HOW 'NATIVES' THINK by Marshall Sahlins


About Captain Cook, For Example
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 Round two in an academic fistfight concerning interpretations of the Hawaiian perception of Captain Cook (172879). In The Apotheosis of Captain Cook (not reviewed), Gananath Obeyesekere claimed that the notion that Hawaiian natives mistook Captain Cook for their god Lono was a cultural myth perpetuated by ``Western'' scholars--Sahlins in particular. In this openly hostile response, Sahlins (Anahula, not reviewed, etc.) contends that it is ludicrous to assume, as Obeyesekere does, that native Hawaiians were endowed with a ``practical rationality'' that would have made it impossible for them to mistake a European man for a Hawaiian god, and points out that the notion of practical rationality is itself a Western concept. He next attacks the premise that Obeyesekere, as a native Sri Lankan, has a ``privileged insight'' into Hawaiian culture. Sahlins asserts that Polynesian culture and the culture of South Asia share little in common except a vaguely similar experience of Western domination. One of Sahlins's main criticisms is that, by dismissing their testimony as tainted by Western influences, Obeyesekere systematically silences the voices of Hawaiian informants. (Since Hawaii had no written language at the time of first contact, information was recorded by Europeans.) He also undermines Obeyesekere's argument by uncovering numerous errors of omission, inaccuracy, and misinterpretation. After addressing these flaws in Obeyesekere's book, Sahlins launches into a point-by-point defense of his own analysis of the Makahiki ritual (which concerns the cyclical return of Lono) and its resonance with the interactions between Cook and the natives as noted in the diaries of several crew members. The larger debate between ``Western imperialist'' anthropologists and their younger deconstructionist cousins is left unsettled, but there can be no doubt the Sahlins defends his own work persuasively. Virtually no appeal to the general reader, but essential reading to anthropologists caught up in the general theoretical upheaval affecting the discipline.

Pub Date: April 1st, 1995
ISBN: 0-226-73368-8
Page count: 301pp
Publisher: Univ. of Chicago
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1st, 1995