He Wahī Paʻakai: A Package of Salt

adding flavor and texture to your world through story


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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.


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Our Land, Our Body: Training Advisory, June 2017

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

(U.S. Army)

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Love thy neighbor as thyself?

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

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

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

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

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

How do we come to celebrate conquest, we wondered.

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

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

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

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

Penetrate. Land. Mother. Daughter. Neighbor?

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

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

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

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

Love thy neighbor as thyself?

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

We’ve cried.

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

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

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

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

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

We did not give our consent and we never will.

Love thy neighbor as thyself?

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

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

References:

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

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

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


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Stop the Noise: An Open Letter to the U.S. Army Garrison-Pōhakuloa

pohakuloa

Pōhakuloa (photos by Hāwane Rios)

To the U.S. Army Garrison-Pōhakuloa (USAG-P),

Thank you for the opportunity to submit this letter of concern regarding your military training.

You opened up this space for community members to express their concerns related to “noise.” Therefore, I’d like to take a moment to comment on the noise and hope that these words will not be met with silence but with a swell of voices and actions, chorusing together for justice.

Noise, as you are well aware, refers to sounds: loud and sometimes-disturbing sounds, confused and sometimes-violent sounds.

Noise disrupts.
Noise destroys.

Noise, also has origins in Old English, in the sense that it was applied to quarreling. And in Old French and Latin, it comes from the word “nausea,” meaning seasickness.

Noise causes disagreement and argument.
Noise causes sickness.

In Hawaiian, we refer to noise as “hana kuli,” something that makes us deaf, something that can make us close our ears, our eyes, and eventually our minds, to injustice.

I’m afraid that so much noise may result in the loss of an ability to listen, to really hear us, to hear the earth, to hear our collective cries. I’m afraid that so much noise will result in silence, your silence…

…or the ultimate tragedy: our silence, our complacency, and our ultimate demise.

Last night I lay awake listening to the noise, feeling the noise. Each bomb shook my body. Each bomb shook my heart. And my thoughts shifted to my two-month old nephew, sleeping “peacefully.” I wondered about “peace.”

What kind of world is he growing up in? What kind of world am I to introduce him to when there have been more bombs than days he’s been alive and he cannot sleep without feeling them: his tiny body being impacted by the noise, his future being destroyed by noise, his home being bombed by your noise? When did his life, and the life of all of our children, become so un-important, so un-significant, so un-valuable that you would dare to bomb his home, threatening his resources, his livelihood, his chance to live in true peace?

As I write this I watch him drink, sucking at the source of sustenance that feeds him and I wonder, what about his mother? The earth? What about her? Who will feed him when she is too tired to deal with the noise, the disruptions, the desecration, the sounds that make us deaf?

Our mother lays exposed at Pōhakuloa. And you rape her; you take advantage of her, penetrating her with your phallic bombs, as if trying to show off your own masculinity, your own power, your own control. And all the while, I hear her screaming. I feel her screaming.

There. Is. So. Much. Noise.

And we are expected to be quiet, to be quiet-ed by the noise. We are expected to cower in the face of your supposed strength and force. We are expected to be rendered deaf, blind, and heartless.

We are expected to forget:

To forget that you seized 84,000 acres of our land at no cost.
To forget that Pōhakuloa is larger than the islands of Kahoʻolawe and Lanaʻi combined.
To forget that bombing any piece of land is unjust, but that bombing land that people live on is an act of war.
To forget that you used Depleted Uranium on our mother, letting it seep into her skin, our skin.
To forget that you destroyed historic sites, attacking the physical and spiritual center of our livelihood.
And to forget that you threatened—and continue to threaten—our health in every imaginable way.

But you forget. You forget that we are connected to our mother, to Papa, to the very land that we call home. And as long as she makes noise—voicing her discontent, voicing her anger, voicing her pain—we will be here to listen and we will speak, chant, shout, pray and sing until you hear us.

Do not feign deafness. This noise, our noise, cannot be ignored.

I will continue to be noisy: to speak noisily, to type noisily, to raise my voice with volume and intensity until you can hear me, until you can hear us, until you can hear the earth, and until you are moved and shaken enough to care.

Like a bomb to your heart, you will feel this. You must feel this and act.

So, I ask, what will you do to stop the noise?

Hear us and do not respond with silence.

Sincerely,
Emalani Case (making noise for all the protectors of this land)

Here are some of them:


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On Being a Kanu o ka ʻĀina

The following speech was delivered at ʻĀlana, the first benefit gala for Kanu o ka ʻĀina, a Hawaiian-focused charter school located in my hometown of Waimea on the Big Island of Hawaiʻi. I was invited to come home last Friday, 28 October 2016, to offer some “inspirational words.” Therefore, since graduating from the school 15 years ago, I decided to share what it has come to mean, at least for me, to be a Kanu o ka ʻĀina, a native of the land, in the 21st century. 

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At Kanu o ka ʻĀina, with our kana o ka ʻāina, our natives of the land, the next generation. 

Silence.

There is something to be said for silence, for the absence of sound, of words, of response. Silence carries meaning. It is never empty, never devoid of at least some significance.

My students taught me this. For in silence there can be ignorance, but there can also be consideration. There can be a mutual understanding and love, and in the case of one of my students, there can be a deep-seated sense of obligation and hope, one that does not always need words, one that does not always need sound.

A few weeks ago, in the last days of the trimester, after spending three months teaching a Pacific Studies course on art and activism in New Zealand, one of my students—a bright and bubbly girl from the islands of Tuvalu—rendered us silent when she stood in front of the class and asked, “What happens when you don’t have land? What happens then?”

We had spent time talking about environmental activism, considering those who stand to protect ʻāina, to protect land as a means of guarding and maintaining our sources of physical, spiritual, cultural, intellectual, and emotional sustenance and nourishment. And as I encouraged them to think about our own attachments to place, as islanders from homelands spanning our great Oceania—from the islands Fiji, to Tonga, to Tokelau, to Tuvalu, to Samoa, to the Cook Islands, to Aotearoa, to Hawaiʻi—I had neglected to consider her question.

So, in an uncharacteristic moment for her—a student who has not allowed the realities of life to crush to her optimism and joy, or her constant laughter—she stood in front of the class, stared directly ahead and said again, “What happens when you have no land, no base?”

You see, she is from Tuvalu, one of the groups of islands in the Pacific most vulnerable to the disastrous impacts of climate change, and in particular, rising sea levels. In fact, it is predicted that if current trends continue that Tuvalu will be one of the first nations in the world—along with Kiribati and the Marshall Islands—to be swallowed by the sea.

Thus, unlike those of us here who talk about land being taken by governments, by organizations, by greed, she was speaking quite literally about land lost, or perhaps land taken back to the ocean from which it came. “What happens then?” she pleaded.

Silence.

All I could do, in that moment, was offer her my silence. I could not pretend to understand the weight of her question, to consider the day when she and her family become permanent residents of another country—the first climate change refugees—with no land to return to, no land to plant themselves upon, no land to ground their identities in. Therefore, I could not attempt to craft a mundane or scientific response for the sake of response. And I could not offer words for the sake of words, for the sake of filling the silence.

No.

All I could give her was my silent acknowledgement of her struggle, or our human struggle, and my hope. She didn’t need my words, and more than that, she didn’t even need my tears. She needed my strength. And I gave that to her in my silence, while also making a vow to never let that silence be misconstrued or mistaken as consent.

You see our world is far too silent about far too many things, and that silence carries meaning.

Now you may be asking yourself, what does this have to do with Kanu o ka ʻĀina?

The name of our school comes from an ʻōlelo noʻeau, an old proverb that states, “Kalo kanu o ka ʻāina.” Translated, it means, “Taro planted on the land.” But metaphorically, it refers to us, to kānaka maoli, as being the kalo, as being natives of the land, who have been planted on the land, for generations.

What this school taught me, and what it continues to teach its students, is how to be a kanu o ka ʻāina, a native of the land, in the 21st century. And at the core of this identity is kuleana, or responsibility to ʻāina.

But I had never considered, not until that moment, as I looked into the eyes of my student, what it could mean to be a kanu o ka ʻāina in the absence of ʻāina.

And that’s when I realized: this is plight of indigenous people.

We live in a world that makes every attempt to marginalize us, to push us to the side, to silence our hopes, our dreams, and perhaps worst of all, our belief in our histories, in our stories, in ourselves.

Thus I reflected, and as I did so, her question haunted me, returning to me over and over again, as I thought about my own attachments to place, my own sense of responsibility, my own loyalties to ʻāina. Then one night, as I sat down to write her a response and to finally fill my previous silence with more than just hope and love, with more just than a shot at mundane or scientific fact, but with an earnest attempt to make sense of her struggle—of our struggle—I remembered an essay I once read, called “On Being Indigenous” and decided to share it with her.

In this essay, psychologist Michael Chandler (2013) asks: “How are indigenous persons meant to understand themselves, and instruct their children, in a world no longer willing to make a place for them? As country and country foods grow more inaccessible, as indigenous languages go extinct, as songs and stories and rituals are forgotten, as once traditional ways of dress become increasingly ersatz and costume-like and as cultural icons (once symbolic of a whole way of life) grow increasingly commercialized and Hollywoodized, how are indigenous persons to locate or to put into words and actions whatever constitutes the gravitational center of their own persistent indigeneity?” (p. 86)

Her homeland, with a population of around 10,000, is often considered so small in comparison to the rest of the world, so remote, so isolated, and so limited, that they fall off the radar, or in this case, they sink beneath the surface of what we choose to pay attention to. Thus, they live in a world that is too preoccupied to care about the impacts of a human-created catastrophe.

That’s when it dawned on me, whether it is through trying to replace temples with telescopes, or to poison waters with pipelines, or as one of our presidential candidates has done, trying to dismiss the realities of climate change, even while it threatens the existence of whole homelands, our ʻāina is littered (quite literally) with examples of such attempted erasure, physically and culturally.

But in the end, as the Prime Minister of Tuvalu once reminded us, “There are no boundaries to the effects of climate change” (ABC, 2014). Thus, what is happening there—as shorelines are washed away and lands are flooded, as soils and freshwaters are salinized, and as islanders stand ankle-deep on ʻāina now covered by ocean—will one day happen here, and everywhere. Therefore, to care about and to act on such issues is not just about saving some lives, but about saving all of humanity.

And it starts with kuleana, with being taught in a way that nurtures a sense of responsibility to ʻāina, filling silence with hope and action. That is what this school does.

At the end of her presentation, my student looked at the class, and with her usual smile, said quite nonchalantly for the occasion, “People call Tuvalu ‘The Sinking Island.’ But we are still here.”

And the reality is that they will continue to be, with or without their base. But that does not allow for complacency. In fact, our task now is to ensure that we save what we can while we can and that we work towards maintaining spaces—both physically and ideologically—in which we can continue to be indigenous, in which we can continue to understand ourselves and to instruct our children in ways that are distinctly our own, or as Chandler said, in which we can put words and actions to what is considered to be the gravitational center of our own persistent indigenetity.

Persistent Indigenetity.

That is what I learned from my student. And that is what I now carry for all of us: my persistence in being indigenous.

Rather than surrender to what some would believe is their inevitable fate, their inevitable doom, my student carries hope. Some may call her hope radical, for she looks to a future that she believes can and will be better than today, despite every attempt that this world has made to show her different.

And that is something I refuse to be silence about. In fact, it is that persistence that I choose to celebrate.

Why?

Because silence can be and often is misconstrued as consent of injustice, or as disregard and dismissal. And I’d rather spend my time creating spaces for our continued existence, here and everywhere.

My student, in her optimism despite all odds, reconfirmed and validated a lesson that I learned here, at this school, many years ago.

Our kuleana, or our responsibility as kanu o ka ʻāina is to ensure that there will always be a space for us, that when the world pushes, that we push back, and do not simply resist, but insist upon our place! This means sharing, this means speaking, this means singing and chanting, or writing and choreographing. This means creating and constructing; this means stomping and crying and praying when we need to because to do so is to fill the silence with dreams and hopes, with belief.

To do so is to fill the silence with love.

“Love,” as one of my students once said, “is a political act” against a world that teaches us to not love ourselves, our history, our values and beliefs, our skin color, our ancestors.

This is why I maintain, whole-heartedly, that Kanu o ka ʻĀina is not simply a “school of choice,” as it is often called, or a school that students can choose as an option, or an alternative, or an exception to the rule. Rather, I believe that Kanu o ka ʻĀina is a “school of necessity.” We need it because we live in a world that will continue to take our spaces if we are not willing to create them, to save them, and to nurture them for our future now.

Here, at Kanu o ka ʻĀina, when children sing the songs that tell our history, they create and save our space for singing. When they dance the dances of our ancestors, they create and save our space for dancing. When they speak our language, they create and maintain our space (and our right) to do so, now and forever. And when they write, think, and articulate their own existence, they let the world know that our lives matter, that our cultures matter, that our histories matter, and that they always did!

When we move and act, dance, chant, and sing with that truth, or with the knowing that our world is better because of the spaces that indigenous peoples hold, then we know that this school is far more than just “culturally-based.” It is a school of persistent indigeneity because our survival as a human race depends on such persistence.

Kanu o ka ʻāina is not about teaching culture, but about creating culture, a culture based firmly in our pasts, but responding to and acting for the needs of today. This school is about responsibility to ʻāina, not just for us, but for all of humanity.

You see our ancestors understood how to act with the ʻāina, and those islanders in the Pacific, on islands like Tuvalu, who continue to live lives of subsistence, understand this still. And yet they are the ones most at risk: our teachers, our elders, the ones with the knowledge of how to be true kanu o ka ʻāina.

Thus, we cannot be content with words for words sake, with action for actions sake, with mundane attempts at filling silence for the sake of being heard.

We must only be content with space, with a place for us to forever be kanu o ka ʻāina, to be indigenous, to be native, to be the ancestors that our children and our grandchildren will get to look to in a world that we have opened and freed for them.

That is kanu o ka ʻāina.

Mahalo.

References:

ABC (Producer). (2014, 31 Oct.). Tuvalu Prime Minister Enele Sopoanga says climate change ‘like a weapon of mass destruction’. [Web article] Retrieved from http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-08-15/an-tuvalu-president-is-climate-change-27like-a-weapon-of-mass-/5672696

Chandler, M. J. (2013). On being indigenous: An essay on the hermeneutics of ‘cultural identity’. Human Development, 56(2), 83-97.


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Chanting with Waves

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Pololū, Kohala, Hawaiʻi

For PASI 301

I once met a man who chanted with waves.

Words s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-d, vowels e-l-o-o-n-g-a-t-e-d, chanted s-l-o-o-o-o-w-l-y.

He was not in control of the timing, nor of time itself. The waves were. Thus, his breaths mimicked the rhythm of the ocean, which on that day, were smooth, slow, and steady.

He had not always been this way, of course. In fact, history had stripped his tongue of the taste of ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi, the language his ancestors spoke, making the chant feel foreign in his mouth. He struggled with the words, rolled them around, chewing on them, all the while frustrated at what should have been his since birth, but wasn’t.

When I spoke to him years later, he recalled being led to the shoreline. His teacher pointed to a stone. “Here,” he was told, “stand here.” Nervously, he did as his teacher instructed, steadying his bare feet on the hard, black surface beneath him, eyes fixed on the ocean.

He would rather have eaten stones. But here, he was made to swallow the sea.

Now chant.

Each line had to follow a wave, a single wave, as it moved toward the shore. He was told that he could not complete a line until the water hit the sand. Thus, the once small and simple chant was drawn out, slowed down, made to match the tempo of the waves, the tune of the sea, the flow of his Pacific. There was no rushing the process for there could be no rushing when it came to remembering who and what he was.

It was hard at first, as hard as the stubborn stone he stood upon. But slowly, s-l-o-o-o-w-l-y, memorization and recitation gave way to internalization, to feeling the chant, to knowing it, and tapping into an ancestral rhythm that was always there, yes, there, just beneath the surface.

He had learned to chant with the ocean.

His story always comes back to me, much like the incessant waves that beat upon the shore and return, time and time again, no matter how many times they are sent away. It washes over me. Unlike him, however, I grew up chanting the chants of my ancestors, grew up dancing their dances too. I never knew the discomfort he felt, never experienced how the ancestral could feel foreign in the mouth and in the body.

And yet, he had seemed to capture something I’ve been trying my entire life to grasp: the ocean.

As one of my intellectual ancestors, Epeli Hauʻofa, once said, the ocean is “the inescapable fact of our lives” (p. 405). She is always there, always present, always impacting: hitting us when we need to be hit, soothing us when we need to be soothed, and rocking us gently when we need both compassion and reality.

And while many of us “lack the conscious awareness” of the ocean, she never turns away from us or hides away, irritated at our ignorance (p. 405). Rather, she waits because “The potentials [of the sea] are enormous, exciting—as they have always been” (p. 405).

When he said he chanted with waves, that’s when I learned, truly learned, what Epeli had been saying all along: The ocean is in us. Our words, our chants, and our actions are not meant to merely mimic the waves or to follow the sea. They are meant to remind us of the ocean that exists within, of our own fluidity, or as my intellectual hero, Teresia Teaiwa, once said, of the salt water we cry and sweat. Yes, the ocean is in us. Thus, to tap into that fluid and always expanding nature within is to chant, dance, write, stomp, rage, cry, and sing with the waves, never against them (never against ourselves).

Yesterday his story returned to me once again as I said goodbye to a group of students who I have shared the last twelve weeks with. I will not say that I “taught” them. Rather, I will honor the fact that we taught each other, and that we learned and grew together. As we moved around the classroom, listening to each student share their personal reflections, stories, and highlights from the term, I felt like that man, standing on the shoreline, chanting with the waves.

You see these students had become my waves, my ocean.

Over the past 3 months, I’ve watched them rise like the tide to fill spaces that had once been left empty in their own lives, and then to tread in their wholeness, sometimes uncomfortably, sometimes passionately. I watched them emerge—struggling at times, as we all do—but emerge nonetheless. Yesterday, they spoke of voice, of passion, of confidence, of pride, of responsibility, of ancestral wisdom, of dreams, of hope, of love. “Love,” one of them said, “is a political act!”

What more could I have asked for?

They had embraced love as a social force, a force for change. They had hopes for freedom, not just politically, and not just for themselves. They knew that if they stared too intently at the stones they stood upon as individuals that they would miss the pull, the draw, and the tune of the ocean. So, they embraced it. They embraced it as part of themselves.

It was liberating.

For it was not just the Pacific that had been liberated, but it was the ocean within them that had been freed. 

Freed to flow.

And it did flow: smoothly, s-l-o-w-l-y, steadily. They created waves and they became waves, beating against my heart, soothing and rocking my soul. They made me want to move and chant with them. They shared their dreams and hopes for our Pacific, and in time, I settled into their rhythm, and their dreams and hopes became my own, for them, for all of us.

As I left the classroom, I carried hope, like the man who chanted with waves, an internal, beautiful, and radical hope for the future. And although I cannot see or predict that future, I know we will create it together: me, my waves, and our Oceania.

References:

Hauʻofa, E. (1998). The ocean in us. The Contemporary Pacific, 10(2), 391-410.