115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Meanings and Possibilities: Exploring Kuleana and Settler-Indigenous Relations through the Plays of Alani Apio and John Dominis Holt’s Waimea Summer 

Matthew Ito, "University of Hawaii, Manoa"

This paper analyzes indigenous understandings of kuleana in the plays of Alani Apio and John Dominis Holt’s Waimea Summer, and how settler colonialism complicates kuleana in both works. The paper then suggests how settlers can work alongside indigenous communities to restore and perpetuate kuleana while discovering their own. 


One of the most recognizable definitions of “kuleana” in Mary Kawena Pukui and Sam Elbert’s Hawaiian Dictionary is the term “responsibility.” This paper aims to establish an indigenous understanding of “kuleana” as responsibility via the literature of Alani Apio and John Dominis Holt and then extend this understanding in thinking about ways in which settlers can discover and enact their own kuleana. Apio’s Kamau and Kamau A’e not only provide strong definitions of what an indigenous sense of kuleana entails, but demonstrate how these understandings of kuleana have been complicated by settler colonialism—threatening the cultural practices, ideologies, and livelihoods of Alika, Michael, and their family. In Kamau, Alika struggles to enact his kuleana to his family because of his low-paying job and his employer’s plans to develop the land surrounding his family’s home. Michael on the other hand does his best to preserve his Hawaiian culture via acts of protest and is eventually incarcerated for his efforts at the end of Apio’s follow up play, Kamau A’e. Similarly, in Holt’s Waimea Summer, Markie wrestles with the tension of embracing and preserving his Hawaiian heritage in spite of his mixed race identity. Here, Markie struggles with realizing his kuleana as he attempts to reconcile his Hawaiian genealogy with his haole-ness and the settler practices he has grown up with. Thus, one does not have to look far to see the complications of living out a kuleana in the ongoing displacement and removal Kanaka Maoli face within the settler state. In light of these complications, it is only right that settlers, too, work toward reversing the injustice of their legacies and supporting Native Hawaiian voices vying for their rightful inheritance in their homeland.

The second half of this paper is therefore concerned with ways settlers can enact a kuleana drawn from Hawaiian definitions of the term. Understanding kuleana in its indigenous context is crucial not only for Kanaka Maoli to preserve and perpetuate their culture, but for settlers to navigate their relationship to Native Hawaiian culture and build alliances with Native Hawaiian communities. Drawing on Noelani Goodyear Kaopua, Manulani Meyer, and others as a critical framework, I demonstrate how these alliances embody possibilities for unity between settler and indigenous communities to support indigenous interests within the settler state. Through pursuing and participating in indigenous education, settlers are encouraged to uncover their own ways of relating to an indigenous sense of kuleana and begin the process of decolonizing themselves. My paper concludes with reflections on my own experience in attempting to enact a settler kuleana to share what I have learned and suggest ways forward from my discoveries. Ultimately, settlers must be acutely aware of their relationship to kuleana and how it differs from Native Hawaiians. However, these differences should not discredit or discourage settlers from working toward restoring indigenous understandings of kuleana and disrupting the legacy of settler colonialism in Hawaii.