Hokulani K. Aikau, A Chosen People, A Promised Land: Mormonism and Race in Hawai’i
Review by Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp
I wanted to read Hokulani Aikau's A Chosen People, A Promised Land: Mormonism and Race in Hawai'i (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012) the minute I saw it, in part because it represented such an intriguing departure from the extant literature on Mormons in the Pacific Basin. Some very good things have been written on this topic, but I can count the number of works written by indigenous scholars raised in the LDS Church on one hand; and, if we were to count the works written with a theoretical self-consciousness about religious studies as a discipline. . . well, this is it. The author was raised in Utah but comes from a Hawaiian background. She was brought up in the LDS Church, but has since left it. Most interestingly, she rejected the faith personally but was intrigued by its effects on people she knew who had been influenced by the special role ascribed to Polynesian peoples in Mormon history. Now, she was looking to understand that faith that compels so many Hawaiian Mormons to live within what she sees as contradictory understandings of nation, of place, and of sacred history.
The good news is that, while I have some quarrels with the author at a number of points, I came away feeling as though I had learned a great deal, and had been challenged to think about Mormonism—and specifically, Mormonism in a Pacific world context—in new ways. This is, to my mind, the biggest gift one can ask of scholarship.
Aikau’s questions are basic and profound. What does it mean to be Hawaiian and Mormon? How have people understood this identity and made peace with the potentially troubling elements of it? How was Mormonism in turn transformed in its translation to a new context? All of these are terrific starting points, especially the last: most other histories of Mormonism in the Pacific do not acknowledge that the tradition itself might have changed as a result of Anglo-Polynesian encounters. Taking this as her starting point, Aikau traces the history of Mormonism in Hawaii. Her goal is principally to mark the uses of religion as both a means of conjuring social order and a mode of coercion. Helpfully, she brings nationalism into the mix as an important variable: How do Hawaiian LDS relate to (American) nationalist discourses? How can the issues of universalism and ethnic or national particularity be reconciled? How does the Mormon legacy of conquest sit today with those members who are among the conquered?
The five main chapters of the book trace various elements of these questions. The first chapter traces a history of racial discourses in the LDS Church and looks at ideologies of lineage. The author draws here quite a bit from the excellent work of Armand Mauss and Newell Bringhurst on race and Mormonism, but also steers discussion toward the particular assertions about Polynesian peoples and their relationship to Mormon sacred history. In successive chapters, Aikau analyzes a number of relevant issues. She looks at La'ie as a Hawaiian gathering place that had a variety of meanings to Anglo Mormons and Native peoples; in this context, the Mormon notion of gathering meant something distinctive for indigenous peoples. Her reading of these varying interpretations of La'ie as a sacred place adds a richness to understandings of Mormon missionary involvement, and goes far in explaining tensions that developed between Anglo missionaries--bent on establishing a self-sustaining community and willing to employ economic means through sugar production to do so--and Native Hawaiians. The forces of evangelistic expansion, capitalism, and traditionalism meet in her narrative in useful ways; I appreciated her balance in explaining how Mormonism at times abetted, and at other moments hindered, the ability of Natives to conduct their lives as they desired.
The chapters that outline the Labor Missionary Program are especially incisive and important. This initiative enabled the LDS Church to build the Church College of Hawaii in 1956 and the Polynesian Cultural Center in 1963—both organizations that today serve as tremendously important evangelical and educational resources for the Church. Anglo missionaries had their own reasons for investing their labor in these projects (which were questioned by church leaders for perhaps not being enough of a “missionary calling”), and Native members likewise seized the opportunity provided as a means to immigrate to the U.S. Most importantly, again, Aikau is able to provide multiple perspectives, views rife with inequalities, racist and gendered assumptions, and unstated goals, on the development of a modernized Mormon presence. That modernization also had mixed results, dramatically changing the lives of local peoples yet providing them with entry points into U.S. society that otherwise would have been closed off.
The best aspect of these chapters is the access to perspectives that otherwise have not been voiced previously, e.g. the admixture of devotion and willingness to perform a scripted version of race provided at the Polynesian Cultural Center. The representations of Polynesia presented there by Native church members and consumed by hungry tourists abound with ironies and complexities. Aikau is never condescending toward the participants (either Anglo or Native), nor reductive about their experiences. Mormons sell images of happy natives to grateful tourists, and everyone gains. Culture as a commodity is contested and exchanged. The author does not avoid the inevitable losses embedded in these stories, but neither does she romanticize the past. Her perspective remains unrelentingly pragmatic, focused on how current Mormons of all stripes both gain and lose from the changes that modernization has wrought.
As mentioned previously, the author is also consistently attentive to scholarship in religious studies that can help her argument. She frames her discussion initially with the work of Thomas Tweed, and then transitions into doses of Max Weber inflected by Jürgen Habermas and a dash of Mary Louise Pratt. These discussions are all helpful, but ultimately, not nearly as stimulating or rich as the voices of her informants themselves, who speak loudly and clearly about the myriad influences in their lives. At the end, I was left wanting to know more about the lives of people who balance multiple allegiances to church, to a community, and to a place that for most of us represents simply a resort destination put to the service of American desires for paradise.
Editor’s note: Have you read this book? What do you think
about it? Join the conversation and leave your thoughts in the comments! If you
have a suggestion for a future book of the month, or if you would like to
review a book for the book of the month series, please contact us. Next month, Joshua Paddison reviews Glenna Matthews, The Golden State in the Civil War: Thomas Starr King, The Republican Party, and the Birth of Modern California (Cambridge University Press, 2012).