Possessing Polynesians

The Science of Settler Colonial Whiteness in Hawai`i and Oceania

Book Pages: 328 Illustrations: 19 illustrations Published: November 2019

Author: Arvin, Maile

Critical Ethnic Studies, Gender and Sexuality, Native and Indigenous Studies

From their earliest encounters with Indigenous Pacific Islanders, white Europeans and Americans asserted an identification with the racial origins of Polynesians, declaring them to be racially almost white and speculating that they were of Mediterranean or Aryan descent. In Possessing Polynesians Maile Arvin analyzes this racializing history within the context of settler colonialism across Polynesia, especially in Hawai‘i. Arvin argues that a logic of possession through whiteness animates settler colonialism, by which both Polynesia (the place) and Polynesians (the people) become exotic, feminized belongings of whiteness. Seeing whiteness as indigenous to Polynesia provided white settlers with the justification needed to claim Polynesian lands and resources. Understood as possessions, Polynesians were and continue to be denied the privileges of whiteness. Yet Polynesians have long contested these classifications, claims, and cultural representations, and Arvin shows how their resistance to and refusal of white settler logic have regenerated Indigenous forms of recognition.


“In this outstanding book, Maile Arvin brings fresh light and new depth to the scholarship on racial discourse, eugenics, and colonialism through a study of how they operated in Hawai‘i. This intriguing new work brings science studies together with the analysis of visual culture and unites cultural history with contemporary political engagements. She pairs sophisticated readings of colonialist racial discourse with close attention to the political and artistic production of Native Hawaiians who have resisted that discourse. The result is an engaging and important book, and all who are concerned with race, empire, colonialism, and Hawaiian studies will find much to consider in it.” — David A. Chang, author of The World and All the Things upon It: Native Hawaiian Geographies of Exploration

“This engaging, provocative, and insightful book accomplishes that rare feat of taking the reader down a familiar pathway of social science debates around the ‘Polynesian race’ while recasting them through a new lens of gendered and racialized settler colonial logics of possession. Elegantly disentangling the knot of indigeneity, race, and gender in the Pacific, Maile Arvin has produced a clear genealogy of science in the history of Indigenous dispossession.” — Vernadette Vicuña Gonzalez, coeditor of Detours: A Decolonial Guide to Hawai‘i

Possessing Polynesians is a captivating read that casts science of times-past as (unfortunately) science of times-present. Scholars positioned within settler colonialism, Pacifc studies, critical race studies, and women and gender studies will find the analysis in this book useful in contextualizing their own work and in signaling further pathways of research on which to embark. In showing how inclusion—as opposed to exclusion—can result in discursive and material violence, Arvin’s book is also of use to scholars who do work on multiculturalism and recognition.”

— Christine Rosenfeld, Lateral

Possessing Polynesians by Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) historian and gender studies scholar Maile Arvin, provides an exceptionally sharp critique of settler colonialism in and of Polynesia, from the nineteenth century to the present. This is a scholarly work that is well researched, structured, and written, and that is particularly strong in its meticulous attention to, and analysis of, a diverse set of empirical material, including eugenic scientific texts, parliamentary debates, and Pacific artwork…. For Pacific Island scholars, this book will no doubt become a seminal scholarly work. It will also be of interest to anthropologists and sociologists, as it reviews troubling legacies that still reverberate in these disciplines.” — Mascha Gugganig, Pacific Affairs


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Price: $27.95

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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Maile Arvin is Assistant Professor of History and Gender Studies at the University of Utah.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments  Ix
Introduction: Polynesia Is a Project, Not a Place  1
Part I. The Polynesian Problem: Scientific Production of the "Almost White" Polynesian Race  35
1. Heirlooms of the Aryan Race: Nineteenth-Century Studies of Polynesian Origins  43
2. Conditionally Caucasian: Polynesian Racial Classification in Early Twentieth-Century Eugenics and Physical Anthropology  67
3. hating Hawaiians, Celebrating Hybrid Hawaiian Girls: Sociology and the Fictions of Racial Mixture  96
Part II. Regenerative Refusals: Confronting Contemporary Legacies of the Polynesian Problem in Hawai'i and Oceania  125
4. Still in the Blood: Blood Quantum and Self-Determination in Day v. Apoliona and Federal Recognition  135
5. The Value of Polynesian DNA: Genomic Solutions to the Polynesian Problems  168
6. Regenerating Indigeneity: Challenging Possessive Whiteness in Contemporary Pacific Art  195
Conclusion. Regenerating an Oceanic Future in Indigenous Space-Time  224
Notes  241
Bibliography  279
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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-1-4780-0633-6 / Cloth ISBN: 978-1-4780-0502-5