Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Stories of Hawaiian Men: Ty P. Kawika Tengan

"Are you real?" This was the central question posed to Ty Kawika Tengan by his mentor/ethnographic subject, Sam Ka`ai, as Tengan did research toward his book, Native Men Remade: Gender and Nation in Contemporary Hawai`i, published by Duke University Press in 2008. Tengan, a member of the Ethnic Studies and Anthropology Departments at UHM, spoke at the Biography Center today about his "second family," the Hale Mua (or Men's House) group on Maui. Tengan has been a member of the group since 1997.

"Are you real?" is a question that presupposes the sense that you are not. Lacking a material and ritual culture, the Hawaiian men of Hale Mua formed in order to adopt and reshape a culture rendered fragmentary. They responded to a Hawai`i they considered over-feminized (especially by the tourist industry). Tengan showed us a cartoon from the Honolulu Advertiser, 1959, which showed American (a man), welcoming Hawai`i (a woman) onto the "ship of state." Typically, Hawaiian men are represented in the media either as prisoners or as warriors (in sports and in the US military). Hence the name of the UH football team since the June Jones era.

While men like Sam Ka`ai work with material culture--carving, farming taro--Tengan works with mo`olelo, or the stories they have shared with him, clips of which we saw on video. He also has a fine ear for language, pointing out that his friend/subject Kyle speaks of his life in the language associated with taro ("oha" is baby taro, and "ohana" a word for family that comes from that plant). Kyle spoke of feeling "grounded," even as we watched him in his lo`i (though Tengan confessed to having performed a voice-over).

A couple of ideas struck me:

--the "search" for Hawaiian culture, which in many ways resembles an adoptee's search for disconnected origins, is a luxury that depends on steady employment, and in Kyle's case, on there being family lands.

--"masculinity" was figured as warriorship, though Tengan says that their notion of being a warrior is not tied up with violence. That Hawaiians with warrior genealogies become Hawaiians who fight and die in Iraq is a complicated problem, indeed. Warrior for whom? It struck me that the masculinity Sangha is being taught at baseball by the local Japanese/haole/Filipino/Hawaiian/mixed race dads is related to this notion of warrior, but also tied up with violence. Is this due to the uneasy union of traditions, Hawaiian/local and American, or to something else? Might there be a way to convey the beautiful masculinity of ritual without the disturbing undertone of violence I hear in lines like "you gotta take a gun to the war" or "I feel fucking humiliATed")?

--the emphasis on material culture and on farming also serves as possible model for non-Hawaiians in considering what I was writing about earlier, namely the possible future of Hawai`i as a place where food, oil and water are scarce, the economy in deep recession, and existence less an intellectual than a material question. That this notion of material culture has a firm basis in spirituality and community is crucial. That it is figured here as "masculine" might be seen as a problem, but I suspect there are probably other researchers finding powerful models of female culture to complement Tengan's work on the men.

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