Imagine Otherwise: Maile Arvin on Kuleana and Indigenous Feminist Community

by | Jun 23, 2021

Maile Arvin on Kuleana and Indigenous Feminist Community

by Cathy Hannabach and Ideas on Fire | Imagine Otherwise | ep 136

About the episode

Community building is a cornerstone of progressive social and intellectual movements. Resisting capitalist individualism, we know how vital social bonds are in sustaining our identities, our dreams, and even our very lives.

But it’s easy to romanticize community and forget the work involved in forging and tending those social bonds—labor that often reflects the very power dynamics that we seek to dismantle.

In episode 136 of Imagine Otherwise, host Cathy Hannabach interviews Kānaka Maoli feminist scholar Maile Arvin, who explains why she approaches community building through the Native Hawaiian concept of kuleana, or a reciprocal relationship of responsibility.

In the conversation, Maile and Cathy consider the racially gendered labor of community and responsibility as well how Native Hawaiian communities and curators are drawing on both to transform colonial legacies.

We close out the episode with Maile’s vision of imagining otherwise in the classroom through centering decolonization and accessibility in her Indigenous feminist pedagogy.

Guest: Maile Arvin

Maile Arvin is a Kānaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) feminist scholar who works on issues of race, gender, science, and colonialism in Hawai‘i and the broader Pacific.

She is an assistant professor of history and gender studies at the University of Utah and the codirector of the Pacific Islands Studies Program.

Maile is the author of Possessing Polynesians: The Science of Settler Colonial Whiteness in Hawaiʻi and Oceania (Duke University Press, 2019) and her scholarship and commentary has been published in Meridians, American Quarterly, Native American and Indigenous Studies, Critical Ethnic Studies, The Scholar & Feminist, Feminist Formations, and Truthout.

Episode themes

  • Being responsible for one another
  • Resisting harmful narratives about Indigenous lives
  • Interdisciplinary scholarship and community accountability
  • Intersections of decolonization and prison/police abolition
Maile Arvin wearing a black and white coat. Quote reads: I’m trying to get students to recognize that Indigenous communities have always had the answers to the problems that they’re facing. The point of my classroom is not to teach students that they need to help Indigenous people but that Indigenous people have a lot to teach them.
Maile Arvin wearing a black and white coat. Quote reads: I try to move away from a generalized idea of community to get really specific about relationships and responsibilities. In Hawaiian epistemology, we have this word kuleana, which has a lot of connotations of geneaology and determines relationships and responsibilities that you have to other people and to the land.

Transcript

Click to read the transcript

Cathy Hannabach: 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.

[00:00:19]

I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach.

[00:00:23]

Community building is a cornerstone of progressive social and intellectual movements. Resisting capitalist individualism, we know how vital social bonds are in sustaining our identities, our dreams, and even our very lives.

[00:00:38]

But it’s easy to romanticize community and forget the work involved in forging and tending to those social bonds—labor that often reflects the very power dynamics that we seek to dismantle.

[00:00:49]

My guest today on the show is Kānaka Maoli feminist scholar Maile Arvin, who explains why she approaches community building through the Native Hawaiian concept of kuleana, or a reciprocal relationship of responsibility.

[00:01:03]

In our conversation, Maile and I consider the racially gendered labor of community and responsibility as well as how Native Hawaiian communities and curators are drawing on both to transform colonial legacies.

We close out the episode with Maile’s vision of imagining otherwise in the classroom through centering decolonization and accessibility in her Indigenous feminist pedagogy.

[00:01:27]

Thank you so much for being with us today, Maile.

[00:01:30] Maile Arvin:

Thanks so much for having me.

[00:01:32] Cathy Hannabach:

So this month at Ideas on Fire, we’re celebrating the power of community, particularly its role in the work that we do in the world. What role is community playing for you in your projects right now?

[00:01:43] Maile Arvin:

That’s a great and complicated question. Especially in the pandemic, I always try to think of community as a really complex thing.

As a Native Hawaiian scholar, working at the University of Utah, there’s often a lot of expectations placed on me and other Indigenous and scholars of color about community. We are often expected to be representatives of our communities.

[00:02:07]

We’re expected to do various kinds of so-called service work that our white colleagues are not necessarily tasked with. Especially when we’re talking about community in a university context, it comes with all these really loaded racial expectations. So that’s one thing that comes up for me when I think about that.

When I do try to think about how I relate to community in my work, I try to move away from that broader, very generalized idea of community to get really specific about relationships and responsibilities.

[00:02:43]

In Hawaiian epistemology, we have this word called kuleana, which is generally glossed as responsibility but it also has a lot of connotations about genealogy. Your genealogy determines certain kinds of relationships and responsibilities that you have to other people and to the land.

[00:03:11]

So when I think more along those lines, that gets me away from assuming a very general idea of the so-called Native Hawaiian community and it makes me think more directly about the people that I write about, or the groups that I work with, or the other Native Hawaiian scholars that are community to me.

In my writing and teaching, I try to portray all the communities that I write about, including Native Hawaiians, other Pacific Islanders, and other Indigenous communities, in the most complex way that I can.

[00:03:40] Cathy Hannabach:

One of the things that interdisciplinary scholars continually emphasize is, as you point out, this importance of making our scholarly research relevant to and responsible to the people and populations that are affected by the things we study. This is something that you’ve had a long commitment to. I’m thinking the way that you position your book, Possessing Polynesians, for example.

I’d love to delve into some of the specifics of how your approach to responsibility and relationality shapes your writing practice, and maybe also in the classroom.

[00:04:17] Maile Arvin:

Especially in teaching, I really try to get students to understand that Indigenous communities, including Pacific Islanders but also other Indigenous communities, are complex and diverse and that we have conflict and disagreement within and among our communities.

[00:04:42]

A lot of Indigenous feminists scholars and their writing about their research and pedagogy have influenced me. One example is Eve Tuck and her insistence on moving from damage-based frameworks to desire-based ones.

When we’re talking about Indigenous communities, often students, when they come into my classrooms, they might not necessarily have learned about Pacific Islanders in a classroom ever before.

[00:05:04]

There are a lot of stereotypes that they might have, even if they’re a Pacific Islander themselves, just because they’ve never had an opportunity to engage in a scholarly way with the histories of colonialism or Pacific Islander cultures in a complex way.

So I’m trying to get all students to enter learning about Indigenous communities by not dismissing the trauma and violence that many Indigenous communities have in their history and in their present, but also not allowing students to leave my classroom and think, “Oh, it’s so sad. What has happened to Native Hawaiians?” To me, that would be a huge failure of my classroom.

[00:05:55]

Rather, I want them to be able to recognize the really interesting and complex things that Native Hawaiians are doing today to address these historic violences, like the movement around protecting Mauna Kea, or there’s been a lot of exciting activism that’s about allyship between Native Hawaiians and the Black community and the Micronesian community in Hawai‘i.

[00:06:18]

I’m trying to get students to move beyond stereotypes but also recognize that Indigenous communities have always had the answers to many of the problems that they’re facing. So the point of my classroom is not to teach students that they need to help Indigenous people but that actually Indigenous people have a lot to teach them.

[00:06:42] Cathy Hannabach:

Do you find that the emphasis on responsibility and relationality shapes the way that you approach the writing process? I’ve talked with a lot of people on this show about their various writing techniques and how they approach writing. It runs the gamut from the frustrations that we all certainly experience with writing to the deep pleasure in the process, as well as in seeing the fruits of that writing circulate in the world.

Do you find that your approach to relationality shapes your writing practice?

[00:07:13] Maile Arvin:

All of the things we’ve been talking about with research and teaching applies to the writing process as well. Especially when I think about my book, Possessing Polynesians, community concerns were always in the forefront of my mind while I was writing.

[00:07:32]

Possessing Polynesians is about scientific racism in Hawai‘i and the ways that various ideas are still very much with us today, like the idea that Hawai‘i is some magical multicultural melting pot at that has no racism. I write about how we got there, where those ideas came from. They can be really ugly and difficult to confront.

[00:08:04]

I think about that a lot in my writing and why I’m drawn to writing about hard things that some people, even in my own community, would rather me not. I don’t have a pat answer or way that I overcome those difficult feelings. But it still feels like it’s really important to write about these hard things because they’ve been covered up and we don’t really understand where those ideas—like Hawai‘i as a multiracial melting pot—come from.

[00:08:30]

I think it’s so important that we have more scholarship that is attentive to, again, not only the damage that these ideas have done but also the ways that our communities have always fought them. I think we need to know both of those things in order to go forward.

One really exciting thing that has happened in the last year is at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu. They’ve just opened this exhibit called (Re)Generations, which is about the history of Louis Sullivan, who was an anthropologists that worked there and that I write about in my book.

[00:09:01]

The curators are Jillian Swift and Keolu Fox. They were inspired by my book to put on this exhibit that looks at the scientific racist history of Louis Sullivan. He took hundreds and hundreds of photographs of Native Hawaiian people in order to classify their physical, racial features.

[00:09:21] 

But today, those photographs are being used by community to trace genealogy and just to like, have a picture of your great, great, great uncle or grandfather or aunt. That exhibit is…I think it’s a really exciting. I haven’t gotten to see it yet, but I felt really excited that my book was one inspiration for that kind of work.

[00:09:44] Cathy Hannabach:

You mentioned that the pandemic has changed a lot about how you approach community. I think that’s a shared experience that we’ve all had. I know I personally have as well. How we build and sustain bonds has just radically been upended.

But I’ve also been talking with a lot of folks who have mentioned that it’s taught them some really interesting lessons about community that they want to carry forward. I’m curious how that has played out for you. Are there any things that you’ve learned about community or ways that you’ve learned to approach community differently over the past year that you want to carry forward?

[00:10:21] Maile Arvin:

It’s been so hard not being able to see people physically, especially family. My mom and all my mom’s side live in Hawai‘i and I’m in Utah. I have a young daughter and it’s been really hard that they haven’t been able to see us for most of my daughter’s life. Part of the lessons of the pandemic are not taking those things for granted, like access to our family or things like that.

[00:10:58]

I hope that going forward, questions of accessibility and disability will be really impossible to ignore anymore. I’m part of the Pacific Island Studies Program here at the University of Utah. We’ve done some online events over the past year and we’ve tried to think carefully about issues of access in terms of captioning and things like that but also trying to bring questions of accessibility to the forefront in everything that we do, which comes out at disability activism and disability studies.

[00:11:28]

I think it is also connected to broader questions about accessibility of the university that we were already grappling with and thinking about because of how inaccessible the university feels to many Pacific Islanders that are from Utah. We’ll keep thinking about that, and I really hope that other programming will continue to think about that as well. 

[00:11:46] Cathy Hannabach:

This podcast is called Imagine Otherwise, obviously, and I think the way that you approach your work is a really good example of doing just that and what that looks like on the ground. So I will ask you the question that I close out every episode with: What is the world that you’re working toward? What kind of world do you want?

[00:12:06] Maile Arvin:

That’s such a beautiful question. My current research project is about the history of training schools, which were kind of analogous to Native American boarding schools, in Hawai‘i. They incarcerated Native Hawaiian and Asian youth in Hawai‘i in the Territorial Period, which was from about 1900 to 1959. I’ve been really sitting with and thinking about how to write about resistance.

[00:12:41]

I’ve also really come to see issues of decolonization and abolition as intertwined. The future

I want to see is the ending of settler colonial institutions, including the ones that take children (which are the ones that I’m writing about) but also policing, prisons, punitive immigration systems, and private property. All of those are settler colonial institutions that need to be abolished as part of decolonization.

[00:13:06]

My hopes for imagining the world otherwise is an abolitionist dream of decolonization. That would be a world where land is not something to be owned but is the foundation or the revitalization of Black, Indigenous, and other nonwhite and non-settler forms of care and life. Those forms of care and life would ideally supplant not only the need for physical institutions, like the training schools that I write about or prisons or asylums, but really the idea of human caging at all.

[00:13:42]

I’ve seen more and more people make the connections between abolition and decolonization has been among the most exciting work that I see and that I hope my work contributes to.

[00:13:56] Cathy Hannabach:

Thank you so much for being with us today and sharing all the ways you imagine otherwise.

[00:14:02] Maile Arvin:

Thank you so much.

[00:14:07] Cathy Hannabach:

Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire, and this episode was created by Christopher Persaud and myself, 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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