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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.

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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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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.