He Wahī Paʻakai: A Package of Salt

adding flavor and texture to your world through story

Under the Noni Tree


History is messy.

Noni Fruit

Noni Fruit*

Like the fruit of the noni tree, it’s bumpy and it’s blemished. It ripens slowly: born green, turning yellow, and falling when white. We’re often intrigued by noni, by its peculiar shape and sour smell, and are sometimes even drawn to it because we know, like any other medicinal plant, that it has the potential to heal us. Yet, we still turn away from it, our noses in the air, because smashed, smeared, and sour fruit can be hard to take.

Like noni, history is messy. But eventually, we have to face it—even smell it, taste it, and rub it on our skin—so that we can heal and move on.

My “eventually” came sooner than I expected. Yesterday I spent five hours seated under a noni tree. Flies swarmed around my feet, attracted by the reek of rotten fruit, smeared across a mix of sand and soil. I was positioned on a stone near its trunk. I leaned my back against it, my hair softly brushed by the large and dark leaves that danced above my head. While I probably wouldn’t have picked this location myself, I was led to it. Across from me, seated just beneath the extended stretch of noni branches, on the edge of hardened pāhoehoe lava, was the one who led me there: a man, a storyteller, a canoe builder. I had come to hear his story and he had come to smear it across the ground before me: every dirty and messy bit of it.

It was the messiness that I was least prepared for. Yet, with time, it was precisely what made me salivate. The longer I sat among the noni, the more I wanted to taste it. The more the smell excited my senses.

We all have versions of history that we favor over others, especially when it comes to the lives of our ancestors. It’s simply easier to accept the beautiful, courageous, and honorable actions of those who preceded us. It’s easier to accept the clean, tight, and bundled-up version of history, the one presented to us like a woven basket carrying only the best crops, ready to be consumed. It’s much harder, on the other hand, to accept that our ancestors made mistakes, that they did things that warrant embarrassment, and that they were human. We often position them on the highest branches and then are always disappointed when, like ripe noni, the reality of some of them falls to the ground and splatters at our feet. Yes, it’s much harder to accept the messy version of history: the one that appears smashed and smeared, the one that smells.

Yet, the smellier is sometimes the better.

The ripe noni fruit, when combined with salt, is a potent combination. It may stink, but it heals. History is the same. It’s like the day I learned that I am the descendant of both anti-annexation petitioners on one side of my family and pro-annexation lobbyers on the other.[1] My own personal history is messy! While I could cover-up the truth, burrying the stink beneath a layer of dirt, forever hiding the reality of my existence, I simply cannot deny my ancestry. I cannot escape who I come from. One of my ancestors lobbied for the annexation of Hawaiʻi, an event that forever changed the course of history in these islands, an event that devastated many, including my other ancestors who petitioned against it. In 1898, the two sides of my family stood opposed, not knowing that generations later, I would be here: a descendant of both of them, a descendant of people who may have been enemies.

While it would certainly be easier to ignore the actions of an ancestor who, at one point in history, ignored the wants and needs of the Hawaiian people, the simple reality is that I can’t change the past. All I can do is face it. All I can do is take it in and own it. Like salt rubbed on a fresh wound, I have to accept it. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t hurt: that history doesn’t hurt, that truth doesn’t hurt. It does and sometimes it’s excruciating! But the pain is necessary. It is necessary if we ever want to heal. Facing the realities of my family history made me also face my responsibilities. Now knowing my history, knowing every messy bit of it, I have an even greater sense of obligation to my people. Yes, it’s messy. But, in the messiness of my own history, I’ve found purpose.

My five hours under the noni tree, similarly, made me face the ugly, the smelly, and the dirty parts of another story. I had arrived prepared to receive the pretty version. Yet, the man who sat before me positioned me on a small stone that dug into my legs, like a five-hour reminder of the discomfort that comes with learning truths. He did not speak of the reawakening of our people and the revitalization of old customs in romantic language. Instead, he spoke of the dissension, the turmoil, and the anger that sometimes comes with such efforts. These realities often get buried, hidden, and forgotten. Yet, to forget that part of history is to risk repeating it. It is no secret that some of our most profound lessons come from mistakes, from struggle, and from the moments spent agonizing, or crying, or fighting. Therefore, why deny ourselves the lessons that come with the tough, the difficult, and yes, even the stink?

As my storyteller continued to reveal the fruits of his history, I found myself wanting more. The longer I sat there, and the more he told me, the more noni I wanted to eat. It was deliciously sour and delectably bitter. I partook of it and felt it run through my body, cleansing it. Then when we stood to leave, I peeked out from under the noni tree. My eyes scanned the site of our conversation: the solid stone walls; the thatched house in the distance; the appearance of carved, wooden figures standing tall; the reality of tourists walking over a deeply storied landscape, treading on a history unknown to them. My gaze then shifted back to my own feet, surrounded by small flies swarming over smashed fruit. It was then that I realized that I’d rather walk knowingly into a mess than be an unconscious traveler.

Looking out from under the noni tree at Hōnaunau, Kona, Hawaiʻi`

The site of our conversation: Hōnaunau, Kona, Hawaiʻi.

As I finally left and parted ways with the one who led me there, I looked out once again. My five-hour conversation had changed the landscape. The sky had new color, the soil and sand beneath me had new layers of depth, and the noni tree had a new smell, a sour smell that I now appreciated. My senses had changed, having adjusted to new truths.

I walked away, the stone that I sat on leaving temporary indentations on my thighs. I looked down and smiled. History is indeed messy and sometimes, it hurts. Yet, I’d rather smell it, taste it, and yes, even smear it on my body and wear it, than live with parts of myself concealed.

[1] For more information on the annexation, refer to “The 1987 Petitions Protesting Annexation” by Noenoe K. Silva at the following website: http://libweb.hawaii.edu/digicoll/annexation/pet-intro.html

* The picture of the noni fruit featured above comes from http://www.andamanplantations.com/img/noni_juice.jpg


Author: emalani

I write, read, dance, and study stories that span the Pacific. From my island home in Hawaiʻi, to the shores of Tahiti, to the mountains of Aotearoa, I travel over ancient pathways, sharing stories along the way.

17 thoughts on “Under the Noni Tree

  1. emalani, the link you posted for the website for more information on the annexation links to the photo of the Noni fruit.

    • Oh yikes! Thank you for pointing that out. I fixed it. (Fingers crossed it works correctly.) 🙂

    • Thanks, Emalani. I am so interested in Hawaiian history, and as a tourist who keeps returning, I want to learn as much as I can about Hawaii and its people. I have a love for Hawaii that I can’t explain.

      • Hi Angeline. I may be a bit biased, 😉 but I certainly think that Hawaiʻi has a beauty that is unparalleled! It draws people in. If you ever have any questions (or want recommendations about things to read, watch, listen to, etc. about Hawaiʻi) just let me know. If I don’t know an answer, I can certainly look for someone who does. 🙂 Aloha!

  2. I love reading about your insights of Hawaiian history, how your interpretations are represented through things that are somewhat overlooked by others. I hope that everyone reads these blogs and begin their voyage to a better understanding of our history, our culture, and what it means to them. I look forward to your next post.

    • Mahalo nui e Miu Lan. I love the line in your comment that reads, “interpretations are represented through things that are somewhat overlooked by others.” I’ve always loved searching for the story in things around me, especially everyday things that we interact with or use often. There are so many ways to interpret our surroundings and what is really beautiful is that each and every person can have his or her own interpretation, his or her own story. And we can then learn from each other!

      I’m so happy that these blog posts have been enjoyable for you. Your words certainly encourage me to keep on writing. Mahalo nui! 🙂

    • It certainly is the beauty, but also a spiritual feeling.

  3. Ah!! the lines:

    “to forget that part of history is to risk repeating it”
    ” I’d rather walk knowingly into a mess than be an unconscious traveler”

    might as well have hit me full on in my face. Impeccable as always, Ema. One day your publications are going to be all over my Pacific lit reading list! 😉 xo.

    • Annemarie! You know, it would be an honor to be on any list that you compile because I know that it would be a killer list, full of thoughtful selections! (I trust any archivist who wears such cool glasses 😉 ) Lol. Seriously though, mahalo, as always. Aloha au iā ʻoe!

  4. Ema, I’m always in awe of your beautiful words,appreciation, and life that you brought and will always bring to my heart!!! Words bring life and words bring death, but you my dear defiantly bring LIFE!

  5. Mahalo Nui e Emalaniokalani. Heart nui I kēia mana’o.

  6. RAWE!

    Mahalo nui for sharing your words. I love reading them as they remind me of my own thoughts; thoughts that resuscitate and reconstitute our ancient, and yet ever-present stories. I love the analogy between noni and history. It is such a pleasure to read decolonising theory embedded in contemporary narrative. From my perspective, that’s the most empowering, meaningful and connected way to impart knowledge. I appreciate you finding me on WP, am inspired by your kupu and hinengaro, and I especially look forward to reading more.

    Noho ora mai,
    na huka/Tawhanga.

    • Kia ora Tawhanga,

      Mahalo for your kind words. I am so glad I found your blog here on WordPress. I was reading about the loss of funding for Ngā Pae o Te Māramatanga on the Te Wharepora Hou page and truly appreciated your comment (which then led me to your blog). I can’t say that I know a lot about Ngā Pae o Te Māramatanga, but with what little I do know, I was completely shocked when I head that funding would be terminated by 2015. I may not be Māori, but I truly value Māori research and the role that it has played in my own work as a indigenous person.

      I loved the way you shared your own experiences and talked about your work with raranga (which sounds like powerful and meaningful work, by the way). Your words not only taught me more about Ngā Pae o Te Māramatanga but also further emphasized its importance for Māori and for the rest of us as well.

      No laila, mahalo!

      Naʻu me ke aloha,

  7. Hello, i think that i saw you visited my website thus i came to “return the
    favor”.I am trying to find things to enhance my site!I suppose its ok to use a few of your ideas!!

    • Aloha! I still consider myself a novice blogger. Therefore, I too am always looking for ways to improve my blog. 🙂 I guess thatʻs what blogging is all about, seeing what works and doesn’t work on other sites and then using that to improve.

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