What is a Polynesian? In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Western social scientists repeatedly asked this question, and answered it by declaring that Polynesians were an almost white race. This talk analyzes this history and the function of scientific classifications of Polynesians as almost white within the context of settler colonialism in Polynesia, especially in Hawaiʻi, arguing that a logic of possession through whiteness animates settler colonialism. In this logic, both Polynesia (the place) and Polynesians (the people) become exotic, feminized possessions of whiteness. As possessions, Polynesians are not extended the privileges of whiteness. Rather, this logic allows white settlers to claim that whiteness has an original claim to Polynesian lands and resources. In other words, according to this discourse, whiteness is Indigenous to Polynesia. Native Hawaiians and other Polynesians have long co-opted, contested, and refused such logic in ways that regenerate Indigenous forms of recognition. This talk specifically looks at how Native Hawaiians have regeneratively refused scientific and colonial definitions of themselves in debates over federal recognition.

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