaii-bound travelers, Aikau said, but was designed for a broad audience including Aloha State residents.

"It's not just tourists who have this idea, many of us living in Hawaii are raised with these dominant ideologies," she said.

Aikau and Gonzalez worked on smoothing the rough edges of the more academic pieces and collaborating with the authors to write in a way that made the guide accessible to a more general audience.

Additionally, while there are some tours outlined in the book (such as guides to downtown Honolulu and the neighborhood of Kakaako) that can be easily followed by the reader, other entries are specifically vague about some of the sites and destinations they mention.

"There were concerns raised about access and permission and what we should and shouldn't include in the book," Aikau said. "We listened to the contributors, and in some cases we purposefully exclude information that would make it easier to find a place. There is a variety. Some are essays, some are actual defined tours that can be done on our own, some talk about tours that are best done with the guides because otherwise you'd miss the important parts."

Among the more than two dozen pieces in "Detours" are contributions from the creators of a tour on Oahu that shows some of the history and impacts of U.S. military presence on the island, and the leaders of an environmental justice bus tour based in Waianae.

Aikau said the book is intended to provide an alternative history and analysis for Hawaii as well as guides and theories for restoring Hawaiian independence, sovereignty and self-determination, which they refer to using the Hawaiian word "Ea." The hope is that the roughly 10 million visitors to the Islands each year, and the state's residents as well, will reconsider how they approach and interact with the land, its native people and culture. 

"Think about coming to Hawaii in a different type of way. Support the community-based tours like the one in Waianae covered in the book that educates tourists and public about militarism and effects in Waianae," Aikau said. "Even if we come as tourists we can engage with Hawaii through a different lens. You can stand with protesters protecting their land and culture, you can support the land-based and water-based projects -- for restoration of things like native fish ponds -- that all need volunteers. Put your labor into the land and into these projects." 


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