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On Being a Kanu o ka ʻĀina

The following speech was delivered at ʻĀlana, the first benefit gala for Kanu o ka ʻĀina, a Hawaiian-focused charter school located in my hometown of Waimea on the Big Island of Hawaiʻi. I was invited to come home last Friday, 28 October 2016, to offer some “inspirational words.” Therefore, since graduating from the school 15 years ago, I decided to share what it has come to mean, at least for me, to be a Kanu o ka ʻĀina, a native of the land, in the 21st century. 

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At Kanu o ka ʻĀina, with our kana o ka ʻāina, our natives of the land, the next generation. 

Silence.

There is something to be said for silence, for the absence of sound, of words, of response. Silence carries meaning. It is never empty, never devoid of at least some significance.

My students taught me this. For in silence there can be ignorance, but there can also be consideration. There can be a mutual understanding and love, and in the case of one of my students, there can be a deep-seated sense of obligation and hope, one that does not always need words, one that does not always need sound.

A few weeks ago, in the last days of the trimester, after spending three months teaching a Pacific Studies course on art and activism in New Zealand, one of my students—a bright and bubbly girl from the islands of Tuvalu—rendered us silent when she stood in front of the class and asked, “What happens when you don’t have land? What happens then?”

We had spent time talking about environmental activism, considering those who stand to protect ʻāina, to protect land as a means of guarding and maintaining our sources of physical, spiritual, cultural, intellectual, and emotional sustenance and nourishment. And as I encouraged them to think about our own attachments to place, as islanders from homelands spanning our great Oceania—from the islands Fiji, to Tonga, to Tokelau, to Tuvalu, to Samoa, to the Cook Islands, to Aotearoa, to Hawaiʻi—I had neglected to consider her question.

So, in an uncharacteristic moment for her—a student who has not allowed the realities of life to crush to her optimism and joy, or her constant laughter—she stood in front of the class, stared directly ahead and said again, “What happens when you have no land, no base?”

You see, she is from Tuvalu, one of the groups of islands in the Pacific most vulnerable to the disastrous impacts of climate change, and in particular, rising sea levels. In fact, it is predicted that if current trends continue that Tuvalu will be one of the first nations in the world—along with Kiribati and the Marshall Islands—to be swallowed by the sea.

Thus, unlike those of us here who talk about land being taken by governments, by organizations, by greed, she was speaking quite literally about land lost, or perhaps land taken back to the ocean from which it came. “What happens then?” she pleaded.

Silence.

All I could do, in that moment, was offer her my silence. I could not pretend to understand the weight of her question, to consider the day when she and her family become permanent residents of another country—the first climate change refugees—with no land to return to, no land to plant themselves upon, no land to ground their identities in. Therefore, I could not attempt to craft a mundane or scientific response for the sake of response. And I could not offer words for the sake of words, for the sake of filling the silence.

No.

All I could give her was my silent acknowledgement of her struggle, or our human struggle, and my hope. She didn’t need my words, and more than that, she didn’t even need my tears. She needed my strength. And I gave that to her in my silence, while also making a vow to never let that silence be misconstrued or mistaken as consent.

You see our world is far too silent about far too many things, and that silence carries meaning.

Now you may be asking yourself, what does this have to do with Kanu o ka ʻĀina?

The name of our school comes from an ʻōlelo noʻeau, an old proverb that states, “Kalo kanu o ka ʻāina.” Translated, it means, “Taro planted on the land.” But metaphorically, it refers to us, to kānaka maoli, as being the kalo, as being natives of the land, who have been planted on the land, for generations.

What this school taught me, and what it continues to teach its students, is how to be a kanu o ka ʻāina, a native of the land, in the 21st century. And at the core of this identity is kuleana, or responsibility to ʻāina.

But I had never considered, not until that moment, as I looked into the eyes of my student, what it could mean to be a kanu o ka ʻāina in the absence of ʻāina.

And that’s when I realized: this is plight of indigenous people.

We live in a world that makes every attempt to marginalize us, to push us to the side, to silence our hopes, our dreams, and perhaps worst of all, our belief in our histories, in our stories, in ourselves.

Thus I reflected, and as I did so, her question haunted me, returning to me over and over again, as I thought about my own attachments to place, my own sense of responsibility, my own loyalties to ʻāina. Then one night, as I sat down to write her a response and to finally fill my previous silence with more than just hope and love, with more just than a shot at mundane or scientific fact, but with an earnest attempt to make sense of her struggle—of our struggle—I remembered an essay I once read, called “On Being Indigenous” and decided to share it with her.

In this essay, psychologist Michael Chandler (2013) asks: “How are indigenous persons meant to understand themselves, and instruct their children, in a world no longer willing to make a place for them? As country and country foods grow more inaccessible, as indigenous languages go extinct, as songs and stories and rituals are forgotten, as once traditional ways of dress become increasingly ersatz and costume-like and as cultural icons (once symbolic of a whole way of life) grow increasingly commercialized and Hollywoodized, how are indigenous persons to locate or to put into words and actions whatever constitutes the gravitational center of their own persistent indigeneity?” (p. 86)

Her homeland, with a population of around 10,000, is often considered so small in comparison to the rest of the world, so remote, so isolated, and so limited, that they fall off the radar, or in this case, they sink beneath the surface of what we choose to pay attention to. Thus, they live in a world that is too preoccupied to care about the impacts of a human-created catastrophe.

That’s when it dawned on me, whether it is through trying to replace temples with telescopes, or to poison waters with pipelines, or as one of our presidential candidates has done, trying to dismiss the realities of climate change, even while it threatens the existence of whole homelands, our ʻāina is littered (quite literally) with examples of such attempted erasure, physically and culturally.

But in the end, as the Prime Minister of Tuvalu once reminded us, “There are no boundaries to the effects of climate change” (ABC, 2014). Thus, what is happening there—as shorelines are washed away and lands are flooded, as soils and freshwaters are salinized, and as islanders stand ankle-deep on ʻāina now covered by ocean—will one day happen here, and everywhere. Therefore, to care about and to act on such issues is not just about saving some lives, but about saving all of humanity.

And it starts with kuleana, with being taught in a way that nurtures a sense of responsibility to ʻāina, filling silence with hope and action. That is what this school does.

At the end of her presentation, my student looked at the class, and with her usual smile, said quite nonchalantly for the occasion, “People call Tuvalu ‘The Sinking Island.’ But we are still here.”

And the reality is that they will continue to be, with or without their base. But that does not allow for complacency. In fact, our task now is to ensure that we save what we can while we can and that we work towards maintaining spaces—both physically and ideologically—in which we can continue to be indigenous, in which we can continue to understand ourselves and to instruct our children in ways that are distinctly our own, or as Chandler said, in which we can put words and actions to what is considered to be the gravitational center of our own persistent indigenetity.

Persistent Indigenetity.

That is what I learned from my student. And that is what I now carry for all of us: my persistence in being indigenous.

Rather than surrender to what some would believe is their inevitable fate, their inevitable doom, my student carries hope. Some may call her hope radical, for she looks to a future that she believes can and will be better than today, despite every attempt that this world has made to show her different.

And that is something I refuse to be silence about. In fact, it is that persistence that I choose to celebrate.

Why?

Because silence can be and often is misconstrued as consent of injustice, or as disregard and dismissal. And I’d rather spend my time creating spaces for our continued existence, here and everywhere.

My student, in her optimism despite all odds, reconfirmed and validated a lesson that I learned here, at this school, many years ago.

Our kuleana, or our responsibility as kanu o ka ʻāina is to ensure that there will always be a space for us, that when the world pushes, that we push back, and do not simply resist, but insist upon our place! This means sharing, this means speaking, this means singing and chanting, or writing and choreographing. This means creating and constructing; this means stomping and crying and praying when we need to because to do so is to fill the silence with dreams and hopes, with belief.

To do so is to fill the silence with love.

“Love,” as one of my students once said, “is a political act” against a world that teaches us to not love ourselves, our history, our values and beliefs, our skin color, our ancestors.

This is why I maintain, whole-heartedly, that Kanu o ka ʻĀina is not simply a “school of choice,” as it is often called, or a school that students can choose as an option, or an alternative, or an exception to the rule. Rather, I believe that Kanu o ka ʻĀina is a “school of necessity.” We need it because we live in a world that will continue to take our spaces if we are not willing to create them, to save them, and to nurture them for our future now.

Here, at Kanu o ka ʻĀina, when children sing the songs that tell our history, they create and save our space for singing. When they dance the dances of our ancestors, they create and save our space for dancing. When they speak our language, they create and maintain our space (and our right) to do so, now and forever. And when they write, think, and articulate their own existence, they let the world know that our lives matter, that our cultures matter, that our histories matter, and that they always did!

When we move and act, dance, chant, and sing with that truth, or with the knowing that our world is better because of the spaces that indigenous peoples hold, then we know that this school is far more than just “culturally-based.” It is a school of persistent indigeneity because our survival as a human race depends on such persistence.

Kanu o ka ʻāina is not about teaching culture, but about creating culture, a culture based firmly in our pasts, but responding to and acting for the needs of today. This school is about responsibility to ʻāina, not just for us, but for all of humanity.

You see our ancestors understood how to act with the ʻāina, and those islanders in the Pacific, on islands like Tuvalu, who continue to live lives of subsistence, understand this still. And yet they are the ones most at risk: our teachers, our elders, the ones with the knowledge of how to be true kanu o ka ʻāina.

Thus, we cannot be content with words for words sake, with action for actions sake, with mundane attempts at filling silence for the sake of being heard.

We must only be content with space, with a place for us to forever be kanu o ka ʻāina, to be indigenous, to be native, to be the ancestors that our children and our grandchildren will get to look to in a world that we have opened and freed for them.

That is kanu o ka ʻāina.

Mahalo.

References:

ABC (Producer). (2014, 31 Oct.). Tuvalu Prime Minister Enele Sopoanga says climate change ‘like a weapon of mass destruction’. [Web article] Retrieved from http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-08-15/an-tuvalu-president-is-climate-change-27like-a-weapon-of-mass-/5672696

Chandler, M. J. (2013). On being indigenous: An essay on the hermeneutics of ‘cultural identity’. Human Development, 56(2), 83-97.


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Chanting with Waves

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Pololū, Kohala, Hawaiʻi

For PASI 301

I once met a man who chanted with waves.

Words s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-d, vowels e-l-o-o-n-g-a-t-e-d, chanted s-l-o-o-o-o-w-l-y.

He was not in control of the timing, nor of time itself. The waves were. Thus, his breaths mimicked the rhythm of the ocean, which on that day, were smooth, slow, and steady.

He had not always been this way, of course. In fact, history had stripped his tongue of the taste of ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi, the language his ancestors spoke, making the chant feel foreign in his mouth. He struggled with the words, rolled them around, chewing on them, all the while frustrated at what should have been his since birth, but wasn’t.

When I spoke to him years later, he recalled being led to the shoreline. His teacher pointed to a stone. “Here,” he was told, “stand here.” Nervously, he did as his teacher instructed, steadying his bare feet on the hard, black surface beneath him, eyes fixed on the ocean.

He would rather have eaten stones. But here, he was made to swallow the sea.

Now chant.

Each line had to follow a wave, a single wave, as it moved toward the shore. He was told that he could not complete a line until the water hit the sand. Thus, the once small and simple chant was drawn out, slowed down, made to match the tempo of the waves, the tune of the sea, the flow of his Pacific. There was no rushing the process for there could be no rushing when it came to remembering who and what he was.

It was hard at first, as hard as the stubborn stone he stood upon. But slowly, s-l-o-o-o-w-l-y, memorization and recitation gave way to internalization, to feeling the chant, to knowing it, and tapping into an ancestral rhythm that was always there, yes, there, just beneath the surface.

He had learned to chant with the ocean.

His story always comes back to me, much like the incessant waves that beat upon the shore and return, time and time again, no matter how many times they are sent away. It washes over me. Unlike him, however, I grew up chanting the chants of my ancestors, grew up dancing their dances too. I never knew the discomfort he felt, never experienced how the ancestral could feel foreign in the mouth and in the body.

And yet, he had seemed to capture something I’ve been trying my entire life to grasp: the ocean.

As one of my intellectual ancestors, Epeli Hauʻofa, once said, the ocean is “the inescapable fact of our lives” (p. 405). She is always there, always present, always impacting: hitting us when we need to be hit, soothing us when we need to be soothed, and rocking us gently when we need both compassion and reality.

And while many of us “lack the conscious awareness” of the ocean, she never turns away from us or hides away, irritated at our ignorance (p. 405). Rather, she waits because “The potentials [of the sea] are enormous, exciting—as they have always been” (p. 405).

When he said he chanted with waves, that’s when I learned, truly learned, what Epeli had been saying all along: The ocean is in us. Our words, our chants, and our actions are not meant to merely mimic the waves or to follow the sea. They are meant to remind us of the ocean that exists within, of our own fluidity, or as my intellectual hero, Teresia Teaiwa, once said, of the salt water we cry and sweat. Yes, the ocean is in us. Thus, to tap into that fluid and always expanding nature within is to chant, dance, write, stomp, rage, cry, and sing with the waves, never against them (never against ourselves).

Yesterday his story returned to me once again as I said goodbye to a group of students who I have shared the last twelve weeks with. I will not say that I “taught” them. Rather, I will honor the fact that we taught each other, and that we learned and grew together. As we moved around the classroom, listening to each student share their personal reflections, stories, and highlights from the term, I felt like that man, standing on the shoreline, chanting with the waves.

You see these students had become my waves, my ocean.

Over the past 3 months, I’ve watched them rise like the tide to fill spaces that had once been left empty in their own lives, and then to tread in their wholeness, sometimes uncomfortably, sometimes passionately. I watched them emerge—struggling at times, as we all do—but emerge nonetheless. Yesterday, they spoke of voice, of passion, of confidence, of pride, of responsibility, of ancestral wisdom, of dreams, of hope, of love. “Love,” one of them said, “is a political act!”

What more could I have asked for?

They had embraced love as a social force, a force for change. They had hopes for freedom, not just politically, and not just for themselves. They knew that if they stared too intently at the stones they stood upon as individuals that they would miss the pull, the draw, and the tune of the ocean. So, they embraced it. They embraced it as part of themselves.

It was liberating.

For it was not just the Pacific that had been liberated, but it was the ocean within them that had been freed. 

Freed to flow.

And it did flow: smoothly, s-l-o-w-l-y, steadily. They created waves and they became waves, beating against my heart, soothing and rocking my soul. They made me want to move and chant with them. They shared their dreams and hopes for our Pacific, and in time, I settled into their rhythm, and their dreams and hopes became my own, for them, for all of us.

As I left the classroom, I carried hope, like the man who chanted with waves, an internal, beautiful, and radical hope for the future. And although I cannot see or predict that future, I know we will create it together: me, my waves, and our Oceania.

References:

Hauʻofa, E. (1998). The ocean in us. The Contemporary Pacific, 10(2), 391-410.


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Living Creatively

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Following my inspiration (in orange shoes).

My partner lives his life creatively.

Before I continue, I suppose I should clarify. I’m not just saying that he is a creative person. I think we are all creative and that we each have the capacity to express that creativity in our own ways. What I mean is that he lives his life creatively. Whereas my creativity is often bound and shackled to my fears and doubts, his was never restricted, never tied down, never given to him with conditions in the first place.

It’s one of the things I admire most about him. But, if I’m being honest, it’s also a bit irritating. I’m almost certain, though (emphasis on almost) that my irritation is born out of a smidgen of envy. (Yes, I’ll admit it: envy. Shame!)

You see, when I have a grand idea, or at least something that I think is grand, I’ll hold on to it, I’ll think about it, then I’ll think longer and harder, and then I’ll consider it from every possible angle. (And then I might even create new angles to view it from if I feel it needs further exploration.) After all my thinking and all my hard considering, however, I often end up convincing myself that the idea was never quite that “grand” to begin with.

Then I let it go.

And it certainly does go…as far from me as it can. That is, of course, if I did not first think it to death, sending it to a grave for inspirations.

All I am left with, after so much mental exertion, is the memory of long hours thinking but not really doing or creating anything. It’s exhausting: exhaustion with no product.

It’s wasted energy, like running on a treadmill that although good for the body, gets you nowhere.

My partner is different. When he gets a random spark of inspiration, he jumps at it. There is no drawn-out consideration process involved. There is no self-doubt, no internal voice telling him that his ideas are “dumb,” or “impractical,” or “impossible.” (That would be my voice, of course.) Rather, in that moment, he simply follows the inspiration before it is given any chance to escape him, whether that “spark” is revealing an image to be drawn in his sketchbook, or whether it is telling him to build an elaborate castle for our axolotl tank (Don’t know what an axolotl is? Think of a salamander, but one with big gills that lives underwater and slurps up worms like spaghetti.) I have seen him do both, by the way: jump up to sketch and perfect his drawing techniques and then jump up to build a castle, that despite leaving our house a complete mess for a few weeks, did actually turn out to be quite “grand.”

I guess what I’m trying to say is that while I am wrapped up in first trying to consider whether my ideas are even worth following—and then trying to determine whether my ideas are important enough to society—he sees all ideas for their potential. No, I’m not saying that he follows through with all of them. Some get left on the wayside eventually (and thankfully, I might add).

I guess the point is that he tries. On a weekly basis, I’ll hear him suddenly and randomly say something like, “I know…” or “Actually….” Without finishing the phrase he leaves whatever he is doing to go and chase the inspiration before it leaves him, or before the inspiration gets so bored with his drawn-out contemplation that it looks for someone else, someone who is willing to not only move with it but to move with it when it’s at its brightest. (I’d be the first person, of course, the inspiration buzz-kill!)

I often get caught up thinking that my ideas need to mean something or that they have to have some huge social, cultural, political, or even environmental value outside of my head. Unfortunately, when I can’t determine that exact value, or when I cannot see how my creativity may be of use to society, I dismiss it. I dismiss whatever inspiration hit me as being frivolous. Basically, if it cannot “save the world,” then it’s useless, right?!

Of course, I’m being dramatic…but only a little.

When I think about it, though, whoever said that my ideas have to save anyone or anything?

No one.

That’s not to say that my partner’s ideas are not important or not valuable or not meaningful to society. When inspiration hits, it fills him with joy and he follows it to maintain that joy. No, the creative process is not always a bliss-filled experience for him. Sometimes sketches are thrown out, sometimes paintings are smeared, sometimes things break, sometimes some of my things become the casualties of his creativity (but that’s another story), and sometimes he faces hurdles and he crashes. But, he always gets back up. Why? Because he is not under some assumption that his work needs to save anyone or anything as long as it brings him happiness.

Is that selfish?

No.

Again, who ever said that inspiration comes with conditions or expectations? Who ever said that inspiration had to be about more than self-contentment? 

No one.

And honestly, even while I can still feel the irritation (climbing up my spine and into my strained neck) when I think back to the time our living room was covered with tiny, white bits of polystyrene during his prolonged castle-building-from-recycled-materials phase, I cannot deny that it brought me joy. Joy and irritation, yes. But joy nonetheless.

You see his creative living inspires me.

And at the end of the day, I suppose that’s what the world needs more of: more inspiration, more creativity, more joy for the sake of joy. We have enough to worry about and to be fearful of, enough to make us shout, to make us rage, to make us want to hide under the covers and not face another day.

So why not live creatively and follow passion when we can?

On occasion, and perhaps without him realizing it, he helps me to get over myself, to move out of my own way, and to say, “You know what, I’m going to follow this; I’m going to go with it, and I don’t care if it doesn’t have any huge purpose or meaning right now, or ever!!”

“I’m going to be in the joy of the moment.”

This blog, for example, hit me while reading Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. I devoured page after page, feeling as if she was instructing me (just me) on how to be more creative. And then I peered over the edge of my book and saw my partner lying on the carpet, pencil in hand, eraser shavings scattered across the floor (taking the place of the polystyrene bits that once used to reside there). He lay on his stomach drawing a detailed dragon, completely satisfied that he had finally “figured out” the snout after many attempts to get it “just right”. And I realized, in that late night moment, as I looked at the fire-breathing creature take shape before him, that I didn’t need a book about creativity because I had a model lying on my living room floor, a messy, spontaneous, and yes sometimes-frustrating model of how to live life creatively.

He was right there. My inspiration. All along. 

So this blog may not have meaning in the grander scheme of things: it may not bring justice to anyone, it may not raise awareness for any particular issue, and it may not speak to, speak back, or speak against anything really. In the end, it’s about inspiration and about releasing the need to have it mean anything in particular to begin with as long as it brings me joy, which this has. It’s made me smile in the way that writing often makes me smile when it just feels good and flows.

Besides, who ever said that joy was not reason enough to do something?

No one.

Plus, at the end of the day, we never know what our random musings may come to mean to someone else. And perhaps that’s the reason the inspiration hit us in the first place: so that we could bring it, whatever “it” ends up being—whether a blog, or a photo, or a drawing, or yes, even a castle or a dragon—to the world.


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ʻUla ka moana i ka ʻahu ʻula a me ka mahiole: the Ocean is made red with feathered cloaks and helmets

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“Kauluwela ka moana i nā ʻauwaʻa kaua o Kalaniʻōpuʻu. Aia nā koa ke ʻaʻahu lā i ko lākou mau ʻahu ʻula o nā waihoʻoluʻu like ʻole o kēlā a me kēia ʻano. E huila ʻōlinolino ana nā maka o kā lākou mau pololū me nā ihe i mua o nā kukuna o ka lā.”[1]

The sea glowed brightly because of Kalaniʻōpuʻu’s swarming fleet of war canoes. The warriors were dressed in feather cloaks of all different colors. The points of their long spears and javelins flashed brightly before the rays of the sun.

  

I can only imagine what it must have looked like, an ocean colored by millions of delicate feathers. If I close my eyes, I can picture the deep reds and bright yellows draped across the backs of our ancient chiefs. I can see them; I can feel them.

Yesterday, I sat a few short feet away from Kalaniʻōpuʻu’s ʻahu ʻula and mahiole, his feathered cloak and helmet. And as they lay before me, I closed my eyes for a brief moment and pictured them in movement, pictured them on the body of our chief, pictured their tiny red and yellow feathers on an ocean, rustling in the wind, full of life. I could see them; I could feel them.

So I whispered a small greeting, as I have many times before, and as the hours passed and as the space around me filled with chants and songs, with the familiar sounds of ʻōlelo and te reo mixing and rolling off tongues, the wind shook the whare and I said my goodbye.

It was like saying goodbye to a loved one, to a family member, one who I knew I would see again, but one that I would miss terribly. They would be going home, back to Hawaiʻi, back to our people, back to our lāhui. And as I sat there, I could not help but shed tears for all that they have come to mean to me, for all that they have inspired in me, for all that they will continue to inspire in my people.

Today I continue to shed tears as a write, carrying an emotion that I cannot quite describe: a mix of extreme gratitude and deep aloha, a mix of happiness accompanied by hope, and on a very personal level, a mix of protectiveness deepened by a sense of responsibility. Although I know that my story is small in the larger history of this remarkable cloak and helmet, I share it because I feel compelled to do so, perhaps as a means of bringing our attention back to them, to these taonga, these treasured items, these mea makamae, to their lives, to their journey, to their future.

Much has been said in the past few weeks about the return of Kalaniʻōpuʻu’s cloak and helmet: some are in support of their journey home while others are not, some are worried about their new association with certain state organizations, and some are concerned that they will be placed at the center of what has become a heated (and sometimes ugly) political terrain. I appreciate what has been said and shared. It has inspired debate and dialogue, which is extremely important. And while this may or may not add to the conversation, I write this because I feel a responsibility to do so: to honor them, to look after them, to love and care and celebrate them for the impact that they have had on generations of people.

When our Hawaiian scholars took to the newspapers in the nineteenth century to record the lives of our ancient chiefs, they described their exploits and adventures in detail, as if each small event was like a tiny feather, seemingly insignificant on its own, but in context, completely necessary. One such writer was Joseph Poepoe who, between 1905 and 1906, recorded the story of Kamehameha in the Hawaiian language newspaper named for the famous chief, Ka Naʻ Aupuni. While writing about Kamehameha and his celebrated uncle, Kalaniʻōpuʻu, he described many battles, looked at prophecy and strategy, highlighting training and skill. And in his descriptions, he also spoke of the sight of ʻahu ʻula and mahiole. When warring chiefs traveled over cliff sides, they turned the land red with ʻahu ʻula. And when they boarded their war canoes, “ʻike maila i ka ʻula pū aku o ka moana i nā ʻahu ʻula a me nā mahiole” their opponents saw the ocean turn red with feathered cloaks and helmets, with millions of tiny red feathers.[2]

I can only imagine what they must have thought, what warriors must have thought when they saw their cliff sides turn red with soldiers and chiefs adorned in ʻahu ʻula and mahiole. And I can only imagine what it must have been like to watch the ocean go red. While I cannot say for certain what they must have felt, I am sure that it inspired something, whether fear and dread, whether hatred and anger, or whether even awe and a bit of amazement. I’m sure they saw them; I’m sure they felt them.

Two hundred and thirty seven years ago, Kalaniʻōpuʻu’s ʻahu ʻula and mahiole were gifted to Captain James Cook at Kealakekua Bay. Although Captain Cook never left the island, these treasured items did, making their way aboard ship to England where they were viewed by thousands in a strange land. What curiosity they must have inspired. Perhaps they became tokens of a far away place and culture, a “far away” people. Perhaps they too were exoticized, romanticized, or perhaps even degraded and disrespected. Perhaps they weren’t. While I am not sure what an English man or woman must have thought looking at the deep reds and bright yellows of our chiefs, or what reactions would have been stirred within them, I am sure that they must have stirred something.

While they were away, things changed, lives in Hawaiʻi changed. After the illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom, a writer in the Hawaiian language newspaper, Ke Aloha ʻĀina, seemed to lament the fact that some of their people had never seen an ʻahu ʻula, perhaps a mahiole, or even other chiefly symbols like kāhili, feathered standards. Thus, in 1901, an invitation was put out for people to go to Wakinekona Hale, the home of the deposed Queen Liliʻuokalani, to see them: “E hōʻike i ko kākou aloha aliʻi ʻoiaʻiʻo i mua o nā malihini o na ʻāina e e noho pū nei i waena o kākou, i ʻike mai ai lākou he mea nui ka Mōʻīiwahine iā kākou, kona lāhui.”[3] The article states: “Let us show our true love for our chiefs in front of all of the foreigners from other lands who now live amongst us, so that they will see that our Queen still means a great deal to us, her nation.”

For a people learning to live with the overthrow of their Queen and the subsequent illegal annexation of their kingdom to the United States, I can only imagine what the sight of an ʻahu ʻula must have inspired in them: honor and gratitude, sadness and longing, or perhaps love and a deepening commitment to aloha ʻāina, a renewed and inspired sense of patriotism. Generations prior, ʻahu ʻula turned oceans red; they covered hill sides as warriors marched to battle. They adorned our chiefs and stood as symbols of rank and mana. In 1901, however, it seems that their appearances in public became rare. Thus, to view a cloak and helmet then surely must have stirred something.

In 1912, when Kalaniʻōpuʻu’s ʻahu ʻula and mahiole were unexpectedly gifted to New Zealand, they became part of the national museum’s collection and have been here since. I write this from New Zealand, in the country that they will leave in a few short hours. When I first came here nearly four years ago, I knew that I had to visit them. Thus, on my second day in the country, I went to Te Papa Tongarewa and found them tucked into a dark space in the museum, alone and somewhat separated from everything else. After that day, back in 2012, they became my personal puʻuhonua, my personal site of refuge and safety in a new place thousands of miles from home. I visited often, whenever I needed a piece of Hawaiʻi, whenever I needed to reconnect, to recenter, or to find guidance. I talked to them and I shared my life with them, imagining that if I felt lonely so far away from home that perhaps they did as well. They stirred something in me then; they stir something in me still.

A little over a week ago, I stood next to the ʻahu ʻula and mahiole, chanting before them, to them, and around them in anticipation of their upcoming departure. And as I chanted, I pictured the moana, the ocean that they would once again cross. These sacred symbols of our chiefs would be making their way home, not by waʻa, but by plane, leaving a trail of histories along the way, turning the ocean red once again, this time with ancestral memories. Standing there next to them, as I had many times before, I thought about my many visits. Since moving here, I have learned to cease thinking of them as relics from the past, but have come to embrace them as pieces of our past that have lived to the present and that stir our hearts and minds contemporarily. I see them; I feel them.

Thus, for one last time, I marveled at their beauty and at the skill of my ancestors, and as I stood there, thinking about our history, I realized that each generation of people has seen and understood them differently, always revealing something about the times in which they lived. What a Hawaiian in 1779 must have thought at the sight of an ʻahu ʻula and mahiole—treasured items that were apparently so abundant that they could turn oceans red—would have been drastically different than what a Hawaiian in 1901 would have thought, just a few short years after the illegal annexation of Hawaiʻi. And these reactions and inspirations are different than what filled me when I first lay eyes on them, a contemporary Hawaiian woman who was raised in the years following the Hawaiian Renaissance, who was raised with hula, who was raised to value ʻāina, and who was raised to be an aloha ʻāina. My interpretation of them will always be a product of the present, of who and what we are now, of where and when we happen to be today.

That brings me back to today. I think about these mea makamae and all that they mean to me, and I shed tears once again for what they will come to mean for all of those people who will now get to greet them, to welcome them home, and to embrace them as I have here. They have inspired a range of emotions and reactions throughout the generations. Therefore, while I cannot say what they will bring out of those who will get to see them and visit with them, I am sure that they will stir something: perhaps a sense of hope, perhaps a dream of unity, perhaps a remembrance of strength and pride, perhaps a sense of kuleana. I look forward to seeing what they will come to represent, what they will teach us about ourselves, and how we will continue to talk about, write about, speak, sing, and dance about their existence as a means of further exploring our own.

I can only imagine it. So, I close my eyes once again, picturing them in movement, imagining an ocean made red. They have been two of my most profound teachers in the last four years. They have taught me of responsibility; they have taught me of honor, respect, and humility. They have taught me to consider all that we can do and all that we will do, to leave our mark on history. My efforts may not be as great as Kalaniʻōpuʻu’s, or my story as grand. However, when I looked at them yesterday, as the ceremonies and protocols were being carried on around me—in a mix of Hawaiian and Māori customs—I smiled, quieted my head and heart, and blessed their journey across the ocean, this time perhaps as a reminder of ʻula, of the red that can and shall unite us

E ʻula pū ana nō ka moana i ka ʻahu ʻula.

 

References:

[1] Poepoe, J. (1905, 7 Dec.) Ka moolelo o Kamehameha I: Ka nai aupuni o Hawaii, Ka Nai Aupuni, p. 1.

[2] Poepoe, J. (1906, 12 Sep.). Ka moolelo o Kamehamea I: Ka nai aupuni o Hawaii, Ka Nai Aupuni, p. 1.

[3] He ike alii nui i ike mua ole ia ma hope mai o ke kahuli aupuni (1901, 24 Aug.). Ke Aloha Aina, p. 1.


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Plant Your Kūmara: Food and the TPPA

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“Whether we’re marching down Queen Street or planting kūmara, our movements matter. So, plant your kūmara.”

On the eve of the controversial signing of the TPPA in Auckland, New Zealand—a highly debated move that will be met with protest around the country—I sit on my narrow patio, admiring our small, city garden, and think about the impacts of this agreement. I will be the first to admit that there are aspects of the TPPA that baffle me, that test me, and that make me feel, for lack of a better word, quite dumb. And I’m not alone. I’ve been in many conversations over the last few months where people have quietly confessed that they do not know enough, or that they do not understand enough, or that the TPPA simply confuses them. They know they are against it; they just don’t know why.

So, I sit here, looking at my small garden—a large feat in a concrete, city dwelling—and wonder, is it really as complicated as it seems? Last weekend, wanting to both learn more and to support TPPA opponents, I attended a hīkoi, a march, to deliver a petition to New Zealand’s Governor General, urging him to not support this agreement. Before the gates of Government House, a woman grabbed the microphone and spoke passionately about the potential impacts of the TPPA. As signs and posters shouted phrases like, “Don’t sign away our sovereignty,” and “NZ is not for sale,” or “TPPA, Backroom Dirty Politics,” I realized that perhaps the reason for my own ignorance regarding the TPPA has something to do with the enormity of it. “Think about any aspect of your life,” she said, “health, education, children, food. The TPPA will affect it all.” Then she ended with what perhaps became the simplest and yet most profound phrase of the day—at least for me—“Our movements matter. Whether we’re marching down Queen Street or planting kūmara, our movements matter. So, plant your kūmara.”

Unfortunately, I don’t have room for kūmara (ʻuala, sweet potato) in my small garden, but I understand her point. Among the many aspects of our lives that the TPPA will impact, one is food, something that I am extremely passionate about, something that I feel is an avenue towards decolonization and sovereignty. To plant your own kūmara, the woman briefly explained, is to resist those large corporations that will and do seek to control what we put into our mouths. Therefore, resistance to the TPPA can be that simple: it’s about protecting our rights, our freedom, our sovereignty and, yes, even our right to choose and grow what will nourish us.

In her article, “Food, Farmers, and the TPPA,” Auckland University PhD candidate, Andrea Brower explains:

“There is a lot to loose [sic] in the TPP—control over land and resources, the tino rangatiratanga of Maori, affordable medicine, intellectual and cultural heritage, internet freedom, the ability to regulate the financial sector, tobacco laws…food and agriculture… it’s bad for farmers and local food security…”

As she further explains, other free trade agreements have had devastating impacts on local farmers and rural communities around the world when they were forced to compete with products from other countries. According to Brower, after the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), for example, “Mexico went from a country producing virtually all of its own corn to one importing nearly half of its staple food… Mexican consumers are paying a higher price for their (now GMO) tortillas…” Can New Zealand and other countries suffer a similar fate? It’s certainly possible. And with that, the TPPA may also impact New Zealand’s laws regarding Genetically Engineered Foods: “GE food labeling is only one of many food safety regulations that New Zealand may be forced to eliminate under the TPP agreement,” says Brower. When those laws are done away with, what then will we be putting into our mouths, what genetically modified crop from another country will find itself on our plates?

All of this makes me think. Perhaps planting kūmara, or even the small amount of vegetables that I have in my garden, is a movement—an action—that does indeed matter! It’s a small and subtle resistance, a small stand. Therefore, while I hope to attend TPPA demonstrations, marches, and protests, I will also plant my metaphoric kūmara because each of these movements is done with reason and intention. They have purpose in reminding us what we stand for and what we stand against, because we must know both.

As the sun shines down on my small garden, I look at the plants that I’ve already been able to pick and eat from, and I think, “This is a start.” Planting my own food, my own kūmara, will not solve everything. It will not prevent the signing of the TPPA tomorrow. But, it is an action that has purpose, an action that matters. In fact, even in countries devastated by war, by injustice, and by torture and brutality, where people are fighting for their lives, planting matters. In the country of West Papua, for example, planting kūmara is important. Last year, reporters from Māori Television’s, Native Affairs, visited West Papua—a country that has suffered human rights abuses at the hands of Indonesia, a country that deserves freedom and justice—and they recorded the words of one West Papuan who promotes, yes, the planting of kūmara, of sweet potato, because it forms the foundation of life: “The education of children happens in the garden. Men [and women] teach everything about life, the rules of life, behaviour, morals, even our aspirations, they are all taught in the garden.”

Therefore, perhaps it is in the garden, hands deep in soil, planting our kūmara, where we will not only learn about why we must stand against agreements like the TPPA, but where we will also show and teach future generations the values that we stand for, those that the TPPA threatens.

So go ahead and plant your kūmara, or whatever it is that you can plant, whether seeds or roots because our movements—even the small ones in city dwellings—must grow.


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Spiritual Action

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It’s time for “spiritual action,” he said.

Spiritual Action!

I stood back thinking about what an incredibly deep yet profoundly simple concept this was. “This is a year for prayer,” he declared, a soft feather hanging from his neck, dancing across the center of his chest. “Last year was a year for outreach, for education. This is a year for spiritual action.”

I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t experience one of those, “Is he speaking directly to me?” moments. Perhaps some things are destined for our ears. Or perhaps sometimes we arrive at points in our lives when we are ready to not only hear certain things, but to truly listen to the messages that they have to teach us. I suppose I was ready for his ideas; or maybe, just maybe, I was ready for him to remind me how act upon my spirit.

A little over two weeks ago, I left Aotearoa and returned to my beloved Hawaiʻi for a visit. What I assumed would be a “normal” trip home, however, turned out to be so much more. I visited the same places: the farm, the hillsides, the valleys, the mist. Yet, something had changed. But the more I looked outward, searching for the difference, the more I had to go inward, realizing that what had changed was me.

One day, I found myself standing on the outskirts of a classroom, listening to his deep voice speak of prayer, and I realized that to pray is an action, one of recognizing connection and responsibility. It is far more than a solemn request or an offer of thanks. It is something that acts upon our relationships to the land, sea, and sky; to the past, the present, and the future; to ourselves and to one another. To pray, I realized, is to know our place in the world.

Having just completed an academic course of study, I wondered if there is any institution that can teach us this. We can write about prayer and the spirit; we can talk about it and even analyze it. Yet, to live it, or to act upon the guidance of the spirit, is an internal journey, an individual one. Perhaps that journey is what had changed my view of the external world, what changed the way I treat it, or the way that I greet it, each and every day.

I learned much from his speech, standing near a classroom of children, thinking about how fortunate they were to receive his words. He and his friends, affectionately known as the “Oak Flat Boys,” had come to sing on our mountain, to offer their prayers and blessing to our land and people. Coming home with no agenda, no set schedule or expectations, I opened up to the possibility of anything and everything, and on one breathtakingly beautiful day, I found myself on the summit of Mauna Kea, witnessing them lift their voices into the wind, sending it to the Piko o Wākea and beyond. They knew their place as defenders of the earth, as guardians of the spirit, as the singers of stories, the composers of hope, the choreographers of history. I stood alongside them, offering my own song, realizing that although we sang in different languages, and although our foundations lay in different lands, that we were standing for the same things: connection and responsibility.

We understood that to stand on the Piko o Wākea, on the summit of our tallest mountain, was to stand to protect it. It was to stand for all that it represents, to stand for the relationship that the land shares with the sky, that connects ancestors to descendants, that connects the people with their stories. We understood that origin and ethnicity did not matter in prayer, neither did language, for we recognized our shared responsibility to the earth, a responsibility that we were born to carry, that we are all born to carry. We understood that to guard the soils that we stand upon, the oceans that we sail upon, the skies that we gaze upon, and the histories that we build upon, is to stand strongly, shoulder to shoulder, nation to nation. That was spiritual action, using prayer—whether sung, spoken, or even meditated—to cultivate and motivate change.

We stood in the wind, a strong wind that carried our voices and our prayers on its currents, sending them floating and flowing to different realms: different lands, seas, and skies. And when we were finished, I knew that to act upon my spirit is to recognize my connections and my responsibilities daily, in both the small and seemingly mundane moments as well as the large and profound. We need not stand on mountains everyday, in other words, in order to stand for mountains. We need not be physically present on each sacred landscape in order to speak for them, in order to sing for them, in order to hope and pray and work for their protection. We need only recognize that to be of the earth is to be connected to it in the same way that a child will always be connected to its mother, long after the umbilical cord is severed. Physical distance never separates us from responsibility, from being guardians of the earth, protectors of the sacred, creators of history.

In spiritual action, I have learned, there is little room for hesitation and much room for courage: courage to stand, courage to act, courage to sing and dance. These are not new lessons or new insights. In fact they are old, incredibly old. I believe that my ancestors, as well as other indigenous people of the earth, understood this. They understood how to act upon their connections and to use that to motivate and inspire change. Therefore, perhaps all that is “new” is my being able to finally explain to myself what I always knew inherently but could never describe. It is quite simply and yet quite profoundly, spiritual action! It is the courage to act upon my spirit, to let it lead, to let it influence, to let it cultivate thought and to motivate action, to let it live.

I thank my Oak Flat teachers for this reminder: shoulder to shoulder, nation to nation, we will stand, our voices lifted into the wind.

Resources:

For more information on Oak Flat, visit: http://www.apache-stronghold.com


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Ka Lanakila o Hawaiʻi: The Victory of Hawaiʻi

Ka Lanakila o Hawaii

In 1893, just two short months after the illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom, a voice sang out from the pages of a newspaper. Rather than mourning or speaking of defeat, as may have been expected, however, it celebrated “Ka Lanakila o Hawaiʻi,” as if declaring that we would be victorious, that our people would continue to rise and stand for what was pono, for what was just.

This voice belonged to Ellen Kekoaohiwaikalani Wright Prendergast, a friend of the deposed Queen Liliʻuokalani and a composer of mele lāhui, or songs for the nation. Although perhaps more famously known for her proclamation that we would rather eat stones than be annexed by the United States, she wrote other songs and shared them openly. She was a true aloha ʻāina, a true patriot, who used her compositions to not only resist, but to also insist that we maintain hope. I ka ʻōlelo nō ke ola. There was indeed life to be found in her words.

Over one hundred years later, I found her mele in a newspaper at a time when I needed hope, when I needed to be reminded of the resilience of our people. “ʻAʻohe kupuʻeu o Kahiki nāna e hōʻoniʻoni mai,” she said, “Ua ēwe, ua malu, ua paʻa. Eia i ka Piko o Wākea.” She taught me that no one from afar could ever shake us as long as we remained rooted and steadfast in the teachings of our kūpuna. There was protection and guidance to be found in their wisdom, in the ancestral knowledge that kept us connected to our ʻāina, that taught us to view it, and treat it, and safeguard it as an ancestor. I found her words while living in another country, physically separated from my home, and as if speaking directly to me, she reminded me that no matter where I was in the world, that I could always find whatever I needed at the “Piko o Wākea,” at the summit of our highest mountain, connecting kānaka to the realm of our akua.

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That’s where I found it, whatever “it” was that I needed, whether strength or guidance, whether inspiration or motivation, or whether just a push to continue to stand and rise even when it was difficult. Her words reminded me that we are only ever defeated if we allow our minds to believe it, if we allow our hearts to feel it, and if we allow our mouths to speak it. Her words reminded me that just maintaining hope for a better future is in itself a victory. Why? Because it motivates us to act. Being Hawaiian, I have learned, is not just a state of existence; it is an action. It is a constant, never-ending dedication that is acted upon, lived, breathed, and shared. Her words taught me that.

Ellen Kekoaohiwaikalani never gave up hope. She continued to fight despite the state of their nation, the overthrow of their Queen, and the possibility that they would lose their kingdom. Thus, I read her words and realized that I need to be more like her; I need to give my descendants a legacy of hope simply because they will deserve nothing less than that. They will deserve strength and guidance and protection. They will deserve my action and my dedication. That is the only way that Hawaiʻi will continue to be victorious despite the circumstances, despite the struggles, and despite the people who will attempt to shake us.

After coming home for a visit, I have witnessed many actions, many expressions of genuine love for the lāhui, many victories:

Last week, a young, Hawaiian man stood in court and defended himself ma ka ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi, entirely in the language of his ancestors. He stood for kuleana, for fulfilling his responsibilities to the land and to his kūpuna. He stood as a protector and won. He won! He lanakila nō ia!

Last weekend, I went to the Piko o Wākea with a group of grounded and incredibly brave Native American men. They sang their songs and reminded us that protecting the land, the sea, and the sky is not just a Hawaiian issue or even an indigenous issue. It is a human one. We lifted our voices and prayers for the earth, nation to nation. He lanakila nō ia!

Two days ago, I sat in a circle of dancers and chanters, practicing a hula that honors our Queen. Guided by the woman who first introduced me to hula as a young girl, I was then asked to teach a chant. I humbly accepted, knowing that to teach was to honor those who taught me, who prepared me, and who guided me. He lanakila nō ia!

Yesterday, I stood before the students of Kanu o ka ʻĀina Charter School, listening to them open the day with chant, greeting the land and sky, and I thought about the woman who started this school, how her dreams for a better Hawaiʻi become a reality each time another student is allowed to learn in a school that honors his or her heritage. He lanakila nō ia!

And as I sat down to write this, my nephew came into my room asking to practice a chant with me. He closed the door, sat at my side, and chanted the very words that I found in the newspaper, the very words that Ellen Kekoaohiwaikalani once wrote for her Queen and her nation. We chanted together, two generations, celebrating all past and future victories for our people. He lanakila maoli nō ia!

Both large and small, these triumphs push us forward. They motivate us. But more than that, they remind us that no matter the circumstance, there always has been and will always be an opportunity to rise above, to look to a time when things will change, when they will be better, when we will lanakila. That hope is in itself a victory.

 

Works Cited:

Kekoaohiwaikalani. (1893, 31 Mar.) Ka lanakila o Hawaii. Ka Leo o Ka Lahui, p. 4