It’s winter in Maui. As surfers flock to Hawaii to catch the swells crashing on northern shores, your work enters a sea of rolling, purple-and-green sugarcane. The harvest season is about to wrap up.
Warm breezes carry a smoky trace from nearby burnt fields—fires were set regularly during the season to burn off extra leaves and other foliage. Even with winter approaching, the Pacific winds are still balmy. To keep the sun and soil off of your back, you pick a garment that is as cool as it is durable: the storied palaka.
While sugar cane has been a part of native Hawaiian culture for about 1400 years, the palaka arrived in more recent times with commercialized production. There are two major cultural epochs of history in the islands; the first is the story of those that have thrived in the archipelago for centuries, while the most recent is the modern era of forced Euro-American colonization and displacement of the native peoples.
Prior to any human inhabitants, a series of eight major volcanic islands, with minor islands and shoals sprinkled throughout, was formed by undersea volcanoes. Like the mighty calderas that created them, the population and demographics have experienced incredible changes.
In 1848, Kamehameha III, the native king of Hawaii initiated the “Great Mahele”, which was intended to solidify native land rights (native Hawaiians had no concept of land ownership), but ultimately had the opposite effect in allowing foreigners to own Hawaiian land. This kicked off continuous sugar production on an international scale thus fostering the palaka as a practical garment and ultimately the overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom and annexation by the United States.
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