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Colonial and Decolonial Resignification: US Empire-state Sovereignty in Hawai‘i

Global Historical Sociology of Race and Racism

ISBN: 978-1-80117-219-6, eISBN: 978-1-80117-218-9

Publication date: 30 September 2021


This chapter analyzes the semiotic construction of US claims to sovereignty in Hawai‘i. Building on semiotic theories in sociology and theories within critical Indigenous and settler colonial studies, it presents an interpretive analysis of state, military, and academic discursive strategies. The US empire-state attempts to construct colonial narratives of race and sovereignty that rehistoricize the history of Hawaiians and other Indigenous peoples. In order to make claims to sovereignty, settler-colonists construct narratives that build upon false claims to superiority, advancement, and discovery. Colonial resignification is a process by which signs and symbols of Indigenous communities are conscripted into the myths of empire that maintain such sovereign claims. Yet, for this reason, colonial resignification can be undone through reclaiming such signs and symbols from their use within colonial metanarratives. In this case, efforts toward decolonial resignification enacted alternative metanarratives of peoples' relationships to place. This “flip side” of the synecdoche is a process that unravels the ties that bind layered myths by providing new answers to questions that underpin settler colonial sovereignty.




I would like to thank staff at the Polynesian Voyaging Society and Hōkūle'a crew and community members who shared their experiences and perspectives. Many thanks to Isaac Ariail Reed, Fiona Greenland, Matthew Ito, and members of the Sociological Working group on Aesthetics, Meaning, and Power (SWAMP) at the University of Virginia for feedback on earlier drafts of this chapter. Finally, thank you to Julian Go, katrina quisumbing king, Alexander White, and an anonymous reviewer for their valuable feedback and guidance.


Nicholls, H. (2021), "Colonial and Decolonial Resignification: US Empire-state Sovereignty in Hawai‘i", White, A.I.R. and Quisumbing King, K. (Ed.) Global Historical Sociology of Race and Racism (Political Power and Social Theory, Vol. 38), Emerald Publishing Limited, Leeds, pp. 191-220.



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