“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:
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.
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.