He Wahī Paʻakai: A Package of Salt

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To love beyond love: a letter to Hawaiʻi

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Roots

E kuʻu Hawaiʻi,

I want a word for this, for this ache. Maybe the word is “love.” But even “love” comes with expectations and definitions. Even “love” cages and binds us to what is familiar, what is understood, what has already been assigned words. “Love” cannot describe what it is to touch you, to put my hands to your soil and smell you, to wake up curled into your slow-moving silences: a flushed red glow on your mountain, mist caught on your hillsides, sweat dripping. “Love” cannot describe what it is to find comfort in your small spaces, nestled somewhere between red dirt footprints and morning dew, the smell of drenched lauaʻe. No, “love” is far too small a word for this.

My Hawaiʻi, I know you beyond love. I love you beyond love. And while my mind wants a word to explain this feeling to myself, maybe the absence of words is what allows me feel you, to see you without boundary, to know you and I as one. Maybe the absence of words is what keeps me searching for every new way to appreciate you, to rejoice in the very fact of you, to know your moods and shades, what you look like in the shadows of the sun, and then again in the light of the dark. Maybe this, this “something,” is why I cry and shout for you, why I dance and chant of you. Maybe this “something” is every reason I pray.

Hawaiʻi, you’ve taught me that loving you, or knowing you, or what ever “this” is takes courage because with all of “this” there is the inevitability of pain. My stomach churns whenever I see you hit, ripped, targeted by greed, knowing that every sign I hold, and every letter I send, and every protest I stand at cannot erase your scars or relieve the agony of torment. When I see what’s happened to your oceans, your waves impregnated with the runoff of waste and a ravenous hunger for “more,” I want to clear every bit of you, to rub you down, and bathe you. I want to massage away the memories of destruction, soothing every inch of you with my fingertips. When I realize that I’ve heard too many stories spreading the myth of separation—my separation, our separation, from you—I carry the weight of what it has done to you: stagnant waters, severed summits, barren soils. When I know you’ve been wronged, hurt, made to bleed, I want to find your roots and nurture them, bringing each and every one up to my lips to whisper: “crawl, spread, grow; hold her together from the inside.”

You, my Hawaiʻi, you are my ʻāina. You are every thing that “feeds,” that nourishes. But I know that I’ve done damage calling you, and every aspect of you, a “resource.” I’ve centralized my needs, our needs, forgetting that you are far more than what you’ve been used for. You are sacred and special, beautiful and fearsome, able to create and thrive without me. So, sometimes I wonder if my unrelenting passion to protect and “save” you comes from the false notion that you somehow need me. Sometimes I think that that the best way to help you is to let you be, to step out of the way—and to pull everyone else to the side with me—to give you room to breathe and stretch. Sometimes I think that I owe you space and time to heal. And in quiet, solitary moments, I wonder if that’s what it really means to “love” you beyond love.

Oh my Hawaiʻi, I’ve loved and been loved. But I’ve also smothered and been smothered. I’ve been told I’m too intense. I’ve been told my fire is too strong. I’ve been made to believe that this, whatever “this” is inside of me, needs to be tamed. I’ve even been instructed to drink water—to always drink water, to swim in water, to have water around me at all times—to control my flame. Because sometimes, my Hawaiʻi, I burn. And sometimes I hurt. But, while I tried for so many years to squelch this, to suppress this, to swallow this even while it blistered my throat, you showed me that the same intensity that is overwhelming for some is what allows me to love you beyond all love. It is what allows me to find you in spaces where words don’t exist, where they can’t exist.

It is to those spaces, my Hawaiʻi, that I will always return. I may leave, but it is only to dip into deep blues, to find myself in waves, to arrive at stones, ready to taste them. It is to learn to love all the way I love you: beyond. Tomorrow I leave for another place, for a land of long white clouds and the view of skies through pohutukawa branches. And I know that in time I will come to ache for this place and for others the way I ache for you, to want to protect them the way I want to protect you, to want to take my lips to their roots, whispering. I know in time that I will allow myself to be loved in return, to be seen beyond words, to be open to the pain of a fierce and brave connection. And it will be, all of it will be, because you loved me beyond love, in every shade, in every small space, and in every slow-moving silence of the morning.

Me ke aloha pau ʻole,
Emalani

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at the rim: towards a truly pacific Pacfic

pacific
adjective / pa .Ÿ cif Ÿ. ic

1
a: tending to lesson conflict: conciliatory
b: rejecting the use of force as an instrument of policy

2
a: having a soothing appearance or effect
b: mild of temper

3
capitalized: of, relating to, bordering on, or situated near the Pacific Ocean

RIMPAC
noun / rim Ÿ. pac

1
a: tending to increase conflict: not conciliatory
b: using force as an instrument of policy

2
a: having a destructive, demeaning, demoralizing appearance or effect
b: violent in temper

3
capitalized: of, relating to, or in reference to the Rim of the Pacific exercise

4
a: in 2018, war games involving 26 nations, 25,000 personnel, 18 countries, 47 ships, 5 submarines, and more than 200 aircraft
b: war games bringing gunnery, live-fire events, missile shots, and naval strikes to Hawaiian lands and waters
c: war games said to “increase cooperative relationships that are critical to ensuring the safety of sea lanes and security on the world’s interconnected oceans” (U.S. Navy)

– – –

Dear Reader (whoever, wherever, and whenever you may be),

I hope you will forgive the absence of a formal introduction. My name, face, and credentials do not matter as much as the fact that I, like you, have come to this letter for a reason. If you’ve stumbled upon these words, I’m going to assume it’s because of our shared concern about RIMPAC. Or, perhaps, it’s even because you support these biennial war games and therefore seek to counter my arguments. Either way, you are here (or I should say, we are here) and I’d rather spend the short amount time we have together to send an invitation to you, an invitation to stand at the rim of something revolutionary:

Real Safety. Real Security. Real Peace. Real Pacific-ness.

RIMPAC 2018 is here and it is imperative that we focus on what that means:

  • It means that representatives from 26 nations will bring their ships, their weapons, and their intentions to “play” war in and around our islands.
  • It means that Hawaiʻi’s lands and waters will be used (once again) as targets.
  • It means that the health of Hawaiʻi’s residents (including our winged, hoofed, finned, and leafed relatives) is at risk.
  • It means that thousands of soldiers will come ashore with “needs” and “demands” that turn adults and children into victims of sex trafficking.
  • It means penetration.
  • It means abuse in every possible way.
  • It means the continued marginalization of indigenous peoples’ concerns as lands are desecrated and as conversations of the sacred are once again ignored, or worse, ridiculed.
  • It means the continued prioritization of colonial agendas.
  • It means more problematic military rhetoric: “It’s for the good of mankind.”
  • It means attempts to disguise what is ultimately a violent, dehumanizing, and destructive exercise with themes like this year’s “Capable, Adaptive, Partners.”
  • It means the militarization of Hawaiʻi and the larger Pacific.

RIMPAC 2018 is here and it is therefore essential that we act upon what that means:

  • It means we must resist.
  • It means we must hope for change, as radical as that hope may be.
  • It means we must be daring enough to stand at the rim of something revolutionary: an end to the bombing, an end to militarism, and an end to the use and abuse of our lands, our waters, and our bodies.
  • It means we must call our representatives, write to our government officials, sign petitions, and stand for a halt to destruction.
  • It means we must care.
  • It means we must insist and be heard.
  • It means we must compose songs and poetry, choreograph new histories, and continue to create love (in spite of hate).
  • It means we must not let another generation believe that the presence of every tank, chopper, or war ship is “normal”.
  • It means we must put an end to the sound, feel, and fear of bombs: literal and cultural.

In order to stand at the rim of something revolutionary, my dear reader, we must admit that there is nothing “pacific” about the Rim of the Pacific exercise, that peace cannot be born of destruction, that practicing “war” only brings war, that we cannot “lessen” conflict while giving it a space to thrive. In order to stand at the rim of something revolutionary, we must be revolutionary:

Revolutionary in thought. Revolutionary in action. Revolutionary in our conviction. Revolutionary in our belief that change will come.

We, each and every single one of us—regardless of political affiliation, sexual orientation, ethnic make-up, level of education, economic status, country of residence, or religious belief—come from the earth. The earth is our common inheritance and therefore our common responsibility. The unfortunate reality, however, is that while we are “fully dependent on living systems,… much of humanity has disengaged from the natural world and is participating in its destruction, which is also a self-destruction” (Canty, 2018, p. 53). Therefore, RIMPAC (and every other damaging and destructive exercise) cannot claim to defend life, or to act for our safety or security, while simultaneously promoting war, while destroying lands, while polluting waters, and while playing at the rim of death.

In the end, the ability to shoot a gun or to aim and fire a missile will not matter if we have completely obliterated everything we need to survive. In the end, the egos of our politicians and so-called “leaders” who lean on military prowess like support staffs will fall and crash anyway. Ego cannot feed and fame cannot nourish. And no amount of large ships, or choppers, or tanks, or submarines will be able to reverse the impacts of too many bombs, too many shots, too many pollutants, too many chemicals, and too many deaths (of bodies birthed, hatched, planted, and created).

In order to stand at the rim of something revolutionary—at the rim of real safety, real security, real peace, and real pacific-ness—we must dream of a better world and we must move towards a better world. We must be willing to go beyond the edge, into the thick of change. We must continue to inform ourselves, we must challenge and critique structures of power, we must stand to protect our earth, we must lower our impact on our environments, we must take care of ourselves and of one another. We must put an end to violence: violence against the earth and violence against ourselves. And we must work for justice: environmental justice, cultural justice, and social justice.

We must end RIMPAC!

When it ends, we will stand at the rim, with our feet firmly planted at the edge of a truly pacific Pacific, ready to leap in.

Come with me.

With hope,
Your friend

 

References:

Canty, J. (2018) I am a body on the body of the earth. In Oppression and the Body:
Roots, Resistance, and Resolutions. C. Caldwell & L. Leighton (eds.) Berkley: North Atlantic Books, 53-63.

U.S Navy. (2018) U.S. Navy Announces 26th Rim of the Pacific Exercise.
http://www.navy.mil/submit/display.asp?story_id=105789

 


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The stories we choose to tell ourselves about ourselves.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let me explain.

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

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

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

Then we move to the next topic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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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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Take a deep breath

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

Photo Nov 13, 3 16 25 PM (1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I quietly prayed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was my prophecy.

No words. Just tremors.

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

And I knew it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or, he could have been speaking far beyond that.

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

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

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

Here’s to 34.


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My Pacific (Studies)

teresia

Teresia Teaiwa and I, Wellington, New Zealand, 2016

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

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

She wasn’t lying.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

References:

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