Native Hawaiians Decolonize Thanksgiving

Nov 22, 2017

The feast at a recent Decolonizing Our Diets Dinner at Ho'oulu 'Aina in Kalihi. The dinner is hosted by the ROOTS Program and featured food from 18 small farm partners from around the island.
Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi

We are less than a day away from Thanksgiving, and if you’re a conscious consumer, you’re preparing that mindful holiday meal. Is it all locally-sourced? Did you meticulously calculate portions to eliminate waste? Perhaps you went vegan? In Hawai‘i, an increased awareness of our food choices is also giving way to a raised consciousness about this American holiday and what it means. HPR’s Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi has this story.

Decolonial cuisine is a culinary movement with a goal of getting people with indigenous roots to honor their heritage by choosing ancestral foods. In Hawaiʻi that means…

Dinner plates are prepared for the several dozen attendees of the recent Decolonizing Our Diets Dinner.
Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi

“Of course we have kalo (taro), ‘uala (sweet potato), kabocha squash, we have a hōʻiʻo (fern shoots), limu (seaweed), cucumber salad….” 

That’s Kaʻiulani Odom explaining the spread for tonight’s Decolonizing Our Diets Dinner at Hoʻoulu ʻĀina in Kalihi. Odom runs the ongoing dinner series as part of Kōkua Kalihi Valley's ROOTS Program.

“Our mission is really to bring health to people through food,” says Odom, “But most people think about it like diabetes and blood pressure, but we are talking about connections to our family, connections to our ‘āina (land), connections to our culture, connections to our stories.”

Food is just the hook for discussion, and tonight the topic is Thanksgiving or as Laiana Kanoa-Wong put it, “Decolonizing Thanksgiving and looking at different moʻolelo and stories behind it that differ slightly from the commercialized version.”  

Laiana Kanoa-Wong (standing) shares the history of national holidays established during the Hawaiian Kingdom.
Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi

Kanoa-Wong shared the history of national holidays celebrated during the Hawaiian Kingdom like Lā Kūʻokoʻa or Hawaiian Independence Day, which falls on November 28, and is often overshadowed by the American Thanksgiving. This was the day in 1843 when England and France formally recognized the Hawaiian Kingdom’s sovereignty.

“This was a huge holiday for our people that was celebrated for 50 years from 1843 to 1893, and in 1893 following the overthrow of our queen, the overthrow of our kingdom, and the occupation of our nation,” says Kanoa-Wong, “One of the first acts was to start to denationalize our people.”

Audience members engage in discussions about decolonization with regards to Thanksgiving.
Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi

Discussions went even further back into Hawaiian history to a time when this chilly fall weather meant Makahiki season – a four month celebration in honor of the god Lono, when food, games and festivities were enjoyed to commemorate a successful harvest. Liana Honda of Hamākua tries to incorporate this idea of Makahiki into Thanksgiving dinners with her family.

“Growing  up in a very colonized way myself with a father who was in the military,” says Honda, “My more recent ones have been more towards that celebration of Lonoikamakahiki (Lono of the Makahiki) and that it isn’t just a one day that we celebrate the gratitude that we have for our abundance, but it’s an entire season.”

Kanoa-Wong (bottom left) battles his youngest child to pose for a picture with the rest of his family and friends at the Decolonizing Our Diets Dinner.
Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi

Discussions continued as participant after participant recalled some history of struggling with their colonial past – the loss of language, displacement, cultural assimilation – and their shared solidarity in a more indigenous future.

“When we’re talking about decolonizing diets we’re also talking about decolonizing our minds and really a return back to our roots, right?” says Honda, “And coming to understand that we come from such rich traditions that were colonized.”

“Food is a big way to bring people together, every culture, every person in the world, everybody loves to eat,” says Kanoa-Wong, “We gather them around food and that’s never going to be a bad idea.”