114th Annual Conference - Pasadena, California
Friday, November 11 - Sunday, November 13, 2016

"A Letter From Afar": Writing Diasporic Kanaka Maoli Kinship and Sovereignty

Joyce Pualani Warren, University of California - Los Angeles

This paper reads Native Hawaiian Samuel Nainoa’s 1912 letters as an indigenization of the American tradition of the travel narrative, and argues that his affirmation of diasporic bodies as an extension of the Hawaiian lāhui (people, nation) opens up conversations of identity and belonging in our contemporary moment.

Proposal: 

“All the Hawaiians here give their aloha to our lāhui,” reads a translation of the closing line of Samuel K. Nainoa’s “A Letter From Afar,” published in the June 7, 1912 issue of Nupepa Kuokoa, a Hawaiian-language newspaper. Nainoa, an esteemed musician, wrote the letter after visiting the thriving community of diasporic Kanaka Maoli residing in Seattle while travelling with Queen Liliʻuokalani. Nainoa describes at length the kinship ties cultivated in the diaspora, noting how certain women have “become mothers” among the community and all seem to “get along lovingly.” In addition to the perpetuation of specifically Kanaka Maoli cultural and kinship practices, Nainoa also notes some of the ways this community diverges from more established behaviors, pointing out that many of these island-born Hawaiians will resist the call to return home and will “leave their bones in this foreign land.” Beyond remarking on the novel material conditions and attitudes encountered in this diasporic community, Nainoa’s account also suggests the ways their dynamism affirms broader kinship and nationalistic ties. Although the letter appears to be an account of the bonds among Hawaiians living in a foreign land, I read Nainoa’s descriptions of the kinship connections among those diasporic Kanaka Maoli and their counterparts in Hawaiʻi as an anticipation of the coming century’s engagement with lāhui inclusion and indigenous identity in the diaspora.

A century after Nainoa’s letter, the U.S. is home to more diasporic Hawaiians than any other nation. This paper reads Nainoa’s account as an indigenization of the literary tradition of the travel narrative, and argues that his affirmation of diasporic bodies as an extension of the Hawaiian lāhui (people, nation) opens up conversations of identity and belonging in our contemporary moment. By reading with and against the conventions of the American travel narrative, this paper poses an intervention in a literary genre that has traditionally seen the protagonist’s movement in foreign lands as an erasure of indigenous sovereignty. Putting pressure on the descriptions of kinship and sovereignty in this literary context, this paper aims to show how the discourse of Hawaiian cultural and political sovereignty at the turn of the twentieth century anticipates and affirms the inclusion of a huge portion of the contemporary lāhui.