Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Problems of History

Senator Daniel Akaka, as the first and only Native Hawaiian to serve in the US Senate is a key icon in the pantheon of Native Hawaiian politics. He is currently retiring and not running for re-election. Neither of those running to replace him are Native Hawaiian and so in some ways it is a sad day for those who take seriously those types of issues of representation and inclusion.

He is a regular speaker at the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement conference that I have been attending this week. He came on the last day to give his final speech to those assembled, as a sitting Senator. It was a very solemn moment when he arrived and when he spoke. He was treated like an elder celebrity statesmen, as people rushed to take pictures of him as he walked to the stage and record him as he spoke. He received a line of well-wishers and gift givers, some of which had the chance to speak briefly and told tales of how the Senator had made an incredible impact in their lives. People spoke about land issues, expansion of health services, educational opportunities and scholarships. All things that Akaka, had helped push for Native Hawaiians and had dramatically affected the quality of their lives.

It was a beautiful moment in so many ways. As we have an election season now where the memories of most are dedicated to negative things about candidates and illustrating the pointlessness and uselessness of politicians, it was heartwarming to see so many people express how someone in power had helped them. How someone had used the power of the United States government, something that had taken so much from Native Hawaiians, and used it to help them.

He gave a speech that was very interesting, and an ideal one given his position. It talked about the complicated relationship that Native Hawaiians have to the United States. Unique is one of the most euphemistic ways of referencing it. Tragic is a more apt one. Unresolved is the way that few want to admit to.

Akaka was a key force in getting the Apology Resolution out of the United States Government. In it the Federal Government admitted participating in the overthrow of the Native Hawaiian government and sincerely apologized for it. Like most apologies this one wasn’t very genuine and so when Native Hawaiians have tried to use this apology as evidence in furthering their claims for sovereignty, they usually get shut down. The most clear rejection of any value to this apology came in 2009 when the US Supreme Court argued that you couldn’t base any claims from the apology since it wasn’t meant to be binding, it was just meant to make people feel better.

In his speech, Akaka didn’t whitewash history the way so many do nowadays. He didn’t pretend that the 1893 Overthrow was somehow justified. He didn’t pretend that the Native Hawaiian people were in support of it. He didn’t argue either that the United States has acted like a benevolent ruler over the Hawaiian people, watching over them. Although the crowd at the Council of the Native Hawaiian Advancement isn’t the most radical, they are not the delusion either. They know the truth, they know the history, although they may not agree on what that history means today, no one there can deny that Hawai’i was illegally seized by the United States.

But history is never something that exists in and of itself. People assume that it can take on a sort of objectivity, when it cannot ever. History doesn’t exist to be written, but rather to be read and to be interpreted. Even if someone could achieve the ultimate clarity in terms of piecing together a narrative that bears no possible stain of bias, inaccuracy or ideology, what happens when it is read by people? It will get all of those things anyways as people make connections to other moments in the past, the present, make arguments about how something does or does not relate to the future. That is why history is not truth itself, but always the start of a debate over truth.

So while Akaka can clear lay out a list of injustices, this articulation does not lead him to be “anti-American” or even “anti-colonial.” This is something that people constantly miss because they don’t understand how ideology generally works. For example, if you flip a coin 100 times and the first 99 times it is heads, does this affect somehow affect what the final 100th flip will be? No, it doesn’t. Ideology can work in the same frustrating and mysterious way. Keith Lujan Camacho, a Chamorro scholar who teaches at UCLA, spent a year teaching at UOG in history. In his Guam History class he gave students a very real and upfront history of the Marianas Islands. He spared no punches, gave it all to them straight and any other clichés you can think of. In other words he didn’t mince words about colonization or American imperialism. Camacho assumed that at the end of the semester, with all the discussion of Chamorro resilience and resistance, his students might have their horizons widened a bit and decided to poll them on what political status they would prefer for Guam’s future, Statehood, Free Association and Independence. Given that the history of Guam he taught was from a critical perspective and was very harsh on Americanization and American colonization you might assume that more students would have given Independence a chance.

Ahe’, ti magahet enao. The overwhelming students voted for Statehood, as they do in almost any class regardless of how the history is taught. That is most people’s default position on political status, especially if they know very little about it.

The problem is that the history alone doesn’t create any direct and overt form of consciousness. Not everyone responds to history in the same way and not everyone arranges its pieces to come to the same conclusion. Although for someone like me if you were to give me a history of Guam that is critical of its colonizers and how they have treated the Chamorro people and their lands, the conclusion I would draw is that we should seek another path, a different future. For me, the colonial ways in which Guam has been treated historically and in a contemporary context, make me feel as if Guam taking care of itself and working to better itself free from colonial entanglements is the best choice. But someone can look at that same history and come to the conclusion that this history is beautiful since nothing is like that anymore. Sure the US may have treated Chamorros in terrible ways before, but it doesn’t do that anymore. The history, far from being something that you use you positively articulate a critique, it becomes something you banish to the past and then use to argue the supremacy of the present, since it no longer bears the stains and claw marks of that past.

Another way that a tragic and controversial history can become pacified is how they become rite-of-passage-like-scars. How these trials and tribulations were what gave you access to the colonizer’s world and what allowed you to progress in the first place. Often times this is expressed locally as a way of justifying the brutal ways that Chamorros were forced into Catholicism. It is also expressed in terms of the land loss after World War II or the suffering at the hands of the Japanese gi Tiempon Chapones. That suffering is what gave the Chamorros the right to try to be Americans, to insist that they deserve recognitions from Americans or as Americans. Injustices and wrongs committed in the past become excused as the price for being allowed to experience the “best possible world” that is the present.

You could say it is the same dynamic that a love story must go through. Two people destined to be with each other can’t just be with each other. There has to be various levels of drama and miscommunication. There has to be conflict and things must come between them, so that at the very end there love can mean so much more. This also works with history. A tortured history doesn’t mean that you will hate and loathe the torturer. It could instead make you feel even more loyal since your relationship is like a power ballad bi Chicago from the 1980’s. You’ve been through so much together and so many things went wrong and you both got lost along the way, but not that you’ve finally found each other, everything is all right. I have a tune to how this song goes in my head and every once in a while a line ends with “the glory of love.”

So even if you know the tragic and racist colonial history of Guam it isn’t necessarily going to make you think that Guam is better off without the United States or better off without colonialism. In the same way in which people know terrible things that their governments, countries and families do, but still accept them and still wouldn’t want to be without them.

For Akaka in his final speech to the Council on Native Hawaiian Advancement, he played this game very well. He invoked the history of abuses in order to make sure the audience understood that he a serious speaker and person. He is not someone who runs from history or hides it. He knows that the United States and Hawai’i have a shady and immoral history. Their kingdom was stolen from them. They lost their sovereignty.

Akaka takes that history and redirects it towards the present. He argues that while Native Hawaiians may have lost political sovereignty, they used the new framework of power that their relationship to the United States provided to protect themselves and also assert their rights. Note that from where Akaka begins and ends, he is not arguing for an assimilationist teleology for Native Hawaiians. He is not arguing that things may have been bad in the beginning, but all that is fine now and so let’s just be Americans and forget about it! He is instead arguing for a internal colonial teleology. He is arguing that Native Hawaiians don’t give up who they are, but that they use those tools that their ancestors have been doing for more than a century, to try and find a place within this American system from which they can preserve and protect their culture. Akaka’s solution to this problem is “The Akaka Bill,” which would seek Federal Recognition for Native Hawaiians, so that they would join the pantheon of Native American tribes.

This is a similar argument to what supporters of a local Chamorro tribe make. They argue that there is no point in seeking anything outside of the United States, and propose that instead Chamorros seek the best possible place within the United States. That doesn’t mean giving up who they are, but it means using the tools the United States offers to try to protect you. The tools are sad and aren’t worth much, but for most people when faced with the daunting task of seeking independence or something outside of the US, the tools look so much more inviting. It seems like an ideal compromise for those who don’t want to push back against their complicated histories. They don’t want to challenge too much the structures of power that give them identities and feed into their feelings of dependency. So compromises such as The Chamorro Tribe or the Akaka Bill represent those who want to hold onto their uniqueness, hold onto to that complicated history that has created them, but at the same time find a safe and secure and special place within the American family.

Hu sen chatkonfotme este na hinasso, lao komprendeyon nu Guahu.

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