The following address was written for a panel entitled “Vā Moana.” The panel was part of Talanoa Mau, a gathering of artists, creatives, thinkers, and doers held at The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa on the 24th and 25th of February 2020. Talanoa Mau, organized by Lemi Ponifasio, sought to address critical questions about what it means to be human in today’s world.
Yesterday, a question was posed about stories. Thomas King said it best, “The truth about stories is that that’s all we are.” We are our stories. We are stories in development, stories defying the assumed permanence of the page, stories proving theories of weakness and inferiority wrong, stories built on stories. Every story is made and remade as we interact with it, shape it, use it to suit our own agendas. Stories are power; they capture our histories, our triumphs, our tragedies, our hopes, and our futures.
So, I’m going to tell you a story, a somewhat tragic one, but one that is also hopeful. And yes, it will be one pushing an agenda. I share it hoping that it may encourage us to reflect on how we act and interact with place, especially as we increasingly find ourselves in each other’s spaces.
I live on a stream, a stream I can’t see, a stream whose flow I cannot hear, a stream I have no choice but to walk over, everyday. According to old stories and records, Waikoukou was the name of a small stream that ran freely where Wellington’s Boulcott Street declines and curves into the center of the city today. I live on this street. I live on this stream. Waikoukou was also the name of a small pool located somewhere at the intersection of Boulcott Street and Manners Street, a place where birds were said to bathe. I can’t hear them now, but often wonder what they used to sound like.
If you walk in the city, work in the city, live in the city, drive in the city, are currently in the city, then you’ve probably walked on (or have been walking on) water. The place we now call Wellington was once (and still is) a place of water, of life-giving streams, each with a name and each with a story. Literally paving the way for “development” meant that the streams had to be intentionally disappeared as a city was built on, over, and around Indigenous people and Indigenous land. The streams were taken from the sun and rain and made to run in concrete tunnels, now flowing through culverts in the dark, finding their outlets at the ocean not by their own memory, but by control. If you walk city streets, you may find markers of these streams, subtle pieces of art flowing across concrete—pounamu inlets in the footpath near parliament, blue water marks painted outside a Z-petrol station, a soundscape in a tunnel giving us the sounds of water while denying us the ability to truly listen. The art somehow attempts to remind us of what once was, even while names fall out of use and our mouths curve around different stories, imposed and built stories, remembered and ingrained against our will, day after day, as even the simple act of giving directions forces us to reinforce one story: a colonial one. Wakefield. Lambton. Tory. Cuba. Oriental. Names of conquest. Names of invasion.
Even the “wild and free” streams we think we know, like Pipitea Stream at Wellington’s famous Botanic Gardens, have been made to appear that way: the illusion of freedom while their paths are curated, both above and below ground, and while we follow them looking for something “pure” or “untainted.” Saturday morning strolls with roses made possible by dispossession, alienation, colonization.
Yesterday I sat with a woman who lamented the absence of a European perspective at this Talanoa. “Where is it?” she asked. “It’s everywhere,” I said. The dominant perspective is everywhere, so visible, so normalized, that it is rendered invisible. Like concrete we stop seeing as we walk over it, day after day, concrete over streams we cannot hear, streams we walk over because we cannot walk in them. Streams we forget.
Now you may wonder what place a Hawaiian woman, a migrant to this country, has in this conversation. Initially, I wondered the same thing. But then rather than waste time and energy contemplating my adequacy or lack thereof, I thought, since I’m here and since our time is transient, I will not waste this space. Rather, I will use it to encourage a remembering, a recalling of ancestral ways of thinking and relating. Our panel is about vā, a relational space, a space between, that is never empty but is always full of potential, a space to nurture. When I think about the space between myself and the stream I live on, I realize that the hardest work to be done in tending to that relationship is realizing that we were never, and are never, separate. Not even concrete, I realize, can block me, block us, from the knowing that we have a responsibility to nurture our relationships with place, starting with the ground beneath our feet, no matter how far below, or through how many layers of concrete, that ground may be.
Vā Moana, the full title of this panel, encourages a rethinking of the way we relate to place. While moana may push us to think of the vast ocean that connects our many islands in the Pacific, the vā, the relational space, tells us that before looking out, before our eyes gaze across furrowed waters, we need to look down, reach down, turn hands down to the earth: feel it, hear it, smell it, taste it, love it. We need to remember that our entrance into moana starts at the shore, where sand creates an in-between space, both fluid and solid. We need to see moana not only for everything and everyone it reaches “out there,” but for the intimacy of how it meets with awa, with rivers and streams, where waters converge, mix, and create life at the vā, at the in-between. We need to remember how our actions in place fill the waters that flow to the moana, get caught in twisting currents, carried to other places and peoples, reminding us of our interconnectedness and the colonial myth of separation.
My ancestors, the ones who move through my hands, who center my voice, the ones whose stories I am living, they taught me how to love place, not in a fluffy, light way, but in a fierce, ferocious way, a way that sometimes hurts. They taught me to love all places the way I love my own home, to stand to protect this whenua the same way I stand to protect my maunga, Mauna Kea, all the way across our moana, in my Hawaiʻi.
This love, this love that can and will save us, is only possible when we can see, when we can truly see even what is being concealed, covered, culverted, colonized. This love is our Indigenous reference, our Indigenous knowledge: this aroha, alofa, aloha. Lemi asked, “How can we do better in real practical terms in the places where we live together, do our work, and make our art?” I think it starts with acknowledging place and acknowledging the people of the places we’re in. I think it starts with knowing where we are, how it is that we are here, and what being here means. I think it starts with learning the stories that aren’t being told, not by requesting they be handed to us, but by doing the work to earn them and then the work to maintain them. I think it starts with knowing that living with the ancestral wisdom of relation is the only choice we have, the only choice if we want to save this world.
In the past few years—with my people standing at Mauna Kea, kaitiaki standing at Ihumātao, Indigenous peoples standing at Djab Wurrung territory in Australia, the Wet’suwet’en standing in Canada right now, and so many more—I’ve heard it said time and time again that Indigenous peoples are now standing up and speaking out. The truth is that we’ve always been standing up, acting upon our ancestral responsibility to the earth, nurturing our relationship to place, and fighting to protect it even when it hurts. So, to those who think we’ve only just started I say, “Come join us in the future we’re already living in, the one we’re creating right now, with the dreams of our ancestors and the hopes of our children, the one we’ve been safeguarding for all of us, a future built by and for stories.”