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Saturday, September 27, 2003

The Forbidden Island

In a previous post, I said that Niles and I had visited all the Hawaiian Islands. I also said that this was not strictly true.

We have not been to Kahoolawe. This is the smallest of the islands, and is uninhabitable (has no fresh water). For years it was used as a bombing range by the Navy. This has stopped (probably under pressure), and now the Navy is cleaning it up. It's supposed to be open to visitors by 2005, but the Navy is apparently way behind schedule on that.

While it's allegedly off-limits right now, we did see an ad for a weekend trip there, but it emphasized that this was for serious students (though not necessarily scholars) of Hawaiian culture.

The other island we've not visited is the last (major) island in the chain, the island of Niihau. Here's a fellow from Oregon, who had some very nice photos from his helicopter tour of Kauai, writing about Niihau:

Only Native Hawaiians are allowed to live on Niihau, the last real island of any size in the Hawaiian chain. Past Niihau, it is thousands of miles of empty ocean before you reach Japan. I read that Niihau is a place of pride for Native Hawaiians, where they live very close to their ancestral roots and in a self-chosen life-style that some would term "primitive."

While I was on Kauai, tourists like myself heard Niihau referred to as "The Forbidden Island." That's just corny, in my opinion. To my way of thinking, the preservation of Niihau by Native Hawaiians is motivated by a similar spiritual need and an abiding love of the Land...

Awwww...isn't that nice? However, it's not exactly the full truth. Niihau is owned---lock, stock, and beach---by the Robinson family. You travel to Niihau only at the pleasure of the Robinsons, and generally non-native Hawaiians (however that may be defined) are not allowed.

Here's a little write-up by a man calling himself "Uncle Charlie", in response to some questions from a college student who needed to write a diversity paper for his English class. Niihau is only a part of his answer.

Uncle Charlie puts forth his version of how the island was "stolen" by the ancestors of the Robinsons, when private property and money greed first came to Hawaii in the 1840s. He says that Niihau has the most pure-blooded Hawaiians of any island, and Hawaiian is spoken almost exclusively there. He also says that the Robinsons treat Niihau like a Southern plantation.

These two facts are not unrelated.

Here's Keith Robinson's version---not of the past, but of the present. He claims that the residents of Niihau are given free housing, mutton, pork, and transportation. He hires preferentially from among the indigenous population, and employs 2-3 times as many people as he needs.

Robinson also admits there are some behavioral restrictions on his "guests", and of course immigration and tourism are restricted.

(In the interest of accuracy, I'll point out that Niihau has a very limited tourism. Niihau Helicopters will fly you from Kauai to Niihau, where you set down on the beach somewhere far from the village. It's very expensive. There's also a much more expensive hunting package. This is all done with the consent of the Robinsons, of course.)

You can take that free mutton and pork with as much salt as you like, but it seems pretty clear that, if Niihau's residents are living a more traditional lifestyle, it's because the Robinsons are subsidizing it. Would there be much enthusiasm for living this lifestyle (as opposed to knowing about it), if it weren't for the free pork and housing? Or, to be blunt, if the Robinsons did not enforce it?

I'm guessing there wouldn't be.

And this is the problem. To lead an "authentic" indigenous lifestyle, even in blessed Hawaii, involves authentic starvation, authentic disease, authentic ignorance, and (at the very least) authentic motonony---unless you have someone like the Robinsons to subsidize it, and to minimize "contamination" with outside cultures.

This always seemed to escape those earnest souls who burbled on about the "authentic" Aboriginal lifestyle in Australia. They apparently (probably vaguely) imagined that Aborigines engaged in their authentic lifestyle could nevertheless live side by side in equality with the rest of Australian society---that along with the lawyers and plumbers there would be a profession of hunter-gatherers, which would pursue their mighty quarry along the Eastern Distributor, occasionally holding up traffic. Hunter-gathering would pay a living wage (Heaven forfend that they would be marginalized), and of course they'd have access to health care and their children would attend university, probably majoring in Paleolithic Studies.

Assuming this will not happen, though, the only alternative to either authentic starvation or cultural contamination is the kind of subsidized authenticity the Robinsons (supposedly) provide on Niihau. The number of such private benefactors is very small, though, and even the Robinsons doubt their ability to continue. They are talking about selling Niihau. (Note, though, that this article is from 1998. Keith Robinson's editorial, cited above, is from the previous year.)

Imagine that the Robinsons sold out, and the state bought Niihau as a sort of cultural refuge. Outsiders would be kept away, and Hawaiians wishing to pursue their indigenous culture would be welcomed. I wonder how many would flock to embrace a lifestyle without electricity, running water, or TV. Of course, a few will be happy to do that, but I don't think they'll be happy to starve or get sick. And at any rate many other people in society will not tolerate such poverty.

So they'll make arrangements similar to what the Robinsons are doing on Niihau, providing some very basic services, and otherwise leave the people to their own devices, while insulating them from outside contact. This differs from an Indian reservation, where outsiders are (generally) not forbidden. In short, you'll have a human wildlife preserve. (If you let outsiders in for controlled visits, you'll have a human zoo.)

Perhaps this is what the good ladies in this article are thinking (entire article can be found here.) Perhaps they aren't really thinking that they'll let those poor people starve. Someone (airy wave of the hand here) will make sure that they get enough to eat while they're whacking at the soil with their indigenous sticks. And we can lean back in air-conditioned comfort, secure in the knowledge that an indigenous "culture" is being preserved, even if the people are miserable.

See also this Den Beste post, especially the part about the humans being just another animal in the park.

I don't really have an opinion on the Robinsons' operation of Niihau; I just don't know enough about it. I do, however, have an opinion on those who would romanticize the "authentic" lifestyle while refusing to live it themselves, especially when it comes to restricting development so they can have a warm fuzzy feeling that cultural authenticity is preserved, even if it means the people live in authentic misery.