Christianity, civilization, colonialism, and other diseases

The poetry of Haunani-Kay Trask

Artwork by Kimberlie Wong.

Hawaiʻi’s history following Western contact is a history of disease, colonization, and denial. In Before the Horror: The Population of Hawaiʻi on the Eve of Western Contact (1989), David Stannard estimates the Hawaiian population dropped from 800,000–1,000,000 in 1778 to just 40,000 in 1900, a 96 percent decrease over a little more than a century, following the introduction of various foreign diseases to which Hawaiians lacked immunity.[1] Most of the depopulation — an 80 percent decrease — occurred within the first fifty years of Western contact alone.[2] These statistics, however, are unable to voice the lived reality of disease and devastation experienced by our ancestors, who had to fight for their very survival while also fighting to retain their land, culture, and traditions amidst missionization and other agents of colonial encroachment. Today, we are a minority in our own homeland, which has been occupied by the United States for more than a hundred years, and the colonial impulse has largely been to deny its own conquest, to proffer the hegemonic narrative of our complacent adoption of “Americanness.”

It is precisely this history of denial that many contemporary Hawaiian poets like Haunani-Kay Trask seek to expose in their writing. Trask is arguably the most well known voice in the Hawaiian Sovereignty Movement. She has written two books of scholarship, Eros and Power: The Promise of Feminist Theory (1986) and From a Native Daughter: Colonialism and Sovereignty in Hawai‘i (1993), as well as two books of poetry, Light in the Crevice Never Seen (1994) and Night Is a Sharkskin Drum (2002). Trask is also the coproducer and scriptwriter of the 1993 documentary Act of War: The Overthrow of the Hawaiian Nation. Additionally, her poetry has been widely anthologized in both Native American literary anthologies, such as Reinventing the Enemy’s Language: Contemporary Native Women’s Writings of North America, edited by Joy Harjo and Gloria Bird, and her scholarship is widely quoted within indigenous studies, Pacific studies, and American studies. She is an activist, scholar, professor, and poet.

Trask frames her work as stemming from her “rage and an insistent desire to tell the cruel truths about Hawaiʻi.” These truths include “Christianity and the racism of its ideologies and clergies; American greed and arrogance and the embrace of violence; [and] the constant erosion of a people’s self-respect through a colonization of the mind and the elegant spirit that once sustained it.”[3] In this essay, I examine poems from Trask’s poetry collections Light in a Crevice Never Seen and Night Is a Sharkskin Drum for their depictions of missionization and colonialism in Hawaiʻi as disease and devastation, as well as their emphasis on the return to tradition as a primary means of resistance and remedy. I conclude by situating Trask’s poetics within the contemporary Kanaka Maoli literary movement, which I assert is reflective of our ongoing sovereignty as a people.

Trask’s first collection, Light in the Crevice Never Seen, is broken into three sections. The first section, “Chant of Lamentation,” is comprised of several intimate portraits of the poet and her family and close friends. Together, as the section title suggests, these poems offer notes of profound grief and mourning, preparing the reader for the horrific images of the devastation wrought by colonialism and its missionary agents in the poems “Pax Americana: Hawaiʻi, 1848” and the extended lyric “Hawaiʻi.” “Pax Americana: Hawaiʻi, 1848” examines the violence of missionary contact in Hawai‘i by highlighting the introduction of western diseases and the resulting massive Hawaiian depopulation, as well as the advisement of King Kamehameha III to privatize land ownership in Hawaiʻi through the Great Māhele in 1848. The first stanza likens both events to rape and consumption:

I am always falling
toward that dark, swollen
river filled with tongues
drunk and baptized

new priests waving foreign
flags and parchment
calling in the conquered
to hungry bankers.[4]

The horrific imagery of consumption in the “dark, swollen river filled with tongues” alludes to the death that consumes the Hawaiian people, as well as to the missionaries’ consumption of the land. They show their colonial loyalties by “waving foreign flags and parchment.” The poet falls victim to alcohol and the Christian god, both western introductions accompanying and solidifying the onslaught of colonialism, as she is “drunk and baptized” in the process. The result of these introductions is “sacred places gone for coin,” followed by the violence of foreign claims to Hawai‘i, the “hooks and stripes / the lash across my face / and pale white stars // nailed to coffins,” and the death and displacement of the Hawaiian people in the two concluding one-line stanzas: “only my scream in the homeless wind // and murdered voices.” The poet is left to bear witness to the horror as a survivor, “reliving” the violence of history as a descendant.

The first part of the title, “Pax Americana,”[5] Latin for “American Peace,” then, is meant to be ironic, as what follows the colon is “Hawai‘i, 1848.” In other words, “American Peace” means colonial entrenchment and displacement. In the notes accompanying the poem, Trask describes the Māhele as a “tragic action” that occurred after the ali‘i converted to Christianity and followed the advice of the missionaries. She writes: “Within twenty years […] nearly all our remaining people were dispossessed of their lands. The missionaries’ children, meanwhile, had become plantation owners and sugar barons on the ancestral lands of the Hawaiian people.”[6] Though the poem notes historical events, it is written in the present continuous tense. Thus, the poet “is always falling” toward the violent history she describes, even though the specific event she refers to took place in 1848 and has not been experienced directly. Trask’s choice of tense emphasizes not only the colonized Kanaka Maoli’s continual reliving of historical and cultural trauma in the present, but also how the event continues to affect Hawaiians, who have effectively been displaced and disenfranchised from our homeland. The poem also references how missionary descendants benefited from the Māhele, reaping the tremendous wealth resulting from their ancestors’ enterprising interests and white privilege. As Trask notes: “Today the missionary companies, known collectively as the Big Five, still control much of Hawai‘i’s lands and politics.”

Like the poems that precede it, “Hawai‘i” can be characterized through its grieving tone and its articulation of loss of culture, land, and people through various kaona references; however, “Hawai‘i” presents smaller snapshot images of Hawai‘i as a colonized space. Part I illustrates a beach scene spoiled by the “ruddy face” of a tourist who, like other tourists, “take[s] our pleasures / thoughtlessly” (34). In part 2, Trask gives the following description of the kōlea:

The kōlea[7] stilts its way
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
thickened by the fat
of our land. It will eat

ravenous, depart rich,
return magnificent
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Haole plover
plundering the archipelagoes
of our world. (34–35)

The kōlea is a metaphor for haole (especially missionaries and their enterprising descendants), a word which was often employed by Hawaiians during the nineteenth century. Like the kōlea, the missionaries and their descendants are “thickened by the fat / of our land,” profiting from the land development and industry attained through Kanaka Maoli displacement. Trask juxtaposes this colonial consumption of the land with the “lost” plight of Hawaiians:

       gorging ourselves
on lost shells
blowing a tourist conch

into the wounds
of catastrophe. (35)

Part 4 of the poem marks a shift posited through the ancestral gaze. A “green-toothed mo‘o of Kaua‘i” (36) angrily witnesses the pollution and blatant degradation of the water, which, according to traditional moʻolelo, he guards:

heiau stones lie crushed
beneath purple resort

toilets: Civilization’s
fecal vision

in the Native
heart of darkness. (36)

Sacred land, where heiau once stood, now lies beneath tourist toilets, creating an ironic image of the “civilization” which has been brought to the “Native / heart of darkness.” The “vision” of civilization is reduced to its excremental waste, its feces flushed down ridiculous “purple resort toilets.”

Like the preceding sections, part 6 references the mythic realm, addressing Pele, Papa, and Hiʻiaka, gods who represent mana wahine, or feminine power, but who also together represent strong regenerative power. However, Trask demonstrates that their power has been weakened by geothermal energy development:

   E Pele e, fire-eater
   from Kahiki.

Breath of Papa’s life
miraculously becomes
Energy, stink with

sulfurous sores. Hiʻiaka
wilting in her wild home (37)  

This section disturbingly describes the victimization of the gods, as manifest in the ʻāina’s denigration. Papa, our Earth mother, is ridden with “sulfurous sores,” an allusion to the introduction of foreign diseases that historically plagued the Hawaiian population. Hiʻiaka’s regenerative power is also weakened, as suggested by the images of “black lehua, shriveled / pūkiawe, [and] unborn ʻaʻaliʻi” (37) as well as the “Cracked lava stones” that “sprout / thorny vines, thick / and foreign” (37). These invasive vines and their destruction of the stones serve as a potent metaphor for colonial dominance over that which is indigenous, preventing all growth and recovery.

Trask is unflinching in her apocalyptic portrait of Hawaiʻi in the closing two sections. “Hawaiʻi” concludes with the horrific image of a “dense vapor / colored like the skin // of burnt milk” that invades “the recesses / of our poisoned / naʻau” (37). This “dense vapor,” a metaphor for the disease of colonization, comes from “these foreigners / these Americans” (38) and is seemingly inescapable. Trask depicts the disease’s spread through our bloodline as “a foul stench / among our children” for which there is “a long hollow / of mourning / in our maʻi (38).[8]  These lines give a concluding vision of death and devastation, indicating that there is no hope — future generations of Hawaiians, too, will come to die and decay under the disease of colonialism.

Images of disease and devastation wrought from colonialism can also be seen in Trask’s second collection, Night Is a Sharkskin Drum, wherein she frames the “foreigner” as the devourer of Hawaiian culture and land in “The Broken Gourd,” an extended lyric written in three sections. The poem opens with an image of new dawn: “After the last echo / where fingers of light / soft as laua‘e / come slowly.”[9] Rather than the natural beauty of Hawaiʻi, however, the light reveals a vision of devastation:

a cracked ipu
whispers, bloody water
on its broken lip. (11)

Trask describes our Kanaka Maoli people as “cracked gourds”: gourds were commonly used symbols for people, specifically with regard to judgments about their knowledge base or appearance.[10]  In the lines that follow, Trask describes a time of unbroken “ipu”:

Long ago, wise kānaka
hauled hand-twined
nets, whole villages shouting
the black flash of fish.

Wāhine uʻi
trained to the chant
of roiling surf;
nā keiki sprouted by the sun
of a blazing sky. (11)

Trask highlights the sharing of fish within communities, the composing of oli to the rhythm of the ocean by women chanters and orators who were valued and employed by aliʻi for their literary skill, as well as the children of our people, cared for by a land that provides abundantly. This image of the pre-western contact past illustrates a sense of wholeness and connection to community and land.

This image of the past, however, is dashed in the next section of the poem when the narrator hears this “island’s moan / welling grief”:

Each of us slain
by the white claw
of history: lost
genealogies, propertied
missionaries, diseased

Now, a poisoned pae ʻāina
swarming with foreigners
and dying Hawaiians. (12)

Here, Trask asserts that Kanaka Maoli are broken through the disconnection of ancestral knowledge of the land and our culture. She depicts history as having a “white claw” that has slain us, resulting in the loss of our familial histories, our genealogies. The “white claw” is an image of violence attributed to haole, its white wielders. This loss to/of history has resulted in the satisfied greed of missionaries who become “propertied” by spreading their diseases to Kanaka Maoli, with devastating effects. Moreover, the “foreigners” are depicted as “swarming” over the “poisoned” lands of Hawaiʻi, reminiscent of a plague. These images of devastation culminate in the final stanza and line depicting “dying Hawaiians,” both bodily and culturally, as the effect of colonialism and the loss it has enacted.

While the second section of “The Broken Gourd” describes colonialism’s impact upon the people, the third section focuses on the devastation wrought by colonialism upon the land:

A common horizon:
smelly shores
under spidery moons,

pockmarked maile vines,
rotting ʻulu groves,
the brittle clack
of broken lava stones. (12–13)

Various akua are represented through their kinolau, or earthly forms, in this catalogue of images, including the moon (Hina), maile (Mailelauliʻi, one of four Maile sisters associated with hula), the ʻulu (Kū), and the lava stones (Pele). However, the gods’ presence is little consolation, as they are shown to be either diseased or in a weakened state. Together, they show the ʻāina in decay, at once affirming the intricate reciprocal relationship, or mutual mālama, that is supposed to exist between kānaka and ʻāina, as well as the weakened states of both. So long as the land is ravaged, so are the people, and vice versa. In Native Land and Foreign Desires, Pehea Lā E Pono Ai? Lilikalā Kameʻeleihiwa describes this relationship through the “traditional metaphor” of mālama ʻāina:

[I]t is the ʻĀina, the kalo, and the Aliʻi Nui who are to feed, clothe, and shelter their younger brothers and sisters, the Hawaiian people. So long as younger Hawaiians love, serve, and honor their elders, the elders will continue to do the same for them, as well as to provide for all their physical needs.[11]

Trask’s images of the ʻāina — diseased maile, brittle lava, ʻulu rotting due to neglect or waste, polluted shores — demonstrate a lack of pono, or harmonic balance, under American colonialism.[12] The ʻāina’s suffering emphasizes the severe wrong of the current colonial system in traditional terms: “should an Aliʻi Nui neglect proper ritual and pious behavior, surely a famine or calamity would ensue. Should a famine arise, the Aliʻi Nui was held at fault and deposed.” While colonialism is a system which has been imposed upon Kānaka Maoli, and thus is outside the system of reciprocal mālama ʻāina, Trask affirms that the devastating effects upon the ʻāina should be taken as hōʻailona, or signs, that American colonial rule in Hawaiʻi should be deposed because Americans are to blame for the devastation of the Hawaiian people and the ʻāina:

Out of the west
the din of divine
violence, triumphal

At home, the bladed
reverberations of empire. (13)

“The din of divine / violence,” in particular, fingers the missionaries for their collusion in Hawaiʻi’s history of conquest, native displacement and death as ironic consequence to their Christian conversion efforts. A now well-known saying in Hawaiʻi goes: the missionaries came to do good; instead, they did very well — profiting from the privatization of Hawaiian land and becoming wealthy entrepreneurs in the sugar industry. Eventually, the descendants of missionaries forged the “bladed reverberations of empire” with the Bayonet Constitution, the Overthrow of the Hawaiian Nation, the banning of the Hawaiian language in schools, and the end of Hawaiian sovereignty with Annexation to the United States. Trask’s description of colonialism as “bladed reverberations” is appropriate because those earlier colonial acts, committed over the past 200 years, “reverber[ate]” to negatively affect Kānaka Maoli today through land dispossession, homelessness, poverty, and poor health and education.

The third section of Night Is a Sharkskin Drum, “Chants of Dawn,” is erotically charged, but also represents a return to the lushness and mana of the ‘āina, where Trask posits a refuge for healing. In doing so, she employs sexual kaona, an aesthetic nod to the orature of our ancestors. Trask writes in “Decolonizing Hawaiian Literature” that

Because Hawaiian is a profoundly metaphorical language, and Hawaiians an openly erotic people, descriptions are always rendered with fertile imagery: the land is a fecundity of beauty; our traditional deities are gods of abundance, of plenitude.[14]

Indeed, the erotic is a strong part of the poem “Upon the Dark of Passion,” which exemplifies the collection’s final section. The poem begins with an invocation to “Let our shadows / swell into longing // between breadfruit / and palm, throbbing” (48). Both the breadfruit and palm are common Hawaiian symbols for male genitalia. In the Hawaiian language of symbols, “hua,” or “fruit,” is commonly used as a metaphor for “testicle.” This can also be seen in the final poem of the collection, “Into Our Light I Will Go Forever,” wherein the land reflects the erotic, regenerative mana, or power that Trask describes as “our light.” The poem reads:

Into our light
               I will go forever.

               Into our seaweed
                              clouds and saltwarm

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Into the passion
                             of our parted Ko‘olau,
                                           luminous vulva.
                             Into Kāne’s pendulous
                                          breadfruit, resinous
                                                        with semen. (60)

Koʻolau is rendered here as the ʻāina’s female genitalia, a “luminous vulva” that is “parted,” awaiting lovemaking, while Kāne, a powerful god of procreation, is described as having “pendulous / breadfruit, resinous / with semen.” This sexualized image refers to the ʻulu, or breadfruit, in particular, which emits a white, sticky sap resembling semen. Moreover, Trask employs repetition of the word “into” at the beginning of each stanza to emphasize our movement and complete containment within the ʻāina.

The poem features several coastal ʻāina on Oʻahu in the following order: Heʻeia, Waiāhole, Kualoa, Kaʻaʻawa, Kahana, Punaluʻu, Lāʻie, Mālaekahana, and Haleʻiwa. Each ʻāina is praised in terms of the gifts they offer, and the signs of the Hawaiian gods’ presence. For example, Trask takes the reader into “the hum of / reef-ringed Kaʻaʻawa, / pungent with limu” (61), and later, into “our corals of / far Kahana, sea-cave / of Hina” (61). Moreover, Trask’s use of the erotic resists earlier missionary regulation and censorship of those aspects of our Hawaiian culture that celebrate sexuality and procreation in songs, chants, and the hula, whose very movements were viewed by missionaries as lascivious and obscene.

Trask’s images focus on the mana, or power, of the land. She concludes the poem with the lines: “Into our sovereign suns, / drunk on the mana / of Hawai‘i” (62). These lines highlight at once how the mana of Hawai‘i could never be anything but sovereign, and how Kanaka Maoli, who are of the land ourselves, must look toward “our sovereign suns” to heal, taking our strength from tradition and the tremendous life still within the ‘āina. Overall, Trask asserts a return to cultural tradition and other forms of resistance as powerful remedies for the disease of colonialism.

In Reinventing the Enemy’s Language, Trask defines her project as a writer as resisting in order to heal: “I write to resist, to tell my people how resistance feels, to guide them through our pain to the triumph of our vision. Every poem is an offering, sometimes in victory, often in sorrow. Words are spears, or storms of light, or the chattering winds of hope.”[15] For Trask, then, the disease of colonialism, while debilitating, need not be terminal, so long as there are words and breath enough to speak and write in resistance. Indeed, her poetics, like the poetics of several other contemporary Kanaka Maoli writers, offers the weaponry of fierce hope for justice and sustenance of our sovereignty as native people. Together, our voices rise in solidarity affirming, in the words of Haunani-Kay Trask, our “continuing refusal to be silent. […] Hawaiians are still here, we are still creating, still resisting. […] Decolonization is all around us.”[16]

Further reading:

Contemporary Kanaka Maoli literature is flourishing as the inner drive for Kanaka Maoli to articulate the rich fluidity of our history, traditions, and culture continues. Besides Haunani-Kay Trask’s Light in the Crevice Never Seen (1994) and Night Is a Sharkskin Drum (2002), other examples of Kanaka Maoli poetry abound:

John Dominis Holt, Hānai: A Poem for Queen Liliʻuokalani (Honolulu: Topgallant Press, 1986)

Joe Puna Balaz, After the Drought (Honolulu: Topgallant Press, 1985), Electric Laulau (Hawaiʻi Dub Music 1998), and OLA (Honolulu: Tinfish Press 1996)

Michael McPherson, Singing with the Owls (Honolulu: Petronium Press, 1982) and All Those Summers (Honolulu: Watermark Publishing, 2004)

Imaikalani Kalahele, Kalahele (Honolulu: Kalamaku Press, 2002)

Māhealani Perez-Wendt, Uluhaimalama (Honolulu: Kuleana 'Ōiwi Press, 2008)

Wayne Westlake, Westlake: Poems by Wayne Kaumualii Westlake (1947–1984), ed. Mei-Li Siy and Richard Hamasaki (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2009)

Sage Uʻilani Takehiro, Honua (Honolulu: Kahuaomānoa Press, 2006)

Brandy Nālani McDougall, The Salt-Wind, Ka Makani Paʻakai (Honolulu: Kuleana 'Ōiwi Press, 2008)

See also the many Kanaka Maoli poets published in the following anthologies:

Mālama: Hawaiian Land and Water, ed. Dana Naone Hall (Honolulu: Bamboo Ridge Press, 1985)

Hoʻomānoa: An Anthology of Contemporary Hawaiian Literature, ed. Joe Puna Balaz (Honolulu: Ku Paʻa Press, 1989)

ʻōiwi: a native hawaiian journal, vols. 1–4, ed. Māhealani Dudoit and kuʻualoha hoʻomanawanui (Honolulu: Kuleana ʻŌiwi Press, 1998, 2002, 2005, 2010)

Whetu Moana: Contemporary Polynesian Poems in English, ed. Albert Wendt, Reina Whaitiri, and Robert Sullivan (Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press, 2003)

Mauri Ola: Contemporary Polynesian Poems in English, ed. Albert Wendt, Reina Whaitiri, and Robert Sullivan (Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press, 2010)



1.  David E. Stannard, Before the Horror: The Population of Hawai‘i on the Eve of Western Contact (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 1989), 31.

2.  Stannard, 51.

3.  Haunani-Kay Trask, “Writing in Captivity: Poetry in a Time of Decolonization,” in Inside Out: Literature, Cultural Politics, and Identity in the New Pacific, ed. Vilsoni Hereniko and Rob Wilson (New York: Roman and Littlefield, 1999), 19.

4.  Trask, Light in the Crevice Never Seen (Corvallis: Calyx, 1993), 11.

5.  In an article in the September 2004 issue of the online magazine Monthly Review, John Bellamy Foster and Robert W. McChesney trace the term “Pax Americana” to the nineteenth century, when it was first associated with an American imperialist agenda. They write that “the notion of a ‘Pax Americana’ enforced by American arms has become the preferred designation for those attempting to justify what was portrayed as a benevolent American Empire.” They also cite Ronald Steel’s Pax Americana, first published in 1967 during the Vietnam War, as the first to characterize “the benevolent imperialism of Pax Americana” by “empire-building for noble ends rather than for such base motives as profit and influence.” In examining Steel’s book, they focus on a chapter on foreign aid (described as an “element of imperialism”) entitled “The White Man’s Burden,” which harkens back to Rudyard Kipling’s celebrated poem calling on the United States to exercise an imperialist role in the Philippines following the Spanish-American War of 1898. The United States, of course, acted on this urging and annexed Hawaiʻi by joint resolution. Forster and McChesney argue that the ideology of Pax Americana has recently “resurfaced in a post–Cold War world marked by U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and by a permanent U.S.-led ‘War on Terrorism.’ Once again we hear establishment calls for the ʻdefense of Pax Americana’ and even renewals of the old cry to take up ‘the White Man’s burden.’”

6.  Trask, Light in the Crevice Never Seen, 12.

7.  Trask chooses to italicize Hawaiian words to emphasize their distinctiveness. However, all Hawaiian words used in this essay that are not direct quotations from Trask’s work are purposely left unitalicized to make a political statement against their “foreignness.” While the Modern Language Association standards direct one to italicize foreign (non-English) words used in an English text, ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi, the Hawaiian language, is not a foreign language in Hawaiʻi.

8.  “Maʻi” is the Hawaiian word for “genitals,” which have been traditionally celebrated in song, chant, and hula for bringing future generations, children, into being.

9.  Trask, Night Is a Sharkskin Drum (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2002), 11.

10.  Several ʻōlelo noʻeau, or proverbs, support this common metaphoric reference comparing humans to gourds. See ʻŌlelo Noʻeau, Hawaiian Proverbs and Poetical Sayings, ed. Mary Kawena Pukui (Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press, 1983), for examples, including:

He ipu palaʻole. An empty gourd, describing an ignorant person. (73)
He ipu kāʻeo. A full gourd, describing a knowledgeable person. (73)
Haumanumanu ka ipu ʻinoʻino. A misshapen gourd makes an ugly container, describing an ugly person. (59)

 11.  Lilikalā Kame‘eleihiwa, Native Land and Foreign Desires: Pehea Lā e Pono Ai? (Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press, 1992), 25.

12.  Kameʻeleihiwa writes that “pono” is “often translated as ʻrighteous,’ but actually denotes a universe in perfect harmony” (Native Land and Foreign Desires, 25).

13.  Ibid., 26.

14.  Trask, “Decolonizing Hawaiian Literature,” in Inside Out: Literature, Cultural Politics, and Identity in the New Pacific, ed. Vilsoni Hereniko and Rob Wilson (New York: Roman & Littlefield, 1999): 174.

15.  Trask, “Sisters,” in Reinventing the Enemy’s Language: Contemporary Native Women’s Writing of North America, ed. Joy Harjo and Gloria Bird (New York: W. W. Norton, 1997), 520.

16.  Trask, “Writing in Captivity,” 20.