“The work of a contemporary warrior is to take the responsibility to be a self-actualized individual.”
– Cornel PewewardyThere are many things I’m not good at.
My dad often talks about my intelligence. “If I had your brains,” he often says, sighing and shaking his head, “I could’ve done so much more with my life.” On the top of his “much more” list is usually, “I could’ve been the governor.” I usually smile and laugh at his attempt at a joke. Though, deep down, I actually believe he could be a far better governor that the current man in office. But, hey, he’s my dad. So I may be a little biased. (Just a tiny bit.)
When we get into these types of conversations, he has the habit of listing all the ways he believes he is somehow deficient: “I can’t speak Hawaiian. I can’t write. I don’t know how to use the computer.” He holds up his fingers, some long and some stubby, as if to count the shortcomings. (If you know my dad, you’ll get the stubby finger reference.) Time and time again I remind him of his own intelligence, how I could never do so many of the things that he can do, so many of the things that he does. Every. Single. Day. In a crafty way, though (because he is intelligent like that), I think our exchanges are meant to remind me—and not him—about the kind of knowing that really matters!
My dad is a self-actualized individual. He is the kind of indigenous warrior that Cornel Pewewardy describes in the forward to Winona LaDuke’s critical book, The Militarization of Indian Country. To be self-actualized is to recognize (and act upon) your own talents and potentialities. It is to understand what you as a unique human being have to bring to your family, to your community, to your nation, your region, or even the world. A friend of mine recently summarized this concept by saying, profoundly and simply: “You have to know what you know and you have to know what you don’t know.”
There is power in both. I truly believe that when we recognize what we don’t know we are in a better position to truly understand our kuleana, or what our roles and responsibilities may be. We are able to better appreciate what our contribution can be to a particular cause or issue. We are able to tread a bit lighter on lands that we may not be as familiar with. We are able to determine when and where our voice or our presence should be (and when and where they shouldn’t). And further, we are able to discern when our efforts, no matter how well-meaning they may be, could actually be more detrimental that helpful.
I have an example.
But before I get into this story, I’d like to state that while there are many things that I am not good at and while there are many things that I do not know—I would most likely perish if made to sustain myself from the ʻāina, for example, and I would certainly get lost if left in a forest alone, and I would probably get kicked off the waʻa (canoe) if made to steer it—there are certain things that I do know about myself. And this is part of the process of self-actualization:
- I believe part of my role in life is to tell stories.
- I believe that I have a responsibility to tell critical stories, especially when they impact those I care about.
- I believe that I am an educator.
- I believe that I can draw upon my talent to present stories as a means of inspiring conversation.
(I’d like to also state that this story is not at all meant to demean the people involved but rather to highlight something that I hope we can learn from.)
Last week I attended a workshop. It was on historical and cultural trauma. I had recently read an article entitled, “Positioning Historical Trauma Theory within Aotearoa New Zealand,” (Kia ora Aunty Leonie) and therefore thought this would be an important workshop to attend. Pulling on previously published scholarship, the article states: “Historical trauma is collective, cumulative wounding both on an emotional and psychological level that impacts across a lifetime and through generations, which derives from cataclysmic, massive collective traumatic events, and the unresolved grief impacts both personally and intergenerationally” (Pihama et al., 2014, p. 251-52). I certainly believe that any effort to better the condition of our indigenous lives and futures must take into account the historical trauma imposed in the processes of colonization. (Thus, again, my interest in the workshop.) I was ready to be a student, to absorb, and to learn more so that I could determine if this was an area of study that I had any real place in. I wanted to begin to consider trauma in the context of Hawaiʻi.
On the morning of the workshop, I arrived to a group of people sitting on mats. The environment was comfortable. The breeze blew through our open hale (house) and we chanted to greet the day. After initial introductions to each other and to the content, we were then led through a visualization exercise. The instructor, a Hawaiian woman, explained that she was going to take us through Hawaiʻi’s history, from the past to the present. We were asked to close our eyes, to settle down, to imagine, and to essentially put ourselves in the place of our ancestors.
Like common narratives written and told before, she started in pre-contact Hawaiʻi and spoke about an unspoiled paradise, an abundant oasis, a place where people lived in complete harmony with nature and with each other. Life was joyful; it was idyllic. As listeners, we were meant to ease into the beauty of such a time, a time before “outsiders,” a time before disruption.
The woman next to me sighed, settling into what must have been the most picturesque scene: harmonious, peaceful, without worry, without fear. With my eyes closed, I could almost sense the satisfied smile on her face, the slight glimmer in her cheeks.
Meanwhile, I could feel my nose scrunch, my eyelids tighten, and the familiar “thinking lines” on my forehead begin to surface. For a second, I considered fixing my facial expressions. But, considering that everyone’s eyes were supposed to be shut, I took my chances and remained in a visual state of bewilderment.
The story continued. From paradise, we jumped (or were pulled rather abruptly) to the arrival of the missionaries. Suddenly, things began to fall. Literally. We started dying. Temples were destroyed. Customs were outlawed. Then newspapers were established to spread the agendas of the missionaries. Our people were led to believe, through speech and print, that they were inferior. They were depressed. They were hurt. They were helpless. Hopeless. They were doomed.
The woman in front of me sniffed. With my eyes still closed, I assumed she had shed a few tears, completely taken by the emotion of such sudden destruction. I imagined that she was then living the trauma of her ancestors.
Meanwhile, I couldn’t get there. I couldn’t get to the same place as that woman. My face continued to show signs of consternation as I continued to analyze the narrative.
The story continued. Jumping from the arrival of missionaries, Hawaiʻi was overthrown and then annexed. Hawaiians were further depressed. Lands were taken, and as a result, Hawaiians lost everything: their health, their connection, their freedom, their dignity. Hawaiians died physical, cultural, and psychological deaths.
The woman in front of me continued to cry. And while I heard those familiar stories, complemented by her now frequent sniffs, I was still troubled.
Finally, the story ended. Hōkūleʻa was built and later sailed around the world. Hawaiians began to dance, chant, and sing again; they began to speak their language again. Hawaiians were proud. Hawaiians could look forward to the future. Hawaiians could return to the ways of their ancestors. They could return to the past.
At this point, I opened my eyes. I wanted to gauge the audience, to see how people were responding to the visualization. I had so much to say: there were so many gaps I wanted to fill, so many clarifications I wanted to make, especially to the students present, the students who were now crying over the so-called perfect pre-European past, the fatal fall after the missionaries, and the modern-day renaissance. As a teacher, I wanted to challenge the narrative. I wanted to complicate it. I wanted to fill in the holes to show them that no era was perfect, and more importantly, that no era was without hope.
But I didn’t.
I didn’t say anything to the audience. Instead, I listened to the instructor and to the comments of those around me. Then I left, carrying something heavy on my shoulders. I did not want to disrespect the instructor or to undermine her. However, more than a week later, I’m still thinking about it. It’s still troubling me.
If I understand anything about kuleana it is that it can present itself as a burden, something heavy to carry on your back, something to shoulder for you, for your family, and even for the next generations. Contrary to what some may think, we don’t always get to choose our responsibilities; sometimes they choose us. Therefore, I thought about my dad’s often-comical yet always quite deep-set acceptance of what he knows and what he doesn’t know, and I realized that it is a responsibility to write about these types of experiences. It is a responsibility to challenge old narratives that no longer serve us. It is a responsibility to provide alternatives. And it is a responsibility to do what I believe I can do to take the conversation forward.
Thus, in order to do so, I will present what troubled me (what brought confusion to my face and stress to my pinched eyelids):
The instructor’s story was outdated. It represented what I have recently come to call the Imposed Narrative of:
- Pre-contact Peace,
- Post-contact Peril, and
- Present-day Promise
What’s problematic about such a story is the assumption that peace only existed before contact, that destruction was the single result of contact, and that promise and hope for the future are contemporary constructions. What’s problematic about such a story is that it does not account for the fact that peace, peril, and promise exist in every era. Every. Single. Era.
In her story of the missionaries, for example, the instructor neglected to mention the intellectuals who used the new technology of print to produce thousands of pages of Hawaiian language newspaper text. She neglected to talk about the pages that recorded our moʻolelo (stories); that were filled with sentiments of aloha ʻāina, or love for the land and love for the nation; that printed articles supporting the Queen before and after the illegal overthrow; and that essentially gave people hope. So consumed by the common (and yes, outdated) narrative of “fatal impact,” she neglected to mention strength and resilience.
Now I’m not saying that all Hawaiians were staunch aloha ʻāina, dedicated to the Hawaiian nation. (That story would also be far too simplistic.) There were Hawaiians who supported the overthrown and the eventual annexation, and who tried to encourage their people to abandon their beliefs, and to leave certain cultural customs behind. There were many, some of my own ancestors included, who believed America was the way forward.
What I am saying is that it is extremely dangerous to tell a single story, a single narrative that presents our history in such simplistic ways: pre-contact peace, post-contact peril, present-day promise. We owe it to our ancestors to complicate the story, to recognize the messiness of our histories, and to not romanticize the past, but to greet it, head first, nose to nose, for what it can teach us.
In one of her Ted Talks, Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2009) talks about “The Danger of a Single Story,” or the reduction of an entire group of people to one narrative. In her powerfully poetic way, the late Teresia Teaiwa (2015) echos these sentiments, stating “you can’t just paint one brush stroke over a nation and say that’s who they are.” To do so is not only irresponsible, it also strips people of their humanity. It ignores diversity. It flattens our stories. And it depletes our ancestors of life.
That’s what upset me.
That’s why I couldn’t sigh in delight at the idea of a pre-European paradise, or cry at the thought of “fatal impact,” or some immediate fall from grace at the coming of the missionaries. I had been taught to challenge these ideas.
In his seminal essay, “Towards a New Oceania,” Albert Wendt (1976) challenges such notions. When I first read his essay as an undergraduate student at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo (Mahalo e Seri), I was forced to confront my own romanticization of the past. I did think it was perfect. I did think my ancestors were faultless. I did believe that the coming of the missionaries ruined everything. Thanks to his work, and to the work of so many other inspiring intellectuals, however, I have been able to complicate that narrative and to understand, as he states, that “There is [and was] no state of cultural purity (or perfect state of cultural goodness) from which there is decline… There was no Fall, no sun-tanned Noble Savages existing in the South Seas paradises, no Golden Age” (p. 76). There can be no epic “return” to the past because, as he expands, there was no “pre-papalagi [or pre-European] Golden Age or utopian womb” (p. 76). There was no complete state of “Pre-Contact Peace.”
The instructor’s story, however, fell into this exact trap: the trap of the simplistic narrative. As historian Kerry Howe (1977) articulates, it is the story of “fatal impact,” or the idea that there was immediate demise at the time of first contact. The problem with such a story is that it paints our people as passive, as inactive, as helpless, and as devoid of any real agency. When I stand in front of my own students, I am aware of the responsibility I have to disrupt that narrative, to give them examples of agency, of action, and of choice. As Howe (1977) explains, so many of the stories written about our peoples “are really about Europeans and what they did. They are the subjects. The islanders are the objects, often just in the background, slightly out of focus, having things ‘done’ to them” (p. 146). They are drawn as poor, noble savages. And as justified as we may feel in grieving or lamenting the dying, disappearing, and helpless indigenous victims, a simple fact remains: the assumption that all of our ancestors were passive and inactive is based firmly in the supposed racial superiority amongst Europeans. It’s the “You-couldn’t-do-anything-to-avoid-your-own-demise” mentality. Or the “You-poor-things-didn’t-stand-a-chance” approach.
That’s what I find so offensive about the often-told narrative, the narrative that I believe we should had moved past by now, the narrative that I was asked to sit and visualize just over a week ago. As a teacher, I refuse to give my students one story. I prefer to give them options. I prefer to show them how we may have been depicted and then to give them the tools to paint new pictures, with new, complex brush strokes. I believe that ignoring the agency of our ancestors, or their ability to make choices and to act upon those choices—whether to their own betterment or detriment—is to strip them of their dignity.
Now I must explain that I don’t hide the wounds of the past. I acknowledge that our high incarceration rates, our dismal health, our homelessness and houselessness, our poverty, our poor education, our drug abuse, alcohol abuse, and domestic abuse are indeed related to historical trauma. I believe that working towards health, healing, well-being, and even sovereignty requires a critical examination of the intergenerational pain that exists in our families and communities. Colonialism was cataclysmic in many ways. It still is. At the same time, however, I choose to also talk about the ancestors who, despite all odds, maintained hope, a radical hope for a future that could somehow be better than their present. I choose to give my students examples of both the trauma and the triumph because I believe that any promise for tomorrow was inherited from those past generations who refused to be silenced; who refused to lay down, helpless; who refused to paint their ever-evolving and complex stories with a single brush.
We must complicate the story; we must make it messy. We must present it with more colors, more textures, more highlights and shadows. We must talk about the complexities so that our people, especially our youth, can be moved by the beauty and the pain; so that they can see the destruction alongside the strength; the colonialism with the resistance. Just as we inherit the pain of our ancestors, we also inherit their hope. In fact, I believe that renaissance movements are born from something internal, from a deep-seated knowing within us that we are much, much more than we have been depicted to be.
When I look at my own family, for instance, I see the impacts of historical trauma everywhere. I grew up a witness to alcohol and drug abuse. I grew up as another obese Hawaiian, another statistic. I have family members who suffer poor health, family members who have been incarcerated for a variety of crimes, family members who still struggle, every day, to cope in a society that continues to threaten their livelihood: their land, their homes, their ability to sustain themselves, their relationship to sacred sites, their ability to ground, their faith in their language, in their customs, in themselves. This is our everyday reality as Hawaiians. And although these struggles often move me to tears and continue to find expression in my own personal life, I cannot end the narrative there. I will not end the narrative there. Like every generation before me, I am also surrounded by examples of strength, resilience, and hope and I choose to recognize that as part of our collective healing. I choose to tell those stories too.
My dad is my example. He is my self-actualized warrior. He is my indigenous hero. My dad still carries wounds, deep historical wounds, from the past. He was born with a brown face and an English name; he was stripped of his language, his mother opting not to speak to him ma ka ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi; he was exposed to alcohol at a terrifyingly young age, a substance that would play a role in the larger part of his life, an addiction that he would eventually conquer; he was told time and time again that he could not go to the forest, could not hunt, could not feed his family from the land he loved, the only land he has ever known; he has witnessed so much change, change that has, and sometimes still does, bring him to tears. He has fallen many, many times. But he has also risen. He has risen. Every. Single. Time.
He knows what he knows and he knows what he doesn’t know. He may not be the next governor of Hawaiʻi. But he will continue to do what he does best: giving to his family, his community, and his nation in all the ways he knows he can. And like him, I will do what I know, drawing on my recognition of what I can (and can’t) do. In this case, I will challenge those stories and those outdated narratives when I know that they may do more harm than good.
I do not consider myself a fully self-actualized indigenous warrior. But, I do know that I’m on my path, a path towards recognizing my roles and responsibilities, and the possible contributions I have make to my people, my nation, my region, and the world. The quest for self-actualization and a true sense of indigenous warriorhood are things that I will add to the story, the story I will tell as we continue to heal as a people.
Adichie, C. (2009). The danger of a single story. Ted Talks https://www.ted.com/talks/
Howe, K. (1977). The fate of the “savage” in Pacific historiography. The New Zealand Journal of History, 11(2), 137-154.
LaDuke, W. (2012). The Militarization of Indian Country. Michigan: University of Michigan Press.
Pihama, L. et al. (2014). Positioning historical trauma theory within Aotearoa New Zealand. Alternative, 10(3). 248-62.
Teaiwa, T. (2015). You can’t paint the Pacific with just one brush stroke. E-Tangata. https://e-tangata.co.nz/news/you-cant-paint-the-pacific-with-just-one-brush-stroke
Wendt, A. (1976). Towards a New Oceania. Seaweeds and Constructions, 7, 71-85.