He Wahī Paʻakai: A Package of Salt

adding flavor and texture to your world through story


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Take a deep breath

“I nui ke aho a moe i ke kai.”
Take a deep breath and lay in the ocean.

Photo Nov 13, 3 16 25 PM (1)

Prophets were said to be “he poʻe makaʻu ʻole,” or a fearless people. Not only did they have the courage to utter their prophecies before chiefs, no matter the consequence, but they were also brave enough to follow those prophecies, even when they spoke of their own demise. One such person was Kaʻōpulupulu, the prophet of Kahahana, a reigning chief of the island of Oʻahu. According to 19th century scholar, Samuel Kamakau, Kaʻōpulupulu knew when he would die. Having been accused of being disloyal to his chief, he consulted with the gods. He prayed. And his fate was revealed:

Both he and his son, Kahulupue, would be killed.

Before facing his own death, however, he uttered one last prophecy to his son and to all who could hear him:

“I nui ke aho a moe i ke kai. No ke kai kā hoʻi ua ʻāina.”
Take a deep breath and lay in the ocean. This land belongs to the sea.

Many have pondered the meaning of these words, not just in the context of Kaʻōpulupulu’s death and Kahahana’s reign, but even in the generations following. Today, I ponder them still.

I write this from the kai, seated at the edge of the sea. Taking deep breaths, my toes buried in sand.

Exactly one year ago today, I stood at the base of a mountain, Taranaki. The summit was cloaked and concealed in clouds, but I knew it was there. I could stand at the base and picture it. I could feel it. It was my birthday, the day two genealogies combined to create me in the physical world. The day my mother labored for my existence.

I stood in awe of what this life had provided me: the chance to stand at the foot of a mountain, thinking of my own sacred spaces back home, connected across oceans. I was humbled to be there, at that moment, feeling the chill in the air and the wind at my face.

I quietly prayed.

And through it all, I was overwhelmed by a sense of loneliness.

The one who took me there—one who was born in the shadow of that very mountain—opted to stay at the car. He opted to fill his head and lungs with smoke. He opted to reach heights with the help of a rolled joint, pressed and created carefully between his large, brown fingers. He opted not to share that moment with me.

He refused to acknowledge that it was my day of birth, refused to even utter the words. Upon reflection, I wonder if there was something about my very existence that was too difficult for him to handle. I was too large, too emotional, too driven, too intense, too everything he wanted to quiet down. My dreams were too big for him. Despite being together for nearly three years at that point, I realized that he found it hard to celebrate almost anything with me or about me, including the day I took my first breath.

So I quietly celebrated with that mountain instead, sending my love to it, sending my gratitude to it, asking that it help me to stand strong, to clear the clouds shrouding my own thinking, to show me my path.

Little did I know that the path planned for me would be rough, as rough and cold and rugged as the mountain’s terrain.
Little did I know that path planned for me would be one of heartbreak, one of death.
Little did I know that the path planned for me would be one of taking deep breaths and lying in the ocean.

That night, as we returned to our small, city apartment, I lay in bed with the vision of mountains in my head, my then partner snoring softly next to me. As the minutes ticked into hours, I lay there, staring up at the ceiling until being shaken by one of the biggest earthquakes I have ever experienced.

I was rocked to life, stunned into awareness. Everything within me trembled. My partner ran out of the apartment, yelling at me to do the same. But I lay there for a few brief moments, just feeling it.

It was my prophecy.

No words. Just tremors.

I was not on the right path.
I was not with the right person.
I was drowning.

And I knew it.

Today, exactly one year later, I sit in quiet reflection, thinking about how the past 12 months of my life have taken me from standing at the base of a mountain—lonely and lost—to sitting at the edge of the sea. I cannot say that I am any more “found” than I was a year ago or that I am any less lonely. But I can say that in the absence of that “someone” who once occupied my space, heart, and mind, I am finding something else, some one else: me.

I’m learning to breathe on my own. And I’m finding strength in the ocean.

Today I wonder about the fearless ones, those poʻe makaʻu ʻole, those willing and daring enough to reveal their truths, to accept them, to own them, to voice them, to make them known.

I can only hope to one day be as fearless. I am not prophet. I cannot read signs or predict the future. I often have trouble just listening to my own naʻau, my own gut instincts. But I am trying: trying to quiet myself and trying to pay attention.

Today I sit at the sea receiving stories in salt sticking to my skin and I wonder what it all means. I think about Kaʻōpulupulu and the wise ones and how their words never cease to have meaning, not in the past, and not now.

When Kaʻōpulupulu uttered his prophecy, for instance, he may have been referring to his own death, or as some have speculated, he may have been speaking of times to come: the “death” of our people, our nation, our culture. Or, he could have been referring to the eventual coming of “others” from across the sea, others who would come with their plans to take over, to control, to colonize, to extinguish. He could have been speaking of our demise.

Or, he could have been speaking far beyond that.

Perhaps when he told his son to take a deep breath and to lay in the ocean, he was truly telling him to lie in wait until the time came to rise, to leave the sea, to walk upon the land once again, reconnecting and restoring himself and others. As my dear friend and mentor, Teresia Teaiwa, once said, “We cry and sweat salt water, so we know that the ocean is really in our blood.” Therefore, perhaps like her, he knew that we were one with the ocean and that we could find life there as we re-learned how to breathe, or how to hold our breath through moments of pain and sorrow, and then how exhale it out. Perhaps he knew that the sea was where we could find our strength, cleansing and clarifying. Perhaps he knew that it was there, in and of salt water, that we could be empowered.

Today I will dip my head below the surface of the sea, washing the hurt of the past year away while keeping all of the lessons. I will hold my breath, sink to the bottom, lay for a moment, and then rise to walk anew upon the ʻāina.

Today I will promise to be a bit bolder, a bit braver, a bit more willing to rise above my fears. Today I will embrace the ocean in me, the ocean in you, the ocean in us. Today I will take a deep breath, hold it in, and then share this breath with you through story.

Here’s to 34.

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Changing the Narrative: When the stories we tell no longer help us

“The work of a contemporary warrior is to take the responsibility to be a self-actualized individual.”

– Cornel Pewewardy

DadPicBlog

With my dad, my self-actualized, indigenous warrior. Waimea, Hawaiʻi. 

There are many things I’m not good at.

My dad often talks about my intelligence. “If I had your brains,” he often says, sighing and shaking his head, “I could’ve done so much more with my life.” On the top of his “much more” list is usually, “I could’ve been the governor.” I usually smile and laugh at his attempt at a joke. Though, deep down, I actually believe he could be a far better governor that the current man in office. But, hey, he’s my dad. So I may be a little biased. (Just a tiny bit.)

When we get into these types of conversations, he has the habit of listing all the ways he believes he is somehow deficient: “I can’t speak Hawaiian. I can’t write. I don’t know how to use the computer.” He holds up his fingers, some long and some stubby, as if to count the shortcomings. (If you know my dad, you’ll get the stubby finger reference.) Time and time again I remind him of his own intelligence, how I could never do so many of the things that he can do, so many of the things that he does. Every. Single. Day. In a crafty way, though (because he is intelligent like that), I think our exchanges are meant to remind me—and not him—about the kind of knowing that really matters!

My dad is a self-actualized individual. He is the kind of indigenous warrior that Cornel Pewewardy describes in the forward to Winona LaDuke’s critical book, The Militarization of Indian Country. To be self-actualized is to recognize (and act upon) your own talents and potentialities. It is to understand what you as a unique human being have to bring to your family, to your community, to your nation, your region, or even the world. A friend of mine recently summarized this concept by saying, profoundly and simply: “You have to know what you know and you have to know what you don’t know.”

There is power in both. I truly believe that when we recognize what we don’t know we are in a better position to truly understand our kuleana, or what our roles and responsibilities may be. We are able to better appreciate what our contribution can be to a particular cause or issue. We are able to tread a bit lighter on lands that we may not be as familiar with. We are able to determine when and where our voice or our presence should be (and when and where they shouldn’t). And further, we are able to discern when our efforts, no matter how well-meaning they may be, could actually be more detrimental that helpful.

I have an example.

But before I get into this story, I’d like to state that while there are many things that I am not good at and while there are many things that I do not know—I would most likely perish if made to sustain myself from the ʻāina, for example, and I would certainly get lost if left in a forest alone, and I would probably get kicked off the waʻa (canoe) if made to steer it—there are certain things that I do know about myself. And this is part of the process of self-actualization:

  1. I believe part of my role in life is to tell stories.
  2. I believe that I have a responsibility to tell critical stories, especially when they impact those I care about.
  3. I believe that I am an educator.
  4. I believe that I can draw upon my talent to present stories as a means of inspiring conversation.

(I’d like to also state that this story is not at all meant to demean the people involved but rather to highlight something that I hope we can learn from.)

Last week I attended a workshop. It was on historical and cultural trauma. I had recently read an article entitled, “Positioning Historical Trauma Theory within Aotearoa New Zealand,” (Kia ora Aunty Leonie) and therefore thought this would be an important workshop to attend. Pulling on previously published scholarship, the article states: “Historical trauma is collective, cumulative wounding both on an emotional and psychological level that impacts across a lifetime and through generations, which derives from cataclysmic, massive collective traumatic events, and the unresolved grief impacts both personally and intergenerationally” (Pihama et al., 2014, p. 251-52). I certainly believe that any effort to better the condition of our indigenous lives and futures must take into account the historical trauma imposed in the processes of colonization. (Thus, again, my interest in the workshop.) I was ready to be a student, to absorb, and to learn more so that I could determine if this was an area of study that I had any real place in. I wanted to begin to consider trauma in the context of Hawaiʻi.

On the morning of the workshop, I arrived to a group of people sitting on mats. The environment was comfortable. The breeze blew through our open hale (house) and we chanted to greet the day. After initial introductions to each other and to the content, we were then led through a visualization exercise. The instructor, a Hawaiian woman, explained that she was going to take us through Hawaiʻi’s history, from the past to the present. We were asked to close our eyes, to settle down, to imagine, and to essentially put ourselves in the place of our ancestors.

Like common narratives written and told before, she started in pre-contact Hawaiʻi and spoke about an unspoiled paradise, an abundant oasis, a place where people lived in complete harmony with nature and with each other. Life was joyful; it was idyllic. As listeners, we were meant to ease into the beauty of such a time, a time before “outsiders,” a time before disruption.

The woman next to me sighed, settling into what must have been the most picturesque scene: harmonious, peaceful, without worry, without fear. With my eyes closed, I could almost sense the satisfied smile on her face, the slight glimmer in her cheeks.

Meanwhile, I could feel my nose scrunch, my eyelids tighten, and the familiar “thinking lines” on my forehead begin to surface. For a second, I considered fixing my facial expressions. But, considering that everyone’s eyes were supposed to be shut, I took my chances and remained in a visual state of bewilderment.

The story continued. From paradise, we jumped (or were pulled rather abruptly) to the arrival of the missionaries. Suddenly, things began to fall. Literally. We started dying. Temples were destroyed. Customs were outlawed. Then newspapers were established to spread the agendas of the missionaries. Our people were led to believe, through speech and print, that they were inferior. They were depressed. They were hurt. They were helpless. Hopeless. They were doomed.

The woman in front of me sniffed. With my eyes still closed, I assumed she had shed a few tears, completely taken by the emotion of such sudden destruction. I imagined that she was then living the trauma of her ancestors.

Meanwhile, I couldn’t get there. I couldn’t get to the same place as that woman. My face continued to show signs of consternation as I continued to analyze the narrative.

The story continued. Jumping from the arrival of missionaries, Hawaiʻi was overthrown and then annexed. Hawaiians were further depressed. Lands were taken, and as a result, Hawaiians lost everything: their health, their connection, their freedom, their dignity. Hawaiians died physical, cultural, and psychological deaths.

The woman in front of me continued to cry. And while I heard those familiar stories, complemented by her now frequent sniffs, I was still troubled.

Finally, the story ended. Hōkūleʻa was built and later sailed around the world. Hawaiians began to dance, chant, and sing again; they began to speak their language again. Hawaiians were proud. Hawaiians could look forward to the future. Hawaiians could return to the ways of their ancestors. They could return to the past.

At this point, I opened my eyes. I wanted to gauge the audience, to see how people were responding to the visualization. I had so much to say: there were so many gaps I wanted to fill, so many clarifications I wanted to make, especially to the students present, the students who were now crying over the so-called perfect pre-European past, the fatal fall after the missionaries, and the modern-day renaissance. As a teacher, I wanted to challenge the narrative. I wanted to complicate it. I wanted to fill in the holes to show them that no era was perfect, and more importantly, that no era was without hope.

But I didn’t.

I didn’t say anything to the audience. Instead, I listened to the instructor and to the comments of those around me. Then I left, carrying something heavy on my shoulders. I did not want to disrespect the instructor or to undermine her. However, more than a week later, I’m still thinking about it. It’s still troubling me.

If I understand anything about kuleana it is that it can present itself as a burden, something heavy to carry on your back, something to shoulder for you, for your family, and even for the next generations. Contrary to what some may think, we don’t always get to choose our responsibilities; sometimes they choose us. Therefore, I thought about my dad’s often-comical yet always quite deep-set acceptance of what he knows and what he doesn’t know, and I realized that it is a responsibility to write about these types of experiences. It is a responsibility to challenge old narratives that no longer serve us. It is a responsibility to provide alternatives. And it is a responsibility to do what I believe I can do to take the conversation forward.

Thus, in order to do so, I will present what troubled me (what brought confusion to my face and stress to my pinched eyelids):

The instructor’s story was outdated. It represented what I have recently come to call the Imposed Narrative of:

  1. Pre-contact Peace,
  2. Post-contact Peril, and
  3. Present-day Promise

What’s problematic about such a story is the assumption that peace only existed before contact, that destruction was the single result of contact, and that promise and hope for the future are contemporary constructions. What’s problematic about such a story is that it does not account for the fact that peace, peril, and promise exist in every era. Every. Single. Era.

In her story of the missionaries, for example, the instructor neglected to mention the intellectuals who used the new technology of print to produce thousands of pages of Hawaiian language newspaper text. She neglected to talk about the pages that recorded our moʻolelo (stories); that were filled with sentiments of aloha ʻāina, or love for the land and love for the nation; that printed articles supporting the Queen before and after the illegal overthrow; and that essentially gave people hope. So consumed by the common (and yes, outdated) narrative of “fatal impact,” she neglected to mention strength and resilience.

Now I’m not saying that all Hawaiians were staunch aloha ʻāina, dedicated to the Hawaiian nation. (That story would also be far too simplistic.) There were Hawaiians who supported the overthrown and the eventual annexation, and who tried to encourage their people to abandon their beliefs, and to leave certain cultural customs behind. There were many, some of my own ancestors included, who believed America was the way forward.

What I am saying is that it is extremely dangerous to tell a single story, a single narrative that presents our history in such simplistic ways: pre-contact peace, post-contact peril, present-day promise. We owe it to our ancestors to complicate the story, to recognize the messiness of our histories, and to not romanticize the past, but to greet it, head first, nose to nose, for what it can teach us.

In one of her Ted Talks, Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2009) talks about “The Danger of a Single Story,” or the reduction of an entire group of people to one narrative. In her powerfully poetic way, the late Teresia Teaiwa (2015) echos these sentiments, stating “you can’t just paint one brush stroke over a nation and say that’s who they are.” To do so is not only irresponsible, it also strips people of their humanity. It ignores diversity. It flattens our stories. And it depletes our ancestors of life.

That’s what upset me.

That’s why I couldn’t sigh in delight at the idea of a pre-European paradise, or cry at the thought of “fatal impact,” or some immediate fall from grace at the coming of the missionaries. I had been taught to challenge these ideas.

In his seminal essay, “Towards a New Oceania,” Albert Wendt (1976) challenges such notions. When I first read his essay as an undergraduate student at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo (Mahalo e Seri), I was forced to confront my own romanticization of the past. I did think it was perfect. I did think my ancestors were faultless. I did believe that the coming of the missionaries ruined everything. Thanks to his work, and to the work of so many other inspiring intellectuals, however, I have been able to complicate that narrative and to understand, as he states, that “There is [and was] no state of cultural purity (or perfect state of cultural goodness) from which there is decline… There was no Fall, no sun-tanned Noble Savages existing in the South Seas paradises, no Golden Age” (p. 76). There can be no epic “return” to the past because, as he expands, there was no “pre-papalagi [or pre-European] Golden Age or utopian womb” (p. 76). There was no complete state of “Pre-Contact Peace.”

The instructor’s story, however, fell into this exact trap: the trap of the simplistic narrative. As historian Kerry Howe (1977) articulates, it is the story of “fatal impact,” or the idea that there was immediate demise at the time of first contact. The problem with such a story is that it paints our people as passive, as inactive, as helpless, and as devoid of any real agency. When I stand in front of my own students, I am aware of the responsibility I have to disrupt that narrative, to give them examples of agency, of action, and of choice. As Howe (1977) explains, so many of the stories written about our peoples “are really about Europeans and what they did. They are the subjects. The islanders are the objects, often just in the background, slightly out of focus, having things ‘done’ to them” (p. 146). They are drawn as poor, noble savages. And as justified as we may feel in grieving or lamenting the dying, disappearing, and helpless indigenous victims, a simple fact remains: the assumption that all of our ancestors were passive and inactive is based firmly in the supposed racial superiority amongst Europeans. It’s the “You-couldn’t-do-anything-to-avoid-your-own-demise” mentality. Or the “You-poor-things-didn’t-stand-a-chance” approach.

That’s what I find so offensive about the often-told narrative, the narrative that I believe we should had moved past by now, the narrative that I was asked to sit and visualize just over a week ago. As a teacher, I refuse to give my students one story. I prefer to give them options. I prefer to show them how we may have been depicted and then to give them the tools to paint new pictures, with new, complex brush strokes. I believe that ignoring the agency of our ancestors, or their ability to make choices and to act upon those choices—whether to their own betterment or detriment—is to strip them of their dignity.

Now I must explain that I don’t hide the wounds of the past. I acknowledge that our high incarceration rates, our dismal health, our homelessness and houselessness, our poverty, our poor education, our drug abuse, alcohol abuse, and domestic abuse are indeed related to historical trauma. I believe that working towards health, healing, well-being, and even sovereignty requires a critical examination of the intergenerational pain that exists in our families and communities. Colonialism was cataclysmic in many ways. It still is. At the same time, however, I choose to also talk about the ancestors who, despite all odds, maintained hope, a radical hope for a future that could somehow be better than their present. I choose to give my students examples of both the trauma and the triumph because I believe that any promise for tomorrow was inherited from those past generations who refused to be silenced; who refused to lay down, helpless; who refused to paint their ever-evolving and complex stories with a single brush.

We must complicate the story; we must make it messy. We must present it with more colors, more textures, more highlights and shadows. We must talk about the complexities so that our people, especially our youth, can be moved by the beauty and the pain; so that they can see the destruction alongside the strength; the colonialism with the resistance. Just as we inherit the pain of our ancestors, we also inherit their hope. In fact, I believe that renaissance movements are born from something internal, from a deep-seated knowing within us that we are much, much more than we have been depicted to be.

When I look at my own family, for instance, I see the impacts of historical trauma everywhere. I grew up a witness to alcohol and drug abuse. I grew up as another obese Hawaiian, another statistic. I have family members who suffer poor health, family members who have been incarcerated for a variety of crimes, family members who still struggle, every day, to cope in a society that continues to threaten their livelihood: their land, their homes, their ability to sustain themselves, their relationship to sacred sites, their ability to ground, their faith in their language, in their customs, in themselves. This is our everyday reality as Hawaiians. And although these struggles often move me to tears and continue to find expression in my own personal life, I cannot end the narrative there. I will not end the narrative there. Like every generation before me, I am also surrounded by examples of strength, resilience, and hope and I choose to recognize that as part of our collective healing. I choose to tell those stories too.

My dad is my example. He is my self-actualized warrior. He is my indigenous hero. My dad still carries wounds, deep historical wounds, from the past. He was born with a brown face and an English name; he was stripped of his language, his mother opting not to speak to him ma ka ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi; he was exposed to alcohol at a terrifyingly young age, a substance that would play a role in the larger part of his life, an addiction that he would eventually conquer; he was told time and time again that he could not go to the forest, could not hunt, could not feed his family from the land he loved, the only land he has ever known; he has witnessed so much change, change that has, and sometimes still does, bring him to tears. He has fallen many, many times. But he has also risen. He has risen. Every. Single. Time.

He knows what he knows and he knows what he doesn’t know. He may not be the next governor of Hawaiʻi. But he will continue to do what he does best: giving to his family, his community, and his nation in all the ways he knows he can. And like him, I will do what I know, drawing on my recognition of what I can (and can’t) do. In this case, I will challenge those stories and those outdated narratives when I know that they may do more harm than good.

I do not consider myself a fully self-actualized indigenous warrior. But, I do know that I’m on my path, a path towards recognizing my roles and responsibilities, and the possible contributions I have make to my people, my nation, my region, and the world. The quest for self-actualization and a true sense of indigenous warriorhood are things that I will add to the story, the story I will tell as we continue to heal as a people.

__________

References:

Adichie, C. (2009). The danger of a single story. Ted Talks  https://www.ted.com/talks/
chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story/transcript?language=en

Howe, K. (1977). The fate of the “savage” in Pacific historiography. The New Zealand Journal of History11(2), 137-154.

LaDuke, W. (2012). The Militarization of Indian Country. Michigan: University of Michigan Press.

Pihama, L. et al. (2014). Positioning historical trauma theory within Aotearoa New Zealand. Alternative, 10(3). 248-62.

Teaiwa, T. (2015). You can’t paint the Pacific with just one brush stroke. E-Tangatahttps://e-tangata.co.nz/news/you-cant-paint-the-pacific-with-just-one-brush-stroke

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


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My Pacific (Studies)

teresia

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

kapolei_exterior_sign

“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

ema

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.