History is messy.
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. 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.
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.
 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