Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Captain Cook or God Lono? Anthropology's Stormy Seas

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Captain Cook or God Lono? Anthropology's Stormy Seas

Article excerpt


Marshall Sahlins

University of Chicago Press


UNCLE! Half way through anthropologist Marshall Sahlins's argument that the explorer Captain James Cook was received by the Hawaiians as a god, nonspecialist readers are likely to cry "enough."

Heavy with fact, packed with 17 appendixes, the deceptively slim book is as dense as uranium. Yet those who persevere will find in "How 'Natives' Think" an enlightening look at the issues that are reshaping academic disciplines like anthropology.

The story has two beginnings. The first occurred when Captain Cook made his second visit to the Hawaiian Islands in November 1778, at the very time the Hawaiians were observing the Makahiki ceremonies. In this period, the god Lono was thought to be making his annual passage through the islands, renewing nature.

The second beginning occurred in 1992, when anthropologist Gananath Obeyesekere's book, "The Apotheosis of Captain Cook," disputed Marshall Sahlins's career-long research on Hawaiian culture. Obeyesekere suggested that the Hawaiians were too pragmatic to have mistaken Cook for the god Lono.

At first blush, this sounds more like a faculty-room spat than a major controversy. It was not so much Obeyesekere's challenge, but his underlying assertions, that provoked Sahlins into writing this rejoinder. Sahlins's blunder, Obeyesekere alleged, resulted from the widely shared bias of white Westerners, who insist on seeing natives as gullible and childlike. Worse, Obeyesekere proposed that the myth of Cook's godhood reflected not the natives' perception, but Westerner's supposed superior self-image.

In briefest words, Sahlins's text responds to what he takes as Obeyesekere's presumption that anthropologists cannot think beyond the prejudices of Western culture.

Further, he understands Obeyesekere to be claiming special knowledge and affinity with the first-contact Hawaiians on the basis of his being a native Sri Lankan; that is, a nonwhite Westerner. As we say in universities these days, the issue comes down to "speaking for others."

With enviable wit and striking mental dexterity, Sahlins assembles testimony from the Cook expedition, Hawaiian cultural records, and contemporary scholarship to show how Obeyesekere has constructed a "pidgin anthropology. …

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