American Birding Podcast



The Here and Now in America

Big Island Singer 640The singer is Japanese, the slack guitarist Anglo, and the dancers Swiss. Tonight we (we being the National Association for Interpretation) celebrated a slice of Hawaiian culture, music, food, and dance. Kuma Keala Ching led his hybrid aggregation in a series of kahiko (the original, pre-1893 hula) dances, with the foreign-born performers laboring for authenticity with the fervor of the recently converted.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s the Hawaiian people began to resurrect their culture. After decades of being subjected to Kipling’s white man’s burden (new-caught, sullen peoples, half devil and half child) in the form of American imperialism, the Hawaiians reclaimed their heritage and their humanity.

Now there are cultural schools and organizations all around the islands. Many of the people who are learning about (and often adopting) the culture are not Hawaiian natives (ie, Polynesian). The singer on stage may perform traditional Hawaiian music, but she came to the Big Island seven years ago from Japan. Many of the young girl kahiko dancers were not of Polynesian descent either (try blond hair and blue eyes for starters). This Hawaiian hodgepodge of ethnic diversity is creating a Hawaiian cultural identity based in part on that of the past with a admixture of people decidedly of the present.

Hula dancers, Hawaii, 9 May 2012_edited-1Hawaii is the quintessential American state. The melting pot metaphor is being perfected here, with the “melting together” of disparate elements into a common culture. The Hawaiian melting pot is a work in progress, yet I see few states that have reached this degree of American assimilation.

I see the birds assimilating as well. Yes, many of the endemics are extinct. The same is true of the Hawaiians themselves. It is estimated that between 400,000 and 800,000 Hawaiians lived on the islands at the time of Cook’s landing. By the 1900 census that number had declined to 40,000, a decline mostly due to the diseases brought by Europeans.

The birds (as exotic as they may seem) also have melded into what we can only describe today as a “native” population. Hawaii’s place in the Columbian Exchange simply arrived later than most of the world. Yet the Ecological Imperialism first described by Alfred Crosby has impacted these islands as profoundly as the political imperialism of the Spanish-American War.

Hawaiian birds reflect contemporary American culture. Drive across Kansas and you will see endless acres of introduced wheat (southwestern Turkey). In the west there are introduced cattle (Fertile Crescent) ranches, introduced chicken (Asia, India) farms, introduced rock pigeons (Europe) picking at spilled introduced corn (Mesoamerica), and introduced Americans consuming all of these introduced foods.

I am not saying that it is not important to preserve our heritage, natural and cultural. But I also see the wisdom of accepting the dynamics of the world we live in. Hawaii began to transform the moment the Polynesians set foot on the islands. Trying to parse the native from the introduced is hopeless here. Therefore I embrace the eclectic, and enjoy the birds no matter where they originated. Like the Polynesians, they are all native now.

I also see a danger in nativism. I see this failing in myself. I argue until I am blue in the face about controlling exotic plants such as the Brazilian peppertree. What I try to express is the need to control an aggressive invasive species. But I fear that the step from plants to people is a short hop.

NoniHow easy it is to shift the argument from “native plants are good” to “nonnative plants are bad.” How simple it is to extend that line of thinking to “native Americans are good” and “nonnative Americans are bad.” America began to change the moment the first people crossed the Bering land bridge and became “native” Americans.

The Polynesians brought the noni when they first colonized the islands over two thousand years ago. If the Polynesians are native Hawaiians, then the noni is a native Hawaiian fruit.

What Hawaiians are nurturing is a culture that exists in the here and now. Only the future can be changed; the past is irrevocable. To ignore the present as we aspire for a return to the past is self-defeating.

The same is true for the birdlife of the islands. Of course we should strive to rescue those remaining pre-Polynesian native species that have been decimated by colonization. At the same time, however, we should celebrate the eclectic avifauna that has sorted itself into what can only be described as an ecosystem. The fact that most of these species originated somewhere else is irrelevant.

They are here. They are now. They are Hawaiian. They are American.