In the 1990s he entered into intellectual debate with Marshall Sahlins over the rationality of indigenous peoples. The debate was carried out through an examination of the details of Captain James Cook's death in the Hawaiian Islands in 1779. At the heart of the debate was how to understand the rationality of indigenous people. Obeyesekere insisted that indigenous people thought in essentially the same way as Westerners and was concerned that any argument otherwise would paint them as "irrational" and "uncivilized". Sahlins, on the other hand, argued that Westerners consider the world in an essentially different way than non-Westerners, and therefore that Sahlins could capture the mindset of the "natives" more accurately than Obeyesekere.