He Wahī Paʻakai: A Package of Salt

adding flavor and texture to your world through story


For West Papua: A March with Martin Luther King, Jr. and Benny Wenda

The following piece was written to honor Martin Luther King, Jr. Day (being celebrated in America today) and to raise awareness for West Papua. It was also written as a reflection on the work organized and performed by Oceania Interrupted, a collective of Māori and Pacific women raising awareness for issues affecting our Pacific region. Benny Wenda is an independence leader for West Papua, currently living in exile in the United Kingdom. This creative piece is an imagined dialogue between Martin Luther King, Benny Wenda, and myself.

Photo by Tanu Gago and Oceania Interrupted

Photo by Tanu Gago and Oceania Interrupted

“Who will be the voice?” Benny asks. “Who will be the voice?”

I hear Martin’s words, singing: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter.”

This matters. West Papua matters!

So, I take one step forward, my hands bound, my mouth covered in their flag, my body adorned in nothing but a black lavalava. My skin, mourning. But I find the breeze, kiss the rain, and bathe in spots of sun. 

Marching, marching. Eyes ahead. There is voice in these actions. Voice in these movements. Our pace is that of sacrifice, of suffering, of struggle. It is slow. But it moves forward, one step at a time.

Photo by Tanu Gago and Oceania Interrupted

Photo by Tanu Gago and Oceania Interrupted

Martin once told us that “Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.” 

Every step forward is another step towards justice.

Benny’s eyes water for his people: “Our people cry the last fifty years” but “Because we are ‘primitive’, nobody listens.”

I want to cry. I want to cry for them. But I will not dress the flag that binds my mouth in tears. I will only wear it with strength. Marching, marching. Eyes ahead.

I stand in a line of women, Oceanic women, interrupted. Interrupting spaces, thoughts, actions. Giving space for West Papua: space to learn, space to see, space to feel.

I can feel the woman ahead of me, the one behind, our breaths in synch. Marching.

Photo by Tanu Gago and Oceania Interrupted

Photo by Tanu Gago and Oceania Interrupted

Martin once said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands in times of challenge and controversy.”

We stand for West Papua!

Fifteen years. Fifteen years is the amount of time a person in West Papua can be imprisoned for raising their flag. We wear it voluntarily.

At home, I can raise my Hawaiian flag everyday; I can wear it on my chest. I can speak of sovereignty, speak of indigenous rights. I am privileged.

So, I take another step forward. Marching, marching. Eyes ahead. 

Every step forward, no matter how small, is another step towards justice.

Photo by Tanu Gago and Oceania Interrupted.

Photo by Tanu Gago and Oceania Interrupted.

Benny’s hope is like the wind pushing at my back: “I promise, one day West Papua Free! One day I will invite you to meet my tribe, when West Papua is free!”

I think of what his eyes have witnessed: the killings, the rapes, the torture, the imprisonment of his people and I am amazed at his resilience.

He limps forward, his leg injured in the bombing of his village. Every step, painful. Every step, suffering. Every step a sacrifice.

Martin’s words remind us in windy whispers, “If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”

Every step forward, even if crawling, is another step towards justice.

Marching, marching. Eyes ahead. There is voice in these actions. Voice in these movements.

Benny asks again, “Who will be the voice?”

I will. We will.

We cannot be silent. Silence and absence can be mistaken as consent. I do not consent to what is happening in West Papua. Therefore, I will not be silent. I will not be absent.

I will march. We will march, giving voice to those who cannot speak, to those who cannot fight.

Photo by Tanu Gago and Oceania Interrupted.

Photo by Tanu Gago and Oceania Interrupted.

Benny reminds us that we are not separate: “On the outside, we seem a different colour, but inside of your blood, what colour is that? It’s red.”

Therefore, to fight for our Pacific family is to fight for ourselves.

We all bleed red.

“Who will be the voice?” he asks again, then answers his own question, saying, “You are the voice of the tribal peoples around the world.”

Yes we are, Benny. Yes, we are. Marching, marching. Eyes ahead.

Every step, no matter how small, no matter how difficult, no matter how scary, is another step towards justice.

Walk with me.


Photo by Tanu Gago and Oceania Interrupted.

All photos are by Tanu Gago and Oceania Interrupted and were originally posted here. The photos come from a series of acts performed in Wellington, the capital of New Zealand. The first was at the Indonesian Embassy and the second was at the Positively Pasifika Festival held at Waitangi Park. The performances, using visual and performative art, were aimed at raising awareness for West Papua. They were entitled “Capital Interruption: Free West Papua.”

For more information on Oceania Interrupted, visit their page here.

All quotes by Benny Wenda are from here.

For more information on Benny Wenda, read his biography here.

For inspirational quotes by Martin Luther King, Jr., you can find them here.

And finally, for more information on West Papua, go to the Free West Papua Campaign page here.


The “Sweet” Life


A green smoothie bowl with flax seeds, chia seeds, and unsweetened shredded coconut

“Aunty Ema, you eat stuff I never even heard of before.”

My young relative leaned over and watched me mix flax seeds and chia seeds into my morning oatmeal, a bit perplexed by the tiny capsules. “Can you even taste them?” she asked. “They’re so small.”

“Not really,” I responded. “But I know what they do for me, and so I don’t start a morning without them.”

Her initial reaction to my ritual bowl of oatmeal—one usually made complete by a sprinkling of cinnamon, some chia and flax, and a side of full-fat, unsweetened yogurt (yes, you read correctly, I did say “full-fat”…more on that here)—made me wonder, “How had she never heard of these little superfoods?”

Of course, it didn’t take me long to remember that our culture—one that revolves around food—is one in which it is considered perfectly normal to eat (or to even feed our children) a highly-processed, sugar-ridden Pop-Tart for breakfast rather than a meal consisting of good fiber, healthy fats, and protein. There’s something wrong with that, right?

It’s no secret that I’ve struggled with weight problems for the better part of my life. Poor food choices led to a lifestyle that was rich in sugar, rich in processing, rich in fat (and not the good kind), and extremely poor in nutrients. Thus, for the past few years—actually, it’s probably been more like 10 years—I’ve been on a slow journey to change that. And I’m finally at the place where it simply isn’t enough to change myself. I want to help those around me. So, I’m sharing a bit of my story—as revealing and as hard as it may be—so that I can hopefully begin to do so.

For me, it all started with a bit of a scare. Sometimes we need those “wake-up-calls,” don’t we? Without going into the tiny details of it all, let’s just say that a doctor bluntly informed me one day that the ailment that I was then experiencing could be remedied if I just lost a little bit of weight. It was in that moment, as a terribly overweight university student, that I realized that I didn’t need medication. In fact, taking medicine would have only prompted me to continue the unhealthy life that I was then living. What I truly needed was a lifestyle change.

Photo 2014-10-25 01 24 44 PM

Left – about 80 pounds ago. Right – a post-gym, “I-don’t-look-good-but-I-feel-great” selfie (I don’t love selfies but took this one for the purpose of this blog :)

Initially, this began with starting to exercise and eating less (the second part of that equation being something that I would later learn was completely misguided). After losing a little bit of weight, I hit my very first and extremely frustrating plateau. And for anyone who has ever tried to lose weight, you know how completely frustrating they can be!

However, (and remind me of this the next time I hit one) plateaus are our opportunity to reassess, and more importantly, to reeducate ourselves. The reason I had plateaued in the first place is because I had done very little to change the way that I ate. In fact, I even skipped meals, thinking that fewer calories in would automatically lead to less pounds on the scale. That didn’t last very long because once my body became accustomed to the little amount of exercise that I was doing, it needed more: more movement, and yes, even more food. You see, as many nutritionists and health specialists will say, you actually have to eat to lose weight. The key, however, is that you have to eat the right foods.

But I say that knowing that there is no “one-size-fits-all” prescription for weight-loss. What has taken me years to learn, is that being healthy is truly about listening to your body, taking note of how it reacts to certain foods, and really paying attention to what it tells you about what goes into your system. There is no “secret,” no “miracle pill,” no “detox,” no “quick fix.” It’s about making a lifestyle change and doing what is best for you and your body. I’ve tried many different eating plans, and while I certainly did not stick to all of them, I learned from each and every one.

A few years ago, for example, I opted for a vegan lifestyle, meaning that I did not eat any animal products (which, yes, means I had to cut out dairy as well). Reactions to my decision were mixed. Some supported me while others thought that I was being a little “too extreme.” Thus, words like “deprivation,” “starvation,” and even “obsession” sometimes made their way into the comments that I received. Yet, I was on a mission to learn about food and to learn about myself. Therefore, rather than let any criticism deter me I used it as further evidence that our society’s notions about food are completely backward. Again, why is it that super-sized meals and value-packs are considered more “normal” than eating plant-based meals? Perhaps, like some said, I was a bit obsessed. But in time, I was not so much obsessed with losing weight—although I will admit that weight-loss was my main motivation for years—as much as I was obsessed with learning about food. It was then, during my vegan-year, that I began eating to live, rather than living to eat.

That’s because veganism taught me about nutrients. It taught me to actually think about the things that I put into my mouth before eating them. As crazy as it may sound, I actually started to ask myself things like, “What does this do for me nutritionally?” while looking at a bowl of white rice, or “How does this benefit me?” while staring at a plate of pasta. While my eating was not—and is not—by any means perfect (we are all human after all), these types of inquiries encouraged me to make better choices most of the time. They helped me to make healthy eating my habit and sweet and fatty indulgences my exception, rather than the other way around. And that, for me, was hugely transformative.

However, after living a lifestyle devoid of animal products, I slowly began to reintroduce some of them, to see how my body would react. I wanted to know what was best for me. What I found is that I do like a little bit of animal protein. And when I say that, what I mean is that my body reacts well to it. Therefore, while my diet is still largely plant-based, I do enjoy the occasional piece of fish, some full eggs (no, I don’t do egg substitute), and even some full-fat dairy.


Quinoa, tuna, avocado, and carrot sushi rolls.

More recently, I made one of the best decisions of my life. Earlier this year, I really began taking note of what I was eating, ready to once again reassess and reeducate myself. Riding the bus one afternoon, I caught a glimpse of a poster saying, “I Quit Sugar.” It intrigued me. What did I really know about sugar? How much was I really ingesting? Therefore, that evening I typed those exact words into Google and after reading through a website by the same name, downloading a book by the woman who started the site, and learning from her personal story, her tips, and her research, “I Quit Sugar” myself. And when I say that, what I’m really saying is that “I Chose Nutrition,” “I Chose Health,” and “I Chose to Live a Truly ʻSweet’ Life.” You see, it’s about changing our perspective from one of deprivation to one of empowerment!

It’s been a little over six months, and while I have lost some of weight, any weight-loss has truly been a bonus to the way that I feel, and more importantly, to the way that I think about food. I eat to fuel myself, to give myself nutrients, and I do this by eating simply. What this means is that I have as little fructose sugar as possible (learn more about that here); I eat little-to-no processed foods (sometimes the occasional cookie, biscuit, or cake is offered, and sometimes I take it…though I must admit that it doesn’t taste as good as I once thought it did); and I eat as close to “natural” as I can (again, read more about that here). I read ingredients lists. I take note of sugar content. I constantly look at nutrition websites (careful to not be fully swayed by all of the misguided information there is out there). I follow health and nutrition foodies on Instagram (and have even tried to post a few pictures of my own). I don’t count calories. Rather, I measure the success of a meal by how many nutrients I know are in it. Finally, I eat! And I actually eat quite a lot. But I eat good, wholesome, nutrient-rich foods. That’s the difference!

My daily routine, so many years ago, was once one in which I skipped breakfast (or if I ate I had a sugar-loaded granola bar), and then perhaps had a small sandwich for lunch, and then because I was so hungry, had a huge and most of the time, very unhealthy dinner. Think “super size.” Think “value pack.” Think “Yes, I’ll have one more scoop of rice and extra gravy on all of it.” That was my lifestyle.

Now, I crave vegetables if I don’t have them. If for some strange reason, I haven’t had a veggie-dominant lunch, I go ravaging through my refrigerator by dinner time, hoping I still have some spinach, or bok choy, or broccoli, or onions, or capsicum (bell peppers), or carrots, or if I’m lucky, a little bit of all of them, so that I can throw them all together and have a vegetable feast served over quinoa, or stir-fried with beans, or wrapped in a socca tortilla. Can you tell that I’m a little hungry writing this?


Vegetable and tahini stir-fry over socca (chick pea flour flatbread).

Now, I enjoy my food. Some people still think I live a life of deprivation. “What do you mean, no sugar?” But, truthfully, I have learned that life without sugar is truly sweet. I feel better than I have ever felt before. I enjoy cooking and experimenting with new flavors. I spend most nights right before I go to bed researching recipes and learning about what different foods do to our bodies. Am I obsessed? Perhaps a little. But honestly, I’d rather be obsessed about something that does good for my mind, body, and spirit than about the sugar-laced, highly processed foods that we are fed in our society. It’s about time we start to give some of those up, right?

It has taken me years to get to where I am today. Yet, I maintain that I am still in process, still on a journey without a destination. But I’m excited about it. And that’s the point!! For too many years, weight-loss was at the heart of every food and exercise decision that I made. Therefore, I made choices out of frustration, out of anger, or out of feeling inadequate. Changing the way I think about food, however, changed the way I think about myself and about the way I treat myself. Weight-loss is the added bonus; it is the proverbial “icing on the cake,” or perhaps we need to change that saying to something like, it is “the shredded coconut on the green smoothie.” It is what comes with taking care of yourself, feeding yourself nutrients, moving and using your body daily, and doing so because it is the best way to live.

So, join me over some chia-seed pudding, or perhaps a refreshing smoothie bowl, as we eat to live, or should I say, as we eat to live happily, while enjoying the “sweet” life.

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My Red Star


“Wherever I am at any given moment, there is comfort in the knowledge stored at the back of my mind that somewhere in Oceania is a piece of earth to which I belong. In the turbulence of my life, it is my anchor. No one can take it away from me.” – Epeli Hauʻofa[1]

The piece of earth to which I belong was actually named for a star, a red star: Hōkūʻula. It’s a hill adorned by rainbows, one that dances in the uakoko rain, a rain heavy enough to wash the hillside, turning the water a reddish-brown: Waimea.

But I write this sitting on the head of a great fish, in a land of long, white clouds, thousands of miles away from my piece of earth, one washed in red waters.

To say that I belong there is an understatement. Hōkūʻula is my place to stand. I belong in it as much as it belongs in me. And like the rain that washes over it, creating rivulets and streams, it’s carved its way into me: red runs in, over, and through my body. I need only think of my hillside to know that I am at once connected to the land, to my piece of earth, and to that fixed point in the night sky, burning in the wider universe.

That, to me, is belonging. And nothing and no one can take that away from me.

[1] This quote is from Epeli Hauʻofa’s essay, “Pasts to Remember,” featured in the book, We Are The Ocean: Selected Works, p. 76-77.



For Grandma Case and for the beach that we always meet at in my dreams.

IMG_5053 - Version 2

I couldn’t sleep.

So I did what someone close told me to do: I pictured a calm place and I put myself there.

I heard the water first. It was dark, but I had sound. If persistence had a song, it would be of the waves lapping the edge of an ocean lined with rocks. No matter how relentless stone may be, pretending to be unmoved or unaffected, waves will continue to travel toward it forgetting how many times they’ve been sent away. They will slowly wear stone down until it gives in and finally learns to move with the tides, not against them. If I could memorize that song, I’d sing it each time I felt disheartened, each time I needed hope.

My breaths slowed. Sleep was near, but it hadn’t yet arrived.

So I did what someone close told me to do: I pictured a calm place and I put myself there.

I saw the water first. It was still dark, but I had memories. If I could collect all my memories of this place, I’d scatter them across the night sky like stars. No matter how small each would appear, I’d know them to be incandescent: full of heat, energy, life. Each one would be reflected onto the surface of the ocean, sparks of light rising and falling, moving with the water. They’d come back to greet me each time I returned to walk the every-changing shoreline as I witnessed the beach of my childhood transform against its will. I’d pick a memory from the surface of the sea whenever I’d feel myself forgetting this place, and I’d be taken back there, ready to sing its song.

My limbs relaxed. Sleep lay next to be. I could feel it. But it kept a small distance.

So I did what someone close told me to do: I pictured a calm place and I put myself there.

I felt my grandmother’s hand first. She grabbed mine and led me across the beach to her favorite spot. If my grandmother were a part of this place, she’d be the mākāhā, the entrance to the fishpond. She’d be that section of water lined with stone walls, that channel that everything flowed through before entering my world. She’d be the place that featured in so many of the stories that I collected as a child, stories that I’d heard so many times that I’d often forget I never witnessed them myself. She’d exist at the mixing point of past, present, and future, where memories lapped against each other, playing an old but familiar song.

My heart smiled. And as sleep climbed on to me, its arms folding across my back, its chest lying against my own, I found that calm place.

It was where it always had been: with that small and beautiful Hawaiian woman I have never met, but have always known: the one whose love for a particular stretch of shoreline I inherited, the one who listened to the same song of the waves, the one whose memories mix with my own on the surface of the ocean, the one whose channel of stone and sea continues to shape my dreams.

I met her there, as I had so many times before. And I fell asleep, embraced.


Radical Hope









into the earth despite every insistence for light.

She witnessed the moment he stopped insisting. “I saw a light go out,” she said. A shout came off of the page, “The Thirty Meter Telescope cleared its last major hurdle Friday.”[1]

The “hurdle”—the problem, the obstacle, the barrier, the stumbling block, the hindrance, the complication, the difficulty—was US, those insisting that the true obstruction was what would be built on the summit of our existence, our mauna.









into the earth despite every insistence for space.

A man once asked, “How are indigenous persons meant to understand themselves, and instruct their children, in a world no longer willing to make a place for them?”[2] 

That mountain is our place, we insist. It is our space, one we situate ourselves in and around. It is how we understand ourselves, our role, our right. The light may have gone out in his eyes, but we will insist for him, insist that the world continue to honor our spaces.









into the earth despite every insistence for life.

Years ago, a Crow man mourned the loss of a way of life, “…when the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened.”[3]

But is there truly a state of nothing-ness, one in which things simply cease to occur? Or did he move on and find new ways to persist and to insist that his very existence have meaning? Yes. 

He may have been depressed. Oh, he may have been








into the earth despite his every insistence.

But those who pushed him down, who tried to burry his hope and to burry him with it, did not realize that it was from the earth that he was born.

Therefore, it is from that space—his hands clasping soil, his feet tangled with roots, his mouth feeding on stones—that he will rise again.

Radical? They can call us radical for having hope, even when it seems like we have lost the battle.

Because that, my friend, is us, insisting. No longer will we be depressed. Lights may go out. But the can always, always, always be reignited.



[1] From a newspaper article printed in the West Hawaiʻi Today. It can be accessed here.

[2] From a piece entitled “On Being Indigenous: An Essay on the Hermeneutics of ‘Cultural Identity’” by Michael Chandler, p. 85.

[3] From a book entitled Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation, by Jonathan Lear, p. 2.

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With Salt In My Hands



As my gaze bent toward the earth, I stood with clenched fists, with white knuckles. I shook. Your eyes traced my nervousness, watched my short breaths make my chest heave, swell and slump, swell and slump like a rolling sea.

I had come all this way, traveled across the ocean to arrive at the beach of your memories. I wanted to collect your stories, to cast my line, and pull them up from the depths. I wanted to raise them, to make them visible, to watch them take shape in the sun. But my eagerness was quickly replaced by apprehension. What did I have to offer you in return?

I raised my head to look at you, your gaze hopeful, welcoming. The corners of your mouth curled upward: a slight, knowing smile. My grip slowly loosened, blood-flow returning to my knuckles. My breaths lengthened, my back straightened. My chest swelled calmly like the slight rise and fall, rise and fall, of a smooth sea.

With my eyes raised to you, my fists unclenched, I lifted my arm, turned my palm towards the sun and opened my hand to reveal a bundle, a small offering: he wahī paʻakai, a package of salt. I had come all this way carrying a piece of the ocean, of fluidity crystalized. I moved toward you, offering you the promise of the sea: the steadfast nature of all that is paʻa, secure; and the transformative nature of everything that shifts and sways, shifts and sways like the kai, the ocean.

I am still here, standing with salt in my hands.

Let me rub it on your stories of pain. Let me sprinkle it on your stories of triumph. Let me use it to garnish your memories. I have come all this way to collect your words. If you let me, I will leave you with salt to flavor them, awakening the taste buds, enlivening the senses, making us thirst, always, for stories.



At the Edge of Her Bed

For my mother.

IMG_5787 - Version 2

“It was perplexing [being accepted] and I wanted to reject it because I had begun to enjoy the seduction of inadequacy.”*

– Lupita Nyong’o

I chewed on her words, each bite of my teeth giving them new shape, then less shape, new shape, then more shape. I let them roll around in my mouth as I took them apart, put them back together, mixed them around with my tongue. I didn’t want to swallow them, not at first, because I had come to like the taste of inadequacy and swallowing them would mean I’d finally have to accept, really accept, the strange idea that I was adequate (or dare I say, even more than adequate).

It is strange, isn’t it, how we are addicted to and seduced by the idea that we are somehow never enough: never good enough, never smart enough, never fast enough, never pretty enough, never… just enough. I myself was addicted to the idea. So I took a bite of her words and audibly sighed when they burst in my mouth, introducing new flavors.

But were the flavors really “new”? Not really. Perhaps “knew” is more appropriate.

I’m not a mother. But I am a daughter. I am the daughter of a woman who always told me that I was enough, that there was nothing about myself that needed “fixing,” nothing that made me less worthy than anyone else, nothing that I needed to hide or be ashamed of. I remember sitting at the edge of her bed, sometimes as tears moistened my cheeks—while my father snored loudly into the night—as she whispered to me, reminding me of who I was, time and time again.

Yet, like most people, I was seduced by a culture of inadequacy, one that taught me that I needed to be on an endless search for “myself” as if it was something external, something to be bought, or achieved, or gained through work, money, or accolades. And while I always worked hard, and always told myself that trying to be better was a positive thing, I eventually found myself completely seduced by the idea of inadequacy. It’s what kept me going, what motivated me. But eventually, I found myself exhausted.

So I sat at the edge of her bed again. And as she had done so many times before, she reminded me of who I was.

I was her daughter. I was the granddaughter of her mother. I was the great-granddaughter of her grandmother, and on and on back to the first mother herself: the land we sat upon, together. There could be no acceptance of inadequacy without also dishonoring the generations of women whose very existence made my life possible. They were in, around, and beside me… always.

But, like many, I occasionally forgot them and was seduced by a culture that told me that I was wrong to even believe that I was adequate (or dare I say, even more than adequate). To give voice to those words meant I was arrogant or haughty. It’s strange, isn’t it, how we sometimes deny the greatness that we are born with, born of, born to, so that we can be a part of that culture, that seductive culture of inadequacy.

Thankfully, I always had a space, at the edge of her bed, a space that let me escape that culture of “not-enough-ness,” a space where I could taste her words, and let them roll around in my mouth, as the perfect antidote, the perfect wake-up-call, the perfect reminder of who I was, who I am, and who I always will be.

I can still taste her words, can still taste those “knew” flavors as they burst in my mouth. I savor them. Mmmm.


*This line comes from Lupita Nyong’o’s speech found here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZPCkfARH2eE&feature=kp


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