Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Marshall Sahlins' "How 'Natives' Think: About Captain Cook, For Example" (Steak Knives)

Was Cook venerated as a manifestation of the god Lono upon his discovery of Hawaii, or were 'natives' more rational pragmatists who saw him as something unique, surely, but merely human?

"How 'Natives' Think" is an anthropological smack-down that tackles this question alongside its larger implications for representations of native voice in our ethnographies.  In short, it's Sahlins' rebuttal to Obeyesekere's "The Apothiosis of Captain Cook: European Mythmaking in the Pacific" which picked a fight with Sahlins' on the basis of earlier work in which Sahlins explored this episode in Hawaiian history; specifically, the set of timely coincidences and religio-mythic context that led to Cook being accepted as the returning god Lono.

Without getting into the finer brush strokes of each academic case, here's the skinny...

For Obeyesekere, the 'Cook myth' of godly reception is actually a Western one, imposed on indigenous Hawaiians based on assumptions of the colonizers/explorers as to their own cultural superiority.  He also offers several alternative and seemingly contradictory (for his thesis) interpretations - that Cook was only deified after death, for example - and challenges the historical record and reliability of Sahlins' informants/sources.  (To be fair, I haven't read Obeyesekere's 'Apothiosis', though the wider debate was one we touched on in my undergrad studies).

Sahlins' text is really a direct response to Obeyesekere's 'Apotheosis', although he uses the occasion to address some larger concerns regarding the anthropologist's voice in representing the other and 'native' ontology.  Leaving these larger issues to the side for our purposes here (though he argues these points very persuasively), it comes down to the issue of Cook's reception and interpretations of his status by 'the natives.'

Sahlins is able to demonstrate (confirm?) that the timing of Cook's first arrival at Hawaii coincided with a mythic cycle for Lono that would see him 'arrive' at this time of year.  Lono was said to circle the islands in a procession, in a specific direction.  This Cook's ships did upon arrival.  A series of rituals and other specific treatments given to Cook reinforce that he was believed to be a manifestation of Lono.   Terms used (and recorded by his crew) were those associated with Lono... etc., etc.  Let's just say he provides ample evidence (and manages to refute many of Obeyesekere's circular and poorly crafted arguments) over several chapters, each dealing with a different facet of the case.

Cook returned shortly after this initial visit owing to some ship troubles.  Importantly, this happens *after* the appropriate season for Lono's arrival - creating concern and consternation with the indigenous Hawaiians.  This, coupled with some poor choices by Cook and his crew ultimately led to the attack that claimed his life.  The treatment of Cook's remains after his death also strongly reinforce the idea that Cook was indeed believed to be a manifestation of Lono.

Touching on external considerations, Sahlins also points out the common-sense argument that there are ample cases throughout history, impeccably documented, of first contact leading to assumptions of the godly status of the visitors - right up to the early and mid-20th C.  (cargo cults provide just one example in Polynesia alone).  To suggest that this is merely invention by Western colonizers/ethnographers flies in the face of a great volume of evidence to the contrary.

Sahlins (left) and Obeyesekere (right).

This is great reading for the cultural anthropologist, with a happy overlap on my personal interest in the Cook voyages.  While I do plenty of anthro-related reading in the course of my work, it's been a while since I picked up a capital 'T' anthro Text out of personal interest.  It took a chapter or so to get back on that bike, but all in all it was an enjoyable leisure read.

The end of Cook - but not the debate - at Kealakekua Bay.

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