Exploring Space and Place in the Hawaiʻi Congressional Papers Collection

Guest post by Meagan Harden, 2022-2023 HCPC graduate student fellow

As a geographer, I’m constantly paying attention to space and place. Space refers to a general location – for example, “the ocean” could be a space, as could Campus Center or Hamilton Library. Place, on the other hand, contains the meanings that people attach to particular spaces, transforming a space from a physical area into somewhere imbued with stories, experiences, or memories. “The ocean” becomes the place where people swim or pick ʻopihi; Campus Center becomes the place where students meet for coffee between classes; Hamilton Library becomes the place where I spend hours combing through documents for my dissertation.

What happens when a space contains different meanings for different people? This question guided my research as I entered the Hawaiʻi Congressional Papers Collection. As part of my dissertation, this research sought insight into how U.S. government officials have perceived and represented the thousands of islands included in the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, a post-
World War II political entity in the Western Pacific Ocean that consisted of what are today the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia (including Yap, Kosrae, Chuuk, and Pohnpei), Palau, and the Marshall Islands.

From reading books such as David Hanlon’s (1998) Remaking Micronesia: Discourses Over Development in a Pacific Territory, 1944-1982, the Teaching Oceania series from the Center for Pacific Island Studies, and especially watching Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner’s Lessons from Hawaii spoken word performance, I knew that U.S. governmental representations of the Trust Territory might be radically different from how local people understand the places they call home. For people living on any of these islands, the places themselves are layered with memories – perhaps a particular stretch of coast marks a favorite family picnic spot, or the monthly craft market, or the birthplace of an archipelago where one’s ancestors first fished islands out of the sea. However, because the United States’ main interest in the Trust Territory was driven by military strategy, I expected the federal government’s place-making representations to focus on characteristics such as a harbor’s suitability for war ships or an island’s proximity to enemy forces.

My foray into the Congressional Papers of Senators Daniel Inouye and Hiram Fong confirmed these suspicions, with added layers of complexity. For example, officials from the U.S. Departments of the Interior, State, and Defense tend to represent the islands as remote, minuscule, and utterly dependent on the benevolence of American government; in contrast, while legislators from Hawaiʻi do still represent the Trust Territory as distant and small, they are much more openly critical of the shortcomings of American governance that harmed the islands physically, economically, and culturally. Rather than one homogenous representation of the islands, then, the Hawaiʻi Congressional Papers Collection reveals a range of perspectives that, at times, challenge one another.

Furthermore, the perspectives coming from the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands differ even more significantly from outsider representations. Whereas U.S. Senator Spiro Agnew (R – Maryland) describes the region as lacking in natural resources, Congress of Micronesia Senator Wilfred Kendall (from the Marshall Islands) argues that “our islands have the capacity to provide for the body and spirit in abundance.” Similarly, a U.S. document pertaining to political status negotiations with the Northern Mariana Islands calls the island of Farallon de Medinilla “a target area,” reducing the island to a military strategy point; however, as experts from the Northern Mariana Islands point out, Farallon de Medinilla has historically provided a safe haven for migratory birds, while abundant coral reefs have made it hospitable for all kinds of marine life (Hofschneider, 2016).

Excerpt from remarks by Congress of Micronesia Senator Wilfred Kendall to the United Nations Trusteeship Council on June 3, 1975. Senator Daniel K. Inouye Papers, Hawaiʻi Congressional Papers Collection, University Archives & Manuscripts Department, University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa Library.

So, why is it important to look at these representations of space and place? If we read these archival documents alongside current events, we can start to connect military-oriented representations with pressing environmental and cultural issues. If an island is represented as nothing more than a target for weapons, it becomes easier to ignore the flora, fauna, and spiritual importance of the island, as we see happening at Farallon de Medinilla. If an entire region is depicted as lacking natural resources, we overlook the local sustainable food systems that have nourished islanders for thousands of years; this contributes to the impression that islanders require outside assistance to sustain themselves, which in turn facilitates dependence on imported processed foods (Heaton, 2021).

How we represent space matters because it informs how we think about places, which in turn guides our actions toward or within those places. Places like Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands, where the U.S. conducts military testing (Downey, 2019), or the island of Peleliu in Palau, where unexploded ordnance from World War II threatens local lives (Island Times, 2021), have been homelands for much longer than they’ve been military sites. Perhaps re-presenting them as such can offer hope for a brighter, safer future for all.

About the author

Meagan Harden is a Ph.D. candidate and lecturer in the Department of Geography and Environment at the University of Hawai̒ʻi at Mānoa. Her research examines American imperialism in island spaces, focusing particularly on the production of spatial imaginaries and the ways in which islanders resist, subvert, and/or accommodate them. With an M.A. in International Studies and a graduate certificate in Women’s and Gender Studies from the University of Oklahoma, Meagan aims to use critical feminist and anarchist frameworks to disrupt conventional geopolitical paradigms that represent islands and islanders as peripheral agents in international relations. When she is not teaching, writing, or exploring the archives, Meagan enjoys outrigger canoe paddling, yoga, and reading fiction.

As part of her fellowship research, Meagan also curated this primary source set and presented this talk about Senator Fongʻs and Senator Inouyeʻs 1965 Pacific State Proposal to annex the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands into the state of Hawaiʻi.


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