A matter of historical interpretation: Megan Ryley Suster, ‘We Don’t Mention the United States’: The Cultural Politics of Historical Interpretation Within the Settler State of Hawai’i at Puʻukoholā Heiau and ‘Iolani Palace, PhD dissertation, University of California Riverside, 2020


Abstract: Through analyses of two foundational sites of the Hawaiian Kingdom—Puʻukoholā Heiau and ‘Iolani Palace—this dissertation offers an alternative interpretation of how Hawaiian history has been deployed as both a settler colonial tourist strategy and a means to foster Hawaiian independence and indigeneity. This project investigates how, through specific acts of historical commemoration at each site, the colonial histories of Hawai’i have been (re)presented and revised through the collaboration (and sometimes, conflict) of community organizations and those acting as stewards of the site. These efforts have led to narratives more critically engaged with telling histories of Hawai’i that include the structural impact of settler colonialism and militourism.

Puʻukoholā Heiau is an eighteenth-century heiau (temple or shrine) built by Kamehameha the Great on the Kohala Coast of Hawai’i Island in a successful quest to unify all the islands under his rule in the 1810s. Though condemned by Christian missionaries arriving immediately after his death, generations of Native Hawaiians quietly preserved and protected the site. The National Park Service has been its steward since the 1960s. Built for similar reasons by a later sovereign, ‘Iolani Palace serves as the second case study. Constructed in the 1870s by King Kalākaua, the Palace stands in downtown Honolulu, Oahu, as a symbol of Hawaiian sovereignty. After being occupied for several decades by those who overthrew the Hawaiian Kingdom, the Palace was eventually vacated to become a museum and taken over by the Friends of ‘Iolani Palace, a non-profit organization working in tandem with the State of Hawai’i to preserve the structure and interpret its history.

Ultimately, this dissertation explores how the historical interpretations at these sites developed and how Native Hawaiian activists, community groups, and other indigenous advocates pushed contemporary stewards towards culturally decolonial micro-interventions that help complicate the settler imaginary that perceives and represents Hawai’i as both American and an American commodity. This dissertation seeks to resituate these sites as spaces of contestation and indigeneity operating within, and sometimes beyond, the limitations of their administering state agencies.

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