The Cultural Politics of Sovereignty: Semiotic Circuits and the Polynesian Voyaging Society

Heidi C Nicholls, Johns Hopkins University

This paper analyzes the semiotic contestation of sovereignty between the United States as an empire and settler state, and Polynesian Voyaging Society (PVS), a non-profit organization founded in Hawai‘i in 1973. Through an interpretive analysis of the organization’s historical trajectory and their discursive and material strategies, I find that the PVS was able to disrupt colonial narratives of race and indigeneity and re-historicize the history of Hawaiians and other Indigenous peoples living amidst the historical record and ongoing reality of colonialism in the Pacific. Building on theories within settler colonial studies and cultural sociology, I argue that the making of settler or imperial claims to sovereignty require that colonists and settlers work to separates bodies from land in order to both negate the ways that people and places are mutually constituted. Deterritorialized bodies become racialized bodies, minimizing the previous meanings attached to place and peoples and obscuring Indigeneity. To the extent that the PVS was able to disrupt the relationships between people, power, and space over time as constructed by the U.S. state, it participated in contesting U.S sovereignty over Hawai‘i and the Pacific. Moreover, in connecting and reasserting other relationships, alternative sovereignties gained traction and encouraged further decolonial collective action.

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 Presented in Session 142. Race and Power in Transoceanic Circuits