Captain Cook or God Lono? Anthropology's Stormy Seas


Marshall Sahlins

University of Chicago Press


UNCLE! Half way through anthropologist Marshall Sahlins's argument that the explorer Captain James Cook was received by the Hawaiians as a god, nonspecialist readers are likely to cry ''enough.''

Heavy with fact, packed with 17 appendixes, the deceptively slim book is as dense as uranium. Yet those who persevere will find in ''How 'Natives' Think'' an enlightening look at the issues that are reshaping academic disciplines like anthropology.

The story has two beginnings. The first occurred when Captain Cook made his second visit to the Hawaiian Islands in November 1778, at the very time the Hawaiians were observing the Makahiki ceremonies. In this period, the god Lono was thought to be making his annual passage through the islands, renewing nature.

The second beginning occurred in 1992, when anthropologist Gananath Obeyesekere's book, ''The Apotheosis of Captain Cook,'' disputed Marshall Sahlins's career-long research on Hawaiian culture. Obeyesekere suggested that the Hawaiians were too pragmatic to have mistaken Cook for the god Lono.

At first blush, this sounds more like a faculty-room spat than a major controversy. It was not so much Obeyesekere's challenge, but his underlying assertions, that provoked Sahlins into writing this rejoinder. Sahlins's blunder, Obeyesekere alleged, resulted from the widely shared bias of white Westerners, who insist on seeing natives as gullible and childlike. Worse, Obeyesekere proposed that the myth of Cook's godhood reflected not the natives' perception, but Westerner's supposed superior self-image.

In briefest words, Sahlins's text responds to what he takes as Obeyesekere's presumption that anthropologists cannot think beyond the prejudices of Western culture.

Further, he understands Obeyesekere to be claiming special knowledge and affinity with the first-contact Hawaiians on the basis of his being a native Sri Lankan; that is, a nonwhite Westerner. As we say in universities these days, the issue comes down to ''speaking for others.''

With enviable wit and striking mental dexterity, Sahlins assembles testimony from the Cook expedition, Hawaiian cultural records, and contemporary scholarship to show how Obeyesekere has constructed a ''pidgin anthropology.'' Though never thoroughly defined, ''pidgin anthropology'' amounts to anthropology lite: one part ''Captain Planet,'' two parts Rudyard Kipling, and a sprinkling of old Tarzan movies.

In effect, Obeyesekere stands accused not simply of being unscholarly, but of homogenizing all native thought into a generic stereotype: ''The crooked tree in the tall pine forest has spoken with a forked tongue.'' Ultimately, it is Sahlins who appears to speak for the Hawaiians, by maintaining the autonomy and integrity of their world view.

In this debate, there is little doubt that Sahlins wins the round; but has he won the match? Reasonable readers cry uncle not so much to acknowledge Sahlins's certain brilliance, but to be freed from witnessing further intellectual massacre. It's like a lop-sided boxing match, where one contestant is taking a heavy shellacking and the ref won't step in. All the expertise in the world cannot make one feel less sorry for the underdog in this situation.

And maybe that empathy has some intellectual weight. While admiring Sahlins's fancy footwork and admitting that he may speak more clearly for the Hawaiians than does Obeyesekere, one begins to wonder how the ''natives'' will ever speak as equals to the academics.

Sahlins's argument is cogent precisely because he wields the tools of the white, Western scholastic style with greater facility than Obeyesekere. Credibility proceeds not simply from the evidence, but from how it is presented.

Does the intellectual apparatus of Western culture create what we might call ''pigeonhole anthropology,'' a logic so severe that it must batter the subtleties of non-Western thought and culture in the act of communicating them? And what about the ''natives''? If they are to speak convincingly for themselves, will they have to adopt the machinery of Western evidence and objectivity?

In contemporary thought, these questions of cultural survival parallel those of ecological diversity. As the Sahlins-Obeyesekere exchange demonstrates, the issue is not merely academic.

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