Book Review

Defiant Indigeneity: The Politics of Hawaiian Performance

Defiant Indigeneity: The Politics of Hawaiian Performance. Stephanie Nohelani Teves. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018; Pp. 220.

Given the ubiquity of “aloha” in Pacific tourism and marketing, Hollywood feature films, and Hawai’i state politics, what precisely does the concept offer for Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians) now? Stephanie Nohelani Teves’s Defiant Indigeneity: The Politics of Hawaiian Performance crucially intervenes into the discourses, practices, and performances of aloha that appropriate the concept from its Hawaiian cultural context to the detriment of Kanaka Maoli. Drawing from Native Pacific cultural studies, American Indian studies, performance studies, and queer and feminist theory, Teves’s multidisciplinary text examines the complex negotiation and resignification of aloha within a range of contemporary Hawaiian performances, from Hip Hop musician Krystilez and drag queen Coco Chandelier to ghost tours and online commenting forums.

The varied performances that Teves examines point to how Kanaka Maoli experience aloha as both a constraining, disciplinary force and a connection to Indigenous identity and community. Teves tracks these contradictions of aloha throughout chapter one, such as its actual codification into law through the 1986 Aloha Spirit Law. She ultimately argues that Hawaiian performance articulates aloha as a strategy to disarticulate it from its most commodified forms and to enact defiant indigeneity. According to Teves, defiant indigeneity is performance that challenges, deconstructs, and resists colonial settler state politics, while also affirming the ongoing defiance, existence, and survivance of Indigenous peoples. Akin to José Esteban Muñoz’s theory of disidentification, defiant indigeneity “pushes forward this possibility of something else that creates and reconfigures Kanaka Maoli life through performance” (84). As a theory and method, defiant indigeneity allows for a capacious understanding of Indigenous performance and performativity as world-making.

For Kanaka Maoli, Teves contends, aloha has become the essence of Hawaiian Indigeneity, circumscribing what is expected and valued by non-Natives. This normative version of aloha is at once Hawai’i’s welcoming gift to tourists and non-Natives and a strict regulatory measure of specific forms of Hawaiian cultural expression. In the next two chapters, Teves focuses on how Hawaiian performance refuses, subverts, and queers the prescriptive nature of aloha and its subsequent policing of authentic Indigeneity. In her close readings of work from Hawaiian Hip Hop artist Krystilez and drag performer Coco Chandelier, Teves draws from theories of performativity, such as Judith Butler’s gender performativity and E. Patrick Johnson’s racial performativity, to outline a specifically Indigenous performativity. She argues, “As the process by which indigenous bodies generate social meaning, Indigenous performativity centers Indigenous articulations of culture, outsider perceptions of such, and the constant interplay between them” (52). For example, in her readings of a photograph of Coco Chandelier at the 2006 Diva of Polynesia Pageant and the photo’s Facebook comments, Teves observes how the photograph operationalizes both a sense of Kanaka Maoli pride and a queered aloha “in drag.” In their refusal to submit to hypercommodified notions of Hawaiianness and aloha, both Krystilez and Coco Chandelier create new ways of performing Indigeneity through countercultural spaces that at once draw from Hawaiian cultural knowledge and critique notions of a pure, authentic Indigeneity.

Moving away from the fringe performance spaces of chapters two and three, Teves uses the fourth chapter to analyze the narrative and afterlife of Princess Ka’iulani through mainstream media productions, such as the 2009 film Princess Kaiulani and the 2015 revival of the 1987 play Ka’iulani written by Dennis Caroll, Victoria Nalani Kneubuhl, Robert Nelson, and Ryan Page. Focusing on the 1898 illegal overthrow and annexation of the Hawaiian Kingdom and the legacy of heir to the throne Princess Ka’iulani, these texts underscore the power of cultural memory. Cultural memory provides the opportunity for Kanaka Maoli to mourn history and loss, restage resistance to the ongoing occupation of Hawai’i, and connect to their ancestors and to the kingdom. To this end, cultural memory provides Kanaka Maoli with a linkage to Hawaiian nationhood, past, present, and future.

A primary concern of Defiant Indigeneity is how Kanaka Maoli at times wield authenticity as a weapon to disconnect and exclude in their debates around Hawaiian nationhood. For example, in chapter five, Teves argues against the “inauthentic” moniker often applied to those in the diaspora, those who are queer, and those who simply know the experience of un-belonging. Through a close reading of Kristiana Kahakauwila’s short story, “The Old Paniolo Way,” Teves illustrates how connections to Indigeneity can and should look different, take alternative paths, and occur in unexpected places. Teves expands upon the connections made possible through cultural memory in the previous chapter, and she concretizes them through present relations between Kanaka Maoli in order to advance alternate forms of Hawaiian belonging and membership that can hold the various contradictions and complexities of Indigeneity. In her conclusion, Teves examines the 2014 U.S. Department of Interior public meetings in Hawai’i. While the meetings were intended as a forum to discuss Hawaiian governance and nation-building, Teves remarks on the ways the meetings exacerbated the contentious divide between pro-federal recognition Kanaka Maoli and pro-independence nationalist Kanaka Maoli. Thus, Teves contends that what Hawaiian performance offers to these debates is not only a warning of how aloha can silence, erase, and marginalize, but more importantly, an understanding of how Kanaka Maoli can re-center and reaffirm aloha as a relationship with and between each other and the land. Calling for an expansive understanding of belonging, community, and nationhood, Teves writes, “Our belonging as a people cannot be contained within a document, and our sovereignty and nationhood are about relationships with each other, the plant and animal worlds, and the land and water that surround us” (165).

For the past two decades, Indigenous Studies scholars, such as Mishuana Goeman and Vilsoni Hereniko, have highlighted the importance of performance for thinking through Indigenous identity, nationhood, and sovereignty. Defiant Indigeneity effectively supplements that genealogy while also breaking ground as one of the first texts to engage in a theoretical dialogue between Native Studies and performance studies. As such, Defiant Indigeneity is itself performative—a bold enactment of defiant indigeneity. Teves’s dynamic voice, nuanced readings, and careful attention to her community highlight a deep commitment to the world-making potentiality of insurgent aloha. After all, as Teves argues, “We [Kanaka Maoli] need aloha—not the wasteful forms of aloha spread through tourism, but the kind of aloha that is sustainable and has actually allowed us to survive” (21). Defiant Indigeneity is a critical addition to Native Studies and performance studies, and a powerful testament to Kanaka Maoli survivance.

Angela L. Robinson
University of California, Los Angeles

The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 31, Number 3 (Spring 2019)

ISNN 2376-4236
©2019 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

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