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Essay

I am a colonial settler

On the awareness and responsibilities required of settling in Hawaiʻi.

in Indigenous issues

Above: From the book Ē Luku Wale Ē by Mark Hamasaki and Kapulani Landgraf, this photo—titled “Hālāwai nā ʻuhane i ka ua Koʻolau lā”—was taken on September 9, 1990, and shows the beginning of construction on the H-3 freeway in Haʻikū, on the windward side of Oʻahu. The photographs in Ē Luku Wale Ē allow new generations to bear witness, retrospectively, to the changes in the land as they were taking place. Contemporary life encourages us to trade what we should value spiritually and culturally for material wealth. The photographs and verses of Ē Luku Wale Ē embody the belief that what has been lost in the islands is a rootedness in the land. | Courtesy Piliāmoʻo


My name is Tyler. I am a colonial settler.     

It is often said of alcoholism or depression that the first step in overcoming these illnesses is recognizing that you have a problem. In Hawaiʻi, and especially for the Native Hawaiian community, our post-European contact history centers around the constant problem of colonialism. Importantly, we must take note of how colonialism—and the oppression of kānaka maoli (Hawaiian people) that comes with it—has not ended.

The history of the West’s destruction of indigenous peoples, languages and cultures in the Americas, Hawaiʻi and beyond is well documented. Disease, economic plunder and murder, as well as the use of education and religion to eliminate indigenous cultures and languages, characterize the early colonial encounters that caused this destruction. For kānaka maoli, this is a familiar history. 

Even the immorality of the mass death caused by European contact was not enough to deter the United States from continuing its exploitation of Hawaiʻi. The rise of industrialism, capitalism, the “robber baron” and the idea of Manifest Destiny during the 19th century ensured the continued oppression of indigenous peoples, minorities and those at the bottom rung of the economic ladder. While the United States mainland saw its greedsters like Andrew Carnegie or John Rockefeller get rich off the backs of the working class and through the exploitation of indigenous lands, Hawaiʻi saw Sanford Dole, the infamous Big Five sugar companies, and others, achieve incredible wealth on the exploited backs of immigrant laborers and Native Hawaiian land. 

But the West did not stop there. Tourism, militarism, real estate, the University of Hawaiʻi, the explosion of surf culture, and Hawaiʻi’s natural beauty (often described as feminine in Western writing and, thusly, exploitable) guaranteed that colonialism, rather than fading into history, would evolve and continue to thrive. More hotel resorts and infrastructure projects like the H-3 freeway ensured land destruction and the continued desecration of sacred sites. Colonialism continues in Hawaiʻi right through this exact moment. And like every moment that has passed in Hawaiʻi’s colonial history, kānaka maoli have fought back, protested, educated and otherwise resisted valiantly. Too rarely have settlers allied themselves in this resistance.

What is it that the Native Hawaiian community fights against? Better yet, what is it that has separated Native Hawaiians from their right to sovereignty and self-determination?

My name is Tyler. I am a colonial settler.     

To recognize the continuance of colonialism we must not falsely believe that colonialism ended with the illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom or with the transition to statehood. We must not falsely believe that colonialism is some distant thing that happened centuries ago. It continues. Settlers from all over the world still flock to Hawaiʻi’s shores, universities and newly erected, luxury high-rises. And with every spade plunged into the ʻāina in the name of development or progress, the blade that colonialism has inserted into the Hawaiian body is pushed and twisted deeper. Obviously this ignorance, destruction and oppression must stop.

So how do we—and I am largely addressing settlers such as myself here—begin to rectify these injustices and put an end to the ongoing effects of colonialism on Hawaiʻi and its indigenous people?

It begins with the recognition and the willingness to admit that one is a colonial settler—a contributor to the ongoing processes of colonialism. Please, say it aloud with me:  “My name is [insert name here]. I am a colonial settler.”

From this simple declaration, framing ourselves as settlers within the language of colonialism, we can begin the next steps. If I or other settlers are to call Hawaiʻi home, we must recognize that it is we, our parents and our grandparents who are ultimately responsible for the ongoing colonial oppression of kānaka maoli. Once we make this realization, we can then recognize that we have a responsibility to live lives that do not infringe upon the rights of Native Hawaiians. We have a duty to do no harm; we must not oppress. And to continue to live as oppressors is absurd for not just moral reasons, but for equally poignant individual reasons: we settlers all have friends, family, lovers and neighbors who are kānaka maoli.

How settlers, now (hopefully) aware of their status as colonial settlers, can improve this relationship in the future is difficult to imagine. But it can begin with supporting our kanaka sisters and brothers in their struggle to regain their sovereignty and self-determination that we settlers have taken. We must not destroy land or sacred sites for the purpose of profit or for the career advancement—academic, political or otherwise—of a select few. We cannot act as if Native Hawaiians are a people of the past, only existing in histories or museum cases—they live and love alongside us. As it was just Black History Month, there is a famous quotation from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that is quite appropriate: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Though we may experience it quite differently, the struggle of Native Hawaiians is our struggle too, and it’s time we recognized that.

My name is Tyler Greenhill. I am a colonial settler. I was born in Honolulu and I call Hawaiʻi home. I vow to always remain aware of my status as a colonial settler in Hawaiʻi and to work in directions that reduce and eliminate my own and other settlers’ contributions to the oppression of Native Hawaiians. Hopefully, one day, I can say with pride and without the attached negative implications of colonialism that I am indeed a settler in Hawaiʻi. But the day that I am able to make that statement in earnest can only be the same day that Native Hawaiians recover their stolen self-determination.

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