By Any Other Name

It’s pronounced LAY-lon-ee.

“LEE-ih-lah-nee?”

“Lee-ANN-uh?”

“Can you just go by a nickname?”

Magellan arrives at Guam and claims the exploration and discovery of the island as his own work. (Tripline.net)

No. My name is Leilani Rania Ganser and my heritage, the triumphs and the defeats, comes with that name. And the names of my family are proof of the colonialism and imperialism that have worked to erase my name. My name is Leilani, my mother’s name is Lisa. My mother’s maiden name was Rania, her mother’s maiden name was Martinez. And really, there’s only one way that a traditionally Hispanic makes it’s way to the island Guahan.

Outside of the history of colonial conquest that gives us our last name, there’s a history that gives my mother her Christian name (Lisa Catherine). In an assembly at Hālau Lōkahi, principal Laara Allbrett reminds her students, “We didn’t get to sing [Hawai’i Pono’ī — the orginal Hawaiian Anthem] in our schools we had to pledge allegiance to the flag that took over Hawai’i.” There’s a subversive and dark history of the American overthrow of Hawai’i that is rarely taught in schools but is all too evident for kanaka maoli (Native Hawaiians) who have grown up in a world that does not recognize their race and does not grant their sovereignty.

Hawaiians with a Church 16 Years After the First Missionaries Arrived. (Hawai’i State Archive)

Upon first contact with Hawai’i, many missionaries forced the Christianization of names and imposed a patrilineal surname system on the people of the islands. Hawaiian women lost much of the mana wahine (women’s power) that they enjoyed in the Kingdom of Hawai’i pre-contact and were demeaned and subjugated by the new puritanical rules introduced. Missionary William Alexander said that “licentiousness” was “the besetting sin of the people” and that Hawai‘i was “a sea of pollution.” Examination of 19th century court documents will show that between 1830 and 1850 fully 73% of all arrests in Hawai’i were related to sex including “lewdness” and “seduction”.

This is critical because the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy was framed as a mission to civilize. This means that colonization was centered around the erasure of Hawaiian culture and Hawaiian values. Missionaries and Euro-American business men living on Hawai’i furthered this overthrow through the denigration of Hawaiian culture, values, and especially names. My mother was named Lisa-Catherine so she would have an easier life.

My name is Leilani because my mother knew very early on that I could reclaim my own erased identity and protest every time I wrote or said my own name. Colonization relies on forced forgetting and waking up every morning as Leilani means waking up every morning facing forward toward the past. It is a celebration of my heritage and a reconstruction of memories for indigenous survival.

So, no, I will not go by an easier nickname. Call me Leilani.

The inverted Hawaiian flag is a symbol of the sovereignty movement and of the Kingdom of Hawai’i in distress.