Hiʻilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart on Transgenerational Inspiration
About the episode
Spring is normally a time of emergence and inspiration but many scholars, artists, and organizers are struggling after a year spent inside and a pandemic that is still far from over.
In episode 130 of Imagine Otherwise, host Cathy Hannabach interviews Kānaka Maoli food studies scholar Hiʻilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart.
Hi‘ilei’s approach to scholarly and activist inspiration brings the rich histories and futures of Indigenous community building to bear on her daily practices of writing and living during the pandemic.
In the interview, Hiʻilei and Cathy chat about using scholarly research to do justice to ancestors and communities, the future of Indigenous food sovereignty activism, and why connecting individual healing practices like gardening to collective movements for decolonization is key to how Hiʻilei imagines otherwise.
Guest: Hiʻilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart
Hiʻilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin.
Her research and teaching investigates Indigenous foodways, Pacific Island studies, settler colonialism, urban infrastructure, and the performance of taste.
Hiʻilei’s book Cooling the Tropics: Ice, Indigeneity, and Hawaiian Refreshment is forthcoming from Duke University Press and traces the social history of comestible ice in Hawaiʻi through the sensorial and affective dimensions of Native dispossession. In particular, she reveals how personal and political investments in coldness facilitate ideas about race, belonging, comfort, and leisure in the Pacific.
- Linking daily healing practices to collective social movements
- The windy paths that take us into the research we truly care about
- Indigenous food sovereignty’s present and future
- Building a world in which many worlds are possible
“It feels scary to change tack sometimes. As scholars, a lesson that we all variously learn is what to let go of and what to keep. It’s a significant amount of labor to do this kind of work. And sometimes we drop things in order to take up what we’re being called towards.“
— Hiʻilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart, Imagine Otherwise
Click to read the transcript
Cathy Hannabach [00:00:03]:
Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes, offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining otherwise. I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach.
Cathy Hannabach [00:00:23]:
Spring is normally a time of emergence and inspiration, but many scholars, artists, and organizers right now are struggling after a year spent inside and a pandemic that is still far from over.
Cathy Hannabach [00:00:35]:
My guest today on the show is Kānaka Maoli food studies scholar Hiʻilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart. Hiʻilei’s approach to scholarly and activist inspiration brings the rich histories and futures of Indigenous community building to bear on daily practices of writing and living during the pandemic.
Cathy Hannabach [00:00:54]:
In our interview, Hiʻilei and I chat about using scholarly research to do justice to ancestors and communities, the future of Indigenous food sovereignty activism, and why connecting individual healing practices like gardening to collective movements for decolonization is key to how Hiʻilei imagines otherwise.
Cathy Hannabach [00:01:38]:
Thank you so much for being with us today.
Hiʻilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart [00:01:41]:
Cathy Hannabach [00:01:42]:
March is a time when those first beginnings of spring start poking up and I know a lot of us are getting reinspired by our projects and our work, particularly as we emerge from a pretty rough winter season, especially in terms of the pandemic and a lot of pretty devastating recent events.
Cathy Hannabach [00:02:01]:
I’m curious, how is inspiration showing up for you these days?
Hiʻilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart [00:02:05]:
That’s a great question and it’s one that I spent, uh, quite a bit of time grappling with internally because this March feels like a very different spring than any that I can think of before. Yes, this March is the moment when things are coming back into bloom and, you know, new plants are growing and that’s very exciting.
Hiʻilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart [00:02:29]:
But simultaneously this March, you know, marks about a year, marks a year into this pandemic for a lot of us. And so it carries a kind of heaviness for me that doesn’t usually come.
Hiʻilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart [00:02:43]:
So as far as inspiration goes, this is after a year spent inside and a year with varying degrees of non-existent childcare and starting on the tenure track. My inspiration well has been pretty dry for a long time.
Cathy Hannabach [00:03:00]:
You’re definitely not alone in that case, for sure.
Hiʻilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart [00:03:03]:
Yeah. With all of the gratitude that I have for the ways that we have been privileged enough to weather this pandemic by working from home, inspiration has been difficult to come by with the profound amount of domestic labor and intellectual labor and emotional labor that comes with carrying on in the midst of a world that has felt like it is falling apart and has always been fallen apart.
Hiʻilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart [00:03:31]:
So one of the tiny things that I’ve been doing at home is I’ve been growing a vegetable garden with my three-year-old daughter and there’s something about that that feels very grounding. It is an incredibly modest garden, but we go out to it every day and we check our ripening tomatoes and we check our ripening strawberries. And it really just helps to serve as a tiny reminder that even in really heavy, awful times, things can still grow, you can still make things grow and help coax life along.
Cathy Hannabach [00:04:02]:
I know one of the things that you have growing right now is this really amazing book manuscript that you’re making progress on and delving into. I’m wondering if we can turn to that because I think in many ways it’s a good example of how scholars are approaching the professional demands of publish or perish, keep writing when the world is on fire. But I think you’re approaching it in a really interesting way.
Cathy Hannabach [00:04:27]:
So, first of all, for folks who aren’t familiar with that book, it’s called Cooling the Tropics: Ice, Indigeneity, and Hawaiian Refreshment. What is that book all about?
Hiʻilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart [00:04:36]:
So the book takes a long of view of the development of the political and social history of the cold in Hawai‘i. It starts in precolonial Hawai‘i, highlighting Native Hawaiian, or Kānaka Maoli, understandings of the cold, particularly as it’s related to our akua, our deities that anchor our spiritual worlds. At the summit of our tallest mountains, water will regularly freeze throughout the year.
Hiʻilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart [00:05:02]:
I think about that beginning to understand how ice has gone from this really profound and celestial element of our spiritual worlds to this incredibly mundane and ambient infrastructure of daily life in Hawai‘i. Comestible ice first arrives in Hawai‘i in 1850, coming off of ships from the American Northeast that had sailed all the way around Cape Horn and across the Pacific.
Hiʻilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart [00:05:30]:
This ice that arrived in 1850 was quickly broken off, chipped into pieces, and put into cocktails. I always find that detail incredibly arresting because of the sheer amount of effort that went into handing somebody a cold drink.
Hiʻilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart [00:05:48]:
For me, this sets into motion this history that I’m tracing about refreshment and comfort and leisure in the tropics and the ways that it becomes intimately connected to empire and whiteness.
Hiʻilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart [00:06:02]:
So from 1850, when these first blocks arrive, we start to see the emergence of cocktails and ice creams and discourses that connect this to projects of assimilation and civility that are imposed on Kānaka Maoli and the various immigrant groups that are coming in to provide labor for the sugar cane plantations and the various plantations that came to follow.
Hiʻilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart [00:06:28]:
The book eventually ends up at shave ice, this kind of paradigmatic refreshment that becomes interpolated as distinctly Hawaiian but is anything but. And I think about the ways that Native dispossession in Hawai‘i kind of resolves in the 1970s and 1980s and Hawai‘i’s liberal state multiculturalism through this image of an edible rainbow and the ways that that gets mapped onto race relations in Hawai‘i as purportedly being this harmonious resolution to American occupation.
Hiʻilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart [00:07:04]:
So that’s the arc of the book. One of the things that I try to highlight in it is the ways that we take for granted the cold as this ambient element of our lives that has actually been carefully and painstakingly developed over a long period of time and that today requires a huge amount of energy and infrastructural investment to keep Hawai‘i going.
Hiʻilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart [00:07:27]:
The implications of this work, I think, help us to understand, in part, Hawai‘i’s overreliance on importation for its food system. People who are interested in food in Hawai‘i will very often remark that 85 to 90 percent of Hawai‘i’s food is imported, despite having a near year-round growing season and these histories of profound abundance.
Hiʻilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart [00:07:51]:
One of the things that I realized over the course of this work is that part of Hawai‘i’s overdependence on imported foods is not only through these dispossessive logics in plantation economies but also the overreliance on energy infrastructure in order to keep this all going.
Hiʻilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart [00:08:10]:
So essentially the book takes a look at the development of the cold chain and the way that the cold chain has really shaped the way that we eat, the way that we refresh ourselves, the ways that we articulate comfort in the world that is premised on these histories of empire.
Cathy Hannabach [00:08:26]:
What got you inspired to approach the history of Native Hawaiian dispossession through the lens of ice and food?
Hiʻilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart [00:08:34]:
As a doctoral student, I had already started my PhD program before turning to this project and was about halfway through my coursework and had entered into a food studies program in order to think about the intersections of food and media.
Hiʻilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart [00:08:49]:
I was coming out of a background in library science and archives management. My proposed project had absolutely nothing to do with settler colonialism, Indigenous studies, or Hawai‘i.
Hiʻilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart [00:09:01]:
Being a Kānaka Maoli who was born and raised in Hawai‘i, I think there was something in me that was always kind of leery about touching something that was so close.
Hiʻilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart [00:09:10]: I think that I had gone through higher education not having anybody pull me aside yet and say, “PS, if you do a project that has really significant stakes for you, it can be this really, exciting space to work in.”
Hiʻilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart [00:09:29]:
When you’re starting your dissertation, moving it into a book project that spans about a decade of one’s life, there has to be something in there that carries you through, that sustains you. For me, personal stakes have been the thing that sustains me, but nobody had ever mentioned this to me or it never occurred to me. So I was doing this food and media project in my program and for a number of personal reasons, I kind of hit pause.
Hiʻilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart [00:09:56]:
My parents had passed away not very long before and I had turned to the process of packing up and selling my family home in Hawai‘i. So there was something in that time period of my personal life that was a little bit unmooring.
Hiʻilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart [00:10:12]:
In the summer between my first and second year of coursework, I thought, “you know what, all of these things that I was expecting my parents to just pass down to me or hand down to me isn’t going to happen and the only way that I’m going to get a firm grasp on really understanding the place that I’m from and the place that I identify with is through self-education.”
Hiʻilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart [00:10:35]:
So at the beginning of that summer, I just checked out a stack of books that were like, you know, the 15 most important texts on Hawaiian political history.
Hiʻilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart [00:10:46]:
And I just was like, “this summer, I’m going to read this stack beginning to end, all the way through.” At the end of that summer, I convinced Audra Simpson, a Mohawk scholar at Columbia University, to let me into a settler colonialism and North America course. I thought I’ll just take this course as a gift to myself and in this class I can work out some of these questions and ideas that had come up for me that summer.
Hiʻilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart [00:11:09]:
I wrote this term paper for her and that term paper, by the time I finished, it became the first piece of the book. I reached out to my advisor, so I said, “Hey, you know what? The thing that I said I was going to do when I got here, I’m not going to do it. I need to do this project. This is the project that’s calling me.”
Hiʻilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart [00:11:27]:
So that’s the thing that turned into the book. The first piece of the book that I really started looking at were the trade agreements that the United States made with Hawai‘i, predominantly to facilitate the trade of sugar. But in those trade agreements were schedules of all kinds of consumer goods and a lot of food items, which is how I first started looking at it. And within those items was ice.
Hiʻilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart [00:11:52]:
So this was 1875 that the first agreement was made. And I thought, “well, how curious.” I was curious about the technological infrastructures for the trade of ice across vast distances. I was curious about why the US would want to protect a trade interest in ice to Hawai‘i.
Hiʻilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart [00:12:11]:
So I just started pulling on that thread. And as I pulled on that thread, I started realizing that ice, even though it was this really minor trade commodity between Hawai‘i and the US, signaled all kinds of ideas about empire, colonialism, race, refreshment, and the food system. So that’s how I got started on this book.
Cathy Hannabach [00:12:33]:
I think that’s such a great story of the windy paths that we all take into the projects that we deeply care about. I think there’s often a myth that it’s somehow linear, that we decide from the outset I shall produce a project about X, I have a complete understanding of what that is, and I will follow that through in this linear teleological fashion.
Hiʻilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart [00:12:54]:
As this shows, as the actual story behind scholarship shows, that’s not how it works at all. I think your metaphor pulling on the thread is a really great description of the much more complex way that we get into the stuff that we care about.
Hiʻilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart [00:13:07]:
Yes. It feels scary to change tack sometimes. As scholars, a lesson that we all variously learn is what to let go of and what to keep. It’s a significant amount of labor to do this kind of work. And sometimes we drop things in order to take up what we’re being called towards.
Hiʻilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart [00:13:28]:
I have gratitude to my past self for taking a really big chance in changing my direction midstream.
Cathy Hannabach [00:13:35]:
So that’s the story of what got you into inspired to start the project. I’d love to hear how that inspiration has shifted over the course of the project, over that 10 year span that you’re talking about. I think inspiration and motivation and staying invested in the project, even when you’re sometimes sick of it, particularly first book projects which, as you’ve pointed out, you work on for a long, long time at different stages of your career.
Cathy Hannabach [00:14:00]:
What do you do to stay inspired and invested in the actual writing process itself when you’re working on this long-term book writing project?
Hiʻilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart [00:14:12]:
It has really come down to remembering who I’m doing this project for. When you talk to Indigenous studies scholars, you’ll probably hear this frequently, that you are obligated to your community to do justice to these histories. These are histories that have been poorly written or misinterpreted by generations of non-Indigenous scholars.
Hiʻilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart [00:14:40]:
So as a Native Hawaiian scholar, I’m constantly reminded that there’s a community at home that’s going to read this work and I have to get it right. I’m obligated to get it right or to do the best that I can to interpret the historical sources with care and nuance and belief in my people.
Hiʻilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart [00:15:02]:
There’s folks at home that will read this book and will think about this book and have conversations with me about it. I’m not disassociated or unattached to these communities. So there’s a social aspect to this kind of work that feels very present.
Hiʻilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart [00:15:18]:
And then you’re also doing this work for your ancestors, thinking about these historical wrongs of occupation and dispossession that have happened in your home communities. That’s pretty good motivation to keep going.
Cathy Hannabach [00:15:36]:
Indigenous food sovereignty is something that I’ve talked with several guests on the show about over the years. You’ve written quite a lot about this as well, both in this book and in some of your previous scholarship too. I’m curious where you see the future of Indigenous food sovereignty movements or activism going. How do you see climate change or current political events, or future political events for that matter, motivate and inspire activist struggles around Indigenous food sovereignty?
Hiʻilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart [00:16:06]:
That’s a really complex question that I think is really useful for thinking about Indigenous food sovereignty. We tend to think about Indigenous food sovereignty as being about free access to culturally appropriate foods or the health implications of a colonized diet.
Hiʻilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart [00:16:24]:
But a lot of folks also understand that this has a lot to do with land dispossession across a deep history. One of the things that I really appreciate about the conversation around Indigenous food sovereignty is actually how large it is . It interrogates our interpersonal relationships with food, the way that we talk about food or think about food with our kin around the table, but also our relationships with the world around us, the environment, plants, and animals. It also signals political histories and so it interrogates private property regimes and resource extraction. So it’s one anchor for talking about a host of problems.
Hiʻilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart [00:17:05]
The way that I see the future of this conversation going is folks really understanding different communities as being in interrelated struggles. These struggles that Indigenous communities are having all around the world, whether it’s about access to food or about climate change, these are really connected through histories of empire and resource extraction, removal, and dispossession.
Hiʻilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart [00:17:32]: Increasingly, I think we’re getting the language for articulating the connections between distinct struggles.
Cathy Hannabach [00:17:41]:
So this brings me to my absolute favorite question that I like to close out every interview with and that’s that version of a better world that you’re working towards when you do this kind of work, that vision that inspires you, that keeps you motivated, that you build collectively with others in your community and beyond.
Cathy Hannabach [00:18:00]:
So I’ll ask you this giant question that I think is also a really important question. What’s the world that you’re working toward? What kind of world do you want?
Hiʻilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart [00:18:10]:
I have spent some time thinking about this question. It’s a question that I am excited to be asked and it’s a question that I’m a little bit nervous to be answering because I think it’s a really big question and a challenging question.
Hiʻilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart [00:18:28]:
There are lots of things that I would like to see in a world. I’d like to see a de-occupied Pacific. I’d like to see the dismantling of white supremacy. I’d like to see a world in which our food systems can be self-determined.
Hiʻilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart [00:18:42]:
I like the approach to thinking of otherwise worlds as a world in which many worlds can fit. We don’t all need to necessarily want the same thing. This helps remind me that our struggles, even if they are related, are also distinct.
Hiʻilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart [00:19:01]:
Communities of color and Indigenous communities in particular are incredibly varied. We have really specific histories that inform the visions that we have of the future. For Hawai‘i in particular, given my work and my project and my background in food studies, what I would really like to see is Hawai‘i be able to return to what Candice Fujikane really productively calls “economies of abundance.” Her new book, Mapping Abundance, it’s really lovely. One of the things that she marks or highlights in that work is to turn towards economies of abundance and away from capitalist economies of scarcity.
Hiʻilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart [00:19:39]:
I think that’s a really beautiful phrasing. How can we get at the issues of capitalism and how can we start to undo capitalism? She says, if we strike capitalism at its heart, we strike it at the way that it perpetuates scarcity.
Hiʻilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart [00:19:52]:
Instead we can turn to abundance and use that to our advantage. I realize I’m highlighting Candace’s work in order to answer this question. But for me, that’s incredibly generative in thinking about what an otherwise world might be.
Cathy Hannabach [00:20:06]:
Well, thank you so much for being with us today and sharing all of the amazing ways that you imagine otherwise.
Hiʻilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart [00:20:12]:
Cathy Hannabach [00:20:13]:
Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire and this episode was created by me, Cathy Hannabach. You can check out the show notes for this episode on our website at ideasonfire.net, where you can also read about our fabulous guest as well as find links to the people and projects we discussed on the show.
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