A study in post-contact religion 1
Steven J. Friesen
The title of this volume highlights the problem of trying to move beyond a paradigm in religious studies (and in other disciplines) that requires the concept of the primitive. Charles Long has suggested that such a move would be profoundly disorienting because any attempt to transcend primitivism threatens to throw the meaning of modernity itself into disarray. According to Long, the idea of the primitive is inextricably enmeshed within the concept “civilization” (Long 1986:79-96). “The problematical character of Western modernity created the language of the primitives and primitivism through their own explorations, exploitations, and disciplinary orientations” (ibid.: 93). Thus, the Western concept of the “primitive” has signified the inferior Other, the marker of alterity, against which “civilization” defines itself, its activities, and its knowledge. 2
If the paradigm “modernity” collapses, through what lens shall we view the world? I am not ready to suggest some new general theory. Rather, my strategy is to excavate archives from a specific moment in the colonial history of the Hawaiian islands. In this way, I begin to construct new knowledge that is motivated by these concerns and that might play a part in the effort to generate a more equitable theory of the nature of the worlds in which we live. This chapter focuses on one object, the Hawaiian floral lei, and traces the transformations to which it was subjected in a colonial setting. I make use of the discussions unleashed in 1928 when Caucasians proposed a new holiday honoring the lei. In these discussions, we can discern both one chapter in a “biography” of the lei (Thomas 1991:188), as well as one mechanism for the renegotiation of modernity in Hawai`i, as the lei was forcibly relocated from a Hawaiian socio-religious setting through a variety of post-contact situations.
This approach results in several conclusions. First, the concept of modernity needs to be fragmented to allow for its diverse manifestations in the world, as well as the transformations of modernity that occur in any given locale. Secondly, specific contact settings may be viewed as complex, negotiated, or imposed settlements between parties unequally yoked, through which all parties are changed. Thirdly, the transformations of meaning undergone by the Hawaiian lei as modernities were renegotiated highlights certain aspects of post-contact religion. In the first section of the chapter, I recount briefly some developments from the 150 years between contact and Lei Day in order to show the phase of post-contact interaction within which Lei Day was conceivable.