where is hawai'i? can you point to it on a map?
if someone asks you to point to hawai'i on a map, where would you point?
before colonization, there was (and continues to be) an island called "hawai'i". the entire chain of islands is called "hawaii" and there is a state called "hawaii" made up of a large number of those islands.
now, because there are too many things named "hawaii," the island of hawai'i is often called "the big island", because o'ahu, the island where the city of honolulu is located, is what many people think of when they think of "hawaii". it's a mess.
on top of that, we have the "main hawaiian islands" (aka "southeastern islands" aka "windward islands") vs the "outer islands" (aka "northwestern islands" aka "leeward islands").
most maps of "hawaii" show only the "main" islands. the map above (created by USGS) shows more of the hawaiian islands, but omits the names of two of the islands in the "main" chain: lana'i & kaho'olawe. these are not insignificant omissions. lana'i is 98% owned by larry ellison, founder & chairman of oracle corporation. kaho'olawe has been relentlessly used & abused by the west. it has been used for ranchland, military training, and most notably, as a munitions testing site, resulting in the continued contamination of the island. after many years of protests & lawsuits by native hawaiians, the island is now only accessible by native hawaiians for cultural, spiritual, & subsistence reasons.
meanwhile, this tourist mug with a creepy colonial-style map of hawaii includes both kaho'olawe & lana'i. good job, tourist mug!
there are actually over a hundred islands in the hawaiian archipelago. the state of hawaii includes 137 of them (source). midway atoll (made up of 3 islands) is part of the archipelago, but not part of the state. it is one of america's territories: an unorganized unincorporated territory.
additionally, some of the islands "are too small to appear on maps, and others, such as Maro Reef, only appear above the water's surface during times of low tide. Others, such as Shark and Skate islands, have completely eroded away." [source: wikipedia page "list of islands of hawaii"].
in the course of writing this post, i failed to find a map that shows & names all the hawaiian islands and failed to even find a list of all of them (plus if an island only appears sometimes or has disappeared entirely, what do you even do with that?). if you find either or both of those, let me know in comments.
so where and what "hawaii" is remains a mystery.
but this has not prevented commercial & official interests from using maps of "hawaii" in all kinds of places! here on the islands, hawaii map imagery is all around.
maps are very common on tourist items:
the hawaiian telcom logo uses dots roughly arranged in the pattern of the islands on a map:
but i guess only five islands are worth including (i understand. branding needs come above all else!).
this souvenir cloth item is interesting because it includes all the main islands (including ni'ihau, lana'i, and kaho'olawe - which are often excluded), but smooshes them into the available space without much consideration for where they are in relation to each other:
the postcard above has the main islands in their rough places, but squishes them all together so that they fit in the space. also the islands are made more similar in size to each other so that you can better see the little illustrations.
here's a more "official" map to show where the islands "should be" in relation to each other, and their sizes relative to each other (although both of those can change depending on what projection the map uses):
in my mind, though, the ultimate hawaii map fantasy lives on the ubiquitous reusable walmart cloth bag (available for 50 cents at checkout to all who have forgotten to bring the right number of bags. there's a plastic shopping bag ban in hawaii.):
in the walmart commercial universe (wcu), the only islands that exist are islands that have a walmart. the general outlines of the islands & their general orientation is preserved (along with a rough topology too!), attempting to convey a sense of adhering to a recognizable reality, but islands without a walmart have been not only omitted, but the space where they would be has been eliminated as well - as if they were never there to begin with. in the walmart version of reality, what makes something "hawaii" is whether or not it has a walmart on it.
i've had a lot of time to think about this remarkable image because i have a whole bunch of these bags. this is the bag of the people - everyone uses it for everything. the one in the above photo is in a typical state - pretty rough - because it probably came from the side of the road. you can almost always find one on the side of the road. so wherever you are, you are probably within sight of the walmart version of the islands.
so why does it matter whether or not you can point to "hawaii" on a map? well, maps are political documents, meaning that they reflect the vision of whoever has the power to put the map in front of your eyes. so if you're the one with the power to make some of the most commonly-seen maps of hawaii and you decide to remove a few islands, well that can really shape what people think "hawaii" is! we're a sea of islands - many people here have only ever been to one or two of the islands. if it wasn't on the map, you might not know that it existed at all.
hawaii is incredibly important to the united states, not just for tourism, but in terms of global strategy. it's the largest outpost of american power in the middle of the pacific. it puts america & its troops half an ocean closer to some of america's biggest competitors, most notably, china. it's a springboard to all the other island territories of the pacific (which you maybe haven't heard of because they almost never appear on maps):
once you see a map of all of america's territories in the pacific, along with the exclusive economic zones (eez) that extend out for 200 miles around each island, you start to get a better feel for the extent of america's power in the pacific.
when a place is left off the map, it can be easy to make it (including its people!) invisible. so if you're america, with bases across the islands of the pacific, with a nightmarish history of atomic weapons testing in the pacific (rendering islands uninhabitable and leaving both land and waters too contaminated for people to use), perhaps you might not want some of these places to appear on the map.
in Foreign Policy in Focus, Khury Petersen-Smith writes:
"Many of us living in North America who are concerned about climate change, for example, have a sense that Pacific Islands are facing particularly severe impacts from rising sea levels. But that knowledge tends to be vague and limited, as actual residents of these islands are rarely invited to the table to speak for themselves.
This is not accidental. Commenting during the Nixon administration on U.S. nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands, which share the same region of the Pacific as Guam, Henry Kissinger said “there are only 90,000 people out there. Who gives a damn?”
The U.S. has long had an interest in Marshallese and other Pacific Islanders remaining “out there” in the American mind. This marginalization helps allow the U.S. to carry out military operations in the region, along with policies that further climate change and other harms, while keeping most Americans unaware of these practices’ impacts in the Pacific." [FPIF]
often hawai'i (and alaska - which is in many ways similar to hawai'i in its relation to the contiguous US) doesn't even appear on national maps of the USA.
here's a screenshot from the new york times homepage on march 21, 2020, just as the coronavirus pandemic was beginning to spread:
there is no alaska and no hawai'i on those maps. so if you were looking for information on the most important issue that was happening at the time, and you live in or are concerned about hawai'i and/or alaska, there would just be nothing. and what does it say about the people who run the top newspaper in america that they decided it was fine to omit these two states? are they not states? do they not matter? do the readers in those states not matter? and this is not an unusual thing at all. it happens all the time.
i'd like to finish by sharing with you a poem by CHamoru poet Craig Santos Perez. CHamoru are the indigenous people of the mariana islands (which include guam, saipan, tinian, rota, and others).
in this poem, Craig Santos Perez writes about not appearing on the map...
My family migrated to California when I was 15 years old.
During the first day at my new high school, the homeroom
teacher asked: “Where are you from?” “The Mariana Islands,”
I answered. He replied: “I’ve never heard of that place.
Prove it exists.” And when I stepped in front of the world map
on the wall, it transformed into a mirror: the Pacific Ocean,
like my body, was split in two and flayed to the margins. I
found Australia, then the Philippines, then Japan. I pointed
to an empty space between them and said: “I’m from this
invisible archipelago.” Everyone laughed. And even though
I descend from oceanic navigators, I felt so lost, shipwrecked
on the coast of a strange continent. “Are you a citizen?”
he probed. “Yes. My island, Guam, is a U.S. territory.”
We attend American schools, eat American food, listen
to American music, watch American movies and television,
play American sports, learn American history, dream
American dreams, and die in American wars. “You
speak English well,” he proclaimed, “with almost no
accent.” And isn’t that what it means to be a diasporic
CHamoru: to feel foreign in a domestic sense.
Over the last 50 years, CHamorus have migrated to
escape the violent memories of war; to seek jobs, schools
hospitals, adventure, and love; but most of all, we’ve migrated
for military service, deployed and stationed to bases around
the world. According to the 2010 census, 44,000 CHamorus
live in California, 15,000 in Washington, 10,000 in Texas,
7,000 in Hawaii, and 70,000 more in every other state
and even in Puerto Rico. We are the most “geographically
dispersed” Pacific Islander population within the United
States, and off-island CHamorus now outnumber
our on-island kin, with generations having been born
away from our ancestral homelands, including my daughters.
Some of us will be able to return home for holidays, weddings,
and funerals; others won’t be able to afford the expensive plane
ticket to the Western Pacific. Years and even decades might pass
between trips, and each visit will feel too short. We’ll lose contact
with family and friends, and the island will continue to change
until it becomes unfamiliar to us. And isn’t that, too, what it means
to be a diasporic CHamoru: to feel foreign in your own homeland.
Even after 25 years, there are still times I feel adrift, without
itinerary or destination. When I wonder: What if we stayed? What if
we return? When the undertow of these questions begins pulling
you out to sea, remember: migration flows through our blood
like the aerial roots of the banyan tree. Remember: our ancestors
taught us how to carry our culture in the canoes of our bodies.
Remember: our people, scattered like stars, form new constellations
when we gather. Remember: home is not simply a house,
village, or island; home is an archipelago of belonging.
–Craig Santos Perez
thank you for reading this post! please let me know if you see any errors.
if you'd like to learn more about some important issues in the pacific, here are just a few:
july 2, 2020: "US says leaking nuclear waste dome is safe; Marshall Islands leaders don't believe it" - Los Angeles Times
may 30, 2021: "Pacific Plunder: this is who profits from the mass extraction of the region's natural resources." - The Guardian
april 5, 2021: "75 years after nuclear testing in the Pacific began, the fallout continues to wreak havoc" - The Conversation
june 4, 2021: "Guam won’t give up more land to the U.S. military without a fight" - The World (radio program)
aug. 24, 2021: "The US is building a military base in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Micronesian residents have questions." - The World (radio program)
and if you'd like to learn more about how maps are political, here are a couple articles:
june 5, 2014: "The politics of making maps" by Amanda Ruggeri, for BBC
july 11, 2018: "Politics and Cartography: The Power of Deception through Distortion" by John Erskine, for the Carnegie Ethics Online Monthly Column