Remembered, Reawakened, Remade*
Silence can be difficult. The absence of words can be unnerving especially when we begin to fill the silence with assumptions. It doesn’t matter that the assumptions come from our own minds; we still let them torture us.
It took him a while to talk to me. And in the two months that separated the moment when I first invited him to share and the moment when he finally agreed, I filled the silence with every possibility to explain the absence of words between us: Was it me? Did I do something wrong? Did I somehow offend him?
It had never occurred to me that the cause of our silence might have been the one thing that I couldn’t control: my gender. I could control my approach: the way I spoke, the words I used, even my hand gestures. But I couldn’t change the fact that I was a woman, asking him, a man, for access to his memories, memories tied to the roles and responsibilities of males, Hawaiian males. Native men.
I cringed at the thought of having overstepped, of attempting to trespass into a space that I had no right to be in. Two months of silence left me desperate for words, my own words, to explain, to apologize, to make it right. Then, just as I was beginning to accept the silence, to release the need to fill it, I saw him.
He approached me, gave me a hug, and suddenly the silence was flooded by a wave of words, his words, as he whispered to me, apologizing. He wasn’t ignoring me, he said. He just needed time, time to process my request to interview him, time to determine if he had anything worth sharing, time to examine his own thoughts about his story.
I had never thought to fill the silence with that possibility. And while I could have easily discarded all of my previous assumptions, I let them fill and feed the interview. I wanted to collect his memories, but I would do so cautiously, aware of my place and my role in the larger story.
I had been around these men, these canoe builders, since I was a little girl. Yet, it was from the sidelines that I observed their work. My place was behind the ʻaha, the sennit rope, and not within the area it protected. The rope had been draped around the canoe house to block off their space of awakening, the space where they would carve, shape, and lash their own identities. I had no place in that space for Native men, Native men remembering, reawakening, and remaking themselves.
When he began to speak, he did so slowly, hesitantly, carefully choosing his words. As he spoke, I felt like the nine-year-old girl who once watched them carve from the sidelines. I would have access to whatever he wanted me to see, whatever he wanted me to hear, and nothing more.
I sat and listened, watching his face, and observing the way his eyes often averted mine. He looked off to the side as if looking into another time, smiling at the memory of people, places, and practices that shaped and continue to shape him. When I noticed his eyes well with tears, and the silence creep back into the space between us, I looked down, my gaze meeting his hands. They were worn, years of work etched into his skin, calloused on his palms. His soil-stained hands had cradled the many facets of his life. Whether working on machines or serving ʻawa in a circle, whether holding a wrench or blowing a conch shell, he was the same man. A Native man.
During the course of his life, his hands had picked up the challenge and the hope of his elders to reengage with male roles, to lead men to accept their responsibilities to their people. And when I looked at those hands, resting on the table between us, I invited the silence in. It was no longer difficult. It was what the moment required. He breathed deeply, his hands loosely clasped together, silently shaking. He had approached a memory and as if nervously placing his hands on a piece of the past, he met it with reverence, trembling in its presence. Words didn’t belong in that space.
Then he looked up, looked at me, and his memory was revealed, as if lifted from the past with weathered hands, and brought out to fill the space between us. It was a piece of his life’s story: a memory of transition, a memory of transformation. It came from a time when our people could have given up, when they could have been hopeless. But he would not be content to give me a legacy of tragedy, a legacy of loss. So, he revisited his story, puling it from a time of struggle, grappling with the realities of a not-so-distant past, in order to take it in his hands and set it down before me.
I traced the breadth and depth of his memory and in it I saw men: remembered, reawakened, remade. They were men who became like the spears they carried, like the canoes they carved, like the ʻawa they served: piercing through the past and sailing over boundaries while also leading us and inspiring us all—women included—to find light in their growth. He spoke and I was captured by his stories.
When I finally looked up, lifting my attention from his hands, my eyes met his gaze. His dark eyes looked into mine, the silence returned. This time, the absence of words was welcomed. With a slight smile, he told me all I needed to know. His memory of reawakening had been revealed, and like lines on skin, it etched itself into me, making my hands shake with the same reverence. It became a part of me. It was now a memory that he and I would share.
But even so, I still wondered about my place. Therefore, before he departed, I asked him. I decided to fill the silence with a question about my role as a woman entering into a male space through inquiry and interviews. And to my surprise, he didn’t have a problem with it.
Perhaps my place was where it always had been. As a child, I stood behind the ʻaha and chanted their experiences to life, standing next to my kumu hula, my hula teacher, who had always brought voice and expression to our stories: Native men, Native women, Natives. So perhaps it was from that point that I could, and will, continue to tell their story, knowing that in the end, the remaking of a Native man is intimately tied to the remaking of a Native woman. There are times where he will have to stand behind the ʻaha, becoming a witness—but not a participant—to my own reawakening, my own remembering. Perhaps that is how it’s always been, so that whether behind or within the ʻaha, we’ll all be remade together.
As he left, I knew that in the absence of parting words that we now had understanding. He had not simply relayed a story; he had not simply shared a piece of himself, his history. What occurred was a weaving of stories, his and mine, together. His memory of resurgence, his memory of hope, was now my own, to remember and to add to. When he walked away, my eyes met with his back, a back that had carried the weight of a people. We would now carry that weight together. Native men. Native women. Natives, forwarding.
* The title of this post comes from Ty P. Kāwika Tegan’s book entitled, Native Men Remade: Gender and Nation in Contemporary Hawaiʻi, which has contributed significantly to my examination of male and female roles in Hawaiʻi today.