Producing Pearl Harbor:
Militourism, Memory, and Colonial Curations of Space
Paxon Balthazar Kalāhikiola Chang
The H-1 spans from West to East O’ahu, contouring the Leeward side of the island, extending from Farrington Highway in Kapolei to Kalaniana’ole Highway in Kāhala. I move through O’ahu by way of the H-1:
Begin on the Eastside at Aunty Babes’s apartment in Hawaii Kai.
Exit at Kapiolani for Uncle Kealoha’s.
Exit at Pali for Aunty Healani’s.
Exit at Kalihi for Kamehameha Kapālama.
Exit at Pearl City for Dad’s old house.
Drive up the hill toward Luehu St.
Stop at Uncle Daren’s.
Remember Grandma and Grandpa once lived here, are still felt here.
End on the Westside at Cousin Varnell’s in Waianae.
I map the H-1 through the names of loved ones. The highway weaves my family together, each stop along the way filling itself and flowing into the next. This is the path I follow as I make my way home.
A few years ago, my father and I were driving down the highway when I noticed, for the first time, that the sign posts were marked “Interstate Hawaii H-1.” Interstate. This confused me, so I asked my father why it was labeled as such when these highways couldn’t cross island borders, let alone state borders. He sighed and explained that the highways didn’t connect states but military institutions: the H-1 linking Pearl Harbor and Hickam Air Force Base, the H-2 linking Schofield Army Base and Wheeler Base, and the H-3 linking the Marine Corps Base. The military moves through O’ahu by the way of the H-1:
Begin on the Eastside at Aunty Babes’s apartment in Hawaii Kai.
Exit at Kapiolani for Fort DeRussy.
Exit at Pali for Honolulu Coast Guard Base.
Exit at Kalihi for Fort Shafter.
Exit at Pearl City for Pearl Harbor.
Drive down the hill for Hickam Air Force Base.
Stop at Pearl Harbor Memorial.
“Remember WWII Valor in the Pacific.”
I map the H-1 through the names of these bases. The highway weaves together the militarized power of the State, each stop along the way cutting deeper into open wounds of displacement, dispossession, and disappearance. This is the path I am compelled to follow as I make my way home.
* * *
My grandmother named me Kalāhikiola.
Kalā: the Sun
Hiki: to make possible; to reach; to arise
Kalāhikiola: Sun which brings life
My grandmother named me Kālahikiola to tell the story of my birth. The moment the Sun touched the Earth, she would say, they breathed life into you. I was born at sunset. Kalāhikiola binds me to the Sun, to Kānaka Maoli, and to my grandmother. I carry all of this, all of her, and all that came before her in my name.
A storied body.
My grandmother named me Kalāhikiola, but my parents named me Paxon.
Pax: Latin for peace
Paxton: Latin for peaceful town or home
My parents named me Paxon to tell the story of my birth. You were a peaceful baby, they would say, you gave us calm. Paxon because it means peace. But more so because it can be found in the Bible. And because it is easy for people to pronounce (they thought). I was first named Kalāhikiola, but I am now called Paxon.
A storied body.
But a story that conceals another.
* * *
I never questioned how Pearl City came to be known by its name. The city borders Pearl Harbor, so it seemed an obvious association. Pearl City was named for its harbor. I hadn’t inquired further until a friend asked my father if Pearl City was where the “Hawaiian pearl” his mother wore had come from. My father said that pearls were an import, most being from Tahiti, and he had never seen pearls in or near Pearl City.
Pearl City was named for its harbor. But its harbor was named for its resources. Centuries before, Kānaka called the harbor waters Wai Momi – Pearl River. What is today the harbor was once teeming with pearl oysters. Kānaka cherished these oysters, eating the oyster meat and using the shells to carve fishing hooks.
In addition to housing oysters, Wai Momi was an abundant estuary filled with seafood and loko i’a, or fishponds, that cultivated ama’ama and awa. These waters became an intricate part of O’ahu’s ahupua’a system. In the 1400s, Mā’ilikūkahi, the ruling chief of O’ahu, developed a land division system that created land sections across the island. Ahupua’a functioned as self-sustaining land units that worked to decrease disputes over land use, to ensure everyone access to all necessary land resources, and to cultivate both community and mālama ‘āina, care for the land. Wai Momi fed four ahupua’a: Honouliuli on the west, Halawa in the south, Mananā in the middle, and Waimalu on the east. Kānaka called this area encompassing Wai Momi Pu’uloa – or long hill – describing how the land extended deep into the ocean to form these semi-enclosed waters.
When settlers first came to Pu’uloa, they fished oysters solely for the pearls they contained. They fished so frequently that oysters became scarce in Wai Momi, prompting King Kamehameha I to declare kapu on oysters in an attempt to preserve its supply. During this time, kapu was imposed on certain resources throughout the year to allow them time to regenerate and increase, ensuring that food supplies would remain for years to come. The settlers, however, ignored this law and continued to fish until oysters disappeared from the waters by the mid-nineteenth century. Extraction to the point of erasure. This is what they called Pearl Harbor.
* * *
In 1840, it was named Pearl Harbor for the abundance of pearl oysters that once filled its waters. Yet, it would not be until a century later, when new life began to sink into the crevices that once held these treasures, that it would forever be remembered as Pearl Harbor. December 7, 1941 – “a date which will live in infamy.” On this day, the place of Pearl Harbor became absorbed into the narrative of “Pearl Harbor,” the site of the 1941 Japanese attack. The memorial site that has been built to remember this day crafts a particular narrative of place and people that – through name and story – conceals and forgets histories and traditions of Pu’uloa.
Pearl Harbor is a Hawaiian place: Wai Momi, Ke Awalau o Pu’uloa, Wahi Pana o Kānekua’ana, Hale o Pipi. Pearl Harbor is a Hawaiian place, yet the discursive production of “Pearl Harbor” strategically effaces this history. In elevating the traumatic memory of the 1941 attack, in situating Japan as Pearl Harbor’s sole perpetrator, the memorial site obscures the violence of imperialism that not only provoked the attack but also predated it. The spectacle of December 7th plays an integral role in legitimizing U.S. militarization in the Pacific. In re-remembering Pu’uloa as Pearl Harbor, there is much we are asked to forget.
* * *
How does forgetting work? What compels me to embrace a fractured memory, to find comfort in not knowing, not asking?
Sometimes, memories go missing. So much of Pu’uloa is not known. There are some stories that weave together a Kanaka understanding of the harbor. I cherish these mo’olelo, and I cherish the people and places that protected them so that they could one day make their way to me. Still, there is a lot that can never be reached, a lot that escapes public knowledge, memory, and practice. So much of Pu’uloa cannot be found again. Our kūpuna intimately knew Wai Momi. They would fish, bath, surf, and malama ‘aina at Pu’uloa. Today, the waters are too polluted to sustain marine life, to nourish its people. To even touch the water is considered toxic.
Sometimes, memories are made inaccessible. The illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom and the continued occupation of the nation by the U.S. government has dispossessed Hawaiians from their land and dislocated them from Indigenous knowledges and practices embedded within place. The settler state’s investment in Pearl Harbor has violently impacted Kanaka relationships with Pu’uloa, preventing us from connecting to the land in tangible and sustainable ways. Pu’uloa can only be accessed through a memorial site controlled by the state. To even touch the water is considered toxic.
Pearl Harbor disorients us. This is how forgetting works.
* * *
Kānaka tell an alternative story of the departure of the pearl oysters. The mo’o, or water lizard, Kānekua’ana came from Kahiki to the moku of ‘Ewa and established herself as the aumakua mo’o, the water spirit guardian, of the entire district. From Kahiki, Kānekua’ana brought with her varied types of seafood and the pipi, the pearl oyster, to be cared for in ‘Ewa. The mo’olelo tells us that, during kapu, an elderly woman found pipi in great supply. Although knowing pipi gathering was forbidden at the time, the woman took them and hid them in her basket under seaweed. The konohiki, the steward of the land, noticed the pipi in the woman’s basket, took them from her, and returned them to the sea.
The woman felt immense remorse for her actions and attempted to explain how poverty had led her to break this kapu. The konohiki, however, dismissed her motive and demanded monetary payment. The woman felt this request was not only infeasible but also unfair, as the pipi had already been returned to the water and the wrong had been undone. Seeing this argument unfold, Kānekua’ana was filled with incredible anger. Haole greed for money and lust for pearls had settled in ‘Ewa and infiltrated the motivations of her people so deeply that they now were disobeying kapu and exploiting one another for profit. That evening, Kānekua’ana possessed the body of a neighbor and informed all those in the community that she would be returning the pipi to Kahiki since it was no longer respected in ‘Ewa. From that night on, pearl oysters would never replenish the waters of Pu’uloa.
Yes, this is a story of loss, but it is also as a story of protection and of reclamation.
* * *
The first time I visited Pearl Harbor was three years ago. My father took my brother and I seemingly out of obligation. He told us that, since we had been driving past the memorial for years, we should probably go see it. He hadn’t been there since he was a teenager, visiting it once during a class trip in high school. When we arrived, I was surprised by how many tour buses and rental Jeeps flooded the parking lot. It was one of the busiest tourist attractions I’d seen in while (I hadn’t visited Waikiki in years). When we walked in, I headed toward what appeared to be a ticketing box. My father quickly stopped me and said that there was no entrance fee, which confused me. Nearly every tourist spot on the island came with a fee, even for access to public beaches.
We turned left and walked aimlessly through the exhibition galleries. I paid more attention to the people in the galleries than to anything hung on its walls. It was fascinating to watch them move through the space with such reverence and intention. We returned outside and walked over to the topographical map of O’ahu placed in the middle of what they called a Remembrance Circle. My father pointed out the different places our family had lived on the island. We then took a boat out to the USS Arizona Memorial floating in the middle of the harbor and looked out at the water while everyone else walked around. I was most intrigued by how white the walls were despite immense foot traffic. My father said they probably repainted them often. After that, we left.
* * *
Militourism is “a phenomenon by which military or paramilitary force ensures the smooth running of a tourist industry, and that same tourist industry masks the military force behind it.” Militarism and tourism are mutually constituted under imperialism, each industry sustained through the continued presence of the other. This is explicitly enacted through the Pearl Harbor memorial. The narrative of the Pearl Harbor attack is constantly being resurrected to justify military occupation in Hawai’i as a measure of security. “The tourist industry capitalizes on the military histories of islands.” Pearl Harbor is one of the most frequented tourist attractions in Hawai’i. What you won’t find written on any of its placards or molded into any of its monuments, however, is any mention of Pu’uloa or the Hawaiian people, of the violences perpetrated against them at the hands of settler and military forces. Tourists watch videos on the U.S. Navy in 1941, look at photos of young men working on base, and read plaques ornately dedicated to the dead. They move through the space like herded cattle, consuming narratives of American heroism and sacrifice and memorializing American lives on command.
Pearl Harbor memorial tells the story of a moment but not of a place. “Tourism is able to flatten, tame, and render benign the culture of militarism.” We mourn soldiers but mis-remember their deaths as the only trauma to have touched these shores. Pearl Harbor’s commitment to the singular event of Japanese attack allows this moment to be captured in time and to consequently produce a historical and cultural nostalgia of American history. When tourists visit the memorial, they are not asked to see before or beyond December 7th; in fact, they are strategically instructed not to. Hickam Air Force Base is in view of the memorial, and the harbor remains an active port for Navy vessels. The U.S. military is a current colonizing force at Pearl Harbor, but it’s difficult to see this behind the large, well-kept monuments, hear this past the booming wartime songs, and find this written on any of the information boards scattered throughout the area.
I was most intrigued by how white the walls were despite immense foot traffic. My father said they probably repainted them often.
* * *
A few weeks ago, a friend shared with me a photo album of her great-grandfather while he was stationed at the Naval base on O’ahu. In one picture, he is sitting in front of a painted waterfall backdrop, clothed in his service dress whites with a big smile on his face. Sitting on his lap are two local girls wearing strapless tops and grass skirts, adorned heavily in plumeria and ti leaf. His hands wrap tightly around their bodies, as the smiles plastered on their faces contrast his wide grin. The caption reads, “More hands than an octopus.”
* * *
The union between militarism and tourism is bound together by a strategic actor: the soldier-tourist. “Historical and present day militarizations are intimately tied to patterns and practices of travel.” As some of the first to occupy and militarize land, soldiers laid the groundwork for tourist imaginations of Hawai’i. As a tourist, the soldier invites hospitality, concealing – yet not relinquishing – the aggressive power of his militarized body. “Doubled subjectivity as tourist and soldier gestures to the effects that naturalize and even obscure systematized acts of violence.” His tourist identity masks the domineering quality attached to his soldier body, while his soldier identity secures the continued presence of his tourist body. The soldier-tourist is, in its construction, a militouristic embodiment.
* * *
The second time I visited Pearl Harbor, I did so through a DeTour led by Kyle Kajihiro and Terrilee Keko’olani. The de-militarization tour visits military landmarks on O’ahu to unpack geographies and histories of occupation. The tour centers conversations about the military’s role in overthrowing the Hawaiian Kingdom, as an active colonizing force on the islands, and in relation to resistance and sovereignty movements throughout Hawai’i. The DeTour aims to “demonstrate the continuation of these [colonial] histories by showing the expansive grip of military presence on the island.”
When we arrived, Kyle and Terri guided us in a walk-through of the exhibition galleries and invited us to take notice of the information included and the language used in each, asking us to look for silences and gaps in these narratives. When we completed this, we gathered together to discuss our findings. The memorial relied heavily on a myth of American innocence, crafting a good versus evil narrative in its retelling of the Japanese attack in 1941. It centered the narrative of the haole American, erasing the existence and histories of Native communities. Its language naturalized the Navy’s presence in the harbor and thus validated continued U.S. presence in Hawai’i; it situated the violent colonization of Hawai’i by way of the U.S. military as either invisible or inevitable.
There was one exception to this harmful mis-representation. After tireless Native organizing, the memorial was altered to include a plaque that acknowledged the illegal overthrow of the kingdom. In a section marked “The Reciprocity Treaty,” a single sentence reads, “The Kingdom of Hawai’i was overthrown in 1893.” This is the memorial’s only attempt at accountability. Kyle and Terri asked us to locate this plaque in the context of the exhibitions. It was outside of both galleries, nestled in a corner near the bathrooms. Placed behind a seating area, the plaque was often concealed by visitors sitting in this resting spot. Its physical marginalization mirrored the discursive marginalization that characterized the rest of the memorial site.
Throughout the tour, Kyle discussed the U.S. military through the analogy of a monstrous he’e. Kyle described military presence in Hawai’i as the head of he’e with tentacles that extended to our cousins in the Philippines, the Marshall Islands and Guåhan, and to Japan and Korea. Kyle said that pivots happen on a fulcrum, so as the head of the he’e, Hawai’i became the fulcrum for military power in the Pacific. Sensor grids in the waters and radar and surveillance stations in the mountains made up the eyes and ears of he’e. Supercomputers made up the brains and nervous system of he’e. Kyle asserted that, to stop he’e, you had to first attack its head.
His hands wrap tightly around their bodies, as the smiles plastered on their faces contrast his wide grin. The caption reads, “More hands than an octopus.”
* * *
A few weeks ago, a friend shared with me a photo album of her great-grandfather while he was stationed at the Naval base on O’ahu. One picture reminded me of the postcards that fill convenience stores till this day. Women in bikinis lounge at the shoreline of a picturesque beach as “Welcome to Paradise” sprawls the skyline. Hula dancers in mu’umu’u or grass skirts move expressively in tropical flora as “Aloha from Hawai’i” contours their bodies. Surfers ride ocean waves, throwing shakas and bright smiles as “Surfside Waikiki” inscribes the scene.
Lively, warm, and inviting. This was the Hawai’i outsiders came to expect.
* * *
The process of militarization in Hawai’i develops through a romanticization of the relationship between Hawai’i and the U.S. As evident in postcards and photo albums, tourist imaginations of Hawai’i are intimately tied to the sexual consumption of Hawaiian bodies. Through tourism, the Hawaiian woman’s body becomes “a tourable, viewable, and discoverable island commodity.” This sexualization of the Hawaiian body works in tandem with the feminization of Hawaiian land. In being marketed to travelers through sentiments of paradise and hospitality, Hawai’i is constructed as passive, penetrable, and timeless. “Both militarism and tourism rely on sedimented notions of colonized land and people (especially women) as there for the taking.” The mythicalization of Hawai’i as “paradise” narrativizes the islands through that of the American frontier. Hawai’i promises a tropical fantasy of virgin land, economic opportunity, and sexual fulfillment.
“Paradise is not a generic or static term–it specifically refers to an idea of passivity and penetrability engendered by imperialism as an alibi for domination.” In rendering Hawai’i a feminine space, the U.S. assumes a masculine gaze that produces an ideological remembering of America as the benevolent protector of Hawai’i. The perceived vulnerability of the islands necessitates protection, a role the U.S. military swiftly assumes to legitimize its existence in the islands. The lens of paradise constructs Hawai’i through a festishized otherness, one that marks its bodies as different but nonetheless desirable to military and tourist alike. Protection of these American fantasies of Hawai’i is rendered secure only through the militarization of the islands.
* * *
I often think about the immense reverence and intent with which visitors to Pearl Harbor navigated the space. It was unlike most other tourist spots in Hawai’i, where folks would walk past clearly bounded areas, touch things they weren’t supposed to, take things they weren’t supposed to, litter freely and often, and take up so much space that it was impossible not to notice them. No, here at Pearl Harbor, they talked in hushed tones, tiptoed carefully throughout the grounds, watched and listened and moved as instructed, and maintained a deep self-awareness that it was impossible for me not to notice.
What was it about this space that made it so different?
Yes, it was a memorial, but so were many other frequented spots on the island – sacred site made tourist attraction // made shopping mall // made scenic turnout.
What was it about this space that rendered as much respect as it did fascination?
* * *
At a young age, my mother taught me the difference between sympathy and empathy. Sympathy, she would say, is to feel for another person, but empathy is feel with another person. Sympathy emerges from a position of difference or distance whereas empathy emerges from a shared perspective. Empathy assumes another’s situation as one’s own. Empathy fosters connection.
* * *
The reverent intrigue that permeated Pearl Harbor was more than detached respect. It was emotive, it was evocative, and it was intimate.
The tourist exists in a “tension between desire and anxiety.” Hawai’i is a crafted desire for outsiders that evokes familiarity, affording them a sense comfort in a place of non-belonging. The tourist enters Hawai’i with expectation but without experiential knowledge. The tourist desires entry but hesitates at what such entry will entail. This threshold experience is akin to “the liminality of the [colonial] explorer’s condition, on the margins between known and unknown.” This shared perspective between tourist and explorer masculinizes the motivations undergirding tourist engagement. Forms of militourism “are always already refracted through desires to identify with masculinities that have been mobilized in the service of extraterritorial domination.” I often think about the immense reverence and intent with which visitors to Pearl Harbor navigate the space. They pay careful attention to the narratives written on the walls not simply in fascination but rather in hopes of seeing themselves reflected back through them. They move about the space validated in and secured through evidences of American masculinity. How and for whom has Pu’uloa been memorialized?
The Pearl Harbor memorial produces U.S. empire through narratives of masculinized heroism and imperial nostalgia. At Pearl Harbor, desire to identify with these fictions is not only imagined; it can also be actualized. Through militarized technologies, the memorial space allows visitors to live out their masculinized desires. The space invites visitors to reproduce the colonial gaze through interactive tours such as that of the USS Arizona Memorial. We took a boat out to the USS Arizona Memorial floating in the middle of the harbor. This boat is a Navy ship, a military vessel repurposed as a tourist technology, producing a material interchangeability in its tourisms. We looked out at the water while everyone else walked around. The boat facilitates a view of the harbor, of the Southern coast, and of O’ahu that cannot be reached through any other mode, that has not been embraced by Hawaiian eyes in centuries. Through militarized technologies, Native land becomes “something to be tamed and made productive through masculine ways of seeing and knowing, desire and action.” The boat mobilizes a way of moving through and seeing Pu’uloa that transports its viewers closer to the past, providing them the sight of both soldier and explorer. A Navy vessel becomes the means through which to access the visual archive of Pu’uloa.
* * *
Hawai’i is one of the most militarized places in the U.S. “Everywhere you look in Hawai’i, you see the military. Yet in daily life relatively few people in Hawai’i actually see the military at all. It’s hidden in plain sight.” This paradox of visibility and invisibility is a reality I know well. I have been visiting my father’s childhood home in Pearl City since I was a baby. From the location of his home, Pu’uloa contours the space. We peer out of our windows onto its range every day, yet I only ever see the harbor if I am consciously looking for it. Invisible to the colonized eye.
“Objectification through excessive visibility.” Militarized practices of colonization often function by rendering place and people invisible. Pearl Harbor Memorial inverts this practice to instead produce a hypervisible spectacle of its violence that not only normalizes but celebrates the optics of the U.S. military in Hawai’i. Through its material, discursive and ontological re-production of place, the memorial site writes over Native bodies and spaces to secure a public mis-remembering of Pu’uloa as Pearl Harbor. The hypervisibility of Pearl Harbor makes invisible Pu’uloa, further silencing alternative narratives of pain, loss, and survival embedded in this place. In curating these invisibilities, the settler state acknowledges the existence of militarized violence in Hawai’i without implicating itself as the historical perpetrator of such abuse.
At Pearl Harbor Memorial, remembering is a precursor to forgetting.
is tourist commodity,
is state-sanctioned memory.
is how Wai Momi came to be consumed.
* * *
There is mo’olelo that protects the harbor: the mo’olelo of Ka’ahupāhau, shark goddess of Pu’uloa. Ka’ahupāhau guarded Pu’uloa with her brother, Kahi’uka. They were benevolent gods who protected life in Pu’uloa by warding off man-eating sharks. One day, Milololou – a shark from Moku o Ka’u on Hawai’i island – set out to visit O’ahu with friends. Along the way, other sharks joined them on their journey. When they arrived at Pu’uloa, they were met by Ka’ahupāhau. Upon seeing the humans, one visitor shark commented on the “delicious crabs” (humans) at shore. Ka’ahupāhau had made kapu the killing of any humans, so she assumed her bodily form of a net to capture all the sharks that entered her harbor. Though she knew they were not all man-eating sharks, she could not yet tell them apart. Ka’ahupāhau surrounded them and signaled to the fishermen ashore to destroy them.
Although some were able to escape, the fishermen managed to pull the net ashore, and the remaining sharks – Mikololou included – were left to die in the heat. Mikololou’s body eventually decomposed, but his head remained, still able to watch any activity on the shoreline and often seen with tears rolling down his face. Eventually, his tongue fell out of his head. Children played with it before throwing it into the ocean. During that time, his spirit had passed from his head to his tongue, so the moment he touched water, Mikololou became a whole shark again. The story of Mikololou and the symbol of his severed tongue reflect the immense power in mo’olelo, in its ability to resurrect and breathe life back into what has been lost.
Ka’ahupāhau no longer lives at Pu’uloa but her presence continues to be felt and remembered. In 1909, the Navy began construction on a dry-dock set to be placed right over the home of Ka’ahupāhau’s son. Kānaka tried to alert the Navy to the danger of this decision, but the Navy ignored them. In 1913, when the structure was finally finished, it completely collapsed. This was unsurprising to Kānaka in the community who saw this to be the workings of Ka’ahupāhau. This mo’olelo reminds us that instability is inherent to U.S. imperialism, and continued resistance against such forces can truly dismantle its structures.
* * *
At the end of our DeTour of Pu’uloa, Kyle Kajihiro left us with two questions: What would it mean for Pearl Harbor to be remembered as a peace memorial rather than a war memorial? And how would this change our narratives and memories of place?
The mo’olelo of Ka’ahupāhau invites us to imagine such peace, to consider how honoring kapu against violence at Pu’uloa can be transformative practice in seeing beyond the curated waters of Pearl Harbor to remember once again Ke Awalau o Pu’uloa.
Paxon Balthazar Kalāhikiola Chang is a Kanaka Maoli wahine writer // scholar // historian from Anaheim, California. A recent graduate of Brown University, she holds degrees in both Sociology and History. Her research explores settler colonialism as a gendered and spatial violence and expresses her enduring interest in Indigenous theory, questions of visibility, and histories of imperialism. She currently exists in motion, moving between California and O’ahu as she works toward her MSW.
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