A doctoral dissertation of unequal measure

PhD candidate Noelani Arista’s history of the first encounters between native Hawaiians and American missionaries is selected for the prestigious Nevins Prize

Noelani Arista

For the third time in the past decade, a Brandeis doctoral dissertation has been judged the best in the nation by The Society of American Historians. Noelani Arista, an Irving and Rose Crown Fellow who will be awarded her PhD at the university’s commencement in May, has won the 50th annual Allan Nevins Prize for her interdisciplinary thesis, "Histories of Unequal Measure: Euro-American Encounters with Hawaiian Governance and Law, 1793-1827," which she defended in December.

Arista joins an illustrious cast of past winners, including such luminaries as William Freehling and Mary Beth Norton. She also joins two other Brandeis Crown Fellow winners: Jeff Wiltse, PhD'02, won in 2003, and Jessica Lepler, PhD'07, in 2008. 

Brandeis is the only school to have won three Nevins Prizes in the last decade, and is the smallest PhD in history program that has produced any winners in this national competition that annually recognizes the best-written doctoral dissertation on an American subject. 

“I feel very honored to win this distinguished prize, especially because my goal was to be able to write a dissertation about Hawai'i and early encounters between Hawai'i and the U.S. in a way that brought Hawaiian history to the attention of the main stream of American history,” Arista said. “That a dissertation that emphasizes Native (Hawaiian) history was awarded this prize I believe is significant.”

Arista, who currently teaches in the History Department at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa, says it was her academic background in Hawaiian culture and language that made her feel at home at Brandeis. “I felt that Brandeis with its own cultural and historical traditions would be a good fit for me in this stage of my development, and I have found it to be a culturally diverse and rich place of seeking after knowledge, a Hawaiian cultural value known as 'Imi Loa," Arista said.

“I was drawn to Brandeis because of its intimate size, because I wanted to work with Jane Kamensky and David Engerman,” Arista continued. “When I was accepted into the program it was professor Engerman who assured me that, based on my application, the department was confident in my skills in Hawaiian language, translation and my familiarity with Hawaiian history, but that it was their job to teach me the discipline of history. I found his words to be liberating—that from the beginning of my tenure at Brandeis my professors were confident in the work I had already accomplished, and they were going to help me develop the skills which would help me to develop as a historian and to fulfill one of my goals, to write Hawaiian-U.S. history for a broader audience.”

One of Arista’s mentors, Harry S. Truman Professor of American Civilization and Chair of the Department of History Jane Kamensky, said Arista taught her as much as she taught Arista. “I think all her professors would say the same,” Kamensky said. “She has a capacious and original intellect, and a knack for seeing familiar sources and problems in wholly new ways. Her dissertation, which explores some of the first encounters among Hawaiian natives and New England missionaries, is in many ways a study of communication and its consequences. So it seems especially fitting that 'Histories of Unequal Measure' would win a writing prize.

Arista was interested in illuminating this unequal history because she felt that American approaches to the study of Hawaiian history have always been written in English language sources and methodological assumptions. It was her goal to draw upon both English and Hawaiian sources to tell a different story about the transformation of Hawaiian government during this period.

“I argue that Hawaiians have their own conceptualization and reality when it comes to history and the interpretation of events, and also make the point that not only linguistic, but cultural literacy is central to telling this history well,” Arista said.

It was another Brandeis professor, David Hackett Fischer, who she credits with helping her understand how to write history well. “I served as a teaching fellow for Professor Fischer three semesters, and I will never forget that one afternoon when he saw me struggling with my project, he said to me, ‘Noe, write for, not against,’" Arista said. “This saying has stayed with me, when I think about contextualizing Hawaiian history in relation to the leviathan of American historiography on Hawai'i; this orientation to writing is something Jane and David also urged upon me, namely that I needed to find my own way to write this history, instead of focusing on fighting with or correcting the mistakes, erasures and erroneous interpretations about Hawaiian history that fill history books today.”

By winning the Nevins Prize, Arista’s dissertation will be sent to the academic and trade publishers who support the award, in hopes that one of the them will be interested in developing it into a book.

This early academic success, Arista said, reflects the debt she owes to professor Kamensky in particular. "She was such an outstanding mentor, understood the challenges I face as a native woman making my way in academia, and as such, made sure I was not only taught the practice of history, but also received professional training in how to be a successful academic," Arista said.

As she looks forward to working on her next project, focusing on the creation of the first Hawaiian constitution and a Hawaiian diplomatic mission of 1842-1844 to seek international recognition of Hawaiian independence by the U.S., Great Britain, and France, Arista said that Brandeis helped her look back at her own history in a new way. “'Imi Loa was a mid-nineteenth century appellation which Hawaiians abroad applied to themselves—far seeking Hawai'i, meaning both the place and the person,” Arista said. “I found that at Brandeis I was able to think of myself in these terms handed down by my kupuna, or ancestors.

For a historian who is building a career based on seeking truth in the past, 'Imi Loa is certainly a useful trait to possess.

Below is the abstract of Arista’s dissertation, “Histories of Unequal Measure: Euro-American Encounters with Hawaiian Governance and Law, 1793-1827.”

“This dissertation examines the mutually constitutive relationship of Hawai‘i and New England, beginning with the rise of public curiosity in all things Hawaiian, exemplified in the performances of the pantomime of the Death of Captain Cook, which played on American stages from 1793 to 1820, in the exhibition of Hawaiian chiefs in waxworks, and Hawaiian material culture in museums. The geographic scope of the dissertation begins in New England, but touches on places as far removed as the Northwest coast of America, China, and of course the Hawaiian islands in the North Pacific. The dissertation covers the period 1793-1827.

“My dissertation investigates the early and continued institutional development of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) as a result of the production of a Hawaiian type, the pious Christian convert exemplified in stories published by the mission of the education and Christianization of Hawaiian men living in New England. The circulation of these stories engendered a school, finances to mount the mission, and recruitment of future missionaries. The dissertation argues that the expansion of the ABCFM during this period is a result of the production of the stories of these men, and continued with the publication of reports from the Sandwich Islands Mission.

“The dissertation focuses upon the evolution of Hawaiian government. First, I examine the persistence and transformation of kapu, a particular kind of exercise of Hawaiian law through oral pronouncement, and the innovation of a new kind of published law called kānāwai. Second, I investigate the significance of the ‘aha ‘ōlelo (chiefly council) to Hawaiian governance during this period of increased foreign presence in the islands, both transient and settled.

“My dissertation, ‘Histories of Unequal Measure,’ emphasizes the heterogeneity of value systems belonging to different groups in my history. My dissertation incorporates different approaches, methods, and ways of reading sources that operate within different Hawaiian historical paradigms. The challenge in writing this history is communicating a robust Hawaiian language and sign base to tell Hawaiian history, and making room for Hawaiian disciplinary paradigms of historical thinking and praxis alongside a received Euro-American narrative.”

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