Making Native Sense of Disney’s ‘Moana’.

The Maui skin-suit.

Anne Keala Kelly has an excellent column up about Disney’s Moana, and the Thanksgiving release date. A brief excerpt:

…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. …

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.

The full article is at ICTMN.


  1. Kreator says

    I have a confession to make: issues of cultural appropriation stir a heavy dose of cognitive dissonance in me. On one hand, I recognize the absolute truth of its perniciousness and the need to combat it, but on the other hand I can’t help having my personal experience distort my views. To elaborate, were not for some culturally appropriated material similar to Moana, I’m not sure if I would ever have become interested in indigenous issues in the first place (to the point where my personal library contains almost as many books about the history, beliefs and customs of Latin America’s indigenous peoples as it contains novels.) I find it difficult to see me as the exception rather than the rule, though I know that’s quite likely the truth.

    Perhaps I was lucky to stumble upon one of those rare cases in which cultural appropriation was done in a respectful manner? That which kickstarted my life-long interest in these subjects was a collection of books for children published by my country’s Ministry of Culture. Each one recounted the legends of different indigenous populations living in my country, in the form of bedtime stories. Every book started with a short description of the peoples the stories were taken from, which was then elaborated further after the stories in a section called “Who Told These Tales?” The info wasn’t comprehensive by any means and there was some whitewashing done (not to the point of painting the Spaniards as good guys, but enough to gloss over the most negative details,) but they awoke my curiosity.

    Dammit. I’m not sure what I’m getting at; I guess this is an example of #notallwhites, but… I wanted to say it. One thing is for sure, I recognize that I still have many biases to fight within me, and I hope that someday I’ll be able to expunge them with the help of people like you. Thank you for this blog, Caine.

  2. rq says

    That is a powerful read.
    When I finally realize my dream of visiting Hawaii, looks like I’ll be putting in a lot of research beforehand to do so in a culturally sensitive manner. Hey, I can look forward to that!

  3. says


    Thank you for this blog, Caine.

    Thank you for reading. There’s a difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation. I think, in most ages, there have been people who have been empathetic, and had a desire to learn and share that knowledge. This was often seen through a distorted lens, but there was an honest attempt at appreciation by some people. I think you can recognize such distortion while also appreciating having your curiosity sparked, and going on to learn more.

    At one point in my childhood, I was completely in love with a book, The Rainforest, by Armstrong Sperry. I read it many times. It was my introduction to rainforests, ecological systems, and ornithology. I remembered that book with rose coloured glasses. Some years back, I tracked down a first edition and bought it. I couldn’t make it past 10 pages, it was so colonial, and so very racist. I’m still grateful for the subjects it introduced, but I would never recommend it to anyone, and I wouldn’t be afraid to tell them why.

  4. says

    I can confess too.
    As a kid, I read avidly books by Karl May. As adult I started collecting those that were ilustrated by Zdeňek Burian, because the ilustrations are beautifull, and I have a bookshelf half full of them. I know now of course that virtually everything in the books is fictional and the depictions, albeit beuatifull, are mostly inaccurate. I know all the harmfull stereotypes used in those books, I know they are full of white mans ideas about how Indians lived and behaved and I know that I know near to nothing about real Indian culture.
    In retrospect perhaps ironically May portrayed german nationalism as a good thing (white settlers and trappers of german descent were always good guys) and at the same time he multiple times throughout the books condemned the slaughter of Indians and theft of their land (those who tried to settle on indian land without natives permision, who stole their natural resources and who killed indians were the bad guys), and he strongly denounced racism and (in retrospect even more ironically) war.
    Hitler took from Mays books the nationalism and ignored everything else. I took the rest and ignored the nationalism.
    So despite the fact, tha the books are completely fictional and have led in Europe to a fuckton of appropriation (toys, costumes, movies where white actors play indians and the whole lot), I received as a child one important lesson from them, a lesson that some of the people in the pictures from today did not get -- Indians are people just like me and like everyone else.

    So I am sometimes slightly conflicted on this issue. And still learning.

  5. says


    I received as a child one important lesson from them, a lesson that some of the people in the pictures from today did not get – Indians are people just like me and like everyone else.

    Then you took away something truly important, and don’t ever be sorry about that. I think, to a point, it matters what you’re predisposition is -- if you’re a thoughtful, curious person, you’ll be more inclined to keep learning, and take away important bits while discarding the bad parts. I’m reminded of a friend who adored the TV show Little House on the Prairie, when she was young. She decided to get the books for her kids, and she was reading along, and just stopped, sputtering, over the racist, dehumanizing way Indians were talked about at one point. Instead of just boxing them up, she told the kids she needed some other things before they went on with the story. With some help, she got some great books, set up some time to spend with a family at the Soboba rez (this was back in SoCal, that rez is in San Jacinto), then they went back to the Little House books. Sometimes, the best thing you can do is to use those things to teach.

  6. rq says

    What’s your take on The Indian in the Cupboard book(s)? I remember reading them in elementary school and enjoying them very much, and since Eldest is at a decent reading age, I’ve been trying to find a lot of my childhood favourites for him to start reading on his own. It’s probably easiest just to get a copy and re-read for myself -- with the additional bonus that I can talk to him about anything questionable within.
    I think what has helped me somewhat to get through the racist crap out there is the fact that my parents loved stories from all kinds of cultures when I was growing up. We were read traditional Latvian folk tales (with great art!), but we had books and books about all kinds of mythologies. Most had fantastic illustrations, too, even though a great many were more factual historical-type books, but they captured the imagination and provided a small window into the lives and beliefs of other people -- yes, people, not stereotypes. It seems such an odd thing (when I think about it), that it’s the stories that have carried over the humanity of other cultures -- but on the other hand, it makes a lot of sense, esp. if you can find the common themes across cultures and histories. As Charly put it:

    that Indians [and people from all other cultures] are people just like me and like everyone else.

  7. brucegee1962 says

    One of the great things about literature in general is that the things that authors put into books are not necessarily the same as the things that readers get out of them. That is doubly true when the readers are children.

    Somewhat related: I read an article recently about Rose Wilder Lane, the daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder who practically ghost-wrote the entire series in collaboration with her mother. Apparently she was a raging libertarian and Ayn Rand fan, who quite self consciously set out to write the series as libertarian propaganda for kids. It makes a lot of sense when you read them in that light. Adventurous, self-reliant pioneers don’t need any help from the government, no sir! Except maybe in the Indian-killing department.

  8. says

    Well, you and me both. I think that Karl May was rad for his time for his portrayal of Indians as people, people with a rich culture and history. I vividly remember one scene in Winetou I where the Apache catch some of the white folks and ask them what the punishment for stealing a horse is. White guy answers “death”. They go on to ask what is worse: stealing a horse or the land of the Apache.
    I also get the own personal childhood nostalgia, but I also remember that most people didn’t see this as an incentive to find out more, but as actual knowledge and get defensive when challenged. Germany is big on “Indianertum”. There’s hundreds of clubs where people play Indians and the least welcome person there is an actual Indian who tells them that their reenactment is crap and asks them what they’re doing to support actual Indians now.

    I’ll say that while there are some beloved childhood classics I’ll happily pass on to my kids (though for some reason #1 isn’t into books other than animal encyclopedias), there’s also some I quietly consigned to the dustbin of history. Life moves on and we shouldn’t try to recreate our own childhoods for our kids.

    Back to Moana, this is sad. Not knowing enough of that particular culture I’d been hopeful when I saw the trailer: A blockbuster centring around indigenous people. I fell into the exact trap described above: taking a white rendition of a culture as the real thing.

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