Perspectives from a Settler Colonialist in Hawai’i

A MITASC story contributed by Aja Grande

Since the beginning of summer, I’ve been puzzling through a conundrum. One, I think, that resonates broadly with people of my generation–those who were born into settler colonial estates. The trouble is how to relate to a place which we (the settlers) have learned to call home. Lands which foreign settlers, such as myself, my family, and my friends, have been born into and have grown up on. Granted, I lead a life with many privileges. And yet, I still desire to cultivate a life that follows the principles of environmental sustainability while subsisting in the twenty-first century. A life that somehow also maintains a sensitivity and active reciprocity for communities whose ancestors have fostered lands that I continue to eat, sleep, and benefit from in many ways. Through the MIT Action Sustainability Corps program, I am prompted to reflect on complex lifestyle choices as a doctoral student in the department of HASTS (History, Anthropology, Science, Technology, and Society). Despite a history of controversial funding sources [1][2][3], the institution of MIT has afforded its graduate students the freedom to follow more justifiable pursuits. Born and raised in Hawai‘i, my research traces how the development of urban infrastructures frames people’s relationship to the land.

Asian Settler Colonialism, a multi-authored volume, has made clear that I am an Asian settler colonialist who has benefited at the expense of Native Hawaiian culture[4]. I am a descendant of Japanese, Filipino, Spanish, and Portuguese ancestors who immigrated to Hawai‘i during different eras of the islands as a kingdom, an annexed territory, and a state. Many of my ancestors scaled upward in society as plantation owners, city draftsmen architects, and bank tellers. Accomplishments of theirs, including my own, once seen as proudly self-made now appear as privileges that resulted from Native Hawaiians’ political, social, and spiritual demise.

The Hawaiian Kingdom was illegally overthrown by U.S. missionaries in 1893 and became a U.S. state in 1959. In 1993, President William Clinton signed a resolution passed by Congress–an apology letter for the unjust overthrow of Native Hawaiian people who, as the document words, were “a highly organized, self-sufficient, subsistent social system based on communal land tenure with a sophisticated language, culture, and religion”[5]. For nearly twenty years, I considered myself an ethnic minority within the greater hegemonic context of the United States. As I uncover the history of Hawai‘i’s plantation economy and development of settler infrastructure, it now stands clear to me how my own racial background represents a majority, rather than a minority. According to the U.S. Census Bureau for 2018 population demographics of Hawai‘i, Asians comprise a plurality of the population at 38%, with Whites at 26%, two or more races at 24%, and Native Hawaiians with 10%[6]. As an Asian American, my reality has been shaken.

What is my responsibility as an Asian settler colonialist scholar who aims to point out the social side of stories as embedded in the process of civic planning projects? One duty may be to identify the traces of Asian settler colonialism that depict the disproportionate distributions of power in the history of Hawai‘i. For example, as found in archive hunting so far, most of the architects in my case study on the Interstate H-3 were Japanese. For this research, I’ve been collaborating with my colleague, co-organizer, and partner Sam Coren, a doctoral student and M.A. of Public Humanities in the department of American Studies at Brown University. Over the past year, we have honed our knowledge and interests in the case of the Interstate H-3 highway– Hawai‘i’s costliest and most controversial public works project ever built[7]. Of interest to broader conversations in environmental history, the H-3 was also the first project in Hawai‘i to require an environmental impact statement, a generally novel prerequisite for national public works projects funded by the federal government since 1970[8]. During a visit home in August, we met with local stakeholders and community members of O‘ahu, such as members of the Mānoa Heritage Center, one of the authors of E Luku Wale E[9] (a photographic book which documented construction of the H-3), and other residents and researchers. As we progress in our work, we hope to share what we find with the general public on O‘ahu, and to make clear the convoluted processes of large-scale development projects. It is by no easy means that the busy working-class public may be able to devote their time and energy to give informed input on massive construction projects.

Aside from reading up on the history of Hawai‘i this summer, I have been exercising my public engagement skills in co-organizing a joint art exhibition and speaker forum called ReSeeding the City: Ethnobotany in the Urban [10] with Sam Coren, Judith Tolnick Champa, and Jennifer Dalton Vincent. We invite artists, academics, designers, urban planners, botanists, and herbalists–drawing from indigenous, cross-cultural and Western knowledge traditions–to share their perspectives on the entwined lives of humans, plants, and other life forms in urban New England. The event takes place this year on October 26, with the exhibition showcased at the Rhode Island State House, and the day-long speaker forum and plant workshop hosted at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Affairs. Organizing this project experientially feeds into future dissertation work with public exhibitions where community members can collaborate in the research I conduct.

About a year ago, the event co-organizers and I originally titled the event “home/lands.” Though its name has changed, its original initiative has remained faithful to my personal and academic motivations. At the heart of my research, I seek to answer: how does one orient to a home that one cares about (a feeling known in Hawai‘i as aloha ‘āina, “love of the land”), while still supporting the livelihoods of Native peoples whose way of life has been displaced by the lineage of one’s own family? Complexly, “home land” to me is the island of O‘ahu in Hawai‘i – the world’s most isolated chain of land masses in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

Although recognized by America as a state, parts of the archipelago remain to some Native Hawaiian activists as designated sovereign territory, as stated in the constitution Ka Lāhui[11]. And to the global community, some of Hawai‘i’s lands like Mauna Kea are deemed as the ideal place on Earth for an international observatory: the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) argues that its manifestation on Mauna Kea “represents the pinnacle of human imagination and innovation, enabling in-depth understanding of the origins of our universe while pushing further the frontiers of human knowledge”[12]. Meanwhile, local protesters from around the state and around the world have spoken out against construction, and literally camped out to block the access road to Mauna Kea’s summit[13]. Some protesters express they are protecting a way of life, while others, such as Trisha Kehaulani Watson, voice that the movement is “all about the needs of Hawaiians being disregarded for 125 years”[14]. At these intersections of social-political unrest, I hope that my research may overflow into a form of communal therapy in which one life story might bring to light the wider arc of struggles faced by all walks of those who dwell on settler colonial grounds.

Like Sterling Higa, the writer of the Civil Beat article titled “Why Should I Stay in Hawaii?”[15], many island citizens have contemplated the day-to-day pros and cons of staying. Among debatable reasons for leaving, the most prominent include the un-affordability of living in America’s second most expensive city, the lack of job security, and the contribution to living in a place where–according to a 2012 report by the Hawai‘i State Department of Business Economic Development & Tourism and Department of Agriculture–nearly 95% of the state imports its food[16]. Although upsetting on several fronts, these problems bear no surprise. Despite the expected harangue of well-known reasons for taking off, one point I haven’t come across yet is the ethics of staying on a land that Native Hawaiians – or, Kanaka Maoli (“original peoples of Hawai‘i”) – are trying to claim as their own. Understanding these kinds of latent, social tensions may help to heighten empathy and facilitate fuller communication between multiple citizens and stakeholders across the islands. The tug and pull of how to relate to land and its inhabitants continues to resurface new sources of friction as I delve deeper into the dissertation project on civic infrastructures and land ecologies on O‘ahu.

Coursework this fall on the east coast still holds relevance to research back home. This semester, I’ll be joining Brown University’s Political Science Post-Doc, Dr. Mary Tuti Baker, in her graduate course, “Indigenous Politics of Hawai‘i,” as a community outreach assistant. My role will be to help facilitate community-based excursions for her class and to aid students if any wish to create mixed-media final projects. Modeled after the University of Hawai‘i program MINA (Mālama I Na Ahupua’a, “to steward, or take care of the land”), I will be in charge of reaching out to farms, community gardens, and other indigenous or socially marginalized groups who work directly with land. Engaged in Baker’s course, I hope to comb through all of the unsettled thoughts about environmental sustainability and responsibilities as a settler colonialist. As I have learned from other Hawaiian Studies scholars, I need to stand ma hope iho, or “behind” Native Hawaiians in their pursuit of Hawaiian sovereignty and justice. Not in front, not beside, but behind. As ‘Īmaikalani Kalāhele writes in his poem “Huli”[17]:

If to help us is your wish then stand behind us.

Not to the side

And not in front.


[1] Ingram, David. “Some charities to refuse money from U.S. financier accused in sex case.” Reuters, February 1, 2019.

[2] Hiltzik, Michael. “How MIT whitewashed the climate change denialism of a major donor, David Koch.” LA Times, August, 26, 2019.

[3] Fernandes, D. and Levenson, M. “Head of MIT Media Lab faces crisis that tears at lab he helped elevate.” Boston Globe, August 23, 2019.

[4] Fujikane, Candace, and Jonathan Y. Okamura. Asian settler colonialism: from local governance to the habits of everyday life in Hawaii. Honolulu, T.H.: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2016.

[5] S.J. Res. 19. No. 103-150, 107 Stat. 1510. 103rd Cong. 1st sess. (1993). Library of Congress. Web. August 29, 2019.

[6] U.S. Census Bureau. Web. August 29, 2019.

[7] Sakamoto, Ken. “Open Road,” Honolulu Star Bulletin, 1997.

[8] Sanders, Craig. “H-3: The Island Interstate.” Public Roads, Vol. 57 No. 1. Summer 1993..

[9] Landgraf, A.K., Hamasaki, R., Kawaharada, D., Piliāmoʻo. 2015. Ē Luku Wale Ē: Devastation Upon Devastation. Honolulu, Hawaiʻi : ʻAi Pōhaku Press in association with Native Hawaiian Education Association, 2015.

[10] Providence Biennial. “ReSeeding the City: Ethnobotany in the Urban.”

[11] Ka Lahui.

[12] TMT International Observatory. “News about TMT in Hawaii.” August 22, 2019.

[13] Lee, Diane S. W. “Bruno Mars joins Jason Momoa and Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson to voice support for TMT opponents.” Star Advertiser. July 31, 2019.

[14] Watson, Trisha Kehaulani. “Seeking Long-Delayed Justice On Mauna Kea.” Civil Beat. August 28, 2019.

[15] Higa, Sterling. “Why Should I Stay In Hawaii?” Civil Beat, August 20, 2019.

[16] State of Hawaii Office of Planning Department of Business Economic Development & Tourism, and Department of Agriculture. Increased Food Security and Food Self-Sufficiency Strategy. Honolulu, HI: U.S. Department of Commerce, 2012.

[17] Kalāhele, ‘Īmaikalani. Kalāhele: Poetry and Art by ‘Īmaikalani Kalāhele. Honolulu, HI: Kalamakū Press, 2002.


This public reflection was produced as part of the work of the MIT Action Sustainability Corps. Learn more about MITASC here.