Quite possibly the most moving thing a person new to Hawai‘i can do is fly over to Oahu, head to Iolani Palace, put on those special foot booties the docents give people so their shoes don’t muck up the floors, then visit to the Quilt Room. This, which for obvious reasons is also known as the Imprisonment Room, is where the white men who ruled Hawai‘i in 1895 chose to hold Queen Lili‘uokalani, following an unsuccessful revolt by loyalists to restore the Hawaiian Kingdom.
For eight months, Lili‘uokalani was made to live entirely in this room. Allowed just one female companion, the deposed queen could only quilt, crochet, pray and write music. As a Kānaka Maoli, used to being outside and feeling the land under her feet, her confinement must have been particularly dreadful. There’s no way a sentient American capable of exhibiting at least some empathy can stand in this room today and not feel a wave of emotions: sadness, anger and, for those who find the courage to imagine life in Hawaii before the 1893 coup, regret.
Were it possible, I’d make every visitor to Hawai‘i visit this room before starting their vacations. Of course, this isn’t possible for a whole host of reasons, but that doesn’t let anyone off the hook. Understanding the truth of how Hawai‘i came to be part of the United States is still vital for everyone who visits or moves here, and that’s made a lot easier through reading.
A great place to start is Lili‘uokalani’s own autobiography–Hawaii’s Story By Hawaii’s Queen–but those lacking the patience to read an entire book could absorb a good deal of knowledge and beauty from Daniel Heath Justice’s new essay in the Canadian journal The Walrus. Titled “The Hawaiian Queen Who Taught Indigenous Writers to Resist,” the essay both sums up the importance of Lili‘uokalani’s story and the power of her writing to inspire other Indigenous writers–especially her songs, like “Aloha ‘Oe,” which though written years before the overthrow, has come to symbolize Kānaka Maoli resistance to the white supremacist “republic” that the United States eventually annexed.
“Most strikingly, and with more than a little sharpness, her book continually reminds the US citizenry of its much-lauded principles and how they fall far short in the matter of Hawai‘i,” Justice writes in the essay. “Toward the end of Hawaii’s Story by Hawaii’s Queen, she makes a fierce statement on Hawaiian autonomy and the deeper threat to American democracy represented by the coup, including an eerily prescient prediction.”
Justice then quotes Lili‘uokalani directly:
It has been shown that in Hawaii there is an alien element composed of men of energy and determination, well able to carry through what they undertake, but not scrupulous respecting their methods. They doubtless control all the resources and influence of the present ruling power in Honolulu, and will employ them tirelessly in the future, as they have in the past, to secure their ends. This annexationist party might prove to be a dangerous accession even to American politics, both on account of natural abilities, and because of the training of an autocratic life from earliest youth.
These are vital words. Because as Indigenous writers like Justice understand only too well, the same societal forces and structures that ground down the Hawaiian Kingdom and many of its people are still in power in Washington today.
Click here to read Daniel Heath Justiceʻs essay.
Photo of Queen Lili‘uokalani: Hawai‘i State Archives/Wikimedia Commons