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March 20, 2009: Dr. Gary Y. Okihiro

(Click to Enlarge) Dr. Garya Y. Okihiro describes the ways in which Hawai'i has influenced the United States

Island World: A History of Hawai‘i and the United States



(Washington D.C.) March 20– Traditional interpretations of the relationship between the islands of Hawai‘i and the American mainland describe the overwhelming influence of the mainland on Hawai‘i but neglect the role that Hawai‘i has played in shaping the world around it. In an East-West Center in Washington Public Forum, Dr. Gary Y. Okihiro, professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University, discussed his book Island World: A History of Hawai‘i and the United States and showed how Hawai‘i has influenced the culture of the United States and the world.

Islands, Dr. Okihiro explained, occupy an ephemeral place in the human consciousness. Unlike continents, which are considered dynamic, changing, and influential, islands belong to the sea in which they are isolated. In the American imagination, Hawai‘i epitomizes the island world, one that is remote, unchanging, lush, and sensual. Hawai‘i is generally regarded as a state that has been acted upon, but which has had little influence on American history and culture. Dr. Okihiro attempted to turn this relationship around, explaining that Hawai‘i has sent its people out into the world for centuries, many of them playing important roles at pivotal points in U.S. history and making important contributions to the larger American culture.

Hawai‘i has long been a destination for European and American sailors, who used the islands as a starting point for voyages to Asia and for trade. Early American missionaries followed the sailors, flocking to Hawai‘i to civilize what was regarded as a pagan culture. Like Native Americans and African Americans, Dr. Okihiro explained that Hawaiians were educated in schools in both Hawai‘i and on the American mainland that encouraged Christian education and the value of manual labor to ‘civilize’ the students. These schools became models of education techniques used more widely in the American West and other island acquisitions, and some of the students went on to become missionaries and leaders of their own people.

Dr. Okihiro explained, however, that Hawaiians were active outside their islands long before the missionaries arrived. The native Hawaiian people traveled to the islands from other areas of the Pacific region and maintained trade ties with other island nations. By the mid-19th century, Hawaiians could be found on the American mainland both east and west, and in China, Mexico, and South America. They were shipbuilders and sailors, factory workers and miners, otter hunters and traders. Many Hawaiian soldiers, classified as Native American or African American, fought in early U.S. wars against the British and were members of the Union army during the American Civil War.

These early travelers brought with them stories and images of Hawai‘i that influenced the American imagination for centuries, Dr. Okihiro noted. Early visitors to Hawai‘i brought back tales and pictures of the terrifying volcanoes and lush forests that make up the islands. To many early Americans, these images of fire and Eden were reminiscent of religious imagery and inspired sermons and depictions of the afterlife. Descriptions of vibrantly-colored sea life, exhibitions of surfing by young Hawaiian natives, and accounts of an easy island culture contributed to paintings, popular Hollywood films, plays, and musicals set in the South Pacific. These narratives, Dr. Okihiro explained, were some of the first that showed inter-racial romances, usually between the white man and native woman, on the American stage or screen.

Hawai‘i also contributed to traditional American music. The steel-string guitar was imported to Hawai‘i from the mainland United States but was quickly adapted to traditional Hawaiian musical traditions. Dr. Okihiro explained that this island sound became enormously popular in the United States, and was incorporated into blues and country music. This was a particularly unusual circumstance, noted Dr. Okihiro, as musical genres tended to be segregated in the early 20th century. The Hawaiian sound was further used in advertisements for everything from travel agencies to food manufacturers. Even today, the tradition of the Hawaiian guitar can be found in country and blues music recordings.

Dr. Okihiro explained that it is hard for islands like Hawai‘i to maintain an identity when dealing with so many outside influences and the pressure to homogenize culturally. But he noted that Hawai‘i has exerted its own influence on the United States, thereby making its native identity a part of the overarching American identity. Hawaiian music, hula dancing, surfing, and foods have all been adapted by the larger American culture, ensuring that the Hawaiian contribution to the United States will not be forgotten.

Gary Y. Okihiro is professor of international and public affairs and the founding director of the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race at Columbia University. He is author of nine books, including Common Ground: Reimagining American History (a Choice outstanding academic book) and The Columbia Guide to Asian American History (an Association for Asian American Studies award-winning book). Two of his trilogy on space/time, Island World: A History of Hawai‘i and the United States (2008) and the forthcoming Pineapple Culture: A History of the Tropical and Temperate Zones (2009), are from the University of California Press. He is the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Studies Association, and is a past president of the Association for Asian American Studies.

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