‘Our story remains unwritten’: the ethics of writing histories across cultures

by Tom Smith

What does it mean to write a history of a culture other than our own, and how do we do this sensitively? This is an issue upon which historians rarely reflect explicitly. My dual passions for American history and Pacific Ocean history have been fuelled not by any particular personal investment or cultural immersion, but by pure fascination. While I’ve visited the United States a handful of times, dipping my toes in the waters of San Francisco Bay is the closest I’ve ever come (geographically speaking) to the Pacific cultures whose histories I claim to represent. I hope to rectify this in the near future, but can I really claim that a three-week research visit gives me a more profound comprehension of these histories in any meaningful sense? Last year, I decided to take up learning Japanese in the hope that I can better reflect a range of perspectives in my work, but this is a slow process, and the great bulk of my research is still mediated through the observations of fellow English speakers.

I’m therefore left to wonder what the limits of my contribution might be, especially against the backdrop of vitriolic debates about ‘cultural appropriation’ which abound within the walls of our academic institutions (and, increasingly, outside of them). In the case of American history, there is a sense of a shared project across continents: a confidence made manifest in a recent volume, edited by four scholars from Europe and including essays by over twenty more, which insists that together we might ‘develop a fresh and more contextualized vision of American history, one informed by insights rooted in a diversity of geographical and cultural locations’.[1] On the other hand, Hawai‘i figures heavily in my work, and here the dynamics are very different, such that Hawaiian scholar and activist Haunani-Kay Trask argues that history ‘written in long volumes by foreign people’ cannot possibly come to terms with Hawaiian cosmologies and visions of the past:

‘If it is truly our history Western historians desire to know, they must put down their books, and take up our practices… The history of indigenous people cannot be written from within Western culture. Such a story is merely the West’s story of itself. Our story remains unwritten. It rests within the culture, which is inseparable from the land. To know this is to know our history. To write this is to write of the land and the people who are born from her.’[2]

Recent Hawaiian anthropologists have similarly cast doubt on how well we can understand Hawaiian history through English-language texts, especially given the prevalence of oral traditions, rather than writing, in Hawaiians’ narration of their own past.[3]

My own way of dealing with these problems is twofold. Firstly, to wheel out novelist L.P. Hartley’s oft-quoted adage, ‘the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there’.[4] Any historian necessarily engages in the act of curiously investigating and imagining something alien to themselves, and is duty-bound to acknowledge the implications of the gaps in time and space, and therefore in culture, which colour their work, and to treat them sympathetically. This would be just as much the case if I were studying Victorian Britain as it is when I am considering American encounters in the Pacific Ocean in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.

I also believe that clear statements of intent and recognition of limitations go a long way when dealing with cultures like that of Hawai‘i. I cannot assume that my concept of ‘history’ would make any sense to a contemporary Hawaiian seeking to narrate their own past. So, through my work, I seek not so much to claim coherent interpretation of a Hawaiian, or Japanese, or Filipino cosmology, but to analyze the ways in which outsiders’ thoughts and beliefs were often challenged, fragmented, and reconfigured as they came into contact with these foreign cultures and their alternative knowledge systems, as we begin to understand when we read archival sources ‘against the grain’. In this way, we see not a monolithic Western juggernaut steamrolling the cultures of isolated communities, but a creative and transformative interplay which is visible even through European and American sources, undermining outsiders’ claims to domination and demonstrating the crucial role of encounters between cultures in forging what we might call ‘modernity’. By acknowledging this, I hope to justify the confidence of another Polynesian scholar, Damon Salesa, that non-indigenous scholars can work to help sustain and enrich indigenous histories.[5] An open-minded and sincere approach to research can allow for new insights, challenging not only the assumptions of the past but also many of our own ingrained conceptions of what history entails.


Image: Simon P. Kalama, Na mokupuni o Hawaii nei (Maui: Kulanui Lahainaluna, 1837), Library of Congress (public domain: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Na_Mokupuni_o_Hawaii_Nei,_1837.jpg)



[1] Michael Heale, Sylvia Hilton, Halina Parafianowicz, Paul Schor, and Maurizio Vaudagna, ‘Watersheds in time and place: writing American history in Europe’, in Nicolas Barreyre, Michael Heale, Stephen Tuck, and Cécile Vidal (eds.), Historians across borders: writing American history in a global age (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2014), pp. 3-33, at p. 33.

[2] Haunani-Kay Trask, From a native daughter: colonialism and sovereignty in Hawai‘i, revised edition (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 1999), pp. 120-121.

[3] Brandy Nālani McDougall, ‘Putting feathers on our words: kaona as a decolonial aesthetic practice in Hawaiian literature’, Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, 3 (2014), pp. 1-22; Marvin Puakea Nogelmeier, Mai pa‘a i ka leo: historical voice in Hawaiian primary materials: looking forward and listening back (Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press, 2010).

[4] L.P. Hartley, The Go-between (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1953), p. 1.

[5] Damon Salesa, ‘The Pacific in indigenous times’, in David Armitage and Alison Bashford (eds.), Pacific histories: ocean, land, people (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), pp. 31-52, at p. 38.

2 thoughts on “‘Our story remains unwritten’: the ethics of writing histories across cultures

  1. There are parallels here with what has happened to history before. The nineteenth-century British consensus about the Reformation came up against the French and Spanish conceptions, and was enriched; the nineteenth-century imperialist reading of Cicero and Caesar was replaced by Syme’s “fascist revolution” interpretation and then again by a postmodernist approach. We can even see Herodotus struggling with the same issue as he learns how Egyptians and Persians saw their own past.

    But the real challenge is that interpretations are not of course homogeneous even within a society: Catholicism may have dwindled fast in England, but that was not the case in the German lands, and the debate in imperial Spain about the status of the American peoples was vigorous and protracted. Even among the Polynesians there are presumably partisans of unsullied tradition, and others who welcome the benefits of modernity and think that the loss of traditional perspectives is an acceptable price to pay for the material advantages of neoliberalism.

    The trick is perhaps to seek each time to ensure, as I think Smith is suggesting here, that new perspectives do not simply replace older ones, but build on them, rather in the manner of Hegelian dialectic.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I of course agree with your point that interpretations are never homogeneous within a society, and you’re right to say that one can’t suggest that there is a single Polynesian version of history any more than we can identify a monolithic ‘Western’ tradition. Such fragmentation within Polynesia wouldn’t only be due to different outlooks on ‘modernity’, but because interpretations of the past have for centuries been heavily politicised and thus vary across archipelagos, tribal groupings, and inter-island alliances. You’re also right to say that different perspectives have the potential to enrich one another – I suppose the point underpinning this post is that we’re perhaps not, as historians, always attentive enough to this fact!

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