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A Gift of Dreams: For the Senior Class of Kanu o ka ʻĀina 2017

The following speech was delivered as a commencement address for the graduating class of Kanu o ka ʻĀina on May 26, 2017.

kanu2017

The senior class of Kanu o ka ʻĀina New Century Public Charter School 2017

She had come seeking facts, things she could memorize, things she could forget when the test was over. She didn’t want to hear about heart and she certainly didn’t want to listen to her own.

“It takes a lot of effort to care about something you cannot change,” she said, looking at her own hand holding her favorite purple pen, ready to take notes on anything worth writing.

That day her paper remained blank.

I teach a class entitled Introduction to Pacific Islands Studies at the University of Hawaiʻi-West Oʻahu. In our attempt to move beyond “mundane fact,” as Samoan novelist and scholar Albert Wendt encourages, I push my students to not only examine the Pacific, but to explore their place in it [1]. I always hope that students will not only come to see themselves in the land, but to see the land in them, to not only seem themselves in the ocean, but to see the ocean in them, to not only see themselves in the sky, but to know the elements of the sky that exist in them.

Some call me a dreamer for having such high expectations. “It’s just a college class,” they say. But I’ve never viewed my role as “teacher” in the traditional sense. Rather, I believe I am there to inspire a deep engagement, a diving into the depths of our existence as Hawaiians, as Pacific Islanders, as indigenous people, so that we can, as Māori poet Hone Tuwhare once said, “Dream good dreams again.” [2] With dreaming comes the ability to heal: to heal past wounds inflicted upon us, inflicted upon the ancestors we carry, and inflicted upon the ancestors we are becoming.

Last semester, my class examined some of the most pressing issues in the Pacific, everything from climate change, rising sea levels, and dispossession; to military training, and bombing; to genocide in West Papua. Some of my students were introduced to these issues for the first time, completely disturbed at the not-so-“pacific,” or peaceful, nature of our ocean, a region that is sold to the rest of the world as a place of peace, a region that is advertised and exploited as a paradise.

Some of the students knew about these issues, but not the severity of them. Some were moved to act, enraged, sharing information on their social media outlets, making signs and taking pictures to increase awareness. And some, like my fact-seeker with her purple pen, did not want to care. It was horrible, she agreed. All of the injustice in the Pacific was terrible. However, to care so much about something she could not change was a waste of time, a waste of energy.

“What can I really do to change anything,” she asked.

I tried to answer by telling her my own story, about how I choose to do something, anything really, rather than do nothing at all. I choose to fight even if and when I may lose. “Doing nothing,” I said, “is not an option for me.” I quoted George Helm, my hero and a true aloha ʻāina who once said, “Call me radical for I refuse to remain idle.”

I told her that even speaking the names of places and peoples often forgotten, places and peoples often deemed too small or too insignificant for genuine care, was a conscious choice, a radical choice. I raised the names of West Papua, of Tuvalu, of Kiribati, of Bikini, of Mauna Kea and of Pōhakuloa. I spoke them, hoping to make them real for her, for all of us. “We need not see a place, or touch it physically,” I said, “to be impacted, to feel, to have our hearts shaken.”

Near the end of the semester, she wrote a final reflection about how injustice in the Pacific is indeed something to learn about, to talk about, to share. However, she maintained that since she could do nothing about any of these issues, that it was wrong of me to fill students with hope, or with what she saw as the unrealistic dream that they could inspire any real change.

With a heavy heart, I wondered: What happened that she had lost her ability to dream good dreams, to have hope, to be radical, to fight even if and when she may lose just because it’s the right thing to do?

I wanted her to dream with me, and call me radical, for I still hope that she one day will.

A few weeks later, I returned to Waimea and found myself sitting at a lunch table with a group of students, the senior class of Kanu o ka ʻĀina: bold and brave dreamers. We spoke briefly about their lives and goals, their reflections on education, their motivations. We even spoke about Pōhakuloa, the bombs that we could hear and feel that week, the bombs that shook our earth, and shook us with it. I saw pain in their faces, pain linked to caring. They did not need to be instructed on seeing the ʻāina in them or seeing themselves in the ʻāina, in their surroundings, in their universe.

They felt it.
They knew it.
They lived it.

And while it may sound odd to find comfort in witnessing their distress, their anguish, their heartfelt concern for land and nation, I left that lunch hopeful.

Yes, it does indeed take a lot of effort to care about something you may not be able to change: to stop sea levels from rising, to prevent destruction and desecration, to end genocide. But these haumāna were willing to care anyway: to care for the potential, for the possibility, for the chance of hulihia.

When I eventually returned to my job and my students on Oʻahu, I carried these haumāna with me. They are our dreamers for tomorrow, the ones brave enough to consider a better future, even if and when the world tries to kill their hope, the ones who know, unconsciously, that as Hawaiian epistemologist Manu Meyer once said, “conflict is the midwife of consciousness.” Conflict, in other words, provides the space and the time for us to grow, to learn, to rise.

One day my older sister, Keomailani Case, explained this to me using the land as her guide, her teacher. We need only look at our environment to see this in action, she said. “Change and challenge prompt evolution.” Plants and animals adapt to survive. Thus, like our rooted and winged relatives, we too can evolve and thrive when faced with obstacles, with anything that threatens our existence. These students seemed to know this innately, ancestrally, at the naʻau.

Unlike my university student who has been so jaded by the world, so impacted that she would rather be numbed by pain then live through it, these haumāna recognized the beauty in caring. With each fall comes the ability to rise; with each stumble, the ability to reexamine your path; with each step back, the potential to learn from the past, to harness the power of all of the kūpuna before you, and carry them into the present once more. Caring, amidst all of the challenges, makes this possible. It is only when we lose hope that we will begin to perish. The ultimate bomb of colonialism, as one of my favorite scholars Ngugi Wa Thiongʻo once explained, is when a people begin to lose faith in their capacities, their power, their unique customs and ways of articulating the world, and ultimately, in themselves. [3]

These seniors, as well as all of the haumāna at Kanu o ka ʻĀina, are the medicine for that pain, the recovery, the healing, the source of new light. They have not lost faith and hope. When I left them after our lunch, I thought about the fearless ones they resemble, the bold and brave ancestors whose hopes still make our hearts beat, our passions take shape, our minds imagine better futures. They are the descendants of the courageous, those brave enough to care and to act upon that concern even when the world tried to kill them: mind, body, spirit.

Kāula, or prophets, were one such people. They lived with the knowledge that their words, their visions, and their dreams, could result in change, in upheaval, in reversal, and sometimes, even in death. They gave voice to their visions without the fear of consequence, living with a certainty that many of us hide, or worse, that many of us try to get rid of. They lived knowing that “inā make, make nō; inā he ola, ola nō.” [4] If the were to die, they would indeed die; but if life was their fate, they would indeed live. They were divinely guided, telling of the future. Sometimes their words spoke of blessings, of victory, of triumphs. At other times, they spoke of doom, of unavoidable chaos and change. And on some occasions, they spoke of an indefinite time, their words being given endless life and relevance, still penetrating our existence today.

One such prophet was a man named Kapihe. In an era referred to as “Kanīʻaukani”—or the “Sounding of Coconut Ribs,” a time named for when the great chief Kamehameha I returned to the island of his birth after living on Oʻahu, a time when his kāhili moved and sang in the wind—Kapihe uttered what has arguably become one of the most famous wānana, or prophecies, for our people today:

E iho ana ʻo luna
E piʻi ana ʻo lalo
E hui ana nā moku
E kū ana ka paia

What is above shall come down
What is below shall rise up
The islands will unite
The walls will stand

Despite being criticized, and at one time even being called a “kanaka wahaheʻe,”[5] or a man with a slippery and slimy mouth like an octopus, a man of lies and deceit, he stood before Kamehameha I and declared these words, words that we still chant today, words that tell of the ultimate reversal:

What is up shall come down.
What is below shall rise.

In other words, there is always the possibility of change, even when you think you are helpless, even when you think your people are doomed, even when you think that your efforts and energies are wasted on dreams. His words teach us to dream anyway.

When I attended Kanu o ka ʻĀina, we chanted Kapihe’s words to close each and every school day, reminding ourselves that we were, and will never be, powerless. As long as we remember that our kūpuna stand with us, at our sides; as long as we continue to use their words and their wisdom to give expression to our lives; and as long as we forward with hope, and act, always, from a place of aloha, then we will never be hopeless.

When we look at the genealogy of Kapihe’s prophecy, and track its journey through time, we see that his words were not always interpreted positively. Some found his declaration offensive, predicting the eventual fall of Kamehameha. In later generations, some saw it as a prophecy that foretold the fall of our gods, our people, our ways of life. Some saw it as an affirmation of occupation. Some believed that it accurately predicted the coming of foreigners, foreign governments, foreign powers, and of spiritual and psychological colonization. Some even believed that these things were pono.

Generations later, however, we use it as a chant of promise, one that predicts yet another reversal, a restoration of justice, a resurgence of pride, a revitalization of spirit, a return to ea, to true sovereignty—mind, body, and soul. We have the power to make that choice, to use his words for good, to interpret them to speak to our existence, our struggles, our dreams and hopes today. We make the choice to chant in anticipation of better, to work towards better, to ensure that the world our children and grandchildren walk in will be one in which they can continue to be indigenous, one in which they can continue to carry us in their hopes, one in which they can dream good dreams again, for their families, for their people, for their nation, and for the world.

This school was the result of a dream, of a vision, of a refusal to believe in less, a refusal to settle for less, an ultimate refusal to believe that the energy expended advocating for something others didn’t believe in—whether language revitalization, cultural and spiritual awakening, or soul centering—was not worth it. The education of these students was made possible because someone, one of the most influential dreamers and mana wahine I know, was radical enough, was motivated enough, was driven enough to imagine change, to picture it, and then to work tirelessly for it. She was and is proof that the effort is always worth it, that believing in change, even when we are taught that it is impossible, is the first step towards breaking through those structures of power and domination that seek to keep us down. It is the first step towards reversal: towards the rise, towards the restoration of ea.

Today, I chant the words of that famous prophet, Kapihe, the man once called slippery and slimy because he dared to be bold and brave, because he dared to dream something different. I chant his words because they remind me that I can be like the kāula, or the prophets and soothsayers of the past. I may not be able to predict the future. I may not be divinely guided. I am directionally challenged and sometimes lack common sense. But, I maintain, despite every single challenge, despite every single injustice, that change is always, always possible, that caring is always, always necessary, and that dreaming of a better future even if and when history has taught us not to, is my kuleana; it is my responsibility. It is what it means to be indigenous: to exist continually, to survive, to persist and to insist on place, on purpose, on the life of our storied lands, seas, and skies.

I look at these haumāna, these students who have grown up with the words of their ancestors, with the prophecies of their kūpuna, who’ve chanted their hopes, who have recited their dreams, who have closed their days with calls for change, and I am awakened through them. They have known no other time. They have never known a time when it was not okay to be Hawaiian, to dance, sing, chant, write, speak and even shout in defense and in praise of who they were, who they are, and who they will be. And I can think of no better people to be our future dreamers, to envision and work towards a better world.

So, to the papa ʻumikūmālua, this year’s senior class of Kanu o ka ʻĀina, to you I give the gift of dreaming. I dream of a life of purpose for you, one in which you walk with us, hands turned to the earth, hands feeling the land, hands connected to Papa; one in which you sing with us, eyes cast on the sea, eyes scanning the horizon for the space that connects us to our past, to the voyaging ancestors who brought us here from Kahiki, the strong and wise navigators and sailors whose names and legacies we still celebrate; one in which you hope with us, hearts lifted to the sky, never losing your connection to the realm of Wākea, never letting the world convince you that to care is to waste your energy. I hope you never lose your concern, or that knowing of what it means to be a kanu o ka ʻāina, a native of this land: connected, caring, dreaming.

Be like the prophets, the “poʻe makaʻu ʻole,” or the fearless ones. Hope; be radical. Dream; be bold. Chant, sing, and dance to tell the world of your existence. Fill your pages, write your stories across the land, draw and paint your dreams across the sky, send your voices out across the ocean. Use the tools you have to inspire revolution.

Kapihe taught us that change is always possible and that there is always the potential for reversal . Therefore, take up the task to maintain hope. Carry kuleana across your back; shoulder the burden and the privilege with us. Learn, grow, and evolve with time. And never forget the kahua, or the foundation, you stand upon, here, at Kanu o ka ʻĀina.

When that which is above starts to come down, be there to witness and encourage our transformation.

E piʻi nō kākou!! Let us experience the rise together.

 

Footnotes

[1] (Wendt, 1976, p. 71)

[2] (Wendt, 1976, p. 74)

[3] (Thiong’o, 1986, p. 3)

[4] (Lionanohokuahiwi, 1916, p. 2)

[5] (Laʻanui, 1838, p. 83)

References

Laʻanui, G. (1838, 14 March). He manao hoakaka wale no keia no ko’u hanau ana, a me ko’u kamalii ana, a me ko’u hookanaka ana, a me ka ike ana i kekahi mau mea oloko o ke aupuni o Kamehameha, Ke Kumu Hawaii, pp. 81-84.

Lionanohokuahiwi, Z. P. K. (1916, 9 June). Haina o na ninau a ka anela o Mekiko, Ka Nupepa Kuokoa, p. 2.

Thiong’o, N. w. (1986). Decolonising the mind: The politics of language in African literature. Portsmouth: Heinemann.

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


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Earth Day Doom: In Defense of the Moral Argument

opala

I once had a friend who threw trash on the ground.

Not just his cigarette butts—which people tend to think are so small that they are somehow allowed to be smashed into the dirt and left there—no, not just the butts of his own addiction, but more than that.

We often argued about trash. Looking back, it seems like a waste of energy to fight over something that I thought should have been commonsense.

Don’t litter. Isn’t that just a given, a universal standard, something we can all agree on as just being good?

#PickUpTrash

Apparently not.

“It’s someone’s job to clean it up; I’m keeping them employed,” he’d say, as if he was really doing anyone a favor.

“What about the earth?” I’d plead. “What about Papatūāanuku?” I’d wonder pulling on the stories of his home.

He never believed in “stories.”

“Do you really think a woman gave birth to islands, do you reaaallly?” he’d ask as if there was no way anyone with a mind could value such “myth.”

#MyPhDExaminesMyth

I’d try to explain that it wasn’t the literal interpretation of the story that mattered, as much but the lessons. The stories tell us to care about the earth as we would our mother.

But this story isn’t really about my friend.

Rather, this story is about why so many people don’t care:
don’t care about the earth,
don’t care about the future,
don’t care to genuinely
care.

And what’s worse, this story is about those who pretend to care, or who put on the mask of concern, all the while being advocates of destruction.

#EarthDayDoomed

In her book great tide rising, philosopher and nature essayist Kathleen Dean Moore (2016) recounts a conversation with her neighbor about how to move people to care, to care enough to “save the world” (as pageant-y and overly-optimistic as that may sound). In a conversation about climate change, she states:

“My neighbor is a practical man. ‘Look,’ he says to me, ʻif you want to call people to action on climate change [or any other disaster], talk to them about what moves people to action—self-interest, money, and fear. Don’t tell them it’s wrong to wreck the world. Tell them it’s stupid or expensive or dangerous” (p. 17).

What her neighbor meant is that it’s not enough to fight the moral argument, to draw on ethics to make change. You have to show people how destroying the earth will impact them economically, raising the cost of food when our earth is so devastated that food is scarce; that it will impact them socially, as countries fight for what is left and as bombs are dropped, and fighting ensues, and as world wars are ignited to ensure a people’s ability to live in particular places over others; and that it will impact them culturally, as people lose ground to stand upon, land to live upon, the capacity to breathe clean air, to raise their children in the ways of their ancestors.

You can’t just say, “Hey, it’s wrong,” in other words. You have to tug at people’s concerns, he argued, which (unfortunately) are not often centered on the life of the planet for the sake of the planet, but rather on the life of the planet for the sake of human beings’ self-serving concerns: money, possessions, power.

I read this and wondered if that’s why the “moral” argument of “You should care for the earth as you would your mother” never quite worked with my friend.

While I sometimes took his apparent disregard of the land and ocean as a personal offense against my mother, Papahānaumoku, and against all of creation, he just couldn’t see how the immediate act of throwing trash on the ground led to larger, worldly consequences.

“What if 10 people, 100 people, 1,000 people, 10,000 people, 100,000 people all have the same attitude as you?” I’d ask.

That still never worked. And time and time again, I felt as if I had to send a personal apology to the ground, his whenua, on his behalf.

“I’m so sorry,” I’d say silently. “He’s been disconnected, the tie severed and never repaired; he doesn’t know you anymore,” I insisted. “But I will help him see you, embrace you, care for you.”

I hate to think that I never quite succeeded at that. But that, too, is another story.

#PersonalReflections

Suffice it to say, that was not my journey, but one I hope he makes on his own, when he is ready to reconnect to his own turangawaewae, his own place to stand, and his own place and role to protect.

As Kathleen Dean Moore (2016) expands:

“It’s not that we aren’t natural creatures, it’s not that we don’t live always in the most intimate contact with the natural world, which seeps in our pores and rushes through our blood. It’s that we lose track of that fact or deny it, and so shut ourselves off from a large part of our humanity” (p. 85).

Is it possible, I wonder, that a large part of our human race has lost such a large part of our humanity?

I thought about my friend yesterday and about Kathleen’s neighbor as I rode my bike in the ʻEwa sun. What kind of world are we living in when the moral argument is not enough, when people cannot just care to care, when they have to see how it’s impacting their wealth, their success, or their material possessions to give a damn?

What kind of world are we living in when we are so numbed that we cannot even respond to the world, the natural world, that “seeps in our pores and rushes through our blood,” seeing the world and our selves as interconnected, as one, always?

What kind of world are we living in when seeing the earth as mother is laughed at, mocked, pushed aside as “myth” even while humans all over the planet create actual myths: false notions of caring, false motivations, false connections, false support?

This is what’s happening at Pōhakuloa today.

Today, the U.S. Army Garrison-Pōhakuloa Training Area is celebrating Earth Day.

#CanICallThatAnOxymoron?

Brief advertisements state that the day will feature everything from recycling and upcycling, to garden tours, to petroglyph activities, to a “showcase” of the USAG-P’s “management of threatened and endangered species” (Hawaiʻi Tribune Herald).

When we express our concerns about the earth, not just on a designated “Earth Day,” but every day, our moral arguments—our arguments saying, “This is just the right thing to do!”—are pushed aside. Last month I wrote to the USAG-P. I submitted a poetic letter about “noise” (as they had invited expressions of concern about noise, as if that would be our main complaint).

With complete respect for the person who responded to me, and who has continued to have open communication with me, he didn’t know what to do with my letter. “Your email articulated thoughts and ideas very well,” he said, “but didn’t seem to leave any room…for compromise.”

Compromise?

#Hmmmm.

The life of the earth is not a compromise I’m willing to make. There should be no discussion when it comes to our mother, when it comes to our future.

But, apparently, not everyone feels this way.

And I can’t blame them.

Disconnection is the tragedy of our times.

Yesterday, though, I met with passionate people, people wanting to raise their voice for our ʻāina, wanting to use music and poetry, picture and film, political analysis and scientific knowledge to fight for the earth, knowing that we must make noise for her, even if and when people are not willing to listen.

Why?

Because we must show our children, and their children, and their grandchildren, that the moral argument is important, that the moral argument is enough, that standing up for the earth is just the right thing to do. Period.

A few weeks ago another friend of mine posted a picture on Facebook. It was a photo of trash that she had picked up at a beach in Kohala, a place that links the two of us, a place that nurtured our ancestors on the Big Island. She could not believe the disrespect, the disregard, the inability to simply pick something up, to look after the earth, to care. Her long, delicate fingers held out a bag of trash she collected, her wrist adorned with gentle tattooed reminders of connection: to the earth, to earth’s creatures, to the elements.

It made me think of the indigenous wisdom that she lives her life by: caring for the earth as our ancestors would. Native American environmentalist and activist Winona LaDuke (1999) argues that there is “a direct relationship between the loss of cultural diversity and the loss of biodiversity. Wherever Indigenous peoples still remain, there is a corresponding enclave of biodiversity” (p. 1). In other words, if we could just tap into the knowledge of our indigenous ancestors, we could remember ourselves, remember our connection, remember our ability to care for the earth as mother, to not strip her of diversity and beauty for our own sake, but to nurture her for the sake of the earth.

Of course, none of us are perfect and we do slip up and do cause harm, often in our daily actions: driving cars; purchasing foods that were farmed in unethical ways on land that has been destroyed; contributing to food waste; using too much plastic, etc. But, I see people like my friend and am reminded that we can make efforts to live more consciously, to be aware of the impacts of our actions, and to live by example.

My friend gives me reminders, ethnical and moral arguments, to care, and to care genuinely.

Of course, when she posted her photo, I noticed my other friend give it a big thumbs-up, an official Facebook “Like.” This was the same friend who would throw cigarette butts onto the ground, smashing them into Papa’s skin. Why did he like her photo, I wondered?

#KeyboardWarrior?

And that’s when it hit me: Sometimes it’s cool to care, or it’s cool to appear to care. So many of our youth are caught up in worrying about what others think of them. They are insecure, trying to find acceptance, trying to find themselves. The same goes for the not-so-young, like my friend. And the same goes for the powerful. Yes, the same even goes for entities like the U.S. Army Garrison-Pōhakuloa.

Celebrate Earth Day on a military training ground?

Celebrate Earth Day where destruction is a daily occurrence, where desecration is a daily occurrence, where pollution is a daily occurrence, where training for and advocating death is a daily occurrence?

#WHY???

Perhaps, just as it was cool for my friend to show his support of a “pick up trash” picture on social media—even while it was perhaps not cool enough to act upon that plea, to pick up his own trash, to pick up someone else’s, or better yet, to not throw any on the ground, ever—it’s “cool” for the USAG-P to appear to care.

While they “celebrate” Earth Day, they simultaneously attempt to cover-up the fact that they are Earth’s Doomsday. They appear to care, appear to accept the moral argument that loving the land is right, appear to be genuine in their attempts.

But I can’t accept that, not while they simultaneously abuse her, pounding her day after day, year after year!

They are like the insecure teen (or the once-was teen) who loves to “like” everything moral on Facebook, while not actually wanting to do anything about it, or not being able to.

And I for one think that our youth need far better role models, as do the not-so young and disconnected, as do all of us.

#ItStartsWithUs

For a real earth day, we can start now. Start with picking up trash because it’s just right to do so. Period. Maybe once we buy into one moral argument about something my friend once thought was insignificant, then we can encourage people to buy into more moral and ethical arguments.

And who knows, when these arguments become to norm and are no longer laughed at or pushed aside with eye rolls or dismissive email responses, maybe something like “Let’s stop bombing the land because it’s the right thing to do” will be so commonsense, so widely accepted, that we can’t help but do it.

Protect the earth. It’s just a good idea, right? I hope for the day when that’s not seen as overly optimistic, dreamy, or even fantastical, the day when the USAG-P not only recognizes the absurdity of celebrating “Earth Day” on a piece of earth they actively and purposefully destroy, but stops altogether.

I hope for the day we can all see just how cool it is to care. And more than that, just how super cool it is to care genuinely.
Not for appearances.
Not for the ego.
Not for a social prank, or a “let’s -soften-the-‘blow’-of-our-bombs-with-garden-tours” initiative.
Not even for us, really, but for the earth.

I have faith that even my friend will get there one day for he comes from far too great a heritage of kaitiakitanga not to.

We all do, even those at Pōhakuloa.

We are all born attentive and curious of the earth. We are all born as innocent creatures connected to the earth. We are born to be protectors of our mother. And although we may lose that as we grow, it’s about time we remember who we are.

Who we were born to be.

#AlohaʻĀina
References:

LaDuke, W. (1999). All Our RelationsChicago: Haymarket Books.
Moore, K. D. (2016). great tide rising. Berkeley: Counterpoint.