How "Natives" Think: About Captain Cook, For Example

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University of Chicago Press, 1996 - Social Science - 318 pages
When Western scholars write about non-Western societies, do they inevitably perpetuate the myths of European imperialism? Can they ever articulate the meanings and logics of non-Western peoples? Who has the right to speak for whom? Questions such as these are among the most hotly debated in contemporary intellectual life. In How "Natives" Think, Marshall Sahlins addresses these issues head on, while building a powerful case for the ability of anthropologists working in the Western tradition to understand other cultures.

In recent years, these questions have arisen in debates over the death and deification of Captain James Cook on Hawai'i Island in 1779. Did the Hawaiians truly receive Cook as a manifestation of their own god Lono? Or were they too pragmatic, too worldly-wise to accept the foreigner as a god? Moreover, can a "non-native" scholar give voice to a "native" point of view? In his 1992 book The Apotheosis of Captain Cook, Gananath Obeyesekere used this very issue to attack Sahlins's decades of scholarship on Hawaii. Accusing Sahlins of elementary mistakes of fact and logic, even of intentional distortion, Obeyesekere portrayed Sahlins as accepting a naive, enthnocentric idea of superiority of the white man over "natives"—Hawaiian and otherwise. Claiming that his own Sri Lankan heritage gave him privileged access to the Polynesian native perspective, Obeyesekere contended that Hawaiians were actually pragmatists too rational and sensible to mistake Cook for a god.

Curiously then, as Sahlins shows, Obeyesekere turns eighteenth-century Hawaiians into twentieth-century modern Europeans, living up to the highest Western standards of "practical rationality." By contrast, Western scholars are turned into classic custom-bound "natives", endlessly repeating their ancestral traditions of the White man's superiority by insisting Cook was taken for a god. But this inverted ethnocentrism can only be supported, as Sahlins demonstrates, through wholesale fabrications of Hawaiian ethnography and history—not to mention Obeyesekere's sustained misrepresentations of Sahlins's own work. And in the end, although he claims to be speaking on behalf of the "natives," Obeyesekere, by substituting a home-made "rationality" for Hawaiian culture, systematically eliminates the voices of Hawaiian people from their own history.

How "Natives" Think goes far beyond specialized debates about the alleged superiority of Western traditions. The culmination of Sahlins's ethnohistorical research on Hawaii, it is a reaffirmation for understanding difference.

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HOW 'NATIVES' THINK: 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 ... Read full review

How "natives" think: about Captain Cook, for example

User Review  - Not Available - Book Verdict

On its face, this appears to be a rebuttal of Gananath Obeyesekere's The Apotheosis of Captain Cook (Princeton Univ. Pr., 1992), which was in turn an attempt at refuting Sahlins's earlier explorations ... Read full review


Captain Cook at Hawaii
Cook after Death
Historical Fiction Makeshift Ethnography
Rationalities How Natives Think
Historiography or Symbolic Violence
What the Sailors Knew
Literalism and Culture
Clark Gable for Cook?
Blurred Images
Priests Sorrows Womens Joys and Stereotypic Reproduction
Divine Chiejs oj Polynesia
Priests and Genealogies
On the Wrath oj Cook
The Language Problem

On the Kalii Rite
Historiography oj the Makahiki
Calendrical Politics
Cook Wrapped
Lono at Hikiau
Kamakaus Gods
Atua in the Marquesas and Elsewhere

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About the author (1996)

Marshall Sahlins is the Charles F. Grey Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at the University of Chicago. The author of numerous books, Sahlins is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

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