Hawaii and Hula: Destruction of Native Culture

Captain James Cook is known as the first to discover the archipelago of Hawai’i in 1778. This idea is contested by the fact that the native Hawai’ians had been there for a while before Cook “discovered” it. What Cook did do was become of the first of many that would come to Hawai’i in hopes of finding something to capitalize on. Word was already out that Hawaiian women were sexually more promiscuous than their American counterparts because of their cultural practices. This assumption drew individuals, tourists and sailors alike, to Hawaii.  Missionaries who had seem images and heard stories of bare chested women dancing in accordance with non-Christian religion beliefs were outraged. Their arrival in Hawaii was the beginning of a loss of culture and traditional religiosity. Missionaries erected schools for native Hawaiians in which they were not permitted to speak their own language, only English. These missionaries also shamed women who participated in hula into covering up and doing away with traditional garb.

An influx of prospective businessmen looking to benefit from Hawai’i’s lack of a set property system also aided in the American occupation and annexation of Hawaii, owing ultimately to a destruction of Hawai'ian culture. The landholding system, once run efficiently by Hawai’i’s multiple “ohana,” (a word meaning "family" or "neighobr" from the root word, “taro root” in the Hawai’ian language) was usurped by opportunists from other shores. Dole, the pineapple brand we still recognize today, boasts roots begun in Hawaiian soil. In fact, Sanford Dole, descendant of two missionaries to Hawaii, helped in the usurpation of Hawaii’s last queen, Queen Liliʻuokalani. Hawaii was ultimately brought into statehood by the US because of its ideal location as a military base, the desire of powerful businessmen and its abundant resources that titillated those who wished to monopolize Hawa’iian land.

The sexualization of women hula dancers was due in part to the US’s desire for Hawai’i to be accepted into American culture as true state. Hula is a multifaceted ceremony including war dances which appear more aggressive, dances dedicated to the nature of the island and also certain dances dedicated to sexuality. The later two were the ones incorporated to the published versions of hula for tourists with a special focus on the dances which were construed as more sexually provocative to the western audience. The common image the average American conjures up of a Hawai’ian woman wearing a coconut bra and a green grass skirt are completely incorrect and have no factual basis in Hawai'i (although these images might be true of other Polynesian locals).

Not infrequently, petitions were required in order for native Hawai’ians to practice hula. Hula was meant to be practiced only if it was for entertainment purposes. Practiced in its true form, hula was considered off putting to tourists; the religiosity associated with the ceremony was foreign and, worse still, non Christian. Certain plots of land where hula specific flora was customarily found were roped off in order to inhibit the practice. A spirited “Aloha,” hospitality was demanded from indigenous Hawai’ians who were treated as “defeated people in their own homeland.” How could Hawai’ans share their “aloha,” a word meaning more than just the hospitality of a simple hello, with invaders who had rejected their continued presence there?