The Hawaiian Queen Who Taught Indigenous Writers to Resist

By connecting the fight for justice across generations, Indigenous writing has found its moment

Image of Queen Lili‘uokalani
The Walrus / Wikimedia Commons

Much of the public awareness about Indigenous writing focuses on works singled out by literary prizes and celebrated on national book panels. These titles are often understood in relation to broader nation-state traditions, such as Canadian or American literature. Yet there are forms, contexts, and purposes for Indigenous writing that extend beyond the often narrow settler definitions of “literary.” The story of Queen Lili‘uokalani, the last ruling sovereign of the Kingdom of Hawai‘i, serves as an example of these diverse traditions and the powerful ways they work in the world.

On January 17, 1893, a cabal of white US sugar-plantation owners and businessmen, missionaries, and politicians put into effect their long-gestating conspiracy to overthrow Queen Lili‘uokalani, her government, and the sovereignty of the Kānaka Maoli, the Hawaiian people. These American men—newcomers to the island nation, who’d insinuated themselves into positions of power—wanted US annexation of the Hawaiian islands to protect their financial interests and expanding ambitions, which had been threatened by the growing political resistance of the Kānaka Maoli and their prominent advocate, the formidable queen who had the temerity to challenge white interests.

The businessmen’s coup succeeded with the help of heavily armed US Marines; US exceptionalism became the governing doctrine in the “Republic of Hawaii.” Although Lili‘uokalani was imprisoned in the ‘Iolani Palace and her people politically marginalized in their own homeland, with harsh new laws quickly implemented to disenfranchise and dispossess them, they resisted: physically, ideologically, spiritually, linguistically, and, significantly, through the written word—often at the same time.

In the years before, during, and after the overthrow, Kānaka Maoli distributed petitions; founded newspapers; shared letters; wrote pamphlets, stories, essays, poems, songs, and books; and communicated commitments to land and legacy through Hawaiian-language-specific genres that Kānaka Maoli political scientist Noenoe Silva identifies as “mo‘olelo (narrative prose, including history), mele (song, poetry, including oli [chant]), mo‘okū‘auhau (genealogy, including cosmogonical genealogy), and pule (prayer), among others”—genres specific to the place itself, as well as to its peoples. Indeed, Silva observes, “all genres of Hawaiian literature, with the exception of translated works from other languages, reflect our people’s close relationship to and deep love for the ‘āina [the land].”

These things are inextricably connected: the Hawaiian people, the land with which they are in deep and abiding relation and from which their language emerges, and the political struggle to maintain both in good health and mutual care. Kānaka Maoli literature scholar ku‘ualoha ho‘omanawanui offers this helpful assessment of that constitutive relationship and its relevance to the continuity between ancestors and future generations:

We continue to rediscover, reclaim, and reflect upon the wisdom and experiences of our ancestors through their words, their arts. We are part of their creative, performative, and literary genealogies or mo‘okūauhau. Mo‘o, succession, (to stand upright), ‘auhau (stalk, stem bones); kū‘auhau simultaneously means genealogy, the recitation of a genealogy, and traditions, particularly old ones, and historian. Thus, we are part of familial and literary mo‘okūauhau as much as we are mo‘okūauhau, as we continue to compose, critique, analyze, assert, argue, and share our own creative, intellectual, philosophical, analytical thoughts and experiences for ourselves, our communities, and others, including future generations, to help guide their paths, to help them understand us. I ka ‘ōlelo ke ola—words matter.

I’m particularly taken by this phrase: “to help them understand us.” For so many of our ancestors, the words they left behind were intended, both explicitly and implicitly, to reach across the ages and communicate something of themselves and the world they lived in to those who would follow—just as the work of contemporary Indigenous writers endeavours to do the same for those here now as well as those yet to come. This has always been for purposes of cultural and genealogical transmission as well as, importantly, political struggle.

In the face of a powerful colonial society that rewrote Indigenous loss as a story of innate Indigenous deficiency, rather than intentional settler violence, betrayal, and subterfuge, Indigenous peoples have storied our experience to empower the struggle of the present and to make the truth of struggle clear to future generations.

This is where Queen Lili‘uokalani comes in. Along with being a distinguished and dignified sovereign, well regarded among her international royal peers, a skilled political strategist, and a relentless opponent of the US business and military interests that impinged on her people and their lands, the queen was also a talented musician and, importantly, a writer. It was she who, before her ascension to the throne, penned “Aloha ‘Oe” (Farewell to Thee), a mele that most North Americans know only through cheesy renditions played on ill-tuned ukuleles in the Elvis Blue Hawaii mode (or, even worse, the Looney Tunes versions). In its uncolonized form, “Aloha ‘Oe” is a song about loss, departure, and remembrance. Though composed in 1878—more than a decade before the overthrow—it became a symbol of Hawaiian resistance after the queen’s imprisonment, which makes its trivializing appropriation in US popular culture and tourism even more galling.

Though ostensibly about grieving lovers at the moment of separation, the song is just as intimately concerned with the ‘āina, the land, and its particular beauty, mentioning Hawaiian flowers and features (the ‘āhihi lehua, the singer, comparing the beloved with the “sweet rose of Maunawili”), locating their love within the “shaded bowers” of a rain-swept valley that would have been intimately familiar to a Kānaka Maoli audience, especially one well primed to read other layers of meaning about their struggle in the song’s lyrics. It’s the chorus, however, that really resonates beyond the theme of romance and moves toward a grief for a land and national sovereignty taken but not extinguished. The lines given here are the queen’s own English translation of the original Hawaiian:

Farewell to thee, farewell to thee
Thou charming one who dwell in shaded bowers
One fond embrace e’er I depart
Until we meet again

Thus sweet memories come back to me
Bringing fresh remembrance of the past
Dearest one, yes, thou art mine own,
From thee, true love shalt ne’er depart.

Those familiar with Victorian literary conventions may find the lyrics rather sentimental and rather too much of their time—not entirely unreasonable given the British influence on the Hawaiian monarchy in that period—but this would also be a reductive interpretation that misses the song’s deeper significance. Lili‘uokalani transcribed the song during her imprisonment, and as she notes in her political autobiography, Hawaii’s Story by Hawaii’s Queen:

Though I was still not allowed to have newspapers or general literature to read, writing-paper and lead-pencils were not denied; and I was thereby able to write music, after drawing for myself the lines of the staff. At first I had no instrument, and had to transcribe the notes by voice alone; but I found, notwithstanding disadvantages, great consolation in composing, and transcribed a number of songs. Three found their way from my prison to the city of Chicago, where they were printed, among them the “Aloha Oe,” or “Farewell to Thee,” which became a very popular song.

Lili‘uokalani acquiesced to the coup leaders’ demands in order to prevent widespread slaughter at the hands of armed Marines, but she remained defiant and dangerous, so the denial of news and communication was more than punishment—it was a deliberate effort by her enemies to prevent her from rallying resistance, as there had already been efforts by her supporters to restore her to the throne.

Yet the “republic’s” leaders had underestimated the power of song. “Aloha ‘Oe,” in its invocation of belonging to the land—“yes, thou art mine own”—its assertion that the singer and her beloved would “meet again,” and its reminder that “true love shalt ne’er depart,” embodied the people’s determination and refusal to surrender, just as their queen refused to give up hope for a sovereign Hawaiian nation. Love and kinship are intertwined in mutual relationship, and the republic’s efforts to sever that bond is an act of violence not only to the people but to their kinship with the land itself. “Aloha ‘Oe,” then, is a reminder, in her time and ours, of the importance of that continuing relationship and the struggle to maintain it.

Queen Lili‘uokalani would spend the rest of her life fighting US imperialism and advocating for the Hawaiian cause; her autobiography is a passionate chronicle of the events leading to her government’s overthrow and a scathing critique of the hypocrisy and base injustice of US foreign policy. She directly condemns the capitalist interests that had so brazenly overthrown her Indigenous nation and subjugated its people; she challenges the missionary interests that had twisted the creed she herself espouses as a baptized Christian; she seeks to educate uninformed readers beyond her overthrown kingdom and to disrupt the narrative of Hawaiian savagery that had so dominated the US press and popular media, caricaturing her as a grotesque, presumptuous primitive in absurd finery, her cause opposing the white man’s God and natural law.

Most strikingly, and with more than a little sharpness, her book continually reminds the US citizenry of its much-lauded principles and how they fall far short in the matter of Hawai‘i. Toward the end of Hawaii’s Story by Hawaii’s Queen, she makes a fierce statement on Hawaiian autonomy and the deeper threat to American democracy represented by the coup, including an eerily prescient prediction:

It has been shown that in Hawaii there is an alien element composed of men of energy and determination, well able to carry through what they undertake, but not scrupulous respecting their methods. They doubtless control all the resources and influence of the present ruling power in Honolulu, and will employ them tirelessly in the future, as they have in the past, to secure their ends. This annexationist party might prove to be a dangerous accession even to American politics, both on account of natural abilities, and because of the training of an autocratic life from earliest youth.

For Lili‘uokalani, the overthrow represents dangers far beyond her kingdom and her people, to the very foundations of civil society itself. She ends with an invocation to Christian scripture and a plea: “Oh, honest Americans, as Christians hear me for my down-trodden people! Their form of government is as dear to them as yours is precious to you. Quite as warmly as you love your country, so they love theirs.” Yet this plea is not simply rhetorical. It’s a cry with a measure of despair: “But for the Hawaiian people, for the forty thousand of my own race and blood, descendants of those who welcomed the devoted and pious missionaries of seventy years ago—for them has this mission of mine accomplished anything?”

If we read these words with only the isolated political purpose of the moment in mind, the answer would likely be no. Annexation proceeded in 1898; military occupation deepened after the Second World War; statehood followed in 1959, and with it an extractive tourist industry that sells a depoliticized and romanticized notion of “Hawaiianness” and has increasingly imperilled the economic, cultural, and environmental health of the Kānaka Maoli people in their own homeland, leading many to move to the mainland US just to make a living.

So no, the queen’s goal of reversing the overthrow by rallying principled public support among a broader US and international community was not realized.

At least, not yet.

But if we consider ho‘omanawanui’s words above, we can see that the queen’s varied writings most certainly succeeded in other ways—namely, to speak the justice of the Hawaiian cause to the ages, to help future generations of Kānaka Maoli know how hard their ancestors struggled to preserve their homeland in the face of overwhelming violence, and to offer fuel for the continuing fire of Hawaiian nationhood.

The restoration would take longer than her life, and its struggle would continue. It continues today. Her work joins that of the many Kānaka Maoli writers and knowledge keepers of past ages—I’m a particular fan of Haunani-Kay Trask’s no-nonsense We Are Not Happy Natives—whose texts carry forward to today, reaffirming other ways of being in the world, other relations of significance than those deemed appropriate by colonial cultures, other constellations of land and lineage that are deserving of attention, respect, and reverence.

In considering why Indigenous literatures matter, we must bring voices like those of Queen Lili‘uokalani—and the many Kānaka Maoli who took to the word as well as the streets in defence of their nationhood—more fully into conversation with those of her literary, political, and cultural contemporaries, predecessors, and descendants. To that end, Hawaii’s Story by Hawaii’s Queen is not a closed narrative but an ongoing story stretching across and speaking through the generations. And similarly, “Aloha ‘Oe” is not a lasting farewell but a reminder that, indeed, the people and the land will meet again on their own terms—an affirmation of inevitable return; a restoration of loving, right relations; and a rejection of colonial claims that would deny these possibilities and their fulfillment.

Our literary and literal ancestors made possible the world we now hold in trust. For Indigenous peoples particularly, it is our responsibility to carry their work forward, to help realize their hopes, and to ensure their fears never come to pass. We will have honoured our obligations as good descendants and future ancestors alike if the world we leave is one more fully alive with the stories of our time and those before, if the struggle of those who came before is honoured and shared, if the justice of our fight and the rightness of our relations carry on beyond us.

From Why Indigenous Literatures Matter by Daniel Heath Justice. Excerpted by permission of Wilfrid Laurier University Press. This excerpt may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission from the publisher.

Daniel Heath Justice
Daniel Heath Justice (Cherokee Nation) is Canada Research Chair in Indigenous literature and expressive culture in First Nations and Indigenous studies at the University of British Columbia, on the unceded territories of the Musqueam people.

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