The Cold Never Bothered Native Hawaiians Anyway: A Conversation with Hi’ilei Julia Hobart

Rainbow-color shave ice in a blue cone

I had the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Hiʻilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart about her hot-off-the-press book Cooling the Tropics: Ice, Indigeneity, and Hawaiian Refreshment from Duke University Press. In our conversation, Dr. Hobart describes some of the critical insights of her text at the intersection of Indigenous dispossession and resistance in Hawai’i, food studies, and thermal colonization. Putting ice as a comestible as the central frame of analysis for colonialism in Hawai’i and larger projects of Empire more broadly, Dr. Hobart shows us how ice and temperature feature crucially to all kinds of historical and ongoing projects of power. As historical as it is contemporary, Dr. Hobart’s book illuminates critical analyses from start to finish—a tiny glimpse of which we are privileged to listen to in this interview. 

Stream or download our conversation here.

Interview Highlights

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Book cover for Cooling the Tropics depicting a young Hawaiian girl eating an ice cream cone against a pastel rainbow background.
Cooling the Tropics (Duke University Press, 2022)

Jen Rose Smith:  I’m so happy to be here and have this opportunity to talk with you about your brand new book Cooling the Tropics (2022). I want to get our conversation started by asking you to tell unfamiliar readers or unfamiliar listeners a little bit about your book.

Hi’ilei Julia Hobart: I usually describe it as a social history of ice and the cold in Hawai’i from the nineteenth century to the present day. It’s really wide-ranging, and it’s really interdisciplinary, which means that it takes “the cold” in a lot of expansive directions. I think about natural cold at the summit of some of Hawai’i’s tallest mountains. I think about the early ice trade, freezing and refrigeration technology, and forms of cold refreshment—like ice cream and shave ice and cocktails—and I tried to pull all of those things together to think about the thermal dimensions of Indigenous dispossession.

JRS: So beautifully put, thank you. How did you come to find ice as a main piece of analysis in thinking about colonial dispossession? 

HJH:  Let me back up. I feel like the book isn’t so much a complaint about temperature, but it is a complaint about how particular temperature ideals become normalized in the service of white comfort and eventual settlement. When I first started thinking about cold refreshment (and I came out of a Food Studies program), the first place I went to in the project was different things that you consume in order to refresh yourself when you’re feeling hot that have become super normalized in Hawai’i.

Native Hawaiians have highly elaborated ideas about the cold—we always have.

And one of the things that I kept bumping up against when I would talk to people about the project in its early years, was I kept being asked: “Aren’t you just completely ignoring the fact that it actually just feels really nice to have ice cream, and that shave ice is delicious, and cocktails are what you would want?” People would say the argument is fine, but there’s something really natural about these desires. 

I thought about that a lot over the course of writing the book, because at any point when settler comfort starts to become naturalized, it needs to be probed a little bit. And so much of the project is about that—about taking these norms that are both infrastructural and embodied and pulling them apart and saying, well, when we normalize these forms of pleasure and comfort, whose comfort are we putting at the center here? And what does that say about the politics of these types of leisure performances?

JRS: Yes, absolutely. In your book, you talk a lot about different kinds of foods and the way that they become entangled and weaponized as different tools in projects of dispossession and racialization of empire. Was there one foodstuff that you found very compelling, or one of your favorite analyses of food from the book?

Headshot of Hi'ilei Julia Hobart; woman with dark hair in a bun wearing a gray shirt
Hiʻilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart (Kanaka Maoli) is Assistant Professor of Native and Indigenous Studies at Yale University.

HJH: There’s a lot of ice cream in the book, and I found it to just be a really compelling food to think with because of its connection to whiteness. Vanilla ice cream just keeps emerging again and again as this object of purity and simplicity and sweetness that gets attached to white womanhood in Hawai’i. And then it appears as a kind of civilizing food that starts to appear everywhere, on the streets of Honolulu, in schools, in the palace for entertainment.

Vanilla ice cream is the food that so many of these ideas just map onto in neat ways—it’s just such a perfect little mapping. And then it gets put up against all kinds of Hawaiian foods, Hawaiian bodies.

JRS: One thing I wanted to talk about is the way that you bookend your manuscript with Mauna Kea and the Thirty Meter Telescope. You have it in the first chapter and then again at the end. In very different ways, you bring in this analysis—in expert, brilliant ways. In the first part, you’re introducing the sense of cold that Kanaka Maoli people feel that predates any kind of Western sense of cold (or foreign sense of cold) that’s brought onto the islands. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about those epistemologies of cold and why it’s so important to center them.

HJH: I think it took me some time to figure out how the book should be framed. I knew that as I was writing the book that Native Hawaiian epistemologies and voices had to be really front and center, but it took me some time to figure out exactly how they should be. In the end, it made a lot of sense to bookend everything with Mauna Kea—as a place where water most consistently freezes, as a place where we have snow, and as a place where we as Native Hawaiians have always thought about the elements and temperature extremes.

Mauna Kea is really important to talk about, because I think there has been this impulse, which I show it in the book through my archival research, to believe that for hundreds of years Native Hawaiians don’t belong in the cold, that the cold is always foreign to them, that they don’t have any ideas about it, and that these [cold] spaces are empty and available for the taking for use as a scientific research site or astronomy or exploration. I wanted to push back very hard on those ideas. It’s a small aside in the book, but I kept it in there.

Snow covered mountain against clear blue sky
Mauna Kea summit and observatory covered in snow. Photo by pedrik, 2016.

Maybe it raises a little bit of a gripe, but through reading the book, people would always say: “Oh my gosh, your book reminds me of the opening page of One Hundred Years of Solitude when they discover ice, and it feels like this miraculous thing.” It’s a perfectly fine and normal connection to make, except there’s something about it that really irked me, which is this idea—Oh, look at these Native Hawaiians with this miraculous cold thing that comes to shore, and they’re just baffled and amazed. But we have highly elaborated ideas about the cold—we always have. Those stories are not gone. They’re not forgotten. We talk about it all the time. And actually, some of these really cold spaces are at the center of movements in Native Hawaiian politics today.

To have these narratives that Hawaiians don’t belong in those spaces, I think, actually shows a lot of the relevance of what I’m trying to work out about temperature and dispossession throughout the book, as it still is brought to bear on where Native Hawaiians are thought to be, which is very often relegated to the shores, on the beach, in the water.

JRS: I think that the way that you ended the book with Mauna Kea (and those images that you have of the coolers), the ingenious way that the kitchen there at the encampment made the process to keep food cold, and the way that you turn cold on its head to be utilized in this particular way towards self determination and sovereignty is a really powerful.

HJH: Centering those coolers at the camp felt really meaningful to me. I think that when you’re writing about these things that have been so naturalized and normalized, or when you’re writing about infrastructural elements of the world, there’s something about it that can be kind of overwhelming. You ask, “How can we start to undo things that we’re not even very good at seeing? And how can we start to undo things that we are profoundly embedded in?There’s something that feels really impossible about the fix. I spend all of this time talking about the problem and not really knowing how to get to the fix, since it feels really diffuse in a lot of ways. And [the coolers] gave me something to hang on to that wasn’t all gloom, and it also wasn’t saying “these things are terrible and we have to never interact with them again.” There are things that we can work with here, and just because they come out of these colonial histories doesn’t mean that we can’t leverage them toward our own futures that center and celebrate us.

Collection of coolers of different shapes, sizes, and with duct-taped cardboard labels reading for "salad," "sandwiches," "cold cuts," etc.
Coolers at a Mauna Kea camp. Courtesy of Hi’ilei Julia Hobart.

JRS: Throughout your text, you use the object of the shave ice and the rainbow as an emblematic understanding of how multiculturalism works in Hawai’i. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the problematics of the idea of multiculturalism in Hawai’i and how that intersects with things like shave ice and ice generally.

HJH: Hawai’i became a US state in 1959. In the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, you see the emergence of these really important discourses about Hawai’i as the “multicultural” or “multiethnic” melting pot that gets really celebrated and discourses about what Hawai’i could offer the US in terms of envisioning a post-racial society.

The shave ice chapter was the last piece of the book that I wrote, and I really resisted it for a long time. A lot of my resistance was the way that shave ice is served to emblematize Hawai’i’s local population (which is heavily Asian American) and the celebration of Americanism and U.S. statehood that happens with the political and economic ascendancy of Asian American communities in Hawai’i. And that really wasn’t my interest. I wanted to write a book about Native Hawaiians. When I started to not be able to avoid writing about shave ice anymore, I came around to the fact that I had to do something with it.

The book is a complaint about how particular temperature ideals become normalized in the service of white comfort and eventual settlement.

The thing that, I think, finally got me over that resistance, was to make that connection between shave ice and the rainbow as this really specific aesthetic that gets attached to Hawai’i post-statehood. The multiethnic rainbow comes to symbolize Hawai’i, and it gets celebrated in this edible form. It’s absolutely beautiful in its encapsulation of these ideas of refreshment, comfort, warmth, aloha, and racial harmony. And rainbows just explode everywhere across the landscape of Hawai’i, particularly in the form of shave ice. Its symbol has becomes ever more potent into the present day.

Shave ice is also made up of two very simple ingredients, ice and sugar; to me, these are two ingredients with which the colonial and imperial history of Native Hawaiian dispossession in Hawai’i can be traced effectively. I wanted to really lean into that and try to pull back the layers.

JRS: Which you’ve done so well. You’ve written a book about Native Hawaiians while also bringing together these really major analytics of racial capitalism, settler colonialism, and empire. You’ve managed to do all of that in one book, and it’s very spectacular.

Featured image: Rainbow-colored shave ice. Photo by alexeatswhales, 2012.

Jen Rose Smith (dAXunhyuu) is Assistant Professor of Geography and American Indian Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is a current ACLS fellow working on her book manuscript Icy Matters: Race, Indigeneity, and Coloniality in Ice-Geographies, which foregrounds an analysis of colonialism and racialization in relation to ice in Alaska and the polar regions more broadly.

Hiʻilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart (Kanaka Maoli) is Assistant Professor of Native and Indigenous Studies at Yale University. An interdisciplinary scholar, she researches and teaches on issues of settler colonialism, environment, and Indigenous sovereignty. Contact. Twitter. Website.