He Wahī Paʻakai: A Package of Salt

adding flavor and texture to your world through story

The stories we choose to tell ourselves about ourselves.

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This keynote address was presented at the annual Kuʻi ka Lono Conference on April 20, 2018. The conference theme this year was “E hoʻā mana.” 

Hoʻā mana. What does it mean to ignite mana? Is it to inspire or to encourage? Is it to give someone authority, rights, or privileges? Is it to empower?

When I think of hoʻā mana, and I reflect on what it looks like (or feels like) to have a fire lit inside of me, in the depths of my naʻau, I also think of those moments of disempowerment, those moments when the light goes out, when the flame dies, when all that is left is the smoke of passions once burning.

Now, when I talk about disempowerment, I’m not just speaking about what we often focus on: stories of the “outsider” coming in to take our lands; to use and abuse our mountains; or to steal our breath, our sovereignty. Those stories exist. In fact, they not only exist, they are so heartbreakingly frequent that our young ones know no other life than one of resistance, one of a constant and never-fading insistence on our right to be here, on our right to exist, and on our right to thrive as Kānaka Maoli.

Yes, stories of disempowerment are so frequent that our young ones only know lives of holding signs, their little fingers clasping the hopes and dreams of a nation written on poster boards. In bold letters they shout aloha ʻāina, they chant kū kiaʻi mauna, they sing of and for ea.

But today, that’s not the kind of disempowerment I’m going to speak about. We could compile lists of offenses against our ʻāina, offenses against all of our sources of sustenance, whether they be physical, emotional, cultural, or spiritual. We know them. We fight them.

So today, I’m going to talk about a different kind of disempowerment. As uncomfortable as it may be initially, I’m going to talk about a kind of disempowerment that comes from within, one that comes from us, and more importantly, one that comes from the stories we choose to tell ourselves about our lives and our futures.

Now, this is not going to be a disempowering speech. It would be irresponsible of me to leave you with your energy depleted, or with your flame struggling to flicker. It is my hope to leave you as inspired as I possibly can. But to do so, I believe, requires some work, some examination, and some deep reflection on us. It requires us to focus our gaze on ourselves for a moment.

Change, after all—radical and revolutionary change—begins with us and not with those forces that seek to oppress us. Change is from the inside out.

To demonstrate this, I’d like to tell you a story. As First Nation’s writer Thomas King once wrote, “The truth about stories is that that’s all we are” (2). Stories. So, this is part of mine.

I’m a teacher here at this university and every semester since I started working here, I’ve taught a class on Pacific Islands Studies. In this class, my students and I explore what it even means to study the Pacific and why it’s necessary. Beyond facts and statistics, we try to get to the heart of the region, to dive into the depths of its ocean, and to taste its beauty and its pain. In doing so, we hope to get to what my mentor, the late Teresia Teaiwa calls, “critical empowerment.” Our students, she argues, “need to be able to critically evaluate all forms and sources of power, including indigenous ones, and indeed, their own and even mine” (p. 269). This isn’t easy, of course, but I believe it’s essential.

A few months ago, in my attempts to build and nurture critical empowerment in my students, I had to turn the focus back on myself. I had to become critical of my teaching, of my words, and of my actions (or, perhaps even a lack of actions). Part of our journey in Pacific Islands Studies includes an examination of some of the most pressing issues in the region. We look at examples of disempowerment: we study everything from the military’s use of Pacific lands (including Hawaiian lands) as bombing targets; we learn about the genocide of West Papuans at the hands of Indonesian “authorities”; and we talk about the devastating impacts of climate change.

Each semester, I feel the tone of the class shift as soon as we get to these issues. It’s somber; it’s sad. My students write reflections about feeling angry, frustrated, depressed. They start to question structures of power in their own lives, wondering why they know about some issues and not others, or why there is not more awareness worldwide about our struggles. And while knowledge itself is powerful, and while many of my students are moved by the weight of these issues, some are left feeling helpless, and others, completely powerless.

“I want to do something,” one will reflect, “but I don’t know what and I don’t know how.” Or “I know we should all care,” another will write, “but I am only one person. I can’t make a difference.” Or, “It takes a lot of energy to care about something I cannot change” a young student will say. “So, why try?” she will ask.

These kinds of statements are common. If I compiled reflections from the last few semesters of teaching, I’d have a collection of words that speak to disempowerment, to feelings of being too small, too insignificant, too isolated, too poor, or even too busy to do anything.

Climate change.
Desecration and destruction.
Genocide.
Colonization of lands and peoples, hearts and minds.

The weight of all of these pressures can be crippling. And, unfortunately, I witness a little bit of this every semester.

So, a few months ago, in anticipation of the flood of common reflections and responses I would get from students, I had to stop. I had to look at myself and critically reflect on what I was doing to my students. Do they need to know about disempowered peoples, about wrongdoings, about injustice, about fear, and struggle, and death?

Yes. I think they do. In order to heal, I think we all do.

But how could I ignite their desire to dream and act for a better future? Or further, how could I inspire hope in a future that feels impossible? How could I counteract the weight of their worlds?

And then it hit me: I couldn’t. I couldn’t empower my students to believe in their own agency, in the magnitude of their individual lives and actions, until I believed in my own. I couldn’t avoid cultivating a feeling of powerlessness while I was simultaneously disempowering myself.

Now, when I speak of disempowerment, I’m not implying that I don’t have faith in myself, or that I don’t think that I can make a difference.

I believe our ultimate kuleana as Kānaka Maoli is to be the ancestors we want our descendants to look up to, the ones who stood for something, the ones who fought for justice, the ones who created a world in which our they could surpass us in achievements, in knowledge, in the cultivation of deep wisdom. So, when I say that I was disempowering myself, it wasn’t in my conviction that we each have the ability to do great things, it was, instead, in the stories that I was telling myself about my myself.

Let me explain.

Each semester, when my students and I arrive at a discussion of global warming, I am confronted by the fact that climate change is spoken about so often that it’s started to lose some of its impact, some of its urgency. It’s a phrase that makes its way into the headlines whenever there is an unusual series of storms or massive heat waves; that makes its way into our news feeds whenever a friend posts something about the environment, or our use of plastics, or the need to go “green”; or that makes its way into our homes whenever a reporter announces that the current President of the United States tweets something like “It’s the coldest year on record. Perhaps we could use a little more of that good old global warming.” Yes, conversations about climate change are actually so common that I fear the phrase has lost some of its potency.

Thomas King writes something similar of phrases like “mother earth,” which while powerful for some, have been so overused that he states, “It has no more power or import than the word ‘freedom’ tumbling out of George W. Bush’s mouth” (or, to make it more relevant to today, than the word “equality” coming out of Donald Trump’s mouth.)

My students, for example, know about climate change. I’m not introducing them to anything new. They’ve been exposed to it time and time again. But I have them read about climate change in the Pacific and I have them watch a film that features islanders whose lives are being most directly impacted by rising sea levels. We have discussions and I assign reflective papers. I use and overuse and perhaps even abuse the phrase until they’ve heard it so much they are numb.

Then we move to the next topic.

I do try to raise the point, however, that we must care, that we must act, that we must do what we can to ensure the health of our ʻāina, our kai, and our kānaka. Then, I read through their reflections and I see what I have mistakenly thought was apathy, or a lack of concern. What I’ve recently realized, however, is that what I thought was indifference was actually a reflection of me.

I had not done enough to embody activism, to embody hope, to embody change. I had not done enough, I realized, to show them that change is actually possible, to inspire them to think of themselves as agents of revolution, to empower them to know that we can always do something, even when (and especially when) it seems too big, or too scary, or to impossible to do anything.

Why? Because I had convinced myself that I was doing enough.

“I pick up trash,” I’d tell myself.
“I recycle,” I’d reassure myself.
“I take my own bags to the store,” I’d remind myself.
“I try to be a conscious consumer,” I’d applaud myself.
“I’m doing my part,” I’d convince myself.
“Plus, I teach about climate change. I write about climate change. I inform my students about climate change. I encourage dialogue about climate change,” I’d praise myself.
“I raise awareness,” I’d repeat to myself, over and over again.

And in my attempts to “do my part”, I’d encourage my students to do the same: “share, write, post,” and yes, “raise awareness.”

For a time, that was sufficient. And that idea of “doing enough” was the story I told my students, and perhaps more dangerously, the story that I told myself. As a result, I was caught up in my own complacency, or in the notion that I was doing enough.

What I came to learn in this experience, however, is that the moment we think we’re doing enough, or the moment that we become a little too satisfied with our efforts, is perhaps the first sign that we can do a bit more.

Needless to say, this was a hard lesson to learn. But learn it I did. One evening, after class, I returned to my house and came face to face with my own hypocrisy. A friend had recently posted something about microplastics.

These are tiny pieces of plastic that come from larger pieces that degrade into smaller and smaller fragments. Plastic is indestructible. Plastic is here with us forever. No matter how tiny a piece gets, it continues to exist, which means it continues to impact.

My friend’s post was about the devastating fact that our oceans are littered with microplastics, so littered, in fact, that recent studies predict that “By 2050, there will be more plastics than fish in the world’s oceans.” There are floating garbage patches in our waters and these patches contain harmful materials that are often consumed by marine life, many of which we later eat. Therefore, we are not only polluting the earth and ocean but are also polluting ourselves.

After reading my friend’s post, I started to look around my house and realized that I was surrounded by disposable plastic. Everything from the take-away Starbucks cup (which I thought was recyclable but later learned wasn’t), to the plastic produce bag I used for my vegetables, to the packaged goods in my refrigerator, to my products in the bathroom, and even to the bag I used to put my trash in. All of it was plastic! And I felt sick.

I had told myself that I was doing enough, that I was doing my part. But truthfully, those were stories I created. They were stories that kept me from seeing the truth, like the fact that the production of plastic is energy intensive, or the fact that recycling is also energy intensive, and therefore linked to habitat destruction and fossil fuel emissions. I couldn’t see the truth that while I thought I was doing my part, I was actually contributing more to the problem than to solutions. I had fallen into the trap that so many of us fall into. As Thomas King writes, “It’s not that we don’t care about ethics or ethical behaviour. It’s not that we don’t care about the environment, about society, about morality. It’s just that we care more about our comfort and the things that make us comfortable” (p. 163).

Then I realized that our ʻāina and our kai have been inconvenienced for far too long for our comfort, and I thought, “Now, it’s my turn.” It’s my turn to be inconvenienced and uncomfortable.

So I made some changes. I vowed to live a life of lower impact, promising to stop buying single-use plastics, to cut out processed foods packaged in what would become more rubbish, to reuse before recycling, to compost and reduce food waste, to even start making some of my own products like toothpaste. It hasn’t been easy. And I am by no means perfect, but it’s been necessary. It’s ignited a new sense of empowerment in me, one that grew from a refusal to believe in the myth that I was doing enough.

I share this story with you today because the theme hoʻā mana inspires passion, it inspires action, and it inspires change, radical change. It inspires us to be more and to do more for our people, for our earth, and for our future. But I believe that this cannot happen until we make ready a space for those fires to be lit. As long as I was sitting in the comfort of my own ideas and stories, for example, I could not achieve any level of critical empowerment. I could not grow. There was no space for anything to be ignited.

So, I leave you with this. When I see students like you, students who’ve gone to Hawaiian-focused charter schools, students who’ve grown up knowing that they have a right to an education that honors who they are, students who’ve been taught the values of aloha, of mālama, and of kuleana, I am humbled. I believe you are far ahead of where I was at your age, especially in terms of your commitment, your passion, and your dedication to the lāhui.

Therefore, my stories are meant as reminders. Do not allow yourself to be disempowered, not by others, not by society, not by institutions that threaten our existence, and most importantly, not by YOU and the stories you tell yourself. Do not ever think that you are too small, too insignificant, too young, or too busy to make a difference. Be okay with being uncomfortable every once in a while, especially if it’s for the earth. Be bold and brave. Be a presence.

Critics may tell you that your efforts cannot, and will not, save the world. Do them anyway. Continue to chant and sing of our existence, continue to hold your signs and demand change and justice, continue to learn and to educate yourselves, and continue to cultivate hope, to plant it, to nurture it, and to watch it sprout and grow. And when anyone tells you it’s useless, refuse to let that be the story you adopt. Refuse to let that be the story you tell.

We were born of great people and our descendants will be born of great people if we persist and if we never lose our drive to work towards a better and stronger nation, even if we cannot know what that will look like or feel like right now. What I tell myself, and what now motivates me, is what Thomas King once said: “…don’t say in the years to come that you would have lived your life differently if only you had heard this story. You’ve heard it now.” (p. 167)

So, be the change. Look within. Clear the space. And e hoʻā mana.

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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.

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