He Wahī Paʻakai: A Package of Salt

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False Alarm: why we should be rethinking someone’s “mistake”

alert

A screenshot of the emergency alert issued on the morning of January 13th, and 38 minutes later, the news that it was a false alarm.

If you were in Hawaiʻi on January 13th, 2018, you most likely have a story about the nuclear missile alert. If asked, you could probably recount exactly where you were, who you were with, and what you felt or thought (if you indeed felt or thought anything other than numbing dread or disbelief). Since that day, I’ve read and heard many stories, and in a way, I’ve come to realize that we are the stories we’ve lived and told. As First Nations writer Thomas King (2003) once wrote, “The truth about stories is that that’s all we are” (p. 2). They reveal, in other words, our inner truths and beliefs, what we think about the lives we’ve lived (or haven’t), and perhaps even where we think we fit in the world.

Facing the possibility of your own death is one thing, but facing the possibility of mass death—with the potential to destroy everyone and everything you know and love in an instant—is another. And what you do in those moments reveals something about who you are. Some panicked, ran, sought cover in bathtubs, behind shelves, or under tables, and prayed. Others got in their cars, driving somewhere—anywhere—in an effort to “get away” perhaps forgetting that you can only drive so far on an island before moving in a circle. I read stories of mothers holding their children wishing they could have had longer lives, cursing the unfair and unjust world we live in. Then I heard of others who sat calmly and alone, smoking their last cigarettes or drinking what could have been their very last cups of coffee. When I received the alarm, I was at home at my parents’ house on the Big Island and I remember being thankful for having traveled away from Oʻahu that weekend: thankful that I would not have had to die alone. (If that reaction does not reveal some of my innermost insecurities and fears, I’m not sure what will. I am that story.)

When news of a false alarm finally reached our phones and televisions, I sat with my nine-year-old nephew who could not comprehend what had happened. In a span of 38 minutes, he had gone from thinking we could all die, to then wondering what a “false alarm” meant. “So, is it going to hit someone else?” he asked innocently, worried that the missile was aimed at another place, where others would feel the same panic and fear that he had. I held his face in my hands, and looked into his eyes full of fright, and tried to explain what had happened. I tried to comfort and calm him knowing that nothing could erase what he had experienced: the very real fear of death.

In the hours and days that followed, I tried to make sense of that morning. And while I am still processing and unpacking the emotions, I know this:

What happened was an act of violence, an act of violence that has been conveniently overshadowed by another story: the story of a man who made a terrible mistake and the failure of anyone to do anything about it for a long 38 minutes.

In the aftermath of the false alarm, more attention has been paid to “the employee who pushed the wrong button” and to the time it took to respond to his error than to the larger context that made (and still makes) this entire situation possible. It may have been a false alarm—and yes, we may have been called a “Tragic Comedy” by North Korea and may have been laughed at, mocked, and ridiculed for our apparent incompetency as a “state”—but all of that simply distracts from the fact that this is our reality!!

“Hawaiʻi is one of the most densely militarized regions under U.S. control, with military controlling 205,925 acres, or roughly 5% of the land. On Oʻahu, the most densely populated island, the military controls 85,718 acres out of 382,148, or 22% of all the land” (Kajihiro, 2000). And I cite all of this cognizant of the fact that the U.S. military controls an even larger percentage of land on Guam and that our Pacific brothers and sisters have had their fair share of threats, alarms, and moments of dread and panic, suffering pains we haven’t experienced. All of this, however, is to say that the overwhelming focus on the “mistake,” and even Trump’s assertion that it was simply a “state thing,” vindicates the United State’s government and the central role it plays in not only creating the conditions of possibility for such a missile threat to be made, but for sustaining and celebrating those conditions as well.

There is a sort of mindlessness that gets perpetuated when we are strategically told, and made to focus on, one particular story. Yes, someone made a mistake: a huge, tragic, horrifying mistake. However, if we do not pause to reflect on the larger structures of power within which that mistake was made then we have accepted the “norm,” or what Hawaiian activist and scholar Haunani-Kay Trask (2004) calls “the natural, everyday presence of the ‘way things are,’” which is deeply tied to maintaining “the strength and resilience of racism” (p. 10). In short, if we keep talking about one individual’s mistake, and if that’s the story we spend all our time thinking about, then we’re missing the point!

So, although I’m still trying to understand it all myself, here’s at least part of that “point”:

The heartbreaking missile alarm made the dangers of militarism in Hawaiʻi real for everyone here, not just those who’ve been calling for demilitarization for decades; not just those who carry signs and write letters of concern and protest to army stations who desecrate land; and not just those who’ve been branded as “anti-American.”

No. This touched everyone.

Regardless of color, age, gender, orientation, religion, or place of origin, if you were here, you felt the impact of that morning, and maybe (even if in the smallest way) you got a real taste of the harsh, bitter truth: here in Hawaiʻi we are a potential target for a reason, a reason that goes far beyond our strategic location in the Pacific, a reason that is tightly bound to racist and colonial notions and attitudes towards indigenous peoples, our lands, and our futures. As the late Teresia Teaiwa (2017) articulates, “Historically, black and native or indigenous bodies have not been treated with much dignity under colonial and imperialist regimes” (p. 3). And in the category of “bodies,” I include the biggest, most wonderfully important body: our brown mother earth beneath us. It is the lack of dignity with which we have been treated, in other words, which makes the mere possibility of the missile threat somehow acceptable. When your lands, your bodies, and your lives have been seen as “less than” or even disposable for generations, then you become conditioned to such treatment. And this makes perpetual acts of violence possible.

Our islands—like those in Micronesia and elsewhere—have experienced the pain and violence of militarism because of our proximity. And when I say this, I am referring to so much more than our geographical location. As Māori scholar, Alice Te Punga Somerville (2017) explains, “in some militarized terms, Pacific proximity to Asia is advantageous; in others, such as weapons testing and tourism, [and, if I may add, nuclear targeting] the value of the Pacific lies in its distance from ‘reality’” (p. 329). In other words, our islands are close enough to “enemy” countries to serve as a strategic military outpost for the United States. At the same time, we are far enough away from the “mainland” that we can be harmed without directly impacting those on the continent: we can not only take the hit but we can also keep that hit somewhat contained, on an island, far away, in the “middle of the sea,” (as we are often characterized). We matter, in other words, but only so much as we can be used to protect and maintain the colonial power.

In the hours after those brutal 38 minutes, I found myself not only sad, but also incredibly angry. I listened to people place blame on the man who pushed the button, as if this “mistake” could be placed on one individual alone. Even my nieces and nephews were quick to direct their anger towards that one person. While his devastaing slip-up is unforgivable, the story of his “epic fail” conveniently distracts attention from the United State’s government. One of my nephews even made comments about North Korea: “Why are they so mean? Why do they want to kill us?” he asked. What he doesn’t yet know is that the same country that claims to “save” him from dangers, or worse, that claims military presence and destruction is for his own good, is the same country that knowingly and purposely used our Pacific neighbors as targets for nuclear testing, leaving generations to suffer the effects of radiation; the same country that bombed our own islands; and the same country that still bombs sacred and significant portions of land not 45 minutes from his home.

What worries me, therefore, is that U.S. military presence in Hawaiʻi has become so normalized for them, and for so many of us, that anger quickly turned to one individual, or to another place and people, rather than to the country we are currently being occupied by and to the so-called “leader” who took far too long to respond to the threat and then responded with little to no emotion at all when he finally did. (As an aside, if his lack of empathy and his refusal to take any responsibility for the situation does not serve as a glaring confirmation of the way Hawaiʻi has been seen, used, and abused, then I don’t know what will.)

Normalization, however, does not begin and end in this story. A few months ago, my nine-year-old nephew came home with a bag of “goodies” from school. He was given a lanyard, a pencil, and other little knickknacks all printed with the words: “Follow the 3Rs of Explosives Safety. Recognize. Retreat. Report.” The fact that we have to send our children to schools where they are informed and warned about the dangers of unexploded ordnance, not only in their hometown but also in their learning environment, is a tragedy. But, he (like so many others, and like I did at his age) did not question his bag of “goodies.” There was no sense of alarm. Instead, there was, and is, only a quick acceptance of the “way things are”: the sight of tanks driving through town; the sound of explosives in the distance; the shaking houses and trembling hearts at night; and the strong recruitment strategies that begin in elementary school when military personnel come to school campuses, bringing their equipment and vehicles, glorifying war.

This—all of this—is an act of violence, an act of violence against a place and a people deemed just important enough for military strategy and location but not important enough for genuine care. As Brandy Nālani McDougall (2014) presents in her moving poem, “The Second Gift,” violence is so much more than the physical force we often equate it with:

Violence is more than lodging
bullets into our brown or black
bodies, but also burning
sacred valleys, stabbing tunnels
into mountains, damming streams,
dumping poisons into oceans,
overdeveloping ʻāina, bombing
and buying islands…

Violence is what we’re use to…

Violence is believing
you are in the United States
driving on a highway
built over the sacred,
carrying artillery to scorch
the sacred so more sacred lands
can become the United States
through violence. (pp. 251-252)

Borrowing from post-colonial scholar Frantz Fanon, Haunani-Kay Trask (2004) characterizes this as a sort of “peaceful violence” or a kind of oppression that is either hidden from view or is so hypervisible that it is almost invisible (pp. 9-10). Militarism is everywhere and it is precisely its ubiquity that makes it so powerful. When it seeps into everything we know and do, it becomes so commonplace, so much the “norm,” that we stop questioning it. And that is how power is maintained, and perhaps worse, how violence becomes “peaceful” in that it is either no longer truly seen or is forgiven upon impact.

The false nuclear missile alert is a perfect example of this. We may not see it as a violent act because we’ve accepted certain stories: stories of “mistakes,” peppered with the rhetoric of nationalism—served on the side of military discounts, radio “on-this-day-in-military-history” shout-outs, and daily recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance—that support the militarization of our lands and homes, or at least work to maintain it. This is an act of violence, one that kills our faith in ourselves and in the belief that we deserve basic human rights like safety. We’ve been displaced, disposed, and disenfranchised, and perhaps worse, we’ve been made to believe that our marginalized position is critical for the sake of the “nation” (someone else’s nation at that). Thus, we’ve become numb to the violence, holding our pains and hiding our bruises while convincing ourselves that it’s “not that big of a deal.”

I worry when I think about how quickly some have moved on from the missile alarm. It’s been just over a week and already the dominant stories I hear include statements like: “It was just a mistake” or “The ‘state’ is taking measures to make sure it doesn’t happen again.” There’s so much focus on technicalities. But I can’t move on that quickly. A part of me is stubborn and resistant because I believe that if we brush this off as being that simple—the result of one person’s mistake on one tragic day—then we will allow ourselves, time and time again, to be the subjects of violence.

So, instead, I’d rather shift the focus and ask:
What about us?
What about our land?
Our people?
Our future?
What about our stories?

The events of January 13th, 2018 have the potential to change the way we view our islands and ourselves. They can be an opportunity to stand up and speak out against the forces that threaten our physical, spiritual, cultural, and emotional existence every single day. They can inspire in us a time of reflection and a time to reacquaint ourselves with what it truly means to be an indigenous warrior, not part of a regime designed to kill en masse but part of a collective dedicated to protecting the earth and the future.

If you’ve already forgotten the nuclear missile alarm, or if you’ve moved on, rethink it. Revisit it and tell your story. Be your story. Be your critical story of resistance and speak your truths. Only then will we begin to fight against the real threat, which is not a false alarm or even some unfortunate “state” employee who made a tragic mistake, but the entire structure of power that made January 13th even possible.

 

References:

King, T. (2003). The truth about stories. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Kajihiro, K. (2000). Nation under the gun: militarism and resistance in Hawaiʻi. Cultural Survival Quarterly Magazine, https://www.culturalsurvival.org /publications/cultural-survival-quarterly/nation-under-gun-militarism-and-resistance-hawaii

McDougall, B. (2014). The second gift. In A. Yamashiro & N. Goodyear-Kaʻōpua (Eds.), The value of Hawaiʻi 2: Ancestral roots, oceanic visions (pp. 250-253). Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press.

Somerville, A. (2017) The great Pacific garbage patch as metaphor: the (American) Pacific you can’t see. In B. Russell Roberts & M. Stephens (Eds.), Archipelagic American Studies. (pp. 320-338). Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Teaiwa, T. (2017). The articulated limb: theorizing indigenous Pacific participation in the military industrial complex. Pacific Dynamics: Journal of Interdisciplinary Research, 1(1), 1-20.

Trask, H.-K. (2004). The color of violence. Social Justice, 31(4), 8-16.

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

kuuhae

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

“I pledge allegiance to the flag…”

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

“…with liberty and justice for all.”

They are imprinted in my childhood memories:

brown hand

over brown heart

under red and whitewashed stars and stripes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I pledge allegiance to the flag…”

It was elementary school all over again.

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

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

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

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

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

And we even spoke of flags.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References:

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

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


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To give freedom a name: a letter to Owen Pekei

free west papua

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

Dear Owen,

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

A Morning Star.

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

We all bleed red, Owen.

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

It was your song for a Free West Papua.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And you chose to fly it anyway.

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

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

Raise a Morning Star. And give freedom a name.

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

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

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

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

FREE WEST PAPUA.

Standing in solidarity,
Emalani Case

For more information:

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

References:

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

 

 

 


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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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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)

kii5

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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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.