Critiquing Settler-colonial Conceptions of ‘Vulnerability’ through Kaona in Mary Kawena Pūku’i’s Mo’olelo, “The Pounded Water of Kekela”.


  • Emma Barnes University of Salford



Recent scholarship outlines in no uncertain terms that the Pacific Island regions are already experiencing the effects of climate change (George 113; Bryant-Tokalau 3; Showalter, Lόpez-Carr and Ervin 50; McLeod et al, 5). It is Indigenous women in the Pacific Islands that experience the effects of climate change most acutely, however, due to the socio-economic conditions that colonialism and patriarchy have produced. Due to these conditions, Pacific Island women are categorised as vulnerable (McLeod et al. “Raising Voices” 180; Aipira, Kidd and Morioka 227). In this paper, I argue that the colonial structures that produce these conditions of ‘vulnerability’ are the same conditions that prevent the voices of Pacific Island women from being heard within climate change strategies. I make the case that settler-colonial agendas deploy the concept of Indigenous, female ‘vulnerability’ to maintain imperialist, capitalist and patriarchal modes of control within climate change responses. 

To intervene in these discourses of ‘vulnerability’, this article provides the first literary analysis of Mary Kawena Pūku’i’s fiction, specifically the Hawaiian mo’olelo or story “The Pounded Water of Kekela”, to demonstrate how Pacific Island women and epistemologies are central to mitigating and responding to drought. By examining how Pūku’i deploys kaona, or metaphor, in her drought narrative, this paper demonstrates how the navigation and combatting of environmental disaster is constructed as female and as expressions of mana wahine, or “feminine spiritual power” (McDougall 27). Through using Hawaiian epistemologies to analyse Pūku’i’s representations of powerful women, I emphasise how Hawaiian mo’olelo undermine settler-colonial constructions of ‘vulnerability’ and foreground the centrality of Indigenous knowledges in responding to climate change.

Author Biography

Emma Barnes, University of Salford

EMMA BARNES completed her BA and MA at the University of Salford before beginning an AHRC-funded PhD project, ‘Plants, Animals, Land: More-than-human Relations and Gendered Survivance in Early Indigenous Women’s Writing’ at the University of Salford in 2017. In January 2021 she started her role of Research Assistant as part of the AHRC project South African Modernism 1880-2020, and commenced her role as Lecturer in July 2021. 




How to Cite

Barnes, E. (2022). Critiquing Settler-colonial Conceptions of ‘Vulnerability’ through Kaona in Mary Kawena Pūku’i’s Mo’olelo, “The Pounded Water of Kekela”. Transmotion, 8(1), 98–128.