Reclaiming Mana Moana


The following is a discussion between two native wahine of Te Moananui a Kiwa. It discusses the interconnected streams of representation, storytelling, and occupation of indigenous landscapes from our relative spaces and within our common spaces.

One of us resides in Te Ika a Maui, Aotearoa, and one of us resides on Moku o Keawe- Hawaii Island, Hawai’i. Both of us reside on indigenous lands under occupation, and both of us reside as members of the indigenous territories of Te Moananui a Kiwa.

Tina: Tena koe Keala, me o koutou tini tipuna ki Hawai’i. Thankyou so much for sharing this discussion with me. There is so much that needs to be said from our relative genealogical and geographical spaces and I’m super appreciative of your insights. Mahalo nui.

Keala: Mahalo to you, Tina, for inviting me into this important discussion.


Tina:  We’ve both been quite vocal in our opposition to Disney’s “Moana.” I know that both of us share the reality of being indigenous peoples in colonised lands, and one of the key manifestations of colonisation that we experience here in Aotearoa is that of history and representation. From the very earliest days we have had anthropologists and ethnographers seeking to tell our stories, with disastrous outcomes. More recently here we are dealing with the impending year long multimillion dollar 250 year anniversary of Captain Cook’s arrival in Aotearoa (due in 2019).

Keala:  I have to interject here and say that it almost sounds fictional to me to hear of this celebration. I agree completely about this matter of representation. Obviously it goes way beyond the manifestation of a piece of culture theft like what Disney is doing, and we should really flesh that out. But wow! I am blown away by the notion, much less the plan, of celebrating Captain Cook’s arrival to anywhere, except where he belonged: England. It’s just wrong on so many levels. In Hawai‘i Nei we have a very different narrative about him, and he doesn’t get celebrated.

Tina:  Yes and I’ve been keenly aware of how much we differ in that regard. When I’ve hosted Kanaka Maoli visitors they’ve all commented on the way in which Cook is celebrated here, in contrast to Hawai’i, no doubt due to our British colonial underpinnings. Here in Turanganui a Kiwa, Cook got naming rights to the bay, 2 statues of him, a statue of the surgeon’s assistant, a statue of his boat, a memorial, a plaza, an observatory, a hospital, and a street, and now he gets a year of commemoration.

Keala: Wow, again! That’s a whole lot of commemorating already in place. That explains why the pakeha feel so entitled, they live in a place that is named for THEIR forefather, so to speak.

Tina: I’ve struggled with the way in which pākeha have initiated this 2019 discussion, then baited participation by stating the celebrations as a foregone conclusion, leaving us with only a choice to participate or have our version be completely left out, or misrepresented by others.

Keala:  Yes, because there are “versions” of history, right? Ours from our actual experiences and perspectives, and theirs. Except, they get two versions of their perspective, don’t they? They get their story of the who, what, where, and why of their actions, and then they get their version of our experience, which in their minds is enough. They bait you and then they confine the dialogue and if you don’t intervene for yourselves they will make it seem like everyone agrees because everyone is talking about it!

Tina: Exactly! It’s frustrating in the extreme when our own voices are used as a platform for someone else’s agenda. This conflation makes it difficult for us to navigate our way to a true space of agency – for even when we do have our say, it sits at the periphery of another, central theme that is not ours. Like Noam Chomsky says: “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum”.

Keala: Yes! And people are fooled into believing they exercised some kind of power when all along the outcome was, as you say, a forgone conclusion.

Tina: I wanted to share an experience I had recently when I went to Hawai’i. I was so very fortunate and honoured to be invited to come over and to be taken to Kealakekua Bay. I was very clear about what I wanted to do when we got there. I wanted to acknowledge your ancestors there…

What I experienced there was very distressing. When we sat in the boat, in the bay, the mana of that space was undeniable, but I was also overcome with grief. There was the mana of those sacred cliffs above us, and knowing the history as it relates to Kamehameha and the many ali’i of that space – the mana of the kupuna and land as one was overwhelming.  But it was overrun with tourists, and there in the middle of it all was this great white monstrosity. This artificial monolith imposed upon a sacred indigenous landscape and had become the focal point – with the actual mana ignored, or at best mentioned in the periphery.

Keala: Yah, there it stands, this white phallus commemorating Cook’s demise. But what marks our demise there in Kealakekua? The remnants of the Hikiau Heiau on the opposite side of the Cook monument are a real contrast. That bay, to me, has always had something sad about it. But Cook’s death isn’t why. I know that to British people it was a huge deal, him dying there. But to Hawaiians, not so much. He didn’t mean to Hawaiians what he meant to others.

It’s important to remember that initially when he showed up, it was during Makahiki, so a lot of Hawaiians were there because that’s a festival. But you saw the bay—it isn’t that large of an area, so it must have been really crowded. And I know that people have written, ad nauseam, about how the Hawaiians thought he was the god Lono, but that story began with Cook’s own crew. It’s hard for me to believe that such intelligent people would have mistaken him for a god, when clearly he and his crew were human. He’s thought of as the first haole they ever saw, but even that narrative should be questioned because Polynesians were phenomenal navigators and they’d been all over the Pacific. And haole people had already colonized places from North America to South America. But, as the story goes Cook was treated very well. But after he stayed for a while the Hawaiians bid him adieu… for I don’t know how long. Days? A week? Then he came back, right? And this time the reception wasn’t the same. Maybe they’d tired of him and his crew because they were high maintenance, and Makahiki was pau already so people were back to their normal. Working. Growing food, learning, teaching, praying, relating, doing what they did in the course of an average day.

There is some speculation about his behaviour in the third voyage, that it may have been affected by the diseases he and his crew carried, like syphilis. The reason for that analysis is because during his last days his otherwise calm demeanour was replaced by a short temper and angry outbursts. His attempt to kidnap Kalaniopuu, the ali’i nui, was a bad decision. He was angry because some Hawaiians had supposedly stolen one of his cutters. And when the people realized what Cook was doing, because it was Cook literally leading Kalaniopuu away, they killed him and several of his men.

And then life got back to normal, except with the added burden of diseases Cook’s men left behind and now, unbeknownst to them, Hawaii was on a British map.

Tina: Thankyou so much for sharing that. It’s criminal, to me, that the mana of these sacred spaces and names, and the perspectives of the people of that space are lost in the “white noise” of Cook’s story, or that they must hang off it like baubles on a Christmas tree.  I couldn’t help but consider that this was exactly what was happening again, 250 years later in Aotearoa. The indigenous story being placed at the periphery of the story of Cook’s arrival. In fact this is what has been happening right throughout the years in between – our indigenous voices taking a back seat and the crimes against us as indigenous peoples consistently being minimised for some other “greater good”.  I was honestly unprepared for being so strongly struck with this as a visual manifestation when I got there.

Keala: Well, mahalo to you for noticing the desecration this monument to white-ness is. I also want to say that this centuries long colonial hypnosis about us always giving it up for someone else’s idea of the “the greater good” is so pervasive that it actually feeds into our erasure from from multiple directions. One example is our kakau being taken by non-natives. Permanently taken. If we say something about it, the taker always makes out like there’s something wrong with us for noticing the appropriation, and that we should be glad that they’re sharing in our culture. And it only gets more pronounced when our own people go along with it and make like it’s no big deal instead of realizing that the colonial slide is a one way ticket.

That idea of the “greater good” really means for the good of everyone except the native who is opposed to the taking or oversharing of our heritage.

TINA: There’s something extremely disquieting for me in what you’ve pointed out there – there is a sense of entitlement about this “admiration” that tends to equal entitlement. It’s as if “no” just doesn’t apply to them. They see it, they want it, they take it, and we are supposed to feel honoured and thankful. It is our defiance, rather than the act of taking, that is vilified. We are expected to offer ourselves up to be defiled – to submit and in fact to assist in this act, and to be grateful for the opportunity. If it sounds like I’m talking about rape culture, it’s because that’s exactly how it seems to me. A cultural rape. We see this of course in the way Disney exhibits entitlement toward indigenous stories – but really this is a contemporary extension of the same imperial mentality that drove Cook’s entitlement to sail into other peoples’ territories, claim land under the doctrine “terra nullius”, and treat the carnage he left behind as regrettable collateral damage.

Keala: You’ve really hit on something here—it’s a rape culture. That’s at the root of “Western Civilization,” this patriarchal value and economic system that gets called different things. While we know rape isn’t unique to the European system, the white supremacy that informs that culture is pretty specific. So they call it mining, which literally is a rape of the aina, which is physically probed or mutilated to death; there’s the extraction of “resources” that are taken to such a degree as to throw the entire ecosystem off balance. What is done to us socially and psychologically affects our souls. We are undone spiritually and psychically when the Euro-American cultural and economic norms are all that’s ever reinforced, whether by celebrating Captain Cook or Disney’s commodification of our shared heritage, something’s being done to us. Collectively.

But you’re really articulating a reality check for all of us, because 250 years after the horrors began for many Pacific peoples, we are still subsumed into the foreign, white, settler, colonial narrative of us and our countries. There’s no way around it. The fact that in Aotearoa the government and the people think Cook is someone to celebrate… hard to get my mind around it, except to link it to other critical issues that we are all facing right now. Settlement. That seems to be a subliminal agenda in Hawaii, and I know there have been settlements in your country. The settler is trying to settle us. Still. And they do it with their narratives and their heroicizing of a man who literally, not figuratively, but literally brought genocidal European diseases, like syphilis, to our peoples. He and his men and their ships were like the U.S. Army giving out small pox blankets to unsuspecting natives on the continent. Different processes, but also similar: white people knowingly gave deadly diseases to native peoples. Isn’t that the first “gift” of colonization, genocidal diseases?

Tina: And any apparent regrets Cook had over that never actually extended to him rethinking the expedition in the first place. He made a calculated decision and decided the price we would pay was worth it.

Keala: Yes, his idea of “the greater good.”

Tina: And now, we are somehow cast as being unreasonable, or somehow less than progressive, in pointing these issues out. There’s so much that we have still to resolve, but we’re still not even allowed to talk about it for what it was, and the threat that it still is.

Keala: Right. And juxtapose that attitude with the way the U.S. is constantly on about how threatened it is, as a nation, and therefore wages war on whoever and wherever it wants to.

Tina: I know the military presence in Hawai’i is pervasive in the extreme and your documentary Noho Hewa really drives that home. In Aotearoa the military presence is less obvious but I’m also incredibly mindful that what is being expected here is the celebration of a naval incursion upon our lands, and our collective ocean territory. We have a long and complex relationship with the military but they have generally always been one step ahead of paving the way for the extraction of our resources, whether it be the naval vessel Endeavour scouting the globe to facilitate the expansion of the British Empire, or the use of Maori forces in the clash of expanding European empires, or securing Pacific territories as trade posts and power bases, or the use of military force to clear indigenous peoples away from natural resources that governments have bargained away to multinational corporations, which we see repeatedly here in Aotearoa and overseas.

Keala: You bring up a really important historical and narrative fact—Captain Cook was on a military mission! I forget that, or see that as secondary to the way he’s portrayed as some kind of explorer, a great navigator, etc. Uh, he was militarily expanding the British Empire. ‘Appreciate the reminder!

Tina: Yes – the Endeavour was a naval research vessel and Cook was a naval officer. We’re expecting military presence here during the celebrations too, in recognition of that.

Keala: Tina, that reminds me of something a Vietnamese friend in New York said to me once. We were in a taxi headed for the train station, and we past the USS Intrepid – it’s permanently docked there, and is now a museum. In Hawaii, we see military leftovers all the time. I mean, the USS Arizona is a Memorial in Pearl Harbor and millions of people visit it every year. But there we were sitting in traffic and out the window was this ship. And she says to me, “That ship sat off the coast of Vietnam raining down bombs non-stop for a very long time.” I was just floored by that. Imagine what it’s like for Vietnamese people to see that f-ing murderous thing.

What you’re talking about here is like having it shoved in your faces. 250 years later, though. The colonial project is still not done with you Maori!

Tina: No, it isn’t. Challenging the role of the military in corporate state structures is made difficult though, when so much of our own history is tied up in it, and I’m conscious of the way in which the military seduces our people into enrolling, how the navy invokes our Atua Tangaroa as a name for its US-NZ war activity, how the army invokes the name of our Atua “Tumatauenga” in it’s name (Ngati Tumatauenga, descendants of Tumatauenga) and in these ways revises our own native identities and histories and subsumes them within a Crown construct. We’re left with a perverse situation where vessels of war, having snatched Atua identities, are bombing those same Atua. It’s an insidious way of eroding our own distinct roles as defenders of Tangaroa, of Rangi and of Papa, when those who oppose our protection also claim these names.

Keala: That’s the process, isn’t it? Take. Rename. Absorb parts of our own warrior ways—all in an often successful effort to erase us and our histories. The U.S. military conducted or facilitated the coup that overthrew the government of Queen Liliuokalani. American generals had already set their eyes on Wai Momi (now called Pearl Harbor), and even though now it’s a pig sty of militarism and is now part of the largest military command on earth… it was one of if not the largest fish pond anywhere. Hawaiians had perfected the fishpond and it was one of the main ways they nurtured themselves, and they were very strong and healthy because of what they ate and how they lived. God knows how many millions of Hawaiians were fed by that one fishpond. Now look at it. Talk about desecration, and that’s a whole other tool of Empire: desecration.

But one of the earliest American military forts in Honolulu was named Fort Kamehameha. They’ve named ships and planes and helicopters and so many things with Hawaiian names. And plenty times Hawaiian cultural practitioners go out there and bless these murderous monstrosities and do Hawaiian prayers. It’s hard to bare, this kind of abuse of Hawaiian culture. Just saying that it’s abusive will cause some Hawaiians to get really upset. The cost to us of the American Empire’s militarism is ongoing. It’s the wound that never heals.

Tina: Exactly, and this is, I guess, exactly what we have been getting at, this theme of desecration, and that the desecration of our cultural landscape, as we see with Disney, and with tourism, is merely an extension of the violent desecration of our sacred sites such as that carried out by the military. That both of these elements have an insidious, seductive element to them, and bridging these spaces are the false “discovery” narratives that seek to redefine our historical experiences at the same time as they impose themselves on our sacred landscapes, like Kealakekua and Turanganui a Kiwa.

Keala, I am so very grateful for your time and mana’o. Also for your strength in speaking your heart. It’s our love for these places and the tipuna that inhabit them that drives us to speak out but I know so very well the risks taken when we do so. So for your strength, and courage, and all that you’ve shared – mahalo nui.


111Anne Keala Kelly is the award winning filmmaker of “Noho Hewa: The Wrongful Occupation of Hawai‘i,” and a journalist whose work has appeared in The Nation and Indian Country Today, and on the Pacifica Network and Al Jazeera. You can find some of her work at

222Tina Ngata hails from the tribal nation of Ngati Porou on the East Cape of Te Ika a Maui, Aotearoa (New Zealand). She works for indigenous university Te Wananga o Aotearoa as a diploma- and degree-level educator in indigenous environmental leadership. She blogs underneath the name “The Non-Plastic Maori” about issues relating to indigenous rights and environmental issues.



  1. Interesting discussion. However, I must point out that the story of Europeans purposefully infecting Native Americans (or any other native people) with disease is WRONG. This claim was debunked long ago. Surely, you two must know that?


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