A Hawaiian Activist’s Fight

Against the Current, No. 38, May/June 1992

Nancy Holmstrom interviews Haunani-Kay Trask

LIKE INDIGENOUS PEOPLE the world over, Hawaiians have come together in a struggle to reclaim their language, their culture and their land which were forcibly taken from them. In 1893, US. marines overthrew the Native Hawaiian government. By then, the Hawaiian population was only 5% what it had been in 1778 when Captain Cook came to the islands, bringing syphilis, gonorrhea and tuberculosis with him. Five years later Hawai’i was annexed to the United States against the wishes of the Native people.

Haunani-Kay Trask, Director of the Center for Hawaiian Studies at the University of Hawaii at Manca, is a Native Hawaiian and a leader in the Hawaiian struggle. In 1990-91 she was the center of a controversy on campus that drew national attention and seriously threatened her job. Her case raises important issues regarding racism (and sexism) at the university and academic freedom. ATC editorial board member Nancy Holmstrom interviewed her.

ATC: As a background to the controversy, could you please tell us something about the numbers of Hawaiians at the University in all categories, as students, faculty and staff?

Trasic: Less than 5% of students and less than 2% of faculty are Hawaiian; there are thirteen Hawaiian faculty out of 2000. UH gives figures of how many minorities overall there are on the faculty, but they include Chinese and Japanese men as minorities and don’t like to reveal how few Hawaiians there are.

In fact, 70% of fuiltime faculty are white men. On the other hand, lots of facilities—groundskeepers and security —people are Hawaiian.

ATC: Could you briefly describe what precipitated the controversy?

Trask: A philosophy student named Joey Carter wrote a letter to the student newspaper MDULKa LeoMDNM complaining that although everyone hears about racism against Blacks, Asians and Hawaiians, it should also be recognized that there is racism against haole (whites) in Hawai’i—which he himself has experienced. He particularly complained about the use of the word “haole,” which he claimed was a racist term.

I wrote a letter to MDULKa LeoMDNM in which I informed him that the word “haole” was simply the Hawaiian word for whites. I explained the awful history of haole treatment of Hawaiians in which haoles were responsible for the genocidal decline of our population and the dispossession of our lands and self-government.

Given the history of white dominance in Hawai’i, indeed in the United States, Mr. Carter was a privileged member of a racist society. If he didn’t like our language, culture or ways of life, he should leave Hawai’i, since, I argued, Hawaiians would certainly benefit from one less haole in Hawai’i. This provoked a lot of letters—many very angry—on both sides. Carter soon left Hawaii to go back to Louisiana for financial reasons unconnected with the controversy.

(On the word “haole” . . .it’s an ancient Hawaiian word meaning “foreigner,” today it means “white foreigner.” They said the conflict turned on my intimidating a haole student, whereas it’s really because they don’t like the word “haole.”)

Soon afterwards the Philosophy Department released an indignant public statement demanding that I be reprimanded for writing the letter. The chairman of the department, Larry Laudan, also wrote a cover letter demanding that I be removed from my position because my letter was intimidating and inappropriate for an administrator. They claimed that my statement to Carter was as unacceptable as a white person suggesting to a Black person that he could return to Africa if he didn’t like his treatment (Laudan, incidentally, had stuck his neck out in public previously by describing certain forms of sexual harassment as “relatively innocuous.”)

ATC: And then what happened?

Trask: The president of the university, Albert Simone, agreed with the Philosophy Department that my letter had created a “climate of intimidation” on campus. Three McCarthy-like investigations of my statements (what was there to investigate?) were conducted: by the Dean of Students, an Acting Vice-President, and another by the Faculty Senate. These went on for some time, but the ridiculous nature of the controversy started to become clear, even to some in the administration who simply wanted to be rid of the whole episode.

Meanwhile, the local press had a field day with anti-Hawaiian coverage. They vilified me as a racist. What I had done was to challenge the myth of Hawaii as a rainbow, a place of racial and ethnic harmony. None of the news coverage analyzed the attempt to remove me as itself a racist act against a woman of color.

Many people, however, did understand this, and letters of support started coming in, from as far away as the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York to the Pacific Concerns Resource Center in New Zealand. Local community and campus support was organized as well. And one by one, the investigations came to naught.

ATC: What was the attitude of most students and faculty towards your case?

Trask: It’s hard to tell. The faculty senate didn’t act on the request to fire me, but they did debate it seriously for a long time The student paper asked students whether they thought I was a racist (why didn’t they ask whether Laudan was a racist?) Many students said I was, but I had a right to say it anyway.

But what did the reporters say I said? They often say I hate haoles, but I never said that. What I have said is that this awful oppression was done to my people—and continues to be done—and I have a right to hate that, and if you don’t like to hear it, you can leave. Haoles are so defensive because they always get to choose the names for other people.

Of course, the Hawaiian students came to my defense. The student group, the Hawaiian Liberation Student Union, organized rallies, picket lines, etc. And other groups on campus also came to my support. The Faculty Women’s Caucus and the Women’s Studies Program supported me as a woman of color victimized by a racist and sexist administration. And the faculty union supported my statements as politically protected speech.

For the most part, however, the struggle seemed to pit white men against women and people of color.

ATC: I take it that your political work over the last several years had something to do with the Administration’s zeal to pursue the case against you. Could you describe some of the struggles you have been involved in and the positions you have taken?

Trask: Like other indigenous people, I and other Hawaiians have been in constant conflict with the dominant power structure—especially since the United States’ overthrow of the Hawaiian government in 1893. The conflict here is intensified by the small size of the island and also by the dominance of tourists and the military on the island. (25-30% of Oahu is controlled by the military; one-fifth of the population is military.)

Any protest over land use, especially to the military or the tourist industry, is considered treasonous. There’s still a complete colonial setup on these islands. The overwhelming dominance of the colonial powers produces a more extreme reaction to any challenge.

The major struggle is for sovereignty. I have participated in the United Nation’s Working Group on Indigenous Populations, preparing conventions for 1993, which will be the U.N.’s Year of Indigenous Peoples. We want what the American Indian tribes have. We claim half of Hawai’i as our land base. We want definable territorial boundaries, a means of self-government. We have a constitution.

This struggle has been going on for years, though our organization, MDULKa Lahui Hawai’i MDNM, was only founded in 1987. Specifically, we’ve been involved in fights to prevent development: condos, freeways, highways, golf courses, etc. We’ve also criticized the University of Hawaii for supplying technical expertise for that development.

Two years ago, the School of Travel Industry Management demanded that the administration fire me for those criticisms, specifically when I criticized a professor of tourism who claimed tourism was good for Hawaiian culture. Can you imagine a university having such a school? They even had a chair of free enterprise! That was a little too blatant, so they renamed it the Walker Chair, but Walker was the CEO of one of the major land grabbing companies.

I’ve been involved in many struggles attacking the financial and military interests that control these islands. We’ve also called attention to racism in Hawai’i. No one ever talks about racism against Hawaiians—only against the Japanese, or occasional visiting Blacks. Racism is seen as an import from the U.S. continent.

No one thinks it’s racist to say the Hawaiian language should be banned, as they did ban it from schools, official functions, etc. in 1894. Before that it had been the official language of Hawai’i. Imagine if the French in Tahiti told the people there they couldn’t speak their native language. Now finally there are four public Hawaiian immersion schools on the islands, so we will be able to prevent the language from becoming extinct—which it almost was.

ATC: The administration’s overzealous response in your case certainly contrasts with their response in cases where sexual harassment has been charged. Could you tell us a little about how that issue has come up at UH?

Trask: The sexual harassment issue came up because students made it come up. Women have been harassed, they’ve made complaints and they’ve persisted despite resistance from administrators. The whole sexual harassment problem has been around for so long that the president [of the University of Hawaii—Albert Simone] has finally had to say he is opposed to it, whereas at the beginning he denied it was a problem. He just saw it as an inevitable matter of human attraction—rather than what it really is, an issue of power.

But he still hasn’t done anything about the problem of sexual harassment after four committees in four years have made strong policy recommendations. Each time the president dismissed the committee and created another. And the administration has refused to allow the student newspaper MDULKa Leo MDNM to release the names of known sexual harassers. Also, though he has said he has an affirmative action plan, this too remains mere talk.

Yet this man has the nerve to charge that my letter created an unacceptable atmosphere of intimidation on campus!

ATC: Do you think that the norm of academic freedom and free speech to which universities are allegedly committed has protected you, in this instance and in general?

Trask: No. In fact, free speech and academic freedom only exist in practice to the extent you don’t have to struggle for them. An individual shouldn’t have to argue that I have a right to say this. The president should have stood up for me and said she has a right to express her political opinions, and that would have ended the matter. He didn’t.

We need to be aware that this is a colonial situation here in Hawai’i. When rules and principles are applied in a colonial situation, they don’t work in the same way they do elsewhere. The speech anti-colonialists would practice is considered beyond the bounds of protection.

Here the forces of repression are closer to the skin. That space—called “academic freedom” or “free speech”—that one could argue exists on most university campuses doesn’t exist here. Our protests, sit-ins, etc. seem incendiary here, while they would be accepted in other places, or at least not call forth the same kind of reaction.

They especially care about what! say because I’m known principally as an activist. Some professors here think that politics is out of place in a university, and that’s why they can’t stand me. But that’s ridiculous; the university is completely political. President Simone is a member of the governor’s cabinet; we’ve been told we can’t say things against the Democratic Party at a conference or against the Commander in Chief of the Pacific at a commencement ceremony.

The policy is clearly biased; a botany professor has come out in support of geothermal energy, which as you know is a big struggle here, and he doesn’t get reprimanded. When confronted with this inconsistency, the president says straight out that that’s okay, because he supports geothermal energy development.

ATC: Your case certainly shows the limitations and the hypocrisy Involved in claims that free speech and academic freedom hold on American campuses. On the other hand, however, isn’t it also true that it’s because the university at least pays lip service to these norms that it was possible to defend you in those terms? In most workplaces, there’s no pretense that workers have any such rights– even to the limited extent we do in academia.

Trask: That’s an interesting question. I’ve had many discussions about this. I think that the reason I survived is that certain political people (in the legislature and in the community) who are funders of the university, made it dear to the president that they wanted the administration to lay off me—not because they supported me, but because they thought the attack was tactically mistaken.

It’s hard to measure how much effect that had, but my family has a certain weight in the state, we’ve been here a long time, we’re not going away and our native sovereignty movement has some strength. Also, I held a big rally when they attacked me, made even more fuss rather than backed off, made it more public. The faculty certainly took the issue of free speech seriously, but I don’t know that it was the critical point in my case.

When I argued my right to say what I did, I always put it in terms of the colonial situation, defending myself as an indigenous person, not in terms of the U.S. Constitution. The way I see academic freedom is that it provides some protection and some procedure, something to contend about, something to hang an argument on—but very limited.

In fact, the union debated for some time over whether what I said was protected because it was said outside the classroom. Eventually they decided that it was protected because it was on campus, but that it was even a serious question shows how limited the notion is. And the McCarthy period shows how quickly civil rights go by the board when the prevailing ideology is threatened. So you can’t expect academic freedom to protect people or speech in colonial situations. The only thing that protects you is having some power.

What I care about is whether I can, as the Quakers say, speak truth to power. Part of this truth is simply that our birthright, including our language, lands and nationhood, was stolen by the United States of America for the dear benefit of haole Americans. Those who disagree with this should have the integrity to argue their position in public forums rather than call for our banishment from the halls of academe. And frankly, it’s irrelevant to me whether or not my speech is allegedly protected by the U.S. Constitution.

ATC: What do you think are the best strategies for fighting racism on campuses? Do you think that different racial/ethnic groups can struggle together against the problem? or in coalition? or do they each have to go it alone?

Trask: The main thing is that racism has to be fought. You can’t assume that whatever constitutions or rules are in place will protect you—and don’t assume the university is more liberal, more safe, etc. The same forces, the government, multinational corporations, and racist, sexist ideology hold sway.

But beyond that, the strategies, the coalitions and so on depend on where you are. In our case, people came to us and offered their help. Two student groups, entirely non-Native, offered help as did some faculty groups. But we didn’t look for alliances, coalitions. That will always happen for people who are sufficiently clear about their message. If you take lessons from Gandhi, King, etc., people eventually come to support you because what you say is true.

Some of my support came from groups and certain individuals I didn’t know—a Japanese woman who wrote saying I’m not Hawaiian and I don’t know if everything Trask says is true, but I want to hear more from her. I heard from a Chicano in California, a Black person; Indians from different parts of the U.S. responded. When you are fighting racism, you are saying what many others want to say too … and you just have to keep saying it, over and over again.

May-June 1992, ATC 38