By Nikki Emma
I first learned the concepts of “coming to terms” and “forwarding” in high school as we used this general idea to craft our document-based questions in history class. As defined by author Joe Harris in Rewriting, coming to terms is a move where a writer works to understand and engage with a piece. Following this, they can then “forward” this piece and “begin to shift the focus of your readers away from what its author has to say and toward your own project”(Harris, p.38). Even with the knowledge of how to use this academic mode from high school, there was always lingering confusion when I wrote. I chose this piece because I feel it is the first time where I truly began to understand these rhetorical moves. This piece, I believe, was a turning point in my work as these writing strategies have since become second nature, things I incorporate into all of my academic writing. When reflecting on my scholarly writing, from high school and from my first year, this piece is where I feel everything I have learned truly came together for the first time.
Before my tenth birthday, my mother offered me the opportunity to travel to Hawaiʻi to celebrate. One of her clients, living at a beachside mansion in Maui, requested she fly out to the island to conduct business and she convinced her company to send our entire family. Driving to the hotel my brother and I were in awe of the beautiful mansions at the top of the mountains and the massive resorts, begging our parents to move to one of these mansions. When we visited her client’s home, I wandered around taking in views of the ocean and exploring the numerous pools as my mother talked about banking in one of the seemingly endless number of rooms within the house. As a fifth-grader, this memory of the house and my experience as a tourist led me to believe that everyone lived in massive mansions, however, as I have grown up, I discovered this is a complete juxtaposition to the reality of the state.
In 1990, at the Modern Language Association Literary Conference, Mary Louise Pratt delivered a Keynote speech where she introduced the academic world to the concept of a contact zone. She described the contact zone as, “social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power, such as colonialism, slavery, or their aftermaths as they are lived out in many parts of the world today” (Pratt 23). The contact zone, which Pratt ultimately applies to a classroom setting, impacts the way colonized areas can be perceived, particularly concerning power dynamics. Pratt addresses that in these spaces, the marginalization of one group, typically the native people, is a common occurrence. She expands on this by referencing the Andean people in relation to the colonization efforts of Spain, introducing a historical artifact to further develop the concept of a contact zone. She discusses a twelve-hundred-page letter criticizing the Spanish Government crafted by Guaman Poma, an Indigenous Andean living in a contact zone under Spanish colonial rule. This letter, lost in history, was sent in 1613 but not officially discovered until 1908 (Pratt 22). Even after being discovered, the letter, which Pratt describes as a magnificent feat as the Andean people did not use a written language, went largely ignored by historians until the 1970s. The loss of this letter in history and the lack of effort by historians to decode its meaning after its discovery parallels the silencing of marginalized voices in contact zones. Poma’s voice was silenced just as Indigenous voices have been, and continue to be, stifled in these culturally-diverse areas. This letter serves as a representation of the “asymmetrical relations of power,” that Pratt describes as existing within a contact zone. In her speech, Pratt specifically addresses the notion of a contact zone concerning colonialism during the 17th century. Contact zones in contemporary society also face these challenging power dynamics that Pratt described within her address.
Despite the decolonization of the world in the 1950s, previously colonized spaces still exist as contact zones in modern times. Spaces where an Indigenous population co-exists alongside another racial group are particularly affected by these uneven power dynamics that are present within contact zones. Hawaiʻi, an area that has a mixed population of Native Hawaiians, Japanese, Filipinos, Chinese, and mainland Americans, is significantly impacted by its status as a contact zone. This area is particularly unique, however, because the large number of tourists who visit yearly diversify the mixed population of the islands even further. The U.S. Department of State affirms that Hawaii’s inception into the United States was sparked by the U.S. Government’s fear of colonialist expansion by European powers in the early 1800s. To combat colonization efforts from France and Great Britain, the United States introduced a friendship pact with Hawaiʻi in 1849. Over time the United States economy became increasingly linked with the Islands, particularly through farming. In 1893, Queen Liliuokalani, a sacred figure to the native people, attempted to strengthen her monarchy, increasingly aware of the United States’ colonialist ambitions (U.S. Department of State). White citizens in the area, backed by the United States Government and military, disposed of her monarchy. The area was left in an unstable state until it was annexed by the United States and made a territory in 1900. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, increasing numbers of white settlers moved into the territory, further cementing it as a contact zone. With the establishment of Hawaiʻi as a contact zone, the unfair balance of power between Indigenous people and white settlers became increasingly more divisive. The area was eventually established as the state of “Hawaii” in 1959 (U.S. Department of State). The removal of the okina, a native symbol, from the word made it clear that the United States Government and the people of the mainland had no respect for the culture and values of natives. Following the proclamation of the area as a U.S. state and the subsequent development of the highly profitable and extremely popular tourism industry, the marginalization of Native Hawaiians has only increased.
In contemporary times, the United States Government has one goal in mind for Hawaiʻi: economic growth. This goal has proved lucrative, with the tourism industry and its subsections of retail, transportation, and service being developed into a highly profitable economic endeavor over the second half of the 20th century. As the Hawaiian economy developed, the United States Government has continuously reinforced Pratt’s notion that contact zones will ultimately lead to the marginalization of one group. By placing the goals of white settlers above those of the Indigenous people, the government contributes to the asymmetrical power dynamics of the area. The most prominent example of the government’s disregard for the culture of the Hawaiian people is the construction of Interstate H-3. This project, designed to connect Kaneohe Bay Marine Corps Air Station and Pearl Harbor, was halted on numerous occasions because of ongoing lawsuits. Representatives for Native Hawaiians called for a halt to construction in 1985, as reported by The New York Times. In an article titled Plans for Hawaiian Highway Hit Snag Over Ancient Burial Ground, the paper cited that, “the land was used as a burial ground as far back as 1250 and as recently as 100 years ago. Hawaiians customarily buried their dead with weapons, agricultural tools and other artifacts.” Consequently, protestors demanded construction of the highway be stopped as its construction would be a complete disregard for sacred cultural practices. Despite temporary setbacks, the highway was completed in 1997, nearly forty years after it was first proposed (Allen). While this interstate was designed to serve a military purpose rather than a tourism purpose, the attitude of the United States Government towards Native Hawaiians during its construction echoes the country’s sentiments since 1959: profits over people.
In 2020, Hawaii was named to have the ninth highest low poverty rate, with many citizens required to work multiple jobs to afford the extremely high cost of living (Karger). Hawaiian hotels market themselves to mainlanders as lush, serene spaces, often charging exorbitant prices. Despite the lucrative nature of the Hawaiian economy for the government and tourism industry, Native Hawaiian service workers are severely underpaid. While the tourism industry across all of the islands churned out a profit of $48.6 million a day in 2019, the average salary of a hotel worker in Hawaiʻi is $47,000 (Hawaiʻi Tourism Authority). Hawaiʻi has the highest cost of living in the entire country and these wages are simply not liveable. The average cost of a home is $1,158,492, which is over twenty-four times the annual salary of a hospitality worker in the state (World Population Review). Maui in particular, an area where around a hundred thousand people live, hosts twenty times its population in tourism each year (Lafer). Consequently, the majority of Native Hawaiians living in Maui work in this sector, earning low, unlivable wages. Mobility into higher-paying jobs is almost impossible as nearly the entire economy is based on tourism, so Hawaiians are trapped in a vicious cycle of low wages with an ever-increasing cost of living. This struggle for Native Hawaiians to remain in the spaces where their ancestors have lived for thousands of years is further exacerbated by rich mainlanders slowly moving in contributing to the rising cost of living. This furthers the uneven balance of power in this contact zone as wealthy people are able to buy up land that once belonged to Native Hawaiian people. They are being forced out of their homes to accommodate celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey, Clint Eastwood, and Woody Harelson as they buy up million-dollar properties. The culture of Native Hawaiians, which is heavily tied to the land, continuously clashes with mainlanders who do not understand the necessity of the Native group to remain on the islands. With the looming threat of losing their homes, and by extension their culture, Native Hawaiians fought back against these low wages and rising costs of living in 2001 and 2002. This event was documented by Gordon Lafer in the academic journal, Dissent, which focuses on political and cultural criticism. Workers at the Royal Lahaina Resort, “faced off against head of the state’s largest travel company, Pleasant Hawaiʻian Holidays” (Lafer). At this resort in particular, staff were able to secure higher paying wages, on par with industry standards but the problem of low wages in Hawaiʻi persists. Strikes and demands for higher wages have continued but since the start of the 2000s, the influx of mainlanders to the islands has only increased.
With the worst of the pandemic in the past, thousands have taken to the internet to document their “big trip to Hawaii post-Covid.” The comment sections of these posts are usually filled with celebratory messages from other white people who plan to “head to the islands soon!” However, some comments, particularly from Native Hawaiian’s address the fact that visitors should respect the land. These comments are often met with hatred, people claiming that as a tourist they can “do whatever they want,” because they are paying to be on the islands. This online attitude is echoed by tourists across Hawaiʻi. When I traveled to Hawaii as a kid I heard stories from taxi drivers and hotel staff about some of the disrespectful behavior conducted by tourists and Hawaiian news sites are also filled with stories of this sort of behavior. In June, KHON-2 reported, “Hawaii tourists are recording themselves endangering native monk seals” (Tamashiro). Other stories such as white tourists setting up a barbeque on sacred beaches have floated around social media. When Native Hawaiians speak out against this, they are often silenced. The government favors protecting its industries over the culture and land. This issue is further exacerbated by the conflicting notions of the imagined community of the United States versus the imagined community of the Hawaiian islands.
The idea of an imagined community was introduced by Benedict Anderson in 1983 in his book, Imagined Communities. Anderson addresses the idea of the community that is perceived in a shared national identity by stating, “it is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion” (Anderson 22). In relation to the contact zone of Hawaiʻi, mainlanders believe they exist within a community with Hawaiʻi based on their shared American identity. However, Native Hawaiians feel they exist in a community with each other based on their shared cultural values and ancestry. Believing they are in a community with Hawaiian people, mainlanders feel they have a right to behave however they want when visiting the land. They refuse to acknowledge the vastly different customs and values of the area. Consequently, mainland tourists engage in the sort of disrespectful behavior that is reported throughout the islands. These conflicting ideas regarding community also contribute to the asymmetrical balance of power facing this contact zone. The United States Government also perceives Hawaiʻi as part of a national community, leading to the constant disregard for native wishes that go against those of mainland interests. This issue of contrasting views on community date all the way back to when the United States was connected to Hawaiʻi through a friendship pact. Settlers of this time felt their shared economic interests created a community between Hawaiʻi and the United States. The Hawaiian monarchy, however, felt otherwise. When Queen Liliuokalani attempted to strengthen her control over the area, American settlers felt the balance of power in their perceived community was disrupted. When the Queen was overthrown, the power dynamics of this contact zone shifted in favor of the American settlers.
These ever-present contrasting beliefs on community have made it impossible for Hawaiʻi to exist as a contact zone with shared power between the native people and mainland American settlers. In the 19th century, when the power dynamics shifted in favor of American settlers, the United States Government aided in suppressing the voices of Native Hawaiian’s living in the contact zone. In modern times, the United States Government follows this same attitude, disregarding the culture and community of the Native Hawaiian people in favor of the economic value of the tourism industry. The government has never taken a strong stance against the terrible wages and impossibly high cost of living, enabling the forced removal of Hawaiians from their homes. The United States also fosters the culture of disrespectful behavior that tourists engage in when visiting the islands by refusing to promote the education of the values of Hawaiian people. From the 18th century, when the area was first established as a contact zone to contemporary times, Native people have faced oppression as a result of the asymmetrical balance of power that exists within these spaces.
Allen, Kevin. “How the Interstate H-3 Came to Be.” Hawaii Magazine, 17 Sept. 2021, https://www.hawaiimagazine.com. Accessed 1 Dec. 2021.
Anderson, Benedict. “Introduction.” Imagined Communities, Verso Books, 2006, pp. 1–7.
“Annexation of Hawaii, 1898.” U.S. Department of State, https://2001-2009.state.gov. Accessed 1 Dec. 2021.
“Fact Sheet: Benefits of Hawaii’s Tourism Economy.” Hawaii Tourism Authority, https://www.hawaiitourismauthority.org. Accessed 1 Dec. 2021.
Karger, Howard. “Problems in Paradise: Low Wages and the Well-Being of Hawaiians.” Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Social Services, vol. 101, no. 3, 2020, pp. 340–352. Accessed 1 Dec. 2021.
Lafer, Gordon. “The Other Side of Paradise: Hawai’i’s Tourism Plantation.” Dissent, vol. 48, no. 3, 2001. Accessed 1 Dec. 2021.
Mitchell, Alexandra. “Top 10 Celebrities on Maui.” Pride of Maui Local Travel Blog, https://www.prideofmaui.com. Accessed 1 Dec. 2021.
“Most Expensive States To Live in 2021.” World Population Review, https://worldpopulationreview.com. Accessed 1 Dec. 2021.
“Plans for Hawaiian Highway Hit Snag over Ancient Burial …” The New York Times, 25 Nov. 1985, https://www.nytimes.com. Accessed 1 Dec. 2021.
Sadeque, Samira. “’It’s the Disrespect for Me’: Video Shows White Tourists Setting up Barbecue on ‘Sacred’ Hawaii Beach.” The Daily Dot, 10 Sept. 2021, https://www.dailydot.com. Accessed 1 Dec. 2021.
Tamashiro, Kristy. “’Disrespectful’: Hawaii Tourists Are Recording Themselves Endangering Native Monk Seals.” KRON4, 15 July 2021, https://www.kron4.com. Accessed 1 Dec. 2021.Wolff, Janice M., and Mary Louise Pratt. “Arts of the Contact Zone.” Professing in the Contact Zone: Bringing Theory and Practice Together, National Council of Teachers of English, 2002, pp. 20–37.