For the Conscientious Traveler: Five Things to Consider Before Visiting Hawaii

By Olivia Ford

CAS 100 Spring 2017

Planning your Hawaiian vacation? Read this first.

1. Hawaii has long been exploited for the entertainment of U.S. mainlanders

You may or may not know that many native Hawaiians get frustrated with the constant stream of mainlanders trying to take their relaxing vacations in their home. Or you may suspect that that plastic hula girl your friend has on the dashboard of his car is not an entirely accurate representation of Hawaiian culture. U.S. fascination and control of Hawaiian culture has very deep roots.

Hula has long been a target of imperial control and spectacle. When white Calvinist missionaries first arrived in Hawaii they condemned hula for being promiscuous. However, King Kalākaua helped revive the tradition in the 1880s by hiring hula performers for his court and instituting hula schools. White elite businessmen who came to visit the islands were often entertained with hula performances at this time. In the 1890s Hula troupes began to come to the United States. They were treated as novelties, or “exotic” objects to be viewed in carnival shows. Originally, men had been the featured performers of hula, but once troupes became spectacles for U.S. audiences to consume, their makeup changed — surprise, surprise — to mostly women. The female hula dancers became a sensual image associated with Hawaii in the eyes of American audiences and of Hawaii. The dancers and the islands as things to be consumed.

At Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, Hawaiians were actually put on display. A wildly popular “Hawaiian village” was constructed, which fairgoers could gawk at examples of Hawaiian crafts, natural resources, a model of a Hawaiian village and people themselves. This putting Hawaii on display for mainlanders’ enjoyment continued a theme of “imagined intimacy” that mainlanders considered themselves to have with Hawaiians.

In 1942, during WWII, the US military took over all tourist bureaus in Hawaii and established martial law. Beaches were blocked off and forbidden for civilians to use. Everyday life was disrupted by the overwhelming number of U.S. soldiers residing on the island. The military organized hula performances and Luaus for the enjoyment of its members. Because of the much larger proportion of men, sexual assault and harassment of Hawaiian women proliferated. This was the time that Hawaii became a destination

In other words, your experience of Hawaii has been filtered through many years of manipulation and marketing of Hawaiians that they did not necessarily want.

2. Hawaiians did not choose to be part of the U.S. — the islands were taken forcefully

The U.S. annexed Hawaii after backing the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom. In 1887 King Kalākaua was intimidated into signing what became known as the Bayonet Constitution. An organization made up of businessmen and plantation owners who had stakes in having free trade between Hawaii and the mainland U.S. who called themselves the Hawaiian League forced the king to appoint a new cabinet sympathetic to their efforts. This allowed for the passage of the Bayonet Constitution, which stripped the king of much of his power. The new constitution allowed sugar to be brought from Hawaii to the U.S. duty free and let the U.S. use Pearl Harbor as a military base. After Queen Lili’uokalani inherited the throne and tried to replace the Bayonet constitution many of the same people who imposed the bayonet constitution enlisted the help of the U.S. Marines to overthrow the Hawaiian Kingdom. In 1893 Marines took control of the government and held the Queen hostage until she gave up her control. This was protested by Hawaiians and violated national law Treaty, but generally ignored by other Imperial nations. The U.S. officially annexed Hawaii in 1898. Acquisition of Hawaii was mostly for its natural resources, but many in the U.S. senate opposed the Annexation, not because of its imperialistic nature, but because they believed Hawaiians were racially inferior and unworthy of U.S. citizenship.

3. The “chill” Hawaiian songs are actually subversive

The revival of Hula in the late 1890s was brought about by King Kalākaua’s resistance to the stripping of his powers and attempted control of Hawaiian culture by mainlanders. As hula dancers and musicians travelled the U.S., they took their home cultures with them. After Queen Lili’uokalani was held hostage, these songs and dances became a way for Hawaiians on the mainland to stay connected with their lost queen and homeland. Buried within many of these songs was a concept called “Kaona.” Kaona is a poetic strategy that concealed hidden meanings within songs or poems, usually that only select groups of people would understand. So songs would have one meaning to mainlanders and another more subversive one. Performers often performed songs mourning loss of their homelands to U.S. imperial forces.to the performers. Know “Aloha Oe”? It was written by Queen Lili’uokalani while held hostage

As was another popular song “Lei Poni Moi.” Performing these songs became an act of showing allegiance with the queen and the fallen Hawaiian kingdom.

4. A luau isn’t a luau

The word “luau” actually refers to the taro leaves that are cooked with the meat at the traditional feast called “‘aha’aina.” Before the presence of Christianity in Hawaii, the steaming of the taro leaves was a practice that allowed the people to communicate with and entertain their gods. The leaves had specific spiritual connections as the offspring of the gods Wākea and Ho’ohōkūkalani and regarded as as and ancestor and a symbol of family. The aha’aina was usually a community gathering to celebrate births, weddings or to mourn a death. The communal preparation of the food, usually roasting a pig, steaming luau, and other dishes, fostered community and shared labor.

The first usages of the word “Luau” for the feast came from a misnomer by British naval captain after visiting a feast in 1827 and calling it a “lewhow.” This fact has been contested, but all sources say that the misnomer of the feast as a “luau” has Euro-American origins.

During WWII, Luaus were staged for troops occupying Hawaii. The military banned commercial luaus, restricted their private use, and regulated the slaughter of the pigs needed to carry out the practice. Luaus continued to be used as entertainment for the troops even while restricting their usage for native Hawaiians.

5. Some people don’t want you there

Tourism in Hawaii today is an extension of what Many Hawaiian natives such as renowned Hawaiian nationalist and professor Haunani-Kay Trask see as a continuation of imperial rule of Hawaii. Part of the Hawaiian Sovereignty movement, they advocate for the de-colonization of Hawaii and its institution as a sovereign nation. They cite the U.S.’s history of imperialism in the islands as well as the fact that there are simply not enough resources to sustain both the native people and tourist industry that outnumbers Hawaiian residents 6 to 1 and Native Hawaiians by 30 to 1.2 as a reason that they do not welcome tourists from the mainland to their home. Huanani-Kay Trask says of the imposition of English on the islands:

“After nearly 2,000 years of speaking Hawaiian, our people suffered the near extinction of our language through its banning by the American-imposed government in 1896. In 1900, Hawai’i became a territory of the United States. All schools, government operations and official transactions were thereafter conducted in English, despite the fact that most people, including non-Natives, still spoke Hawaiian at the turn of the century.”

And of tourism:

“Our language, our dance, our young people, even our costumes of eating are used to ensnare tourists. And the price is only a paltry $39.95, not much for two thousand years of culture. Of course, the hotel will rake in tens of thousands of dollars on just the lu’au alone.”

And advises tourists:

“If you are thinking of visiting my homeland, please do not. We do not want or need any more tourists, and we certainly do not like them. If you want to help our cause, pass this message on to your friends.”

While not everyone’s views of the tourism industry are as extreme and condemning as hers, it is still important to know that your presence in their homeland is highly controversial. Your experience in Hawaii has been crafted by many years of U.S. imperialism. Be aware of that.


I’m not saying you need to cancel your Hawaiian vacation, I’m simply suggesting you consider yourself in the context of Hawaiian history and know of what you are consuming.


Further Reading:

Adria L. Imada, Aloha America: Hula Circuits Through the U.S. Empire. Duke University Press. 2012.

Noelani Arista, “Navigating Uncharted Oceans of Meaning: Kaona as Historical and Interpretive Method.” PMLA 125 (2010).

Edward W. Said, “The Imperial Spectacle.” Grand Street 6 (1987)