Pacific Postcards

An ‘Okina Makes All the Difference: A Look at Shala McKee’s “Hawaii vs. Hawaiʻi” (Stefan Popescu)

     Hawaiʻi is not Hawaii. This statement may seem absurd, given the fact that they are the same word, albeit the first appears to have an apostrophe. However, they refer to different things: Hawaii refers to the state or the islands as a whole, while Hawaiʻi (with an ‘okina) is the name of the largest of these islands. This is the standard explanation; unfortunately, it is inadequate. For the purposes of this essay, Hawaiʻi will refer to the traditional and/or indigenous aspects of these islands, while Hawaii will refer to the modern and/or colonial aspects of these islands. The distinction between these two terms is often ignored by the world at large, and thus stressed all the more by those who understand and care about the difference. One of these people is Shala McKee, a young poet who has written a series of poems about this distinction. The first, titled (rather appropriately) “Hawaii vs. Hawaiʻi”, illustrates its titular comparison through a series of ostensibly simple contrasts that form a wide-ranging, cohesive picture of the differences between the two. In her poem, McKee demonstrates that although traditional Hawaiʻi is different from modern Hawaii, they are fundamentally similar and functionally inseparable.

     Food is one aspect in which Hawai’i and Hawaii appear to be distinct, but are actually alike. A simple example of this can be found at the beginning of the poem: “Hawai’i is kalo and Hawaii is pineapple” (McKee, line 3). Kalo (also known as taro) is a root vegetable considered sacred by the indigenous peoples, while pineapple is a fruit from Mesoamerica whose cultivation and use spans the globe. While there are differences, there are also distinct parallels: kalo and pineapple are both cultivated in Hawaii, and they are both culturally important foods. A more complex comparison is made between methods of cultivation: “Hawai’i is lo’i patches and loko i’a / Hawaii is single plant agriculture” (McKee, lines 1-2). “Lo’i patches” refer to the traditional method with which kalo is cultivated, namely in stepped terraces, similar to rice. “Single plant agriculture” refers to the modern industrial method of cultivation (‘monoculture’), where acres and acres of land are used to plant only one crop. These seem different, but they are actually very similar: they both involve only one crop, grown in cultivated fields, for the purpose of feeding humans. While there may be some difference in scale, not all monoculture operations are huge and not all lo’i kalo are tiny. Therefore, it could very well be the case that some monoculture operations consist of lo’i kalo, and thus that these two are so similar that they could, in some circumstances, actually be considered one and the same.

     Another aspect of contrast between Hawai’i and Hawaii is goods and services. Because Hawai’i is geographically isolated, its economy requires imports and exports: “Hawai’i is exports and Hawaii is imports” (McKee, line 23). This comparison seems a perfect example of two opposites; “exports” is the antonym of “imports”. However, this is deceiving. “Hawai’i”, being a traditional culture, exports culture to tourists, and by extension, to the world. Hawaii, a modern economy, is based on the exports of goods and services to non-Hawaiian people and places; in context, these exports of Hawaii could be considered the imports of the wider world. Thus, Hawai’i and Hawaii are fundamentally similar because they both subsist on exportation to the wider world. An example of this exportation is given early in the poem: “Hawai’i is the sprawling Ko’olaus / Hawaii is the lost swamp of Waikiki” (McKee, lines 4-5). The “sprawling Ko’olaus” are the mountains in the Ko’olau Range, and the “lost swamp of Waikiki” refers to Waikiki, a neighborhood in Honolulu. The Ko’olau Range is a public forested area that is used for nature activities, like hiking. On the other hand, Waikiki is a hyper-consumerist tourist destination that represents the very essence of Hawaii. However, both of these are important sources for entertainment for both locals and tourists, and thus show how Hawai’i and Hawaii are similar in their reliance on providing goods and services.

     The colonization of Hawai’i can also be a basis for comparing and contrasting Hawai’i and Hawaii. In terms of getting to the islands, McKee points out that “Hawai’i was settled with canoes [but] Hawaii was stolen with boats” (McKee, lines 21-2). She characterizes colonization as theft, but specifically attributes that theft to the non-natives’ use of “boats”. On the other hand, the indigenous peoples weren’t always there, meaning that at some point, they also navigated the oceans and ‘found’ the islands we call Hawaii, having “settled [them] with canoes”. While these actions are different in scale, they also have substantial parallels: a people who travel the water in wooden vehicles find land they didn’t know existed, and then proceed to take control from the inhabitants to suit their own needs. This characterization also appears when comparing the origins of the colonizers: “Hawai’i is the furthest remnant of Polynesia / Hawaii is the furthest reach of America” (McKee, lines 18-9). Here, “remnant” suggests that Hawai’i is a descendant of the ancient Polynesian culture, while “reach” suggests that Hawaii is an economic holding of America. These interpretations, however, do not have to be mutually exclusive. Epeli Hau’ofa, a Fijian anthropologist who argued for the integration of recent history into the modern study of anthropology, mentions in passing that “Cook Islanders are citizens of their own country and ... of New Zealand. French Polynesians and New Caldonians are French citizens, Guamanians are American citizens, and American Samoans have a leg each in the United States and eastern Samoa” (Hau’ofa, 401). These many examples seek to emphasize the idea that people can be part of multiple cultures and nationalities. While Hawai’i and Hawaii can draw their heritage from different places (Polynesia and America, respectively), they can both be used to describe the islands as they are part of a broader definition of the islands, thus showing how related Hawaii and Hawai’i really are.

     A final, more fundamental similarity between Hawai’i and Hawaii is one of culture. McKee creates this comparison using a simile and a metaphor: “Hawaii is shallow like the beginnings of the ocean / Hawai’i’s roots run generations deep” (McKee, lines 30-31). Hawai’i is portrayed as having roots that are “generations deep”, suggesting that the depth of the culture is due to its long ancestry. Conversely, Hawaii is “shallow”, suggesting a lack of depth, but this shallowness is compared to “the beginnings of the ocean”. Shallow water can become the depths of the ocean, given enough time. Thus, although Hawaii’s culture is much smaller than that of Hawai’i, given enough time, Hawaii’s culture will become as deep as that of Hawaii. This difference in culture as a result of time also appears elsewhere in the poem: “Hawaii is Tahitian dancing at a luau / Hawai’i is the revival of hula” (McKee, lines 12-3). A “luau” is a traditional type of celebration, but it has been co-opted by the tourism industry as a sort of fake cultural experience; in this case, it is “Tahitian” rather than true Hawai’ian dancing. On the other hand, “hula” is a type of Hawai’ian dance, so this comparison serves to juxtapose the real traditions of Hawai’i against the poor imitation that is Hawaii. This, however, is not entirely true, because Hawai’i originated as a part of the same Polynesian culture that also created Tahiti (its roots are “generations deep”). Thus, although passing off “Tahitian dancing at a luau” as a traditional Hawai’ian experience is fraud, in a historical sense, hula and Tahitian dancing are actually closely related. Hau’ofa explains the perceived disconnect in terms of a wider Pacific identity: “[Pacific nations] have failed to build any clear and enduring regional identity, partly because so far we have constructed edifices with disconnected traits from traditional cultures and passing events, not basing them on concrete foundations” (Hau’ofa, 409). Here, the “regional identity” relates to a common Polynesian identity, which should be built on “concrete foundations” to be stable and effective. These foundations could be the ancient Polynesian culture that gave rise to modern cultures around Polynesia, so the regional identity would be based on cultural heritage. In this case, Tahitian dancing and hula would be part of the same regional identity because they have a shared cultural heritage, emphasizing how alike Hawaii and Hawai’i truly are.

     Though Hawai’i and Hawaii have both superficial differences and fundamental similarities, one cannot exist without the other. One instance occurs as a metaphor: “The tail end of Hawai’i feeds into the new beginnings of Hawaii / The structure of Hawaii supports modern Hawai’i” (McKee, lines 34-5). The first part is a metaphor of eating: Hawai’i “feeds” Hawaii, meaning that Hawaii requires Hawai’i to sustain itself. This resembles the real world, where Hawaii relies on the picturesque nature of Hawai’i to attract tourists. The second part suggests that although Hawai’i’s traditions are historic, they rely on the support provided by Hawaii. This support of the traditional side of culture by the modern side can be found all around the Pacific. Matt Matsuda, in arguing that history is not purely an academic exercise, points out that “the advocacy of ‘Oceanic’ arts and musical forms at the University of the South Pacific at Suva, Fiji” (Matsuda 767). This example demonstrates that the ability of students to learn about traditional culture through “arts and musical forms” relies entirely on there being a university at which to study, which is only made possible by the modern side of Fiji. This fits with McKee’s characterization, as Hawaii could not have happened without the original Hawai’i, and contemporary Hawai’i requires Hawaii to sustain it, and thus the two rely completely on each other.

     Furthermore, Hawai’i and Hawaii are so reliant on each other that they are inextricably linked. McKee breaks from the comparative structure of the poem to suggest this connection in the last two lines of her poem: “There simply can’t be one / Without the other” (McKee, lines 36-7). In this case, “one” and “other” refer to Hawai’i and Hawai’i, meaning that, not only the well-being, but the very existence of, one depends upon the other. Matsuda echoes this idea in his dismissal of the notion that non-natives did not truly affect native cultures in the Pacific: “Davidson read the European presence in Oceania as superficial – hegemonic, perhaps … but never truly altering (here we see the anthropological imperative) indigenous bases of custom, practice, and local knowledge” (Matsuda 765). Here, Matsuda relays Davidson’s historical interpretation that “European presence” (i.e. the colonizers that gave rise to Hawaii) was “never truly altering” to the Oceanic cultures, like Hawai’i. However, Matsuda also clearly distances himself from this idea. First, he characterizes the origin using the phrase “Davidson read”, dissociating the idea both from himself (as he makes no mention of his own belief) and from the present (as commentaries on historical works are supposed to be written in present tense, so this is a clear deviation). Second, he characterizes the idea as an example of the “anthropological imperative”, which seems to be the assumption that those who record history don’t change it, which is provably false. Thus, Matsuda suggests that Europeans did alter Oceanic cultures, meaning that modern-day versions of ancient cultures (like Hawai’i) would not exist without the European incursion that has resulted in modern-day Hawaii. This connection has created a bond of shared history, but has not caused both to merge together. Thus, Hawai’i and Hawaii are fundamentally connected and each relies on the existence of the other in order to continue.

     These historical and cultural connections forever entangle Hawaii and Hawai’i together, despite their differences and because of their similarities. One cannot exist without the other, so an understanding of both is instrumental to understanding the islands as a cohesive whole. This idea can be applied more generally to other Pacific nations: while their ancestral culture may be different from their modern form, understanding any particular nation requires an understanding of both sides of this divide. Thus, history (especially of places where colonization once occurred) requires both the history of the colonizers and that of those who were colonized. This important dynamic condensed into the tiniest of phrases: “Hawaii vs. Hawai’i”. In fact, the enormous nature of this dynamic is entirely encapsulated in the presence of the tiny difference between “Hawaii” and “Hawai’i”: the oft-forgotten ‘okina.


Works Cited

Hau’ofa, Epeli. “The Ocean in Us”. The Contemporary Pacific, vol. 10, no. 2 (Fall 1998), pp. 392-410. JSTOR, Accessed 17 February 2021.

Matsuda, Matt K. “The Pacific”. The American Historical Review, vol. 111, no. 3 (June 2006), pp. 758-80. Oxford Academic, Accessed 15 January 2021.

McKee, Shala. “Hawaii vs. Hawai’i”. Historic Hawai’i Foundation, February 2018, Accessed 17 February 2021.

Link to Hau'ofa article
Link to Matsuda article
Link to McKee poems

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