He Wahī Paʻakai: A Package of Salt

adding flavor and texture to your world through story


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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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ʻUla ka moana i ka ʻahu ʻula a me ka mahiole: the Ocean is made red with feathered cloaks and helmets

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“Kauluwela ka moana i nā ʻauwaʻa kaua o Kalaniʻōpuʻu. Aia nā koa ke ʻaʻahu lā i ko lākou mau ʻahu ʻula o nā waihoʻoluʻu like ʻole o kēlā a me kēia ʻano. E huila ʻōlinolino ana nā maka o kā lākou mau pololū me nā ihe i mua o nā kukuna o ka lā.”[1]

The sea glowed brightly because of Kalaniʻōpuʻu’s swarming fleet of war canoes. The warriors were dressed in feather cloaks of all different colors. The points of their long spears and javelins flashed brightly before the rays of the sun.

  

I can only imagine what it must have looked like, an ocean colored by millions of delicate feathers. If I close my eyes, I can picture the deep reds and bright yellows draped across the backs of our ancient chiefs. I can see them; I can feel them.

Yesterday, I sat a few short feet away from Kalaniʻōpuʻu’s ʻahu ʻula and mahiole, his feathered cloak and helmet. And as they lay before me, I closed my eyes for a brief moment and pictured them in movement, pictured them on the body of our chief, pictured their tiny red and yellow feathers on an ocean, rustling in the wind, full of life. I could see them; I could feel them.

So I whispered a small greeting, as I have many times before, and as the hours passed and as the space around me filled with chants and songs, with the familiar sounds of ʻōlelo and te reo mixing and rolling off tongues, the wind shook the whare and I said my goodbye.

It was like saying goodbye to a loved one, to a family member, one who I knew I would see again, but one that I would miss terribly. They would be going home, back to Hawaiʻi, back to our people, back to our lāhui. And as I sat there, I could not help but shed tears for all that they have come to mean to me, for all that they have inspired in me, for all that they will continue to inspire in my people.

Today I continue to shed tears as a write, carrying an emotion that I cannot quite describe: a mix of extreme gratitude and deep aloha, a mix of happiness accompanied by hope, and on a very personal level, a mix of protectiveness deepened by a sense of responsibility. Although I know that my story is small in the larger history of this remarkable cloak and helmet, I share it because I feel compelled to do so, perhaps as a means of bringing our attention back to them, to these taonga, these treasured items, these mea makamae, to their lives, to their journey, to their future.

Much has been said in the past few weeks about the return of Kalaniʻōpuʻu’s cloak and helmet: some are in support of their journey home while others are not, some are worried about their new association with certain state organizations, and some are concerned that they will be placed at the center of what has become a heated (and sometimes ugly) political terrain. I appreciate what has been said and shared. It has inspired debate and dialogue, which is extremely important. And while this may or may not add to the conversation, I write this because I feel a responsibility to do so: to honor them, to look after them, to love and care and celebrate them for the impact that they have had on generations of people.

When our Hawaiian scholars took to the newspapers in the nineteenth century to record the lives of our ancient chiefs, they described their exploits and adventures in detail, as if each small event was like a tiny feather, seemingly insignificant on its own, but in context, completely necessary. One such writer was Joseph Poepoe who, between 1905 and 1906, recorded the story of Kamehameha in the Hawaiian language newspaper named for the famous chief, Ka Naʻ Aupuni. While writing about Kamehameha and his celebrated uncle, Kalaniʻōpuʻu, he described many battles, looked at prophecy and strategy, highlighting training and skill. And in his descriptions, he also spoke of the sight of ʻahu ʻula and mahiole. When warring chiefs traveled over cliff sides, they turned the land red with ʻahu ʻula. And when they boarded their war canoes, “ʻike maila i ka ʻula pū aku o ka moana i nā ʻahu ʻula a me nā mahiole” their opponents saw the ocean turn red with feathered cloaks and helmets, with millions of tiny red feathers.[2]

I can only imagine what they must have thought, what warriors must have thought when they saw their cliff sides turn red with soldiers and chiefs adorned in ʻahu ʻula and mahiole. And I can only imagine what it must have been like to watch the ocean go red. While I cannot say for certain what they must have felt, I am sure that it inspired something, whether fear and dread, whether hatred and anger, or whether even awe and a bit of amazement. I’m sure they saw them; I’m sure they felt them.

Two hundred and thirty seven years ago, Kalaniʻōpuʻu’s ʻahu ʻula and mahiole were gifted to Captain James Cook at Kealakekua Bay. Although Captain Cook never left the island, these treasured items did, making their way aboard ship to England where they were viewed by thousands in a strange land. What curiosity they must have inspired. Perhaps they became tokens of a far away place and culture, a “far away” people. Perhaps they too were exoticized, romanticized, or perhaps even degraded and disrespected. Perhaps they weren’t. While I am not sure what an English man or woman must have thought looking at the deep reds and bright yellows of our chiefs, or what reactions would have been stirred within them, I am sure that they must have stirred something.

While they were away, things changed, lives in Hawaiʻi changed. After the illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom, a writer in the Hawaiian language newspaper, Ke Aloha ʻĀina, seemed to lament the fact that some of their people had never seen an ʻahu ʻula, perhaps a mahiole, or even other chiefly symbols like kāhili, feathered standards. Thus, in 1901, an invitation was put out for people to go to Wakinekona Hale, the home of the deposed Queen Liliʻuokalani, to see them: “E hōʻike i ko kākou aloha aliʻi ʻoiaʻiʻo i mua o nā malihini o na ʻāina e e noho pū nei i waena o kākou, i ʻike mai ai lākou he mea nui ka Mōʻīiwahine iā kākou, kona lāhui.”[3] The article states: “Let us show our true love for our chiefs in front of all of the foreigners from other lands who now live amongst us, so that they will see that our Queen still means a great deal to us, her nation.”

For a people learning to live with the overthrow of their Queen and the subsequent illegal annexation of their kingdom to the United States, I can only imagine what the sight of an ʻahu ʻula must have inspired in them: honor and gratitude, sadness and longing, or perhaps love and a deepening commitment to aloha ʻāina, a renewed and inspired sense of patriotism. Generations prior, ʻahu ʻula turned oceans red; they covered hill sides as warriors marched to battle. They adorned our chiefs and stood as symbols of rank and mana. In 1901, however, it seems that their appearances in public became rare. Thus, to view a cloak and helmet then surely must have stirred something.

In 1912, when Kalaniʻōpuʻu’s ʻahu ʻula and mahiole were unexpectedly gifted to New Zealand, they became part of the national museum’s collection and have been here since. I write this from New Zealand, in the country that they will leave in a few short hours. When I first came here nearly four years ago, I knew that I had to visit them. Thus, on my second day in the country, I went to Te Papa Tongarewa and found them tucked into a dark space in the museum, alone and somewhat separated from everything else. After that day, back in 2012, they became my personal puʻuhonua, my personal site of refuge and safety in a new place thousands of miles from home. I visited often, whenever I needed a piece of Hawaiʻi, whenever I needed to reconnect, to recenter, or to find guidance. I talked to them and I shared my life with them, imagining that if I felt lonely so far away from home that perhaps they did as well. They stirred something in me then; they stir something in me still.

A little over a week ago, I stood next to the ʻahu ʻula and mahiole, chanting before them, to them, and around them in anticipation of their upcoming departure. And as I chanted, I pictured the moana, the ocean that they would once again cross. These sacred symbols of our chiefs would be making their way home, not by waʻa, but by plane, leaving a trail of histories along the way, turning the ocean red once again, this time with ancestral memories. Standing there next to them, as I had many times before, I thought about my many visits. Since moving here, I have learned to cease thinking of them as relics from the past, but have come to embrace them as pieces of our past that have lived to the present and that stir our hearts and minds contemporarily. I see them; I feel them.

Thus, for one last time, I marveled at their beauty and at the skill of my ancestors, and as I stood there, thinking about our history, I realized that each generation of people has seen and understood them differently, always revealing something about the times in which they lived. What a Hawaiian in 1779 must have thought at the sight of an ʻahu ʻula and mahiole—treasured items that were apparently so abundant that they could turn oceans red—would have been drastically different than what a Hawaiian in 1901 would have thought, just a few short years after the illegal annexation of Hawaiʻi. And these reactions and inspirations are different than what filled me when I first lay eyes on them, a contemporary Hawaiian woman who was raised in the years following the Hawaiian Renaissance, who was raised with hula, who was raised to value ʻāina, and who was raised to be an aloha ʻāina. My interpretation of them will always be a product of the present, of who and what we are now, of where and when we happen to be today.

That brings me back to today. I think about these mea makamae and all that they mean to me, and I shed tears once again for what they will come to mean for all of those people who will now get to greet them, to welcome them home, and to embrace them as I have here. They have inspired a range of emotions and reactions throughout the generations. Therefore, while I cannot say what they will bring out of those who will get to see them and visit with them, I am sure that they will stir something: perhaps a sense of hope, perhaps a dream of unity, perhaps a remembrance of strength and pride, perhaps a sense of kuleana. I look forward to seeing what they will come to represent, what they will teach us about ourselves, and how we will continue to talk about, write about, speak, sing, and dance about their existence as a means of further exploring our own.

I can only imagine it. So, I close my eyes once again, picturing them in movement, imagining an ocean made red. They have been two of my most profound teachers in the last four years. They have taught me of responsibility; they have taught me of honor, respect, and humility. They have taught me to consider all that we can do and all that we will do, to leave our mark on history. My efforts may not be as great as Kalaniʻōpuʻu’s, or my story as grand. However, when I looked at them yesterday, as the ceremonies and protocols were being carried on around me—in a mix of Hawaiian and Māori customs—I smiled, quieted my head and heart, and blessed their journey across the ocean, this time perhaps as a reminder of ʻula, of the red that can and shall unite us

E ʻula pū ana nō ka moana i ka ʻahu ʻula.

 

References:

[1] Poepoe, J. (1905, 7 Dec.) Ka moolelo o Kamehameha I: Ka nai aupuni o Hawaii, Ka Nai Aupuni, p. 1.

[2] Poepoe, J. (1906, 12 Sep.). Ka moolelo o Kamehamea I: Ka nai aupuni o Hawaii, Ka Nai Aupuni, p. 1.

[3] He ike alii nui i ike mua ole ia ma hope mai o ke kahuli aupuni (1901, 24 Aug.). Ke Aloha Aina, p. 1.


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Spiritual Action

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It’s time for “spiritual action,” he said.

Spiritual Action!

I stood back thinking about what an incredibly deep yet profoundly simple concept this was. “This is a year for prayer,” he declared, a soft feather hanging from his neck, dancing across the center of his chest. “Last year was a year for outreach, for education. This is a year for spiritual action.”

I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t experience one of those, “Is he speaking directly to me?” moments. Perhaps some things are destined for our ears. Or perhaps sometimes we arrive at points in our lives when we are ready to not only hear certain things, but to truly listen to the messages that they have to teach us. I suppose I was ready for his ideas; or maybe, just maybe, I was ready for him to remind me how act upon my spirit.

A little over two weeks ago, I left Aotearoa and returned to my beloved Hawaiʻi for a visit. What I assumed would be a “normal” trip home, however, turned out to be so much more. I visited the same places: the farm, the hillsides, the valleys, the mist. Yet, something had changed. But the more I looked outward, searching for the difference, the more I had to go inward, realizing that what had changed was me.

One day, I found myself standing on the outskirts of a classroom, listening to his deep voice speak of prayer, and I realized that to pray is an action, one of recognizing connection and responsibility. It is far more than a solemn request or an offer of thanks. It is something that acts upon our relationships to the land, sea, and sky; to the past, the present, and the future; to ourselves and to one another. To pray, I realized, is to know our place in the world.

Having just completed an academic course of study, I wondered if there is any institution that can teach us this. We can write about prayer and the spirit; we can talk about it and even analyze it. Yet, to live it, or to act upon the guidance of the spirit, is an internal journey, an individual one. Perhaps that journey is what had changed my view of the external world, what changed the way I treat it, or the way that I greet it, each and every day.

I learned much from his speech, standing near a classroom of children, thinking about how fortunate they were to receive his words. He and his friends, affectionately known as the “Oak Flat Boys,” had come to sing on our mountain, to offer their prayers and blessing to our land and people. Coming home with no agenda, no set schedule or expectations, I opened up to the possibility of anything and everything, and on one breathtakingly beautiful day, I found myself on the summit of Mauna Kea, witnessing them lift their voices into the wind, sending it to the Piko o Wākea and beyond. They knew their place as defenders of the earth, as guardians of the spirit, as the singers of stories, the composers of hope, the choreographers of history. I stood alongside them, offering my own song, realizing that although we sang in different languages, and although our foundations lay in different lands, that we were standing for the same things: connection and responsibility.

We understood that to stand on the Piko o Wākea, on the summit of our tallest mountain, was to stand to protect it. It was to stand for all that it represents, to stand for the relationship that the land shares with the sky, that connects ancestors to descendants, that connects the people with their stories. We understood that origin and ethnicity did not matter in prayer, neither did language, for we recognized our shared responsibility to the earth, a responsibility that we were born to carry, that we are all born to carry. We understood that to guard the soils that we stand upon, the oceans that we sail upon, the skies that we gaze upon, and the histories that we build upon, is to stand strongly, shoulder to shoulder, nation to nation. That was spiritual action, using prayer—whether sung, spoken, or even meditated—to cultivate and motivate change.

We stood in the wind, a strong wind that carried our voices and our prayers on its currents, sending them floating and flowing to different realms: different lands, seas, and skies. And when we were finished, I knew that to act upon my spirit is to recognize my connections and my responsibilities daily, in both the small and seemingly mundane moments as well as the large and profound. We need not stand on mountains everyday, in other words, in order to stand for mountains. We need not be physically present on each sacred landscape in order to speak for them, in order to sing for them, in order to hope and pray and work for their protection. We need only recognize that to be of the earth is to be connected to it in the same way that a child will always be connected to its mother, long after the umbilical cord is severed. Physical distance never separates us from responsibility, from being guardians of the earth, protectors of the sacred, creators of history.

In spiritual action, I have learned, there is little room for hesitation and much room for courage: courage to stand, courage to act, courage to sing and dance. These are not new lessons or new insights. In fact they are old, incredibly old. I believe that my ancestors, as well as other indigenous people of the earth, understood this. They understood how to act upon their connections and to use that to motivate and inspire change. Therefore, perhaps all that is “new” is my being able to finally explain to myself what I always knew inherently but could never describe. It is quite simply and yet quite profoundly, spiritual action! It is the courage to act upon my spirit, to let it lead, to let it influence, to let it cultivate thought and to motivate action, to let it live.

I thank my Oak Flat teachers for this reminder: shoulder to shoulder, nation to nation, we will stand, our voices lifted into the wind.

Resources:

For more information on Oak Flat, visit: http://www.apache-stronghold.com


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Ka Lanakila o Hawaiʻi: The Victory of Hawaiʻi

Ka Lanakila o Hawaii

In 1893, just two short months after the illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom, a voice sang out from the pages of a newspaper. Rather than mourning or speaking of defeat, as may have been expected, however, it celebrated “Ka Lanakila o Hawaiʻi,” as if declaring that we would be victorious, that our people would continue to rise and stand for what was pono, for what was just.

This voice belonged to Ellen Kekoaohiwaikalani Wright Prendergast, a friend of the deposed Queen Liliʻuokalani and a composer of mele lāhui, or songs for the nation. Although perhaps more famously known for her proclamation that we would rather eat stones than be annexed by the United States, she wrote other songs and shared them openly. She was a true aloha ʻāina, a true patriot, who used her compositions to not only resist, but to also insist that we maintain hope. I ka ʻōlelo nō ke ola. There was indeed life to be found in her words.

Over one hundred years later, I found her mele in a newspaper at a time when I needed hope, when I needed to be reminded of the resilience of our people. “ʻAʻohe kupuʻeu o Kahiki nāna e hōʻoniʻoni mai,” she said, “Ua ēwe, ua malu, ua paʻa. Eia i ka Piko o Wākea.” She taught me that no one from afar could ever shake us as long as we remained rooted and steadfast in the teachings of our kūpuna. There was protection and guidance to be found in their wisdom, in the ancestral knowledge that kept us connected to our ʻāina, that taught us to view it, and treat it, and safeguard it as an ancestor. I found her words while living in another country, physically separated from my home, and as if speaking directly to me, she reminded me that no matter where I was in the world, that I could always find whatever I needed at the “Piko o Wākea,” at the summit of our highest mountain, connecting kānaka to the realm of our akua.

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That’s where I found it, whatever “it” was that I needed, whether strength or guidance, whether inspiration or motivation, or whether just a push to continue to stand and rise even when it was difficult. Her words reminded me that we are only ever defeated if we allow our minds to believe it, if we allow our hearts to feel it, and if we allow our mouths to speak it. Her words reminded me that just maintaining hope for a better future is in itself a victory. Why? Because it motivates us to act. Being Hawaiian, I have learned, is not just a state of existence; it is an action. It is a constant, never-ending dedication that is acted upon, lived, breathed, and shared. Her words taught me that.

Ellen Kekoaohiwaikalani never gave up hope. She continued to fight despite the state of their nation, the overthrow of their Queen, and the possibility that they would lose their kingdom. Thus, I read her words and realized that I need to be more like her; I need to give my descendants a legacy of hope simply because they will deserve nothing less than that. They will deserve strength and guidance and protection. They will deserve my action and my dedication. That is the only way that Hawaiʻi will continue to be victorious despite the circumstances, despite the struggles, and despite the people who will attempt to shake us.

After coming home for a visit, I have witnessed many actions, many expressions of genuine love for the lāhui, many victories:

Last week, a young, Hawaiian man stood in court and defended himself ma ka ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi, entirely in the language of his ancestors. He stood for kuleana, for fulfilling his responsibilities to the land and to his kūpuna. He stood as a protector and won. He won! He lanakila nō ia!

Last weekend, I went to the Piko o Wākea with a group of grounded and incredibly brave Native American men. They sang their songs and reminded us that protecting the land, the sea, and the sky is not just a Hawaiian issue or even an indigenous issue. It is a human one. We lifted our voices and prayers for the earth, nation to nation. He lanakila nō ia!

Two days ago, I sat in a circle of dancers and chanters, practicing a hula that honors our Queen. Guided by the woman who first introduced me to hula as a young girl, I was then asked to teach a chant. I humbly accepted, knowing that to teach was to honor those who taught me, who prepared me, and who guided me. He lanakila nō ia!

Yesterday, I stood before the students of Kanu o ka ʻĀina Charter School, listening to them open the day with chant, greeting the land and sky, and I thought about the woman who started this school, how her dreams for a better Hawaiʻi become a reality each time another student is allowed to learn in a school that honors his or her heritage. He lanakila nō ia!

And as I sat down to write this, my nephew came into my room asking to practice a chant with me. He closed the door, sat at my side, and chanted the very words that I found in the newspaper, the very words that Ellen Kekoaohiwaikalani once wrote for her Queen and her nation. We chanted together, two generations, celebrating all past and future victories for our people. He lanakila maoli nō ia!

Both large and small, these triumphs push us forward. They motivate us. But more than that, they remind us that no matter the circumstance, there always has been and will always be an opportunity to rise above, to look to a time when things will change, when they will be better, when we will lanakila. That hope is in itself a victory.

 

Works Cited:

Kekoaohiwaikalani. (1893, 31 Mar.) Ka lanakila o Hawaii. Ka Leo o Ka Lahui, p. 4

 


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The Light

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My uncle and his family. Photo taken by the Puhi/Haʻo ʻohana.

“The light bulb came on,” he said.

 This is for my uncle.

I grew up around strong men, men who stood for something. They were the type of men whose hands were calloused, whose skin was darkened by the sun, who wore dirt like it was a part of them, their hats always rimmed in sweat stains. They were rough men who could inspire fear. But, oh their voices could soothe when I needed them to and their hands could hold my own when I wasn’t strong enough to stand. They taught me of strength.

I followed them in my youth: large rubber boots digging into rain-drenched forest floors. Silently stepping where they would step, I’d watch them not knowing if my feet would ever plant as deeply as theirs did or if my hands would ever be as steady. They were giants in stature with hearts to match. They’d give everything, even when receiving nothing in return. They taught me of sacrifice.

Yesterday, I spoke to one of these men: my uncle. Through the small screen of my phone, I saw him standing on the side of the road, a Hawaiian flag draped around him, tied securely on his right shoulder. His dark eyes seemed to look straight across oceans; his brow wore its usual wrinkle. He held a sign reading: “Stand for our Mauna!” Stand for our mountain.

He’s always stood for something and now years later, he stands for something still. No longer a child, I watch him and all of the other men who I grew up around. Like the ʻaʻaliʻi, they bend, but never break in the wind. They teach me of resilience.

Like a true uncle, he took a break from his sign waving, the sound of car horns filling the background, and asked me how I was, living so far away from home. Amazed at the wonders of modern technology that allowed me to be “there” without actually being there, he wanted to know what I’d be having for dinner, his voice full with the same humor that comforted my childhood, his feet still rooted in the ground.

“The light bulb came on,” he then said confidently. He had gathered with countless others, holding signs, showing their support and standing for Mauna Kea. He was dedicated. “We have to do it now,” he said, “or we’ll lose everything.” “I’m doing this for the kamaliʻi.” For the children.

I thought about his grandchildren, my little cousins, who I had talked to just before, their bright smiles giving me a spark of hope. And I realized that they’d follow him, their feet planted, their hands turned toward the ground, ready to tend and heal it. He’d lead them just as he and my own father led their children: by embodying those values that our kūpuna lived by.

I grew up around men who did not have to preach about aloha ʻāina because they knew of no other way to be: hands always soiled, feet always treading lightly, even while carrying the weight of generations. And I realized, as I looked at him wearing his Hawaiian flag and waving at cars as they passed by sounding their support, that his “light” had always been on and it had always shined brightly, guiding us, teaching us, illuminating our paths. However, he spoke as if he had just become a part of the movement. “The light bulb came on,” he said, as if he had not been a part of fighting, standing, and striving for the betterment of our people and our land all along.

But to me, he’s always stood for something, even when perhaps he didn’t realize it, and even when perhaps he didn’t receive any acknowledgement. Part of my childhood was spent watching him, my father, and countless other uncles stand for the life of our forests, for our livelihood, for our future. It often took them away from us; it sometimes brought hurt and anger. But it brought hope in equal measure. They taught me of responsibility. And they teach me still.

I hung up the phone wishing that I had told him how I felt, that it is because of him and the many other strong men in my life that I even know how to stand, firmly rooted, grounded in the wisdom of those who came before me. Men like him and my father taught me about aloha ʻāina before I even knew that it was a concept to learn. I wished I had thanked him. But I pictured him standing there, on the side of the road, our Hawaiian flag draped around him, with that same familiar smile that he always greets me with, and I knew that he’d be content just knowing that I will always stand with him, our hands turned toward the ground.


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A Voice For Mauna Kea

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I wandered into a used bookshop yesterday not knowing why. My feet seemed to guide me there, and in my depleted state, I simply followed. It had been a strange day. Walking through the city, I somehow felt as if my heart had swam across ke kai kāwahawaha o ka moana Pākīpika, the furrowed waters of this Pacific Ocean, leaving my body moving slowly, without purpose. I didn’t want to be here. I wanted to be on my mountain, standing with the other kānaka kū kiaʻi mauna, the other protectors of our home.

I had been following the movement—the incredible movement of hope occurring in my beloved Hawaiʻi—and was moved as I watched people come together across the island chain to stand for the life of our mountain. And yet, a sadness stirred within me as my feet tread upon the land of long white clouds, yearning to plant in the soil of my ʻāina kulāiwi.

As I stood near the entrance of the bookshop, my body heavy, I turned and saw the title, Tangata Whenua, a book about the indigenous people of this whenua, this ʻāina, this land, Aotearoa. And seemingly without purpose, I reached for it, opened the cover, and learned of why my feet had guided me there, head unconscious, heart across the ocean:

The centre is the now place which each of us occupies for a time. From the centre one reaches in any direction, to the outer circles from where understanding and inspiration are drawn. There is no great distance in the reaching because we are our own tūpuna. Also we share the dust of stars. Reaching out and drawing in one comes to know oneself, becoming whole and human.

The words of Māori novelist, Patricia Grace, seemed to reach out to me, embracing my cheek like the gentle touch of a kupuna, a tupuna, an ancestor. I wanted to cry. But in that moment I realized the purpose of me being here, thousands of miles away from my mountain, away from my people, away from my home.

I am but one voice. And there are times that I get caught up in being just one voice, one small voice, armed with words and a bit of awareness. There are times that I get caught up in asking myself if I have the ability to really do anything to initiate change. Then I read something like this and remember that I am of no use to my people or my home if I lose any sense of hope that even the smallest voice can stir oceans, can stand upon mountains, and can ring across the sky.

For as Grace reminds us, “…we are our own tūpuna…” They are not separate from us; they are not gone, away, untouchable. They are here, wherever here is because we carry them with us, always. So wherever we stand, we stand as many. And whenever we speak, we speak as many. And whenever we fight, we fight as many. We are our ancestors and our descendants will be us, reaching out to draw inspiration from our actions now. So we must give them something to stand with, to stand for, to stand by.

For those of us who cannot be there physically, standing upon our Mauna Kea, we need not reach far to be there emotionally, spiritually, culturally. For as Grace states, “There is no great distance in reaching…reaching out one comes to know oneself, being whole and human.” So we reach from every corner of the Pacific, drawing understanding, drawing inspiration, drawing support, and drawing hope to the center of our existence, wherever that center may be. And in the act we come to know ourselves as connected, as truly connected.

That is why our mauna matters, why our people matter, why this movement matters. It is because that connection makes us whole, makes us human: conscious of responsibility, ready and willing to move, to act, and yes, to raise our voice, no matter how small it may be.

This is not a Hawaiian movement, a “native” movement, an “indigenous” movement. It is a human one. It is time to stand for the betterment of our future through protecting our ʻāina, our whenua, our land and mother now. So stand with us. Kū kiaʻi mauna. Stand as a protector. Wherever you are. Whoever you are. Stand as and stand with your kupuna, your tupuna, your ancestors, using their languages to speak to new issues, using their metaphors to understand current fights, using their values to guide current actions.

No longer will I waste time walking unconsciously, heart across the ocean, head bent, caught up in my own doubts. I will stand with you, e kuʻu mauna—connected, whole, human—and will walk with you, e nā kānaka kū kiʻai mauna, until the last shout, the last chant, and even the last whisper of my voice.


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For West Papua: A March with Martin Luther King, Jr. and Benny Wenda

The following piece was written to honor Martin Luther King, Jr. Day (being celebrated in America today) and to raise awareness for West Papua. It was also written as a reflection on the work organized and performed by Oceania Interrupted, a collective of Māori and Pacific women raising awareness for issues affecting our Pacific region. Benny Wenda is an independence leader for West Papua, currently living in exile in the United Kingdom. This creative piece is an imagined dialogue between Martin Luther King, Benny Wenda, and myself.

Photo by Tanu Gago and Oceania Interrupted

Photo by Tanu Gago and Oceania Interrupted

“Who will be the voice?” Benny asks. “Who will be the voice?”

I hear Martin’s words, singing: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter.”

This matters. West Papua matters!

So, I take one step forward, my hands bound, my mouth covered in their flag, my body adorned in nothing but a black lavalava. My skin, mourning. But I find the breeze, kiss the rain, and bathe in spots of sun. 

Marching, marching. Eyes ahead. There is voice in these actions. Voice in these movements. Our pace is that of sacrifice, of suffering, of struggle. It is slow. But it moves forward, one step at a time.

Photo by Tanu Gago and Oceania Interrupted

Photo by Tanu Gago and Oceania Interrupted

Martin once told us that “Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.” 

Every step forward is another step towards justice.

Benny’s eyes water for his people: “Our people cry the last fifty years” but “Because we are ‘primitive’, nobody listens.”

I want to cry. I want to cry for them. But I will not dress the flag that binds my mouth in tears. I will only wear it with strength. Marching, marching. Eyes ahead.

I stand in a line of women, Oceanic women, interrupted. Interrupting spaces, thoughts, actions. Giving space for West Papua: space to learn, space to see, space to feel.

I can feel the woman ahead of me, the one behind, our breaths in synch. Marching.

Photo by Tanu Gago and Oceania Interrupted

Photo by Tanu Gago and Oceania Interrupted

Martin once said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands in times of challenge and controversy.”

We stand for West Papua!

Fifteen years. Fifteen years is the amount of time a person in West Papua can be imprisoned for raising their flag. We wear it voluntarily.

At home, I can raise my Hawaiian flag everyday; I can wear it on my chest. I can speak of sovereignty, speak of indigenous rights. I am privileged.

So, I take another step forward. Marching, marching. Eyes ahead. 

Every step forward, no matter how small, is another step towards justice.

Photo by Tanu Gago and Oceania Interrupted.

Photo by Tanu Gago and Oceania Interrupted.

Benny’s hope is like the wind pushing at my back: “I promise, one day West Papua Free! One day I will invite you to meet my tribe, when West Papua is free!”

I think of what his eyes have witnessed: the killings, the rapes, the torture, the imprisonment of his people and I am amazed at his resilience.

He limps forward, his leg injured in the bombing of his village. Every step, painful. Every step, suffering. Every step a sacrifice.

Martin’s words remind us in windy whispers, “If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”

Every step forward, even if crawling, is another step towards justice.

Marching, marching. Eyes ahead. There is voice in these actions. Voice in these movements.

Benny asks again, “Who will be the voice?”

I will. We will.

We cannot be silent. Silence and absence can be mistaken as consent. I do not consent to what is happening in West Papua. Therefore, I will not be silent. I will not be absent.

I will march. We will march, giving voice to those who cannot speak, to those who cannot fight.

Photo by Tanu Gago and Oceania Interrupted.

Photo by Tanu Gago and Oceania Interrupted.

Benny reminds us that we are not separate: “On the outside, we seem a different colour, but inside of your blood, what colour is that? It’s red.”

Therefore, to fight for our Pacific family is to fight for ourselves.

We all bleed red.

“Who will be the voice?” he asks again, then answers his own question, saying, “You are the voice of the tribal peoples around the world.”

Yes we are, Benny. Yes, we are. Marching, marching. Eyes ahead.

Every step, no matter how small, no matter how difficult, no matter how scary, is another step towards justice.

Walk with me.

https://www.facebook.com/OceaniaInterrupted

Photo by Tanu Gago and Oceania Interrupted.

All photos are by Tanu Gago and Oceania Interrupted and were originally posted here. The photos come from a series of acts performed in Wellington, the capital of New Zealand. The first was at the Indonesian Embassy and the second was at the Positively Pasifika Festival held at Waitangi Park. The performances, using visual and performative art, were aimed at raising awareness for West Papua. They were entitled “Capital Interruption: Free West Papua.”

For more information on Oceania Interrupted, visit their page here.

All quotes by Benny Wenda are from here.

For more information on Benny Wenda, read his biography here.

For inspirational quotes by Martin Luther King, Jr., you can find them here.

And finally, for more information on West Papua, go to the Free West Papua Campaign page here.