The previous kava conversation focused on antagonism towards kava from the western world and this piece will be continuation of that topic.
Even in the Pacific Islands, kava was not necessarily a “neutral” entity. It was did not only contain ceremonial, ritual, and cultural importance but also reinforced gender dynamics, power dynamics, and class hierarchies. Women were previously not permitted to drink kava and the certain ceremonies surrounding it reinforced hierarchies and individuals ranking within a village.
Now, kava continues to be intertwined with power dynamics and hierarchies outside this Pacific Islands—but this time, it is currently intertwined with racial and cultural hierarchies and power dynamics. These dynamics are reflected by the western world’s harsh treatment kava and products containing kava. This is evident by the former German ban on kava, the FDA’s cautions surrounding, and Australia’s restrictions on the pacific island plant.
An Anthropologist’s Perspective
Anthropologist Kirk Huffman is a respected expert on kava’s history, culture, and modern use, and presented an eight-part series titled “Thinking About Kava” which gives an anthropological view on kava and its place in the western world. He specifically brings up the treatment of kava in Europe, Australia, and the U.S.
Huffman iterates the relative safety of properly prepared kava and then firstly brings up the former German kava ban and restrictions on kava in the EU pointing out that “one should hint to the French and Germans that is would be better to ban alcohol and tobacco, which are a lot more dangerous than kava.” He goes on to say that, “Some European doctors think that the problem lies with kava. Pacific Islanders think that the problem lies with the modern medicinal/pharmaceutical industry…”
Secondly, Huffman references kava in Australia. Kava is not native to Australia and the Australian Aboriginal population. Rather, kava was “first introduced to certain aboriginal groups in Australia’s Northern Territory in the early 1980s by two Fijian Methodist missionaries working there who saw it as a safe alternative to alcohol.” The introduction of kava to this population reportedly “eradicated alcohol-induced violence and fighting.” Regardless of this, the Australian press and government have been extremely antagonistic towards kava leading to harsh restrictions and negative attitudes towards kava.
Why is Australia so Harsh on Kava?
Kava’s long history of safe use in the Pacific Islands, the fact that it is not a narcotic, and the fact that it is a safer alternative to alcohol as well as harsher pharmaceuticals sharply contrast Australia’s harsh treatment of kava. The harsh treatment is supposedly because of kava’s allegedly negative impact on the aboriginal community. However, this reasoning is questionable given that tobacco and especially alcohol have been proved to be significantly harmful on the Australian aboriginal populations but no steps are being taken to ban those substances.
One commentator on the Australian kava ban/restriction emphasized that alcohol is far more dangerous than kava and has been “wrecking the lives of the indigenous Australians for decades” yet no actions have been taken to ban alcohol. Because of this, it has been argued that kava is rather a scapegoat for the issues with the Australian aboriginal population and even that anti-kava press is perpetuated by the alcohol industry.
Guilty of Being Tongan
Thirdly and finally, Huffman brings up the treatment of kava in the U.S. saying that, “the U.S. does certainly have a rather schizophrenic attitude to certain substances, and these attitudes go in and out of fashion.” Around 1998 and onwards, kava became the “in thing” and was popular in the complementary and alternative medicine world as a healthier alternative to certain pharmaceuticals. It hit the American medical profession with “an almost audible slap” because “at last something really good and harmless had been found.” One of Huffman’s colleague’s jokingly warned, “The kava producers better be a little bit careful: if it becomes too successful, it will start bothering the big companies and you begin to see indications that the police suddenly start to take an untoward interest in it!”
However, this colleague’s joke eventually became a reality with the police beginning to intervene in kava consumption in California in 2000. In San Mateo County, there was a large Tongan population, and they would often have kava-drinking sessions after church. After one of these sessions, one Tongan was arrested by the police for drunk driving. But the police found no alcohol in him so the public prosecutor changed the charge to driving under the influence of drugs. Eventually, the police allegedly began to “wait” outside the church in order to arrest for Tongans “under the influence.” 11 Tongans ended up getting arrested with 10 being declared innocent and one guilty—although the community did not really seem to know what they were guilty of except perhaps, “guilty of being Tongan.”
Huffman points out that the main reason kava is treated so harshly in the western world—as opposed to alcohol, tobacco, and “so much of the other paraphernalia of our polluted side of the world”—is because kava is not “part of our accepted Euro-American lifestyle.”
The “Euro-American Lifestyle”, Bigotry, and Kava
Huffman brings the kava series to a close with the following poignant passage:
“These things [alcohol, tobacco, etc.] come from the Western World and the West has become unconsciously inured to their potential dangers: it looks upon the level of risk as acceptable. Kava, with no real known risk in the Pacific over millennia (except for possible temporary symptoms if overdone for long periods, or if one drinks a non-drinkable variety) is not from ‘our’ Western World, it is a gift to ‘us’ from a more ancient corner of the globe, and ‘we’ seem to have messed it up. The traditional drink of kava is associated with some of the world’s oldest religions, with the bridging of that gap between the material and spirit worlds. That is why so many early (and some even today) missionaries in the Pacific were/are so against it. For Pacific islanders, this recent ‘ban’ is just a continuation of those early bigoted views.”
The western world’s treatment of kava—in particular, its harsh treatment of kava—is certainly questionable in terms of racial, cultural, and power dynamics. Is harsh treatment towards kava a reflection of genuine health concerns or is it a reflection of antagonism towards the pacific islands? Are kava restrictions in the western world simply a result of a lack of knowledge and shoddy science? Or are they a reflection of bigotry and contemporary forms of racism including structural/institutional racism?
These questions were what this two-part series attempted to address and it is difficult to determine clear-cut answers to them. However, these accounts, evidences, and perspectives make it difficult to conclude that racial power dynamics are not at play. In light of this, it is important to continue to remain educated about kava and push for the Pacific Islander perspective and validation of this perspective when dealing with kava as well as legitimate scientific studies that give hard proof of its safety—something that the Pacific Islander community has known for millennia.