Making Native Sense of Disney’s ‘Moana’

Anne Keala Kelly

It’s a twofer.

With a Thanksgiving holiday release of “Moana,” Disney’s Polynesian cartoon extravaganza can simultaneously expand its lucrative enterprise of exploiting marginalized, Indigenous peoples (Pocahontas, Lilo and Stitch, Frozen) while perpetuating American amnesia.

A note about Thanksgiving: Early feasts of giving thanks celebrated some notable atrocities committed against Native peoples, including the 1637 massacre of 700 Pequot Indians by white Christians and the 1676 butchering and beheading of Wampanoag Sachem Metacom, whose severed head was then displayed on a pike for 25 years at Plymouth. Ultimately it was President Lincoln who declared it a national holiday in 1863, less than a year after he ordered the hanging of 38 Dakota men, which remains the largest mass execution in US history.

Given the pre-Halloween rollout of the Maui-Skin-Suit so that children would unwittingly promote “Moana” like human billboards, I doubt the choice of a release date was any less thought out. Some of the most experienced and powerful business minds in the world own and operate Disney—they’re not the type to leave a hundred-something million-dollar investment to chance. Opening dates, promotion, and merchandising are carefully planned well in advance to achieve maximum financial gain. The skin-suit and Thanksgiving release shouldn’t be thought of as unintended cultural faux pas – these were calculated risks. To give the benefit of the doubt to a $50 billion corporate predator waiting to vacuum up a few billion more off of our culture(s) is to agree with the offense.

Most Indigenous peoples under U.S. control, certainly Hawaiians, have yet to carve out a meaningful space to represent ourselves, what we value, and our reality in mass media and film largely because America’s master narrative relies on our subjugation. The truth of what matters to us undermines the colonizer’s imagineered innocence. The narrative of Hawaii as “the Aloha State” is a perfect example— every non-Maoli living and vacationing here is able to do so because of the theft of our nationhood and the complete appropriation and subversion of our land and culture. While there are certainly other oppressed groups, our oppressions aren’t any more equal than our successes. Hawaiian world—Indigenous world is all buss-up and our narratives are convoluted. But the settler world isn’t, and neither is its story.

Our hopes, dreams and struggles are inconvenient to what Disney has chosen to produce about us. Worse yet, we’re expected to shut up and enjoy the ride everyone’s taking on our back. Yes, some of our own people, grateful for any acknowledgment, don’t recognize an insult or culture theft when they see it. Others will happily join in with the massive, commodifying monstrosity of “Moana” and buy Moana-gear and computer games. (I heard that the Ala Moana Disney Store is already well-stocked.) One Maori writer, who likes the Maui-Skin-Suit, said it’s like dressing up as Santa Claus. He’s not far off, seeing as how we’re the ones doing all the giving. He reminded me of something funny that Haunani-Kay Trask, one of our beloved sovereignty leaders, once said to me: “Yah, the haole, they stole everything we gave them.”

Being culturally poached and misrepresented isn’t flattering, it’s a threat. The historical fact is that colonization in the Pacific, everywhere for that matter, has had catastrophic consequences for Indigenous peoples in every conceivable way. And Native collaboration, while highly problematic, doesn’t legitimize hijacking or pimping our knowledge, heritage, and identity. Having said that, not knowing who the members are of the Oceanic Story Trust, a group that was hand-picked by Disney to shepherd the cultural content and merchandising, we can’t ask these Pacific Mouseketeers what the capital F they were thinking when they helped Disney strip mine our culture(s) for the sole purpose of making a profit.

Although bad publicity in the form of complaints that the skin-suit is racist motivated Disney to take it off the shelf, they did it with a condescending, “we regret that the Maui costume has offended some,” version of an apology. I suppose that’s the best we can expect from an entity whose bottom line is protecting its investment.

But Hawaiians and other Indigenous Pacific Islanders are the ones who need to think hard about what something of this magnitude will mean. Given that it’s shaping up to become this region’s cultural heist of the century (so far), we may want to try to make Native sense of the intent and the processes at work here, especially us Hawaiians.

I say especially Hawaiians because so much is being done to us politically, materially, culturally, and spiritually these past few years. From the mass desecration project of the Thirty-Meter Telescope, to the Obama Administration’s determination to force-feed us federal recognition against our will, ours is a never-ending struggle to simply survive in our homeland as who we are. The cultural imperialism of Disney mirrors the military imperialism of the United States and the other industries it uses to erase our Indigenous belonging: tourism and real estate. Disney’s Aulani Resort, and now its “Moana,” secures its place in the economically enforced ethnocide and culturcide that is steadily replacing us with settlers.

If the promotional trailer is anything like the film, Disney’s about to get even richer by exploiting and mocking us in deeply genealogical and spiritual ways—turning Tutu Pele into an ugly lava monster and Maui into a ridiculous, clowning sidekick. The noted psychiatrist, philosopher, revolutionary and writer Frantz Fanon was so on the mark when he said, “…Colonialism is not satisfied merely with holding a people in its grip and emptying the native’s brain of all form and content. By a kind of perverted logic, it turns to the past of the oppressed people, and distorts, disfigures, and destroys it.”

Disney has reduced us and our world to a cartoon at a time when our political future is hanging in the balance, when Hawaiians absolutely need to be heard and taken seriously, not distracted by or silenced for entertainment. Disney is trying to do to our culture and identity what America is doing to our land and nationhood: we are being carved up, sold off, and drained of our mana.

Since the Maui-Skin-Suit debacle, Disney’s 21st century iteration of the white supremacist ideology that informed people like British Major General Horatio Gordon Robley, a proud collector of Maori heads, and the guy who tried to sell a Hawaiian kupuna skull on eBay, I’ve been thinking in metaphors. I’m looking at what’s happening right now, but looking, too, at the horizon, at what’s coming toward us, imagining what might follow, hoping that whatever it is Hawaiians and all Pacific Islanders can face it together instead of letting it further divide us.

I have no doubt that Disney’s “Moana” will materially and psychologically aid and abet the colonial project of Indigenous erasure and removal. It’s a cultural tsunami and it will impact the entire region. However, unlike natural disasters, this man-made disaster will play out over many months and years and will continue for as long as Disney can suck the marrow from our spiritual and cultural bones.

Anne Keala Kelly is the Native Hawaiian award-winning filmmaker of “Noho Hewa: The Wrongful Occupation of Hawai’i. She is also a journalist whose work has appeared in The Nation and on Pacifica Network and Al Jazeera. www.annekealakelly.com  www.nohohewa.com

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