He Wahī Paʻakai: A Package of Salt

adding flavor and texture to your world through story


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My Pacific (Studies)

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Teresia Teaiwa and I, Wellington, New Zealand, 2016

She leaned toward the microphone, looked out at the nearly one hundred new students seated before her, and in an introduction to Pacific Studies, she said, in her poetic way—a way that only she could—

“I eat, breathe, sleep, and shit the Pacific.”

She wasn’t lying.

I never knew a woman with a greater dedication, a greater love, a greater sense of belonging to our sea of islands. Teresia Teaiwa was a force, pulling; she was a song, inspiring; she was a fire, igniting passions and responsibilities.

She pushed and pulled me into tides, sang to my soul, and fed my flame. She feeds it still.

I think of her often, especially when I stand before my own students. She taught me how to stand:

To stand for something.
To stand for someone.
To stand in the wisdom of our ancestors.
To stand in song and story.
To stand in strength and hope, no matter how radical that hope may be.
To stand because to do so is to maintain our space and place in this world.
To stand and ground my feet into sands and soils, waters and wetlands, forests and fires, not for me, but for all of us.

A few months ago, one of my students asked, “Don’t you ever get overwhelmed?” There is so much pain in the Pacific, she had learned—from people being killed and lands being bombed, to islands being swallowed by the sea, to oceans and waterways being polluted and homes being devastated, to minds and hearts being separated from their lands, their histories, their futures.

“Of course I do,” I answered honestly. My mind cannot even begin to grasp the vastness of our region let alone the diversity of our languages and cultures, the breadth and depth of our stories, seas, sounds, and skies, and the legacies of our pain. “Sometimes it’s unbearable,” I told her.

However, I try to remind myself, as Albert Wendt once said of Oceania, “…only the imagination in free flight can hope—if not to contain her—to grasp some of her shape, plumage, and pain. I will not pretend to know her in all her manifestations. No one—not even our gods—ever did; no one does…whenever we think we have captured her she has already assumed new guises—the love affair is endless” (p. 71). My love affair with Oceania is, and will always be, endless. I love it through pain and I love it out of pain.

That’s what Teresia meant when she spoke to her students. She loved every part of our moana, every part that she could grasp and attempt to understand, every part that she could mold with her own hands, every part that she could speak and sing into existence, every part that she could stand for. And although the Pacific shifts and changes in every instant, her dedication to our sea of islands never wavered. We will never know everything there is to know about our ocean for as soon as we think we have mastered it a new wave enters, sweeping upon our shores, washing the sands that we dug our feet into just moments before, making our footsteps obsolete. But that’s the point; it’s what keeps us captivated. It’s what moves us body and soul. We are here to be part of the change and to inspire transformation in the process.

Stagnation in a realm characterized by water is impossible, and like our waters, we cannot be stagnated: made to stand still, made to cower and give-up, made to hide when it all just seems like too much to handle. Instead, we “eat, breathe, sleep, and shit the Pacific.” We taste it, we touch it, we dream it into life. We look at the beautiful and the profoundly ugly. We address the hardships. We smell the stink of our histories, uncovering the hidden, kicking up dust, and scrubbing grime. We pray. We dance. And we cry. We cry a lot. We orient ourselves to the ocean that unites us, the ocean in us, the ocean that is and will always be our pathway to each other. We find our mana there.

And everyday, when I feel overwhelmed by it all, I think of our dear Teresia, the fierce and fiery canoe, and I ask myself, “What would she do?”

She would stand, smile, and yes, even shit the Pacific when it requires such cleansing (and flushing).

 

References:

Wendt, A. (1976). Towards a New Oceania. Seaweeds and Constructions, 7, 71-85.

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From the Courtroom: Reflections on Justice

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“How old are you and what’s your level of education?”

I secretly wished he had asked me that question. No, I did not want to boast or throw my title at him. I did not want a congratulatory tap on the shoulder, a nod of acceptance, or any sort of smile that might indicate, “Oh-wow-you-are-an-exception.” All I wanted was to take the pressure off of the poor girl in front of me, the one who, before a room full of people, was forced to say:

20. High school, I guess.

The judge had already decided what he thought about her, and in my opinion, what he thought about all of us. We stood in a long line, all there to either plead guilty to our crimes, to contest them, or to discuss further processing and scheduling. I stood behind the young 20-year old. From the moment she stepped forward to have her case tried, she was judged, and I’m not speaking in the legal sense.

She was young.
And, she was brown.

In fact, at least 90% of us were. Brown, that is.

I’ve been living in the Kapolei area for a few months now and I must admit that this was one of the highest concentrations of brown people that I’ve seen in one public place: a courtroom. While I may not have been able to determine each and every person’s exact ethnic make-up, the color was obvious. In fact, white stood out.

The poor girl put her head down. I silently wanted to hug her, or to at least stand next to her as the judge pushed further:

“I’m assuming you can read, write, and speak English, right?”

Yes.

“And you haven’t had anything to drink this morning? You haven’t taken any drugs?”

No.

She was there for driving without a license. This was her second offense, and after waiving her right to a pre-sentence investigation, one that would take her background, education, and family income into consideration before sentencing, she simply said she would pay whatever fee was decided.

“You understand that the maximum penalty for driving without a license is a $1,000 fine and up to 30 days in jail?”

Yes.

“You understand this?”

Yes.

I quickly glanced around the room. This was my first experience in courtroom setting like this. (I was there for swerving around a pothole. Yes, I swerved around a pothole and when I was pulled over and asked about it, I did not have my current insurance card in my car. So, I was summoned to court for two traffic crimes: swerving and not having the correct card in my car. Despite taking my card and proof of insurance to the courthouse the next day, I was told that I had to appear in court, in person, if I wanted to avoid a bench warrant for my arrest. My arrest! I’m never swerving around a pothole again! But I have digressed.)

As the judge continued to bombard the girl with questions, I looked around the room wondering if anyone else was as disgusted as I was. In fact, despite my silence I’m sure my face read: “Are you fucking kidding me? $1,000 and 30 days in jail?!? She’s a child. And what a huge waste of government money!”

Those who know me well know that I cannot hide my facial expressions. Therefore, I’m sure that’s exactly what could be read in my scrunched nose, my narrowed eyebrows, and my occasional (or, if I’m being honest, constant) eye rolls. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised that the judge then tried to play games with me when it was my turn (yes, games is what I will call this):

“Since you have provided proof, we will dismiss the charge for not having insurance. However, in regards to your first offense, do you plead guilty to crossing over a solid yellow line?”

No.

“You plead not guilty? You didn’t cross over a solid yellow line? That’s what the officer recorded.”

I will plead guilty to crossing over a dotted white line, as that is what I did. I did not cross over a solid yellow line.

“But that’s what the police officer recorded.”

What he did not record is the fact that he had to have a second offense to write me up for. He even explained to me that he would have let me go if I had my current insurance card. But, he had to show that there was reason for pulling me over in the first place [“other than the fact that I am brown, apparently,” is what I really wanted to say]. So, he wrote that ticket. There’s no law against crossing over a dotted white line.

*quizzical look*

“Well, since there are no further notes here, I’ll dismiss your case.”

And despite my relief at not having to pay for swerving around a pothole that I (just this week) see is now being fixed on a road that is now being repaved (but I’ve digressed again), I was troubled by the entire morning, by the entire experience, actually. Now, you must forgive me if what comes next is a bit far-fetched. Actually, on second thought, no need to forgive. It is a bit far-fetched.

But perhaps that’s necessary.

In her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander (2011) makes what some may call a “crazy,” “absurd,” or even inappropriate, and yes, perhaps far-fetched comparison between the criminal justice system and (as you’ve probably guessed by now) Jim Crow, or the laws that enforced racial segregation in America since the 1890s. Slogans like “Separate but Equal” and signs blaring “Whites Only” may sound familiar to you. We may not have the signs and slogans anymore. (Note that I wrote this blog one day before the white supremacy march, Unite the Right, in Charlottesville,Virginia, a march that proves there are still people who hold fast to such racist ideologies.) Even after Jim Crow, it is obvious: “America is still not an egalitarian democracy” (p. 1). We may not have Jim Crow, but other systems have taken its place.

(I should pause here to state that an article was published today entitled, “Jim Crow tactics return with Trump’s ‘election integrity’ commission.” It states, “The same sham justifications used to prop up voter suppression tactics during the Jim Crow era—claims that such measures to preserve the integrity, efficiency, and sustainability of elections—are being unapologetically recycled today [as Trump has asserted that he lost the popular vote because of millions of illegal voters].” So you see, Jim Crow really hasn’t gone anywhere. It’s just taken on new names and disguises and new, although not at all surprising, sponsors.)

As Alexander states, “We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it” (p. 2). Now, I won’t look at all of the points of her argument here, as I would much rather suggest that you take a look at her book and take some time to watch the documentary, 13th, which critically examines the criminalization of people of color in America and begins to expose the racist origins and motivations of the prison industrial complex. Rather, I would like to make a few comments about our context here.

Before doing so, however, a few clarifications: I am not implying that the situation for Hawaiians and other “brown” people in Hawaiʻi is at all like those of African Americans in the continental United States. We have a different history. On top of that, I am not trying to take anything away from the overwhelming discrimination and racism still experienced by African Americans. I simply use some of the arguments made in those contexts to begin to think about our own. I also use the word “brown” knowing that it is problematic, especially when you consider ethnic diversity in Hawaiʻi.

However, I will say that data regarding incarceration does not lie: Hawaiians have the highest rates of imprisonment in the islands. And that was reflected in the courtroom I stood in. I heard it in the names being called and I saw it in the faces of those around me, faces of so-called “criminals.” Seeing those faces pushed me to investigate further, to dig into a system that although I often assumed was corrupt, I never examined fully. (And I’m saying this knowing that I have only begun my research and have so much more to learn.)

All I knew, as I stood there, was that the idea of a 20-year-old girl going to jail for not having her license was not only ridiculous to me, but also highly ineffective. So many people are convicted of small crimes everyday, and once that goes on to their records, they are labeled. This can impact everything from their ability to get a job to their ability to vote. In more extreme cases, they become those second-class citizens—those with less rights and less opportunities—that laws like Jim Crow once made sure of. It’s not a system of rehabilitation. It’s a system intended to keep certain people down in a country that continually perpetuates the myth, yes the myth, of freedom and equal opportunity.

Suffice it to say that there is certainly so much more at play when you look at a room of people and see one color (with a few exceptions, of course). Popular rhetoric used in conversations about incarceration emphasize poverty and education (over race) and try to persuade us that those are the only factors, or at least the most important ones when it comes to crime and incarceration. What it does not explore is the system at work: the one that has resulted in certain populations of people being undereducated, impoverished, unhealthy, and yes, imprisoned. (You really should watch 13th.)

Institutionalized racism is a thing. And although people don’t always want to talk about race in a country where some have bought into the fiction of “colorblindness,” we have to talk about it. Otherwise, we will continue to, as the documentary outlines, use words like “criminal” to cover up what is very much a conversation that needs to be had about race and equality.

Now, I will fully admit that I am new to writing about this topic. Therefore, any mistakes or generalizations are entirely my own. What I know, however, is that as I continue to think about everyday social injustices—like those witnessed in the courtroom as a young girl was “judged” in every sense of the word—I will continue to write about them, if not to bring a bit more justice to the world, then to at least start a conversation about it.

References:

Alexander, M. (2010). The New Jim Crow: mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness. New York: The New Press.


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Skin Stories

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I recently read that we are our stories. That’s all we really are: Stories.

So, these are pieces of mine, small pieces that I’ve selected to share because of an idea I came across earlier today: stories can heal and stories can injure; it all depends on how we tell them.[1]

And I am ready to heal.

So heal I will through small, skin stories.

If I lay myself bare I can only imagine the stories my skin would tell, each mark, each scar, each stretch a story of its own. I can imagine the tales that would be assumed: interpretations and misinterpretations of a life lived in some place, at some time, with some one, or some two, or some more.

Even as a lover of words—someone who grips them at night, holding them in the dark, finding the right spaces to fit them in to, the most titillating order to organize them in to, the perfect positions to drag them in to—there is something thrilling about the absence of words, the exposing of skin, the revealing of truths, the arousal of the purely sensual, before the intellectual (even if just for a moment). One exhilarating moment.

There’s something exciting and terrifying about being read in such a way: exposed, wordless, no room for intervention, for explaining, for correcting (not initially, at least).

I was read. And it was painful. But I’d probably allow it to happen again just to see my stories briefly through someone else’s eyes, to feel them in someone else’s breath against my cheek, to smell them in someone else’s sweat.

I once had a love who read me. He clawed at my heart until it bled words that he could understand, until lines pumped from my veins, and pushed out through my skin. Like a martyr, I smeared them with my fingertips, stretching them over every curve of my body so that he could decipher them easily.

I tried not to flinch as he read them, his eyes moving painstakingly over the canvas of my skin, searching for meaning. He fixated on the corner of my mouth at first, using his finger to part my lips, hoping to inspire sound. When I did not utter an audible word, however, he proceeded to trace letters, slowly, up my arms, down my legs, across my chest, at my thighs. Pausing. Pulsing.

But, as he touched each word, he wiped them away, memorizing what he thought was worth knowing and banishing the rest, sending them back into me. Keeping the insecurities. Ignoring the strength.

And I let him.

Three years later, I believed that his stories—the ones he had created about me—were my own. It took me a long time to realize that what he told himself about me, and what he told me about me, reflected him more than it did the person I initially let him see: lying bare, exposing skin.

I was lost.

In the telling of this story, however, I do not blame him. At least, I don’t in this latest rendition. Earlier versions crafted in my head were created in anger, born from heartbreak. They were raw, mean, and purposeful for me.

Tonight, though, I choose to tell a story that heals rather than injures.

I realize now that I fell victim to likability[2], opting to be what I thought could be liked. I knew no other way than to please, to mold and adjust. So, I tried to change my skin, making it smaller, hunching my shoulders, watching my face sink, as I disappeared into him. That’s the story I thought I read on his body, what I thought he wanted, what I thought could keep him from reading some one else, or some two, or some more naked bodies.

In the end, though, “pleasing” did not work. Who could like me when I wasn’t me? Who could love the vanishing?

As much I do not blame him, I also do not condone dishonesty, cheating, or conscious deceit. And that’s not just residual hurt speaking. It’s truth. My truth. My story. One of my skin stories, inked into the back of my neck: a center, a circle, a point of return and departure.

My skin has so much to tell now.

My ears tell stories: freckled with mixed-raced marriages, legacies of struggle, tiny spots marking the contamination of the noble, or the civilization of the savage, however you prefer to read them.

My hips tell stories: narrow and barren, nothing like my mother, her mother, or her mother before her, spaces that shamefully have not expanded for the next generation, or spaces that someday might, however you prefer to read them.

My legs tell stories: a lifetime spent dancing, shattered knees, and muscled thighs, calves that did not always fit into denim jeans, or calves that still try to assimilate, however you prefer to read them.

And my back, my naked back tells stories: a indention from a childhood illness, stretch marks from the weight I used to carry, and a long, tattoo down my spine: my journey to or from home, or both, wherever you believe that home may be: in space, in time, in some one, some two, or some more.

I know the stories. And today I smile keeping them on the surface, opting to show scars, to celebrate marks, to find beauty in the way my skin has stretched, because the most important lesson I’ve learned in the reading is that I do not need to adopt someone else’s story—some one, or some two, or some more stories—based loosely on me while reflecting more of them.

I can, and should, reject likability, teaching others to do the same, wearing my stories because they are all that I am, owning them, choosing them, everyday, for how they continue to cure and heal my wounds, and for how they can offer a bit of medicine to the next reader.

 

[1] These ideas come from Thomas King’s The Truth About Stories: A native narrative.
[2] Rejecting likability is an idea inspired by Chimamanda Adichie’s Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto.


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Our Land, Our Body: Training Advisory, June 2017

“For as long as Pōhakuloa has provided training for America’s military forces, the post has endeavored to be a good neighbor to the Big Island community.”

(U.S. Army)

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Love thy neighbor as thyself?

 I suppose that depends on how you see your neighbor, and more so, on how you see yourself.

I once heard the story of a young girl, innocent in mind and optimistic about the world around her. She loved to laugh. One day, she was taken by force, abused, and assaulted by a neighbor. And nine months later, she birthed the product of that violence, a reminder that neighbors do not always love, a reminder that neighbors are not always good.

There is no law saying that neighbors must first love themselves in order to love you. There is no law saying that neighbors who are destructive towards themselves must defy nature and treat you better. There is no law on neighborly conduct.

A couple of months ago, I stood in front of my students talking about military training at Pōhakuloa, the proposed bombing of Pagan Island in Micronesia, and the history of Bikini Atoll, Moruroa, Kahoʻolawe, and other islands in the Pacific, all targeted and abused.

We talked about the theory that the aquatic community in the popular children’s cartoon, Sponge Bob Square Pants, is the result of nuclear training in the Pacific, specifically Bikini Atoll, and that Sponge Bob and his friends are mutated sea creatures. We talked about a “vintage” aloha shirt from the 1950s that features the names of various Pacific Islands above pictures of mushroom clouds formed by explosions, and we questioned how a society can erase and replace such violence with bright colors and cartoons.

How do we come to celebrate conquest, we wondered.

One of my students, a man who once served in the army, then raised his hand and said, “When you’re basically being trained to kill, you’ll tell yourself anything to make it seem okay. That’s the only way you’ll be able to live through it.”

I paused: did the man who abused the little girl convince himself that it was for her own good? Was the child, who grew to be beautiful, meant to cover the pain of his creation? Was the girl supposed to forget?

My teacher, the late Teresia Teaiwa (1992), once wrote:

“The language of colonialism is closely related to sexual idioms of male dominance and female subordination…imperialists often describe the colony as feminine, submissive, and irrational…‘a certain freedom of intercourse was always the Westerner’s privilege; because his was the stronger culture, he could penetrate…” (p. 131).

Penetrate. Land. Mother. Daughter. Neighbor?

Last month, the U.S. Army issued their regular monthly Training Advisory. In June 2017, Pōhakuloa was to be made submissive, yet again, by force: by bombs, by live-fire training, by helicopter gunnery, and by various exercises and activities, day and night.

Month after month, it is an endless cycle of violent, non-consensual intercourse.

The neighbor continues to convince himself that this is his right, his privilege.

And the land, like the girl who loved to laugh, is made to believe that this is for her own good.

Love thy neighbor as thyself?

With the exception of proximity, there is nothing neighborly about the U.S. Military. We’ve prayed and protested. We’ve written and called. We’ve shouted and chanted.

We’ve cried.

And yet the violence has continued. The poisoning has continued. The silencing has continued, like hands over our mouths proceeding forced entry.

But the rhetoric of the “good neighbor” is strong. It convinces and fools. It tells you to be thankful for “security,” for “defense,” for “safety,” while the true villain stands before us, mocking.

But we will not lie down and take it. As long as we have breath, we will sing for change. We will never forget the little girl. We will never forget the violence.

For violence against our land is violence against us, personally:

“If you’re destroying and poisoning the things that give us life, the things that shape our identity, the places that we are from and the things that sustain us, then how can you not be poisoning us? How can that not be direct violence against our bodies…?” (WEA & NYSHN, 2016, p. 14).

We did not give our consent and we never will.

Love thy neighbor as thyself?

When a neighbors’ world is so destructive, there is no law saying that we must accept it.

And there is no law saying that we cannot put out our own advisories. Today, we advise on how to be a better neighbor, how to love land as self, how to stand for justice, and we send out an invitation to “train” for a different world.

References:

Teaiwa, T. (1992). Microwomen: U.S. Colonialism and Micronesian Women Activists. In The Proceedings of the Eighth Pacific History Conference, Guam, December 1990, edited by Donald Rubinstein. Mangilao: University of Guam Press and Micronesian Area Research Center, 125-141.

U.S. Army. Pōhakuloa Training Area. https://www.garrison.hawaii.army.mil/pta/

Women’s Earth Alliance (WEA) and Native Youth Sexual Health Network (NYSHN). 2016. Violence on the land, violence on our bodies: Building an indigenous response to environmental violence. WEA and NYSHN. http://landbodydefense.org/uploads/files/VLVBReportToolkit2016.pdf


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A Gift of Dreams: For the Senior Class of Kanu o ka ʻĀina 2017

The following speech was delivered as a commencement address for the graduating class of Kanu o ka ʻĀina on May 26, 2017.

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The senior class of Kanu o ka ʻĀina New Century Public Charter School 2017

She had come seeking facts, things she could memorize, things she could forget when the test was over. She didn’t want to hear about heart and she certainly didn’t want to listen to her own.

“It takes a lot of effort to care about something you cannot change,” she said, looking at her own hand holding her favorite purple pen, ready to take notes on anything worth writing.

That day her paper remained blank.

I teach a class entitled Introduction to Pacific Islands Studies at the University of Hawaiʻi-West Oʻahu. In our attempt to move beyond “mundane fact,” as Samoan novelist and scholar Albert Wendt encourages, I push my students to not only examine the Pacific, but to explore their place in it [1]. I always hope that students will not only come to see themselves in the land, but to see the land in them, to not only seem themselves in the ocean, but to see the ocean in them, to not only see themselves in the sky, but to know the elements of the sky that exist in them.

Some call me a dreamer for having such high expectations. “It’s just a college class,” they say. But I’ve never viewed my role as “teacher” in the traditional sense. Rather, I believe I am there to inspire a deep engagement, a diving into the depths of our existence as Hawaiians, as Pacific Islanders, as indigenous people, so that we can, as Māori poet Hone Tuwhare once said, “Dream good dreams again.” [2] With dreaming comes the ability to heal: to heal past wounds inflicted upon us, inflicted upon the ancestors we carry, and inflicted upon the ancestors we are becoming.

Last semester, my class examined some of the most pressing issues in the Pacific, everything from climate change, rising sea levels, and dispossession; to military training, and bombing; to genocide in West Papua. Some of my students were introduced to these issues for the first time, completely disturbed at the not-so-“pacific,” or peaceful, nature of our ocean, a region that is sold to the rest of the world as a place of peace, a region that is advertised and exploited as a paradise.

Some of the students knew about these issues, but not the severity of them. Some were moved to act, enraged, sharing information on their social media outlets, making signs and taking pictures to increase awareness. And some, like my fact-seeker with her purple pen, did not want to care. It was horrible, she agreed. All of the injustice in the Pacific was terrible. However, to care so much about something she could not change was a waste of time, a waste of energy.

“What can I really do to change anything,” she asked.

I tried to answer by telling her my own story, about how I choose to do something, anything really, rather than do nothing at all. I choose to fight even if and when I may lose. “Doing nothing,” I said, “is not an option for me.” I quoted George Helm, my hero and a true aloha ʻāina who once said, “Call me radical for I refuse to remain idle.”

I told her that even speaking the names of places and peoples often forgotten, places and peoples often deemed too small or too insignificant for genuine care, was a conscious choice, a radical choice. I raised the names of West Papua, of Tuvalu, of Kiribati, of Bikini, of Mauna Kea and of Pōhakuloa. I spoke them, hoping to make them real for her, for all of us. “We need not see a place, or touch it physically,” I said, “to be impacted, to feel, to have our hearts shaken.”

Near the end of the semester, she wrote a final reflection about how injustice in the Pacific is indeed something to learn about, to talk about, to share. However, she maintained that since she could do nothing about any of these issues, that it was wrong of me to fill students with hope, or with what she saw as the unrealistic dream that they could inspire any real change.

With a heavy heart, I wondered: What happened that she had lost her ability to dream good dreams, to have hope, to be radical, to fight even if and when she may lose just because it’s the right thing to do?

I wanted her to dream with me, and call me radical, for I still hope that she one day will.

A few weeks later, I returned to Waimea and found myself sitting at a lunch table with a group of students, the senior class of Kanu o ka ʻĀina: bold and brave dreamers. We spoke briefly about their lives and goals, their reflections on education, their motivations. We even spoke about Pōhakuloa, the bombs that we could hear and feel that week, the bombs that shook our earth, and shook us with it. I saw pain in their faces, pain linked to caring. They did not need to be instructed on seeing the ʻāina in them or seeing themselves in the ʻāina, in their surroundings, in their universe.

They felt it.
They knew it.
They lived it.

And while it may sound odd to find comfort in witnessing their distress, their anguish, their heartfelt concern for land and nation, I left that lunch hopeful.

Yes, it does indeed take a lot of effort to care about something you may not be able to change: to stop sea levels from rising, to prevent destruction and desecration, to end genocide. But these haumāna were willing to care anyway: to care for the potential, for the possibility, for the chance of hulihia.

When I eventually returned to my job and my students on Oʻahu, I carried these haumāna with me. They are our dreamers for tomorrow, the ones brave enough to consider a better future, even if and when the world tries to kill their hope, the ones who know, unconsciously, that as Hawaiian epistemologist Manu Meyer once said, “conflict is the midwife of consciousness.” Conflict, in other words, provides the space and the time for us to grow, to learn, to rise.

One day my older sister, Keomailani Case, explained this to me using the land as her guide, her teacher. We need only look at our environment to see this in action, she said. “Change and challenge prompt evolution.” Plants and animals adapt to survive. Thus, like our rooted and winged relatives, we too can evolve and thrive when faced with obstacles, with anything that threatens our existence. These students seemed to know this innately, ancestrally, at the naʻau.

Unlike my university student who has been so jaded by the world, so impacted that she would rather be numbed by pain then live through it, these haumāna recognized the beauty in caring. With each fall comes the ability to rise; with each stumble, the ability to reexamine your path; with each step back, the potential to learn from the past, to harness the power of all of the kūpuna before you, and carry them into the present once more. Caring, amidst all of the challenges, makes this possible. It is only when we lose hope that we will begin to perish. The ultimate bomb of colonialism, as one of my favorite scholars Ngugi Wa Thiongʻo once explained, is when a people begin to lose faith in their capacities, their power, their unique customs and ways of articulating the world, and ultimately, in themselves. [3]

These seniors, as well as all of the haumāna at Kanu o ka ʻĀina, are the medicine for that pain, the recovery, the healing, the source of new light. They have not lost faith and hope. When I left them after our lunch, I thought about the fearless ones they resemble, the bold and brave ancestors whose hopes still make our hearts beat, our passions take shape, our minds imagine better futures. They are the descendants of the courageous, those brave enough to care and to act upon that concern even when the world tried to kill them: mind, body, spirit.

Kāula, or prophets, were one such people. They lived with the knowledge that their words, their visions, and their dreams, could result in change, in upheaval, in reversal, and sometimes, even in death. They gave voice to their visions without the fear of consequence, living with a certainty that many of us hide, or worse, that many of us try to get rid of. They lived knowing that “inā make, make nō; inā he ola, ola nō.” [4] If the were to die, they would indeed die; but if life was their fate, they would indeed live. They were divinely guided, telling of the future. Sometimes their words spoke of blessings, of victory, of triumphs. At other times, they spoke of doom, of unavoidable chaos and change. And on some occasions, they spoke of an indefinite time, their words being given endless life and relevance, still penetrating our existence today.

One such prophet was a man named Kapihe. In an era referred to as “Kanīʻaukani”—or the “Sounding of Coconut Ribs,” a time named for when the great chief Kamehameha I returned to the island of his birth after living on Oʻahu, a time when his kāhili moved and sang in the wind—Kapihe uttered what has arguably become one of the most famous wānana, or prophecies, for our people today:

E iho ana ʻo luna
E piʻi ana ʻo lalo
E hui ana nā moku
E kū ana ka paia

What is above shall come down
What is below shall rise up
The islands will unite
The walls will stand

Despite being criticized, and at one time even being called a “kanaka wahaheʻe,”[5] or a man with a slippery and slimy mouth like an octopus, a man of lies and deceit, he stood before Kamehameha I and declared these words, words that we still chant today, words that tell of the ultimate reversal:

What is up shall come down.
What is below shall rise.

In other words, there is always the possibility of change, even when you think you are helpless, even when you think your people are doomed, even when you think that your efforts and energies are wasted on dreams. His words teach us to dream anyway.

When I attended Kanu o ka ʻĀina, we chanted Kapihe’s words to close each and every school day, reminding ourselves that we were, and will never be, powerless. As long as we remember that our kūpuna stand with us, at our sides; as long as we continue to use their words and their wisdom to give expression to our lives; and as long as we forward with hope, and act, always, from a place of aloha, then we will never be hopeless.

When we look at the genealogy of Kapihe’s prophecy, and track its journey through time, we see that his words were not always interpreted positively. Some found his declaration offensive, predicting the eventual fall of Kamehameha. In later generations, some saw it as a prophecy that foretold the fall of our gods, our people, our ways of life. Some saw it as an affirmation of occupation. Some believed that it accurately predicted the coming of foreigners, foreign governments, foreign powers, and of spiritual and psychological colonization. Some even believed that these things were pono.

Generations later, however, we use it as a chant of promise, one that predicts yet another reversal, a restoration of justice, a resurgence of pride, a revitalization of spirit, a return to ea, to true sovereignty—mind, body, and soul. We have the power to make that choice, to use his words for good, to interpret them to speak to our existence, our struggles, our dreams and hopes today. We make the choice to chant in anticipation of better, to work towards better, to ensure that the world our children and grandchildren walk in will be one in which they can continue to be indigenous, one in which they can continue to carry us in their hopes, one in which they can dream good dreams again, for their families, for their people, for their nation, and for the world.

This school was the result of a dream, of a vision, of a refusal to believe in less, a refusal to settle for less, an ultimate refusal to believe that the energy expended advocating for something others didn’t believe in—whether language revitalization, cultural and spiritual awakening, or soul centering—was not worth it. The education of these students was made possible because someone, one of the most influential dreamers and mana wahine I know, was radical enough, was motivated enough, was driven enough to imagine change, to picture it, and then to work tirelessly for it. She was and is proof that the effort is always worth it, that believing in change, even when we are taught that it is impossible, is the first step towards breaking through those structures of power and domination that seek to keep us down. It is the first step towards reversal: towards the rise, towards the restoration of ea.

Today, I chant the words of that famous prophet, Kapihe, the man once called slippery and slimy because he dared to be bold and brave, because he dared to dream something different. I chant his words because they remind me that I can be like the kāula, or the prophets and soothsayers of the past. I may not be able to predict the future. I may not be divinely guided. I am directionally challenged and sometimes lack common sense. But, I maintain, despite every single challenge, despite every single injustice, that change is always, always possible, that caring is always, always necessary, and that dreaming of a better future even if and when history has taught us not to, is my kuleana; it is my responsibility. It is what it means to be indigenous: to exist continually, to survive, to persist and to insist on place, on purpose, on the life of our storied lands, seas, and skies.

I look at these haumāna, these students who have grown up with the words of their ancestors, with the prophecies of their kūpuna, who’ve chanted their hopes, who have recited their dreams, who have closed their days with calls for change, and I am awakened through them. They have known no other time. They have never known a time when it was not okay to be Hawaiian, to dance, sing, chant, write, speak and even shout in defense and in praise of who they were, who they are, and who they will be. And I can think of no better people to be our future dreamers, to envision and work towards a better world.

So, to the papa ʻumikūmālua, this year’s senior class of Kanu o ka ʻĀina, to you I give the gift of dreaming. I dream of a life of purpose for you, one in which you walk with us, hands turned to the earth, hands feeling the land, hands connected to Papa; one in which you sing with us, eyes cast on the sea, eyes scanning the horizon for the space that connects us to our past, to the voyaging ancestors who brought us here from Kahiki, the strong and wise navigators and sailors whose names and legacies we still celebrate; one in which you hope with us, hearts lifted to the sky, never losing your connection to the realm of Wākea, never letting the world convince you that to care is to waste your energy. I hope you never lose your concern, or that knowing of what it means to be a kanu o ka ʻāina, a native of this land: connected, caring, dreaming.

Be like the prophets, the “poʻe makaʻu ʻole,” or the fearless ones. Hope; be radical. Dream; be bold. Chant, sing, and dance to tell the world of your existence. Fill your pages, write your stories across the land, draw and paint your dreams across the sky, send your voices out across the ocean. Use the tools you have to inspire revolution.

Kapihe taught us that change is always possible and that there is always the potential for reversal . Therefore, take up the task to maintain hope. Carry kuleana across your back; shoulder the burden and the privilege with us. Learn, grow, and evolve with time. And never forget the kahua, or the foundation, you stand upon, here, at Kanu o ka ʻĀina.

When that which is above starts to come down, be there to witness and encourage our transformation.

E piʻi nō kākou!! Let us experience the rise together.

 

Footnotes

[1] (Wendt, 1976, p. 71)

[2] (Wendt, 1976, p. 74)

[3] (Thiong’o, 1986, p. 3)

[4] (Lionanohokuahiwi, 1916, p. 2)

[5] (Laʻanui, 1838, p. 83)

References

Laʻanui, G. (1838, 14 March). He manao hoakaka wale no keia no ko’u hanau ana, a me ko’u kamalii ana, a me ko’u hookanaka ana, a me ka ike ana i kekahi mau mea oloko o ke aupuni o Kamehameha, Ke Kumu Hawaii, pp. 81-84.

Lionanohokuahiwi, Z. P. K. (1916, 9 June). Haina o na ninau a ka anela o Mekiko, Ka Nupepa Kuokoa, p. 2.

Thiong’o, N. w. (1986). Decolonising the mind: The politics of language in African literature. Portsmouth: Heinemann.

Wendt, A. (1976). Towards a new Oceania. Seaweeds and Constructions, 7, 71-85.


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Feel This: For Pōhakuloa

ruth

Ruth Aloua at Pōhakuloa (permission to use photo granted by Hāwane Rios)

I do not have a knack for science.
I’m directionally challenged.
I lack common sense.
And I still use my fingers to complete simple math problems (my toes too).

So, when I’m encouraged to play the “scientific” game, or to speak in terms that powerful entities can understand (and respect), I feel insufficient.

I have a knack for words.
I find them in corners and silences.
I see them in colors and try to smell and taste them when I can.
And I still cry when I write my words down (each and every time).

So, when I’m told that my heart words are not enough to argue for justice, I feel like I am not enough.

A couple of months ago, I submitted a letter to the U.S. Army Garrison-Pōhakuloa (USAG-P) regarding the continued abuse of our land. The recipients of my letter did not know how to respond. It was well articulated and crafty, they admitted, but did not leave any room for negotiations or compromise.

I tried to explain that my poetics were meant to catch their attention, to point to the absurdity that there could even be compromise, and to highlight the fact that asking the public for complaints about “noise” marginalizes all other complaints.

I wanted to speak about more than noise.
I wanted to uncover hurt and make them feel it.
I wanted to unbury voice and make them listen to it.
I wanted to expose truth and make them eat it.

I wanted them to feel my words, our words, and cry with us.

But, I had to change. I had to start speaking in a matter-of-fact way.

I had to put my tasty words on the side and converse with them in terms they could understand. I had to attempt to engage in scientific discussions that I do not have the mind for.

I’ve written back asking about Depleted Uranium (DU), asking about a Hawaiʻi County Resolution that called for the suspension of live fire training, asking about when the military would honor the requests of the public—the public who has a right to know how they are being impacted.

With my limitations, I’ve tried to ask meaningful questions, questions that use their language, questions that they may see as worth answering.

And I have been told, time and time again, the same things: that DU is not dangerous, that there is monumental evidence to support this, and that if it posed any serious risk, they would not be there.

I’ve been told that they have nothing to hide.

I have been told that the County Resolution was non-binding, without the force of law, and that although they do not need to honor it, they do follow Federal laws.

I have been told that the Army is committed to the goal of transparency.

And yet they cannot see what is so apparent to me, or to us:

  1. Their lies.
  2. Bombing Must Stop. Period.

And still I try to read and comprehend the files sent, the websites referenced, the reports offered, those citing figures, presenting graphs, and making claims with jargon I can’t seem to “get”. And I wonder why they cannot make the same effort.

I engage in their game of science because they’ve already dismissed my heart. They want me to prove the injustice. They want me to prove the abuse. They want me to prove—with numbers, graphs, pictures, and scientific distractions—that bombing our land is wrong.

They don’t want to hear about Papa.
They don’t want to know her.
They don’t want to taste her.
They don’t want to feel her, to smell her, to touch her.

They don’t want to cry.

Meanwhile, that’s all I can do: stumbling with my science, gathering my words from corners and silences, trying to bring them together with tears.

And despite the fact that they do not know what to do with these words, I write them anyway, and will continue to do so.

Until they can move beyond mundane attempts to understand them with the mind and can begin to feel their pulse and,

Feel this.
Feel us.


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Earth Day Doom: In Defense of the Moral Argument

opala

I once had a friend who threw trash on the ground.

Not just his cigarette butts—which people tend to think are so small that they are somehow allowed to be smashed into the dirt and left there—no, not just the butts of his own addiction, but more than that.

We often argued about trash. Looking back, it seems like a waste of energy to fight over something that I thought should have been commonsense.

Don’t litter. Isn’t that just a given, a universal standard, something we can all agree on as just being good?

#PickUpTrash

Apparently not.

“It’s someone’s job to clean it up; I’m keeping them employed,” he’d say, as if he was really doing anyone a favor.

“What about the earth?” I’d plead. “What about Papatūāanuku?” I’d wonder pulling on the stories of his home.

He never believed in “stories.”

“Do you really think a woman gave birth to islands, do you reaaallly?” he’d ask as if there was no way anyone with a mind could value such “myth.”

#MyPhDExaminesMyth

I’d try to explain that it wasn’t the literal interpretation of the story that mattered, as much but the lessons. The stories tell us to care about the earth as we would our mother.

But this story isn’t really about my friend.

Rather, this story is about why so many people don’t care:
don’t care about the earth,
don’t care about the future,
don’t care to genuinely
care.

And what’s worse, this story is about those who pretend to care, or who put on the mask of concern, all the while being advocates of destruction.

#EarthDayDoomed

In her book great tide rising, philosopher and nature essayist Kathleen Dean Moore (2016) recounts a conversation with her neighbor about how to move people to care, to care enough to “save the world” (as pageant-y and overly-optimistic as that may sound). In a conversation about climate change, she states:

“My neighbor is a practical man. ‘Look,’ he says to me, ʻif you want to call people to action on climate change [or any other disaster], talk to them about what moves people to action—self-interest, money, and fear. Don’t tell them it’s wrong to wreck the world. Tell them it’s stupid or expensive or dangerous” (p. 17).

What her neighbor meant is that it’s not enough to fight the moral argument, to draw on ethics to make change. You have to show people how destroying the earth will impact them economically, raising the cost of food when our earth is so devastated that food is scarce; that it will impact them socially, as countries fight for what is left and as bombs are dropped, and fighting ensues, and as world wars are ignited to ensure a people’s ability to live in particular places over others; and that it will impact them culturally, as people lose ground to stand upon, land to live upon, the capacity to breathe clean air, to raise their children in the ways of their ancestors.

You can’t just say, “Hey, it’s wrong,” in other words. You have to tug at people’s concerns, he argued, which (unfortunately) are not often centered on the life of the planet for the sake of the planet, but rather on the life of the planet for the sake of human beings’ self-serving concerns: money, possessions, power.

I read this and wondered if that’s why the “moral” argument of “You should care for the earth as you would your mother” never quite worked with my friend.

While I sometimes took his apparent disregard of the land and ocean as a personal offense against my mother, Papahānaumoku, and against all of creation, he just couldn’t see how the immediate act of throwing trash on the ground led to larger, worldly consequences.

“What if 10 people, 100 people, 1,000 people, 10,000 people, 100,000 people all have the same attitude as you?” I’d ask.

That still never worked. And time and time again, I felt as if I had to send a personal apology to the ground, his whenua, on his behalf.

“I’m so sorry,” I’d say silently. “He’s been disconnected, the tie severed and never repaired; he doesn’t know you anymore,” I insisted. “But I will help him see you, embrace you, care for you.”

I hate to think that I never quite succeeded at that. But that, too, is another story.

#PersonalReflections

Suffice it to say, that was not my journey, but one I hope he makes on his own, when he is ready to reconnect to his own turangawaewae, his own place to stand, and his own place and role to protect.

As Kathleen Dean Moore (2016) expands:

“It’s not that we aren’t natural creatures, it’s not that we don’t live always in the most intimate contact with the natural world, which seeps in our pores and rushes through our blood. It’s that we lose track of that fact or deny it, and so shut ourselves off from a large part of our humanity” (p. 85).

Is it possible, I wonder, that a large part of our human race has lost such a large part of our humanity?

I thought about my friend yesterday and about Kathleen’s neighbor as I rode my bike in the ʻEwa sun. What kind of world are we living in when the moral argument is not enough, when people cannot just care to care, when they have to see how it’s impacting their wealth, their success, or their material possessions to give a damn?

What kind of world are we living in when we are so numbed that we cannot even respond to the world, the natural world, that “seeps in our pores and rushes through our blood,” seeing the world and our selves as interconnected, as one, always?

What kind of world are we living in when seeing the earth as mother is laughed at, mocked, pushed aside as “myth” even while humans all over the planet create actual myths: false notions of caring, false motivations, false connections, false support?

This is what’s happening at Pōhakuloa today.

Today, the U.S. Army Garrison-Pōhakuloa Training Area is celebrating Earth Day.

#CanICallThatAnOxymoron?

Brief advertisements state that the day will feature everything from recycling and upcycling, to garden tours, to petroglyph activities, to a “showcase” of the USAG-P’s “management of threatened and endangered species” (Hawaiʻi Tribune Herald).

When we express our concerns about the earth, not just on a designated “Earth Day,” but every day, our moral arguments—our arguments saying, “This is just the right thing to do!”—are pushed aside. Last month I wrote to the USAG-P. I submitted a poetic letter about “noise” (as they had invited expressions of concern about noise, as if that would be our main complaint).

With complete respect for the person who responded to me, and who has continued to have open communication with me, he didn’t know what to do with my letter. “Your email articulated thoughts and ideas very well,” he said, “but didn’t seem to leave any room…for compromise.”

Compromise?

#Hmmmm.

The life of the earth is not a compromise I’m willing to make. There should be no discussion when it comes to our mother, when it comes to our future.

But, apparently, not everyone feels this way.

And I can’t blame them.

Disconnection is the tragedy of our times.

Yesterday, though, I met with passionate people, people wanting to raise their voice for our ʻāina, wanting to use music and poetry, picture and film, political analysis and scientific knowledge to fight for the earth, knowing that we must make noise for her, even if and when people are not willing to listen.

Why?

Because we must show our children, and their children, and their grandchildren, that the moral argument is important, that the moral argument is enough, that standing up for the earth is just the right thing to do. Period.

A few weeks ago another friend of mine posted a picture on Facebook. It was a photo of trash that she had picked up at a beach in Kohala, a place that links the two of us, a place that nurtured our ancestors on the Big Island. She could not believe the disrespect, the disregard, the inability to simply pick something up, to look after the earth, to care. Her long, delicate fingers held out a bag of trash she collected, her wrist adorned with gentle tattooed reminders of connection: to the earth, to earth’s creatures, to the elements.

It made me think of the indigenous wisdom that she lives her life by: caring for the earth as our ancestors would. Native American environmentalist and activist Winona LaDuke (1999) argues that there is “a direct relationship between the loss of cultural diversity and the loss of biodiversity. Wherever Indigenous peoples still remain, there is a corresponding enclave of biodiversity” (p. 1). In other words, if we could just tap into the knowledge of our indigenous ancestors, we could remember ourselves, remember our connection, remember our ability to care for the earth as mother, to not strip her of diversity and beauty for our own sake, but to nurture her for the sake of the earth.

Of course, none of us are perfect and we do slip up and do cause harm, often in our daily actions: driving cars; purchasing foods that were farmed in unethical ways on land that has been destroyed; contributing to food waste; using too much plastic, etc. But, I see people like my friend and am reminded that we can make efforts to live more consciously, to be aware of the impacts of our actions, and to live by example.

My friend gives me reminders, ethnical and moral arguments, to care, and to care genuinely.

Of course, when she posted her photo, I noticed my other friend give it a big thumbs-up, an official Facebook “Like.” This was the same friend who would throw cigarette butts onto the ground, smashing them into Papa’s skin. Why did he like her photo, I wondered?

#KeyboardWarrior?

And that’s when it hit me: Sometimes it’s cool to care, or it’s cool to appear to care. So many of our youth are caught up in worrying about what others think of them. They are insecure, trying to find acceptance, trying to find themselves. The same goes for the not-so-young, like my friend. And the same goes for the powerful. Yes, the same even goes for entities like the U.S. Army Garrison-Pōhakuloa.

Celebrate Earth Day on a military training ground?

Celebrate Earth Day where destruction is a daily occurrence, where desecration is a daily occurrence, where pollution is a daily occurrence, where training for and advocating death is a daily occurrence?

#WHY???

Perhaps, just as it was cool for my friend to show his support of a “pick up trash” picture on social media—even while it was perhaps not cool enough to act upon that plea, to pick up his own trash, to pick up someone else’s, or better yet, to not throw any on the ground, ever—it’s “cool” for the USAG-P to appear to care.

While they “celebrate” Earth Day, they simultaneously attempt to cover-up the fact that they are Earth’s Doomsday. They appear to care, appear to accept the moral argument that loving the land is right, appear to be genuine in their attempts.

But I can’t accept that, not while they simultaneously abuse her, pounding her day after day, year after year!

They are like the insecure teen (or the once-was teen) who loves to “like” everything moral on Facebook, while not actually wanting to do anything about it, or not being able to.

And I for one think that our youth need far better role models, as do the not-so young and disconnected, as do all of us.

#ItStartsWithUs

For a real earth day, we can start now. Start with picking up trash because it’s just right to do so. Period. Maybe once we buy into one moral argument about something my friend once thought was insignificant, then we can encourage people to buy into more moral and ethical arguments.

And who knows, when these arguments become to norm and are no longer laughed at or pushed aside with eye rolls or dismissive email responses, maybe something like “Let’s stop bombing the land because it’s the right thing to do” will be so commonsense, so widely accepted, that we can’t help but do it.

Protect the earth. It’s just a good idea, right? I hope for the day when that’s not seen as overly optimistic, dreamy, or even fantastical, the day when the USAG-P not only recognizes the absurdity of celebrating “Earth Day” on a piece of earth they actively and purposefully destroy, but stops altogether.

I hope for the day we can all see just how cool it is to care. And more than that, just how super cool it is to care genuinely.
Not for appearances.
Not for the ego.
Not for a social prank, or a “let’s -soften-the-‘blow’-of-our-bombs-with-garden-tours” initiative.
Not even for us, really, but for the earth.

I have faith that even my friend will get there one day for he comes from far too great a heritage of kaitiakitanga not to.

We all do, even those at Pōhakuloa.

We are all born attentive and curious of the earth. We are all born as innocent creatures connected to the earth. We are born to be protectors of our mother. And although we may lose that as we grow, it’s about time we remember who we are.

Who we were born to be.

#AlohaʻĀina
References:

LaDuke, W. (1999). All Our RelationsChicago: Haymarket Books.
Moore, K. D. (2016). great tide rising. Berkeley: Counterpoint.