Haunani-Kay Trask (Photo: Kapulani Landgraf)

Last week, in our conversation with Emalani Case about the importance of sustaining pan-Pacific connections, Emalani paid tribute to Hawaiian poet, author, scholar and activist Haunani-Kay Trask, who died a fortnight ago. 

Haunani-Kay was loved and admired around the Pacific, including in Aotearoa, for her uncompromising advocacy for Indigenous nationalism and self-determination. 

Kennedy Warne dips into her writings, and those of her partner, David Stannard, to note the passing of a woman who heard the whispering spirit of her sacred land.


I only visited Hawai’i once, more than 25 years ago, on a stopover from LA. Like perhaps anyone from Aotearoa, I was struck by its Americanness: the accents, the shirts, the resorts, the fast-food outlets. (Tony Roma’s baby back ribs!) Of its Indigenous culture, I remained ignorant of anything beyond lei, hula, “Aloha!” and a probably touristified story about the origins of surfing.

I know differently now, and more so since becoming aware of the work of Haunani-Kay Trask, a Hawaiian poet, author, scholar, teacher and activist who died in Honolulu on July 3, aged 71.

In one tribute I read, she was described as “a fearless advocate for Kānaka Māoli, native Hawaiians.” For Haunani-Kay, though, the qualifier “native” wasn’t necessary, because there could truly be no other kind of Hawaiian.

In the powerful preface to the book for which she is best known, From a Native Daughter: Colonialism and Sovereignty in Hawai’i, published in 1993, she writes: 

Despite American political and territorial control of Hawai’i since 1898, Hawaiians are not Americans. Nor are we Europeans or Asians. We are not from the Pacific Rim, nor are we immigrants to the Pacific. We are the children of Papa — earth mother — and Wākea — sky father — who created the sacred lands of Hawai’i Nei. 

From these lands came the taro, and from the taro, the Hawaiian people. As in all of Polynesia, so in Hawai’i: younger sibling must care for and honor elder sibling who, in return, will protect and provide for younger sibling. 

Thus, Hawaiians must nourish the land from whence we come. The relationship is more than reciprocal, however. It is familial. The land is our mother and we are her children. This is the lesson of our genealogy.

It is a short step from such an assertion of identity to her lifelong dismay, anger and defiance over colonisation, and her advocacy of Hawaiian self-determination. 

“For us, Hawaiian self-government has always been preferable to American foreign government,” she writes in Native Daughter. “No matter what Americans believe, most of us in the colonies do not feel grateful that our country was stolen, along with our citizenship, our lands, and our independent place among the family of nations. We are not happy Natives.”

Hawaiian sovereignty was the drumbeat to which Haunani-Kay walked. In 1987, with her sister, Mililani, she helped found Ka Lahui Hawai’i, a group dedicated to achieving self-determination for Hawaiians, and the largest of several Hawaiian sovereignty organisations.

It grieved her that her people continue to be situated politically as “natives without a nation”, as she put it in one poem:

For the foreigner, romances
of “Aloha,”
For Hawaiians, 
dispossessions of empire

“This is Hawai’i,” she writes in Native Daughter, “once the most fragile and precious of sacred places, now transformed by the American behemoth into a dying land. Only a whispering spirit remains.”

Tourism’s role in perpetuating dispossession was a particular target. In the introduction to Native Daughter she quotes fellow political activist Kehau Lee Jackson: 

“Our country has been and is being plasticized, cheapened, and exploited. They’re selling it in plastic leis, coconut ashtrays, and cans of “genuine, original Aloha.” They’ve raped us, sold us, and still they expect us to behave.”

Haunani-Kay loathed the process by which a culture is not just appropriated, but cheapened to the point of becoming a tawdry caricature. Hula turned into “a form of exotica for the gaping tourist”. Replicas of Hawaiian symbols of ancient power used to decorate hotels. 

Worst of all, Hawaiian women “marketed on posters from Paris to Tokyo promising an unfettered ‘primitive’ sexuality. Burdened with commodification of our culture and exploitation of our people, Hawaiians exist in an occupied country whose hostage people are forced to witness (and, for many, to participate in) our own collective humiliation as tourist artifacts for the First World.”

She hated the phrase “Hawaiian at heart”, commonly uttered by haole — non-Hawaiians — to bolster their sense of belonging in a stolen land. In her poem “Colonization”, she laments that even her own people use the phrase, soothing their dispossession. 

It “makes me sick to hear how easily genealogy flows away,” she writes. The poem continues:

Hawaiian at heart:
nothing said
about loss
violence, death
by hundreds of thousands.

Hawaiian at heart:
a whole people accustomed
to prostitution
selling identity
for nickels
and dimes
in the whorehouses
of tourism.

The psychological damage of that process is horrendous, “reducing our ability to control our lands and waters, our daily lives, and the expression and integrity of our culture.”

Regaining control was one of Haunani-Kay Trask’s life quests. Not only was she a leader of the Hawaiian sovereignty movement, but she was also the founding director of the Kamakakūokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies at the University of Hawai‘i Mānoa, where she was professor emeritus. In fact, “Hawaiian studies” is a field she is credited with helping establish.

Haunani-Kay’s life partner, David Stannard, worked alongside her in the same university as a professor of American studies. In one of his own searing books, he focused on the seemingly mundane matter of Hawai‘i’s population size on the eve of colonisation in the late 1700s. Stannard claimed that it was not 200,000, as commonly asserted in American-written history books, but between 800,000 and 1 million.

In an interview in 1989, he was asked what possible difference the revised population estimate could make today. Wasn’t it just “empty academic theorising, like the medieval arguments about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” 

His reply was sharp and to the point: “It matters first of all to the affected people themselves. It matters to Jews whether 1 million or 6 million people died in the Holocaust. How many people died in Nagasaki and Hiroshima matters to the Japanese. How many American men died in Vietnam matters to Americans. How many people lived in Hawaii in 1778 and died as a result of the subsequent bacteriological invasion matters to Hawaiians.

“For the most part, the writing of Hawaiian history has been in the hands of the haoles who have systematically degraded the Hawaiian past and elevated the haole past. And that created a sense of inferiority among Hawaiians and of smug superiority among haoles — neither of which was justified.”

It serves a colonial mindset to minimise Indigenous deaths. The same thing occurred with the native population of North and South America. It was thought to be of the order of 8 to 10 million, until scholars began to revise the figure upward by a factor of 10. The impact of that revision is profound, horrific. 

In another of his books, American Holocaust, David Stannard wrote that European colonisation in North and South America and Hawai‘i produced the worst human holocaust in the history of the human species, “roaring across two continents non-stop for four centuries and consuming the lives of countless tens of millions of people.”

Downplaying population size is “a particular variant of racism that fashions America’s moral stupidity,” Stannard concludes. It is based on “vociferous denial of the presence, unique histories, and self-determination of America’s conquered Natives.”

It was Haunani-Kay Trask’s work to call out and combat that racism, that moral stupidity, and to map pathways for change. From a Native Daughter contains declarations and proposals for Indigenous sovereignty, tourism reform, human rights, native self-determination and more.

As Professor Linda Tuhiwai Smith told Stuff: “She’s a scholar who will be mourned by the entire Indigenous scholarly world. She was at the forefront of leading intellectual shift.”

Like the Hawaiian atua Pele, portrayed as a goddess of volcanoes and fire, Haunani-Kay Trask could be volcanic in her thinking and writing, a lava flow of protest. 

But the last lines of a gentle poem of hers entitled “Still is the Fern” seem right for a farewell to such a visionary leader and woman of mana: “Arise and go, sacred, into dawn.”


Kennedy Warne is the co-founder and former editor of New Zealand Geographic magazine and the author of Tūhoe: Portrait of a Nation, published in 2013. Kennedy has written extensively about the connections between people and place, past and present, both in Aotearoa, the Pacific and elsewhere.

© E-Tangata, 2021

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