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About Braided Waters

“In his new and extensively researched history of Hawai’i’s often marginalized yet fought-over ‘middle island,’ Wade Graham opens a window to ‘a place of remarkable endurance, resistance, and cultural resilience.’ Graham skillfully demonstrates how control over water has been at the center of Molokai’s ecological, economic, social, and political history both in the precontact Polynesian period and in the even more dramatic changes of the past two centuries. The story of Molokai is, moreover, the larger story of the Hawaiian Islands. Graham’s book deserves to be read by anyone with an interest in Hawaiian and Polynesian history.”

—Patrick V. Kirch, Emeritus Professor of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley

Braided Waters sheds new light on the relationship between environment and society by charting the history of Hawaii’s Molokai Island over a thousand-year period of repeated settlement. From the arrival of the first Polynesians to contact with eighteenth-century European explorers and traders to our present era, this study shows how the control of resources—especially water—in a fragile, highly variable environment has had profound effects on the history of Hawaii. Wade Graham examines the ways environmental variation repeatedly shapes human social and economic structures and how, in turn, man-made environmental degradation influences and reshapes societies. A key finding of this study is how deep structures of place interact with distinct cultural patterns across different societies to produce similar social and environmental outcomes, in both the Polynesian and modern eras—a case of historical isomorphism with profound implications for global environmental history.

"Now Hawaii has found its environmental historian in Wade Graham, an exceptionally talented writer and scholar.... His book is rich in theory and insight, and it should stand for a long time as an exceptional piece of history—a provocative tale of evolution.”

—Donald Worster, Emeritus Professor of History, University of Kansas

Braided Waters: Environment and Society in Molokai, Hawaii

Wade Graham
University of California Press

280 pp. 6 x 9 Illus: 12 bw figures, 4 maps

9780520298590 December 2018

Review: “Water and Empire in Hawai’i: ‘Braided Waters’ Reveals Deep History on Molokai”

By Charles Donelan. Santa Barbara Independent, July 10, 2019.

The Hawaiian Islands occupy a special place in the cultural imaginary, and for the most part, they have capitalized on it. The idea of “paradise on earth” makes for a powerful brand, and tourist destinations such as Oahu, Maui, and Hawai‘i have never been more popular or more expensive than they are today. Yet there’s one traditional image of Hawaiian paradise that sends mixed signals, and that’s the promise of “miles of empty white sand beaches.” The island where you will find the longest stretches of this fantasy condition is Molokai, and in a fascinating new book, Braided Waters: Environment and Society in Molokai, Hawai‘i, environmental historian Wade Graham explains why the emptiness of this large island in the middle of the Hawaiian chain is not a healthy sign.

For most of us, the name Molokai conjures thoughts of Father Damien and the leper colony at Kalaupapa that was founded in 1866 when thousands of Native Hawaiians with no immunity to Hansen’s disease were quarantined there. While that colony does still exist and could until recently be visited by those willing to descend thousands of feet by mule to its location at the base of some of the world’s highest cliffs, even that marginal tourist attraction on Molokai is now closed.

For Graham, Molokai’s deep history of colonization by seafaring Polynesians centuries prior to contact with the West made it an ideal subject for exploring the history of a marginalized place. “History is still too often explained by looking at powerful, central, dominant places,” he contends, adding that “most of the world is not a center, but a margin  —  by definition the periphery is larger and more extensive than the core.” Thus the lessons about agriculture, empire, and sustainability he draws from the fate of Molokai have profound implications for how we understand the Anthropocene future.

“History is still too often explained by looking at powerful, central, dominant places… Most of the world is not a center, but a margin  —  by definition the periphery is larger and more extensive than the core.”

As can be seen in the book’s title  —  taken from a translation of the name Molokai, which means “braided waters”  —  the crucial factor in the island’s history has been the control of its limited water supply. Although the boarded-up condos, abandoned hotels, and overgrown golf courses that can be seen there today reflect only the most recent attempts to stimulate economic growth, remnants of other, more distant projects and civilizations can be found that indicate a pattern of exploitation and environmental degradation going back thousands of years to the Polynesians, well before the arrival of European explorers.

Aided by a battery of scientific approaches to analyzing land use, flora, and fauna over time, Braided Waters weaves a compelling, data-driven account of the original colonization of the Hawaiian Islands by seafaring Polynesians beginning around 1000 CE. The cascading effects of the introduction of nonnative species and agricultural intensification through extensive irrigation projects caused the island’s fragile ecosystem to become deforested, eroded, and desiccated.

Paradoxically, what was bad for the environment was good for those who occupied the top rungs of a very hierarchical society. Increased dependency on monoculture crops grown for export delivered more and more power into the hands of the ruling elite well before the arrival of western sugar and pineapple companies. After the arrival of Captain Cook in 1778, the inequalities present in preexisting native social structures were amplified by trade with similarly inclined Westerners, who were only too happy to deal with a society organized around a handful of all-powerful imperial authority figures.

In the second half of the book, the pace accelerates as various schemes to improve Molokai through crops such as sugar and pineapples are applied and run their course, leaving environmental ruin in their wake. Cattle and pigs chew up the native vegetation, sending washes of silt down the steep canyons to fill in what were at one time highly productive fishponds.

Today Molokai sits on an uneasy perch between worlds. Attempts to develop the island as a tourist destination have been blocked by Hawaiians whose embrace of subsistence strategies like fishing, hunting, and small-scale farming must be supplemented by welfare checks. The path to a sustainably authentic future for Molokai remains unclear, but thanks to Braided Waters, that territory now has a historically informed map.