He Wahī Paʻakai: A Package of Salt

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The Flags we Fly: symbols of justice, markers of conquest

kuuhae

Kuʻu hae Hawaiʻi, University of Hawaiʻi-West Oʻahu, November 28th, 2017

“I pledge allegiance to the flag…”

I can’t remember the last time I recited these words out loud. It’s been at least a decade (maybe two). But, if made to do so, I’d know every word. In fact, as I write this, the old, familiar lines come back to me:

“…with liberty and justice for all.”

They are imprinted in my childhood memories:

brown hand

over brown heart

under red and whitewashed stars and stripes.

When I think about my early education, standing in classrooms with my peers—most of us from ranching, farming, hunting, or plantation families—I realize that we had no idea what we were pledging our allegiance to. We had no idea what we were committing ourselves to: to the position of subordinate, second-class citizen, still considered “less than,” or too brown, too rural, and too uncivilized that our existence needed surveillance, or needed monitoring and controlling. We were children, and when I think about the many mornings we stood beneath the American flag, palms to chest, reciting the words of unconscious (and enforced) adherence, I question notions of freedom and justice.

How is it that a piece of cloth, attached to ropes and poles, came to have such significance? How did a flag become something worth fighting for, something worth dying for, something worth risking public reputation or social acceptance for? How is it that kneeling before a flag, burning a flag, cutting a flag, or even shooting a flag can be packed with so much meaning? How is it that we can fly flags freely in one place while people in other countries have to hide and risk their physical freedom to fly their symbols of independence?

Last week, these questions and considerations collided with my childhood memories of compliance when two particular events provided me with powerful opportunities to examine our “freedom” flags. The first was on Lā Kūokoʻa, our Hawaiian Independence Day celebrated on November 28th, and the second was on the West Papuan Independence Day, recognized each year on December 1st.

The proximity of these two days, not only in time but in symbolism, made me pause to question what we really fly: hopes and dreams, or something much deeper (and perhaps darker) than we realize?

(I’d like to recognize, at the outset, that this blog may not sit comfortably with some of you. However, what I observed last week pushed me to record these thoughts and observations, and more so, to reflect on myself and my own words and actions. I believe that we must be critically aware and open to critiquing ourselves and structures of power so that we can be more conscious of the messages that we are sending as we fly our symbols.)

Last week Tuesday, I drove to work excited that we would be able to raise and acknowledge our hae Hawaiʻi (our Hawaiian flag) on Lā Kūʻokoʻa. It was the day, 174 years ago, that Hawaiʻi was officially recognized as an independent country by dominant world powers. This made Hawaiʻi, in 1843, the first non-European country to earn such recognition. The day was then celebrated for years (decades even) as a day of independence. Despite later being clouded by incoming holidays, like the murderous American “Thanksgiving,” there has been a resurgence in awareness and with it, a renewed desire to celebrate and continue to hope and work for independence: politically and psychologically.

I arrived at work to find a small group gathered beneath the flagpole fronting our campus. We would raise our hae Hawaiʻi together, sing songs, and chant chants for a restoration of justice. As an Assistant Professor at the University of Hawaiʻi-West Oʻahu, I am considered a “state” employee. Therefore, I was pleased to see that our “state” institution would allow us to celebrate in this way.

When the small ceremony was about to commence our chancellor ordered that the American flag be brought down. It was a small moment of pleasure, a small victory. We then chanted our hae Hawaiʻi into the sky, exchanged reflections and hopes, and sent each other into the day with smiles for freedom. I snapped a photo to capture the moment and even posted it on Facebook and Instagram to participate in a widespread acknowledgement and celebration of the day on social media.

Not an hour later, however, I was terribly disappointed when I walked through campus and saw that the American flag had not only be re-raised, but that the hae Hawaiʻi had been slightly lowered.

“I pledge allegiance to the flag…”

It was elementary school all over again.

I stood still for a second and then became rather painfully aware of my own compliance. When I drove to work, I was happy to be allowed to raise a flag, to be allowed to celebrate our independence, to be allowed to watch the American flag come down. Such “allowance,” however, meant that I was still holding on to my subordinate, second class position, the one ingrained in my heart during childhood, while I held my hand on my chest and recited the words of someone else’s deceptive version of “freedom.”

We were allowed to recognize our history as long as it was comfortable for the institution that we work for. We were allowed to sing and chant for our freedom as long as it did not disrupt the campus. We were allowed to be and to exist as indigenous people, but with restrictions and time limits: just long enough for university cameras to capture the moment—a moment of diversity, perhaps, or a moment of symbolic “acceptance”—a moment that may find its way to a newsletter, a brochure, or a campus website in the future. We were given allowances while our actions were still monitored and controlled, and worse, while our minds were still made to believe that we had tasted independence all the while being fed scraps to keep us satisfied for the moment.

I would rather eat stones than taste the bitterness of that moment again, for it was in that small circle that we became symbols of complacency, or of being satisfied with mere moments when we deserve lifetimes.

The truth is that flags, while being symbols of “liberty and justice for all,” are also markers of conquest, colonialism, and genocide, and of historical, spiritual, cultural, and physical erasure. Reflecting on the re-raised American flag and the brief—and now brutal—15 minutes or so that we were allowed to see our hae Hawaiʻi fly independently, I remembered conversations had with my students this past semester. Just a month or so earlier, while we discussed colonialism in the Pacific, I had encouraged them to be aware of “white possession” or of the ways that possession is marked in space and time.

I shared with them, as Aileen Moreton-Robinson (2015) argues, that “For indigenous people, white possession is not unmarked, unnamed, or invisible; it is hypervisible…cities signify with every building and every street that this land is now possessed by others; signs of white possession are embedded everywhere in the landscape” (p. xiii). We spoke about our islands, the environments we live in, and the sometimes-unconscious acceptance that we give to the presence of everything from the military (and military discounts and military privilege), to imposed place names, and to other settler structures that do not truly serve us.

And we even spoke of flags.

We spoke about the flagpole fronting our campus, the same pole that I sang beneath on Lā Kūʻokoʻa, and how the presence of the American flag flying marks this space as a white possession, a place taken over and claimed. That pole is much like a stake pushed into the land, like those of the Oklahoma Land Rush of the late 1800s, where white settlers raced to assert ownership over places that were never empty to begin with, places that were valued, places that were already understood as sacred, and places that did not need to be “marked” as human possessions because they were lived with rather than lived on and conquered.

Despite such awareness, however, and despite my efforts to think critically about colonialism, our campus—one that is touted as both an indigenous-serving institution and an indigenous place of learning—was complicit in a settler-sanctioned “moment” for indigenous rights and freedom, one that I now believe may have done more harm than good. The fact that our actions that morning still required permission, or the fact that they had to be sanctioned and then limited, made me question the messages we send our students, particularly our indigenous students, the ones we claim to serve.

What message am I sending when I encourage them to critique dominant structures of power and to recognize the hypervisibility of white possession (or even non-white, settler possession) when I myself participate in actions that only reinforce those structures? What messages am I sending when I allow these things to go unquestioned? What messages am I sending if I don’t point out the absurdity of these acts? What messages am I sending if I fear speaking out because my fear of the system is greater: how smart is it, after all, for the “state” employee to critique the system that employees her?

While my rather deep reflection on Lā Kūʻokoʻa may seem a bit inflated—making too much of something small—I’d argue that we have to make a bigger deal out of these things. In fact, if we use this as an example (and as an opportunity), we can begin to recognize our own compliance in other settler systems, questioning how much of what we do is because we are allowed to.

You can dance, chant, and have your ceremonies here and here and here.”

But, try to do that on a mountaintop, or a space desired by the settler state, and suddenly you are in the way. Suddenly, your presence no longer works for the dominant system—as a token of difference or a point of acceptable diversity and sellable “culture”—and you find yourself stuck. Act out and take the consequences or keep your mouth shut and be thankful for what you can get: moments of “sanctioned” freedom, which isn’t really freedom at all, is it???

I suppose this blog is proof of the choice I prefer to make. I grew up with many examples of bright, bold, and brave patriots who refused to act within systems of domination, who knew that expressions of self and identity, and yes, true freedom and independence, should not be, and cannot be, sanctioned by the state. I am fortunate to still be surrounded by people who fly their flags everyday—whether on the back of their trucks, or out their windows, or in their front yards—who still carry signs, who still protest and resist, and who still chant and pray on mountaintops, on shorelines, behind fenced forests, and in every other place that has been threatened by colonialism masquerading as the promise for “liberty and justice for all.”

I suppose this blog is evidence that I cannot sit silently about these things. To do so would be to insult the many strong and courageous indigenous warriors who have influenced my life and who have taught me, even in those early years when I was forced to learn and recite the Pledge of Allegiance, that there was another reality, one that we could create and enact and embody ourselves.

They taught me true independence! True freedom. Something worth standing for.

So, I question the system for them and for all of us.

A few days after Lā Kūʻokoa, I posted a blog for West Papua. It was written as a letter to Owen Pekei, a young student who had lost his life for daring to fly the independence flag of his country, the Morning Star. December 1st marks the day, in 1961, that this flag was raised in celebration of West Papuan independence. Eighteen days later, Indonesian authorities called for the mobilization of people into the country, which eventually laid the foundation for the forced and violent occupation of West Papua by Indonesia. Since then, the indigenous people have been victim to human rights abuses, living in a place where flying the Morning Star flag can result in a 15 year prison sentence, or worse, even death.

After learning about the ongoing genocide in West Papua a few years ago, I vowed to help raise awareness for their plight and to raise their flag whenever and wherever I could, knowing that they didn’t have the same freedom to do so. When I posted my blog this December 1st, however, just a few days after Lā Kūʻokoʻa and my experiences at UH West Oʻahu, I started to think quite critically about my own actions.

I voice opposition to Indonesian occupation and raise (and wear) the Morning Star flag regularly without having to fear consequence. I do not live in West Papua. Therefore, my so-called “bravery” comes partly from geography. While I work to cultivate the relationship between our peoples in the Pacific, and hope to strengthened ties, loyalties, and shared responsibilities to each other and to our sea of islands, I also recognize that there is a certain privilege that comes with distance.

Last week made me glaringly aware of the fact that I do not want to be one of those keyboard warriors who is willing to lend a voice to other issues—speaking and writing words for freedom—while being simultaneously unwilling to do the same when the issue is no longer distant, but close, so close in fact, that it waves in my face everyday: conquest disguised in red, white, and blue shades of injustice.

Exactly one week after Lā Kūʻokoʻa, I sit here reminded of the fact that words are not enough. I can write this blog, post it, share it, and help to spread awareness. However, if the act of writing it does not change me internally and does not influence the way I live my life every single day, then they are just words, strung together with meaning, perhaps, but lacking any true power. Words, after all, “whether delivered face-to-face or hurled at us through the Twittersphere [or, yes, even shared on a blog like He Wahī Paʻakai] are worthless unless they lead us toward action” (Gomez, 2017, p. 46).

Thinking about the flags we fly, and the flags we flew last week, I will no longer participate in settler-sanctioned university events that send underlying messages of compliance, especially while encouraging my students to think critically about the structures of power that oppress them. I would rather organize events for education and awareness, inviting students to take part in the creation—and the envisioning—of a new reality, one that encompasses all of their hopes and dreams of freedom.

That is my radial hope and my radical action. And that is indepedence.

References:

Gomez, J. (2017). Not a Moment but a Movement. In C. De Robertis (ed) Radical Hope: letters of love and dissent in dangerous times. (pp. 40-48). New York: Vintage Books.

Moreton-Robinson, A. (2015). The White Possessive: Property, Power, and Indigenous Sovereignty. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

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To give freedom a name: a letter to Owen Pekei

free west papua

Wellington, New Zealand, 2015, with Oceania Interrupted. Photo by Andrew Matautia.

Dear Owen,

You were just a young student. Eighteen years old. You rode a motorcycle, carried a noken, or a woven bag native to your home, a symbol of Papua. And with it, you carried a flag.

A Morning Star.

I sometimes wonder about you, trying to imagine what you must have been like: so young, so brave, so full of radical hope. One afternoon, on June 27th, 2016, you rode your bike, your colorful bag hung around you, and you flew your independence in blue and white stripes and one star in a sea of red.

We all bleed red, Owen.

That afternoon, your blood colored black roadways. They said you had crashed. But I didn’t believe them. Most of us didn’t. You left the world with a hole in your head: chased, shot, and killed for a star. It was your call for freedom, your hope for justice, your prayer for an end to genocide, your insistence in the restoration of human rights and dignity.

It was your song for a Free West Papua.

Two weeks later, I entered a classroom. I imagined what it would have been like to have you as a student, or if I’m being honest, what it would have been like to learn from you, from your courage, your persistence, your story. I was meant to teach a course on framing the Pacific, or a class on challenging the structures, both physical and ideological, that influence the way we view our sea of islands.

I stood before students your age, students like you—eager and motivated. Your story sat on my shoulders, your name hung on my lips, and your flag washed in red fluttered in my gut. I couldn’t let you go. So I introduced them to you.

Since that day, all of my students have heard your name and story. I start every semester by inviting them to challenge the word “pacific,” meaning “peaceful,” and to think critically about their ocean as being far more than the paradise that has been depicted to be. I ask them to come along with me as we confront the troubling reality that the Pacific is filled with both beauty and pain.

You help them to see both, Owen. You embodied both.

For most, the idea that genocide is not something to be spoken of in the past tense alone and the thought that people in our region of the world can be raped, abused, and killed just for being who they are is unbelievable. They question why they didn’t know about you before, why West Papua was a name they never uttered, why you could be chased for a flag, for a star, for a hope. While I watch anger and sadness grow in their bellies, falling from their eyes and quivering in their hands, I give freedom a name.

On the first day of class, we call it Owen.

You do for my students what I never could: you bleed for them, for their awareness, and for their hearts. You make sure that society does not strip them of their right to care, to think beyond themselves, to love. I give freedom your name so that it can have a face and a story, something they can connect to, something they can fight for.

Yesterday one of my students wrote: “I have been thinking […] if humans, at our root are completely self interested. This idea started when I learned about the genocide in West Papua and how not much is being done by [those] who have power to do something and how many people who are informed about the problem still chose to do nothing.”

He questioned our humanity, how we could live in a world where you could be killed, Owen. You were just a student like him: young and eager and motivated. So, he vowed to speak your name, to raise a voice for your country, and to do what he could—no matter how small—to share your story.

However, some of my students get wrapped up in notions of smallness, thinking that their actions are too little or too insignificant to create any real change. They say, “What can I actually do?” Enraged at the injustice suffered by your people, I find them equally frustrated in feeling unable to help. So, I teach them about agency, or about the idea that no one is ever completely powerless. You lived in a country where flying the Morning Star can result in up to 15 years in prison.

And you chose to fly it anyway.

So, I remind them of you, Owen. And I remind them of the impact that your life—your single life—has had on me, on them, and on so many around the world, so many who were unwilling to accept a false story of your death and who choose to honor your memory by raising a voice for freedom.

“Write a poem, share a message, talk to your parents and families, raise a flag,” I tell them.

Raise a Morning Star. And give freedom a name.

“Use your body and your words because sometimes that’s all we have,” I say.

And I tell them to never forget you, to never forget your country, and to never forget your call for justice.

If we remain silent about the things that matter, I explain, our silence can be mistaken as consent. And as I was recently reminded, “our silence serves as the perennial grindstone sharpening the amnesia” of your oppressors (Moraga, 2017, p. 98). Therefore, we will not forget and we will not let them forget you, Owen.

We will lift a voice, raise a flag, sing a song, march, compose, and protest for all you stood for.

FREE WEST PAPUA.

Standing in solidarity,
Emalani Case

For more information:

Free West Papua Campaign: https://www.freewestpapua.org/
About the Morning Star Flag: https://westpapuamedia.info/2012/12/02/a-history-of-the-morning-star-flag-of-west-papua/
About Owen Pekei: http://www.radionz.co.nz/international/pacific-news/307624/conflicting-reports-over-papuan-teen-death

References:

Moraga, C. (2017). A “Holla” From the West Side. In C. De Robertis (ed) Radical Hope: letters of love and dissent in dangerous times. (pp. 92-101). New York: Vintage Books.