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Aloha to Beginnings: Writing ‘Legacies of a Hawaiian Generation’

A talk-story, or mo`olelo, is an informal and traditionally Hawaiian way of sharing stories to preserve them for posterity. In The Legacies of a Hawaiian Generation, to be published this month, author Judith Schachter pairs these informal conversations with fieldwork observations to give readers a view into the island culture post-U.S. annexation. Below she shares the story of her beginning in Hawai`i, and how her work took root. 




My work in Hawai`i began “in small,” with the idea of adding a chapter to my book on American kinship, family, and adoption. I intended to see what happened to Polynesian customs when the U.S. brought its legal system to the Pacific Island state.


The first weeks in Honolulu were as startling to me as they are to any visitor: tropical beauty combined with ethnic diversity, palm trees hidden by familiar-looking high rise apartments. Academic that I am, I began by meeting people at the University of Hawai`i. One of those was Steve Boggs, who chatted with me about a community on the Windward Coast where he had been attending community events, including meeting of a senior citizens group. He asked if I would like to ride out to Waimānalo, and I said yes.


Some time after that trip, with Steve’s introductions in hand, I attended a meeting of the Waimanalo Senior Citizens. I had no idea what might happen at the meeting, or whether it would contribute to a research project I still framed in terms of law (legal adoption) versus custom (informal adoption or hānai), but I was happy for the outing. It was there that I met John Simeona, who changed the way I thought about what I was doing and who opened a network of contacts for me.


First, however, he was simply a dignified man, standing in front of a room, leading an audience in the pledge of allegiance to the American flag. A rendition of Aloha `Oe followed in honor of Queen Lili`uokalani, the last monarch to preside over the Hawaiian Kingdom before a U.S. military takeover in 1893. These were the formal openings to a rather haphazard meeting, in which conversations spread randomly around the room. John tried to impose an agenda, but he rarely interrupted the rapid exchange of sociable talk-stories (mo`olelo) that constitute any Hawaiian-style meeting. The seniors were of diverse ethnic backgrounds; they were also Hawaiian by affiliation, and their ways maintained an old tradition.


I was not adept at the pervasive story-telling style, and when I stood up to talk—on John’s insistence—an awkward statement emerged. My description of a research project met a polite silence. Relishing his role as leader, John explained, and in the process transfigured my original idea. It was not customary and legal adoption she wanted to know about, he said, but Hawaiian culture. His translation of my work accomplished two things: a few elderly citizens nodded (that was a familiar subject of research), and I experienced an internal wince.


Whatever ways my project shifted, I did not consider “Hawaiian custom” its focus. I am not a Hawaiian, either by ancestry or by residence—I am a haole from the country that deposed a reigning Queen—and I would not take on a role that belongs to the people who are Hawaiian. I intended to talk about the United States, its laws, its policies, and its centuries-long intervention in the lives of the children of the land, the kama`ainana.


John helped, and he undoubtedly guessed my dilemma. That afternoon, he talked about his own life and his movement between an extended Hawaiian family (`ohana) and the educational, economic, and political institutions of the United States. In talk-story, rambling anecdotes he provided a view into the pervasiveness of U.S. policies and the equal stamina of those who identify as native Hawaiian. And then he invited me to lunch at a local Chinese restaurant.


We were to go there many times afterwards, while I learned to appreciate the ramble of talk-story and thus qualified myself for meeting John’s cousins, friends, and close family. I learned, too, that adoption was a small part of a big picture—by listening to accounts that diffused, wandered, back and forthed over the numerous places where the US penetrated the lives of “ordinary” persons, and ordinary persons responded in innovative ways. And slowly, with talk-stories gathering around me, I altered the plan for my book. The mo`olelo of elderlies, and their children and grandchildren, compose a story of American presence that is, at core, a story of Hawaiian cultural resilience.




Judith Schachter is Professor of Anthropology and History at Carnegie Mellon University. She has been doing fieldwork in Hawai`i for more than two decades. Her publications include Kinship with Strangers: Adoption and Interpretations of Kinship in American Culture (University of California Press, 1994) and A Sealed and Secret Kinship: The Culture of Politics and Practices in American Adoption (Berghahn Books, 2002). Her research includes articles on family and housing policies and, currently, on the movement for indigenous rights in Hawai`i (in Social Identities, 2011).