Partitions inform settler colonialism: Laurel Turbin Mei-Singh, Geographies of Desecration: Race, Indigeneity, and the Militarization of Hawai’i, PhD Dissertation, CUNY, 2016
Abstract: Geographies of Desecration: Race, Indigeneity, and the Militarization of Hawai‘i develops a genealogy of military fences and their relationship to Hawaiian struggles for self-determination and national liberation. Military occupation has transformed entire ways of life on the islands by altering Hawaiian land tenure systems through displacement, disruption of subsistence practices, and environmental degradation. Hawaiian mo‘olelo (stories, history) also structure life in a highly militarized place, centering interconnectivity between human and nonhuman realms while impelling grassroots efforts that shape its landscape.
This dissertation develops in-depth case studies of militarized sites on the Wai‘anae Coast of O‘ahu, where military bases occupy 34% of the land and Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders comprise 62% of the population. Conducting ethnographic research from 2011-2015, I gathered data regarding the everyday lives, perceptions, and experiences of the local population. I conducted fifty interviews with subsistence practitioners, community leaders, and homeless people, as well as veterans and military personnel. I also engaged in participant observation, which included fishing, farming, and supporting the day-to-day operations of community organizations such as the Wai‘anae Environmental Justice Working Group. Archival research entailed excavating the files of a grassroots community organization that has confronted military presence in Hawai‘i since the Vietnam War. I identified two recurring themes: the pervasiveness of fences in Wai‘anae, and the histories that assert ongoing interconnectedness between Kanaka Maoli (Hawaiians) and particular places.
Based on this research, I arrived at three findings. First, stories and histories articulated through Hawaiian mo‘olelo inform community-based initiatives that shape the landscape of a highly militarized place and reveal significant capacity to shift the structures and logics that undergird militarization. For example, the remaking of wahi pana (storied places) spurs environmental justice activism and anticolonial self-organization. Second, partitions as a defining feature of military occupation contain the real possibility of noncapitalist, demilitarized futures. They give form to settler colonialism in Hawai‘i—the elimination of Native alternatives (Wolfe, 2013)—while advancing racism, or group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death (Gilmore, 2007a). In this vein, I understand settler colonialism and racism as distinct analytical frames pointing to mutually imbricating historical processes. Third, class positionality inflects claims to land and livelihoods in Wai‘anae. Highlighting narratives of the maka‘ainana (commoners), locals, and poor and working class people, I approach class struggle and cultural nationalism as dual political strategies in the context of Wai‘anae activism and community self-organization.
The Pacific has held a prominent position on the world stage for over a century, and Hawai‘i serves as a linchpin for the diplomatic, military, and economic ambitions of the U. S. in Asia and the Pacific. This dissertation prompts strong consideration for how the punitive policies of the militarized “carceral state” structure indigenous dispossession. Further, generating an analysis of the under-studied topic of the socio-environmental implications of military bases, this project conveys the centrality of human-environment relationships to the militarization and policing of poor and indigenous spaces as well as to resistance to such projects.
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