He Wahī Paʻakai: A Package of Salt

adding flavor and texture to your world through story


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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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Changing the Narrative: When the stories we tell no longer help us

“The work of a contemporary warrior is to take the responsibility to be a self-actualized individual.”

– Cornel Pewewardy

DadPicBlog

With my dad, my self-actualized, indigenous warrior. Waimea, Hawaiʻi. 

There are many things I’m not good at.

My dad often talks about my intelligence. “If I had your brains,” he often says, sighing and shaking his head, “I could’ve done so much more with my life.” On the top of his “much more” list is usually, “I could’ve been the governor.” I usually smile and laugh at his attempt at a joke. Though, deep down, I actually believe he could be a far better governor that the current man in office. But, hey, he’s my dad. So I may be a little biased. (Just a tiny bit.)

When we get into these types of conversations, he has the habit of listing all the ways he believes he is somehow deficient: “I can’t speak Hawaiian. I can’t write. I don’t know how to use the computer.” He holds up his fingers, some long and some stubby, as if to count the shortcomings. (If you know my dad, you’ll get the stubby finger reference.) Time and time again I remind him of his own intelligence, how I could never do so many of the things that he can do, so many of the things that he does. Every. Single. Day. In a crafty way, though (because he is intelligent like that), I think our exchanges are meant to remind me—and not him—about the kind of knowing that really matters!

My dad is a self-actualized individual. He is the kind of indigenous warrior that Cornel Pewewardy describes in the forward to Winona LaDuke’s critical book, The Militarization of Indian Country. To be self-actualized is to recognize (and act upon) your own talents and potentialities. It is to understand what you as a unique human being have to bring to your family, to your community, to your nation, your region, or even the world. A friend of mine recently summarized this concept by saying, profoundly and simply: “You have to know what you know and you have to know what you don’t know.”

There is power in both. I truly believe that when we recognize what we don’t know we are in a better position to truly understand our kuleana, or what our roles and responsibilities may be. We are able to better appreciate what our contribution can be to a particular cause or issue. We are able to tread a bit lighter on lands that we may not be as familiar with. We are able to determine when and where our voice or our presence should be (and when and where they shouldn’t). And further, we are able to discern when our efforts, no matter how well-meaning they may be, could actually be more detrimental that helpful.

I have an example.

But before I get into this story, I’d like to state that while there are many things that I am not good at and while there are many things that I do not know—I would most likely perish if made to sustain myself from the ʻāina, for example, and I would certainly get lost if left in a forest alone, and I would probably get kicked off the waʻa (canoe) if made to steer it—there are certain things that I do know about myself. And this is part of the process of self-actualization:

  1. I believe part of my role in life is to tell stories.
  2. I believe that I have a responsibility to tell critical stories, especially when they impact those I care about.
  3. I believe that I am an educator.
  4. I believe that I can draw upon my talent to present stories as a means of inspiring conversation.

(I’d like to also state that this story is not at all meant to demean the people involved but rather to highlight something that I hope we can learn from.)

Last week I attended a workshop. It was on historical and cultural trauma. I had recently read an article entitled, “Positioning Historical Trauma Theory within Aotearoa New Zealand,” (Kia ora Aunty Leonie) and therefore thought this would be an important workshop to attend. Pulling on previously published scholarship, the article states: “Historical trauma is collective, cumulative wounding both on an emotional and psychological level that impacts across a lifetime and through generations, which derives from cataclysmic, massive collective traumatic events, and the unresolved grief impacts both personally and intergenerationally” (Pihama et al., 2014, p. 251-52). I certainly believe that any effort to better the condition of our indigenous lives and futures must take into account the historical trauma imposed in the processes of colonization. (Thus, again, my interest in the workshop.) I was ready to be a student, to absorb, and to learn more so that I could determine if this was an area of study that I had any real place in. I wanted to begin to consider trauma in the context of Hawaiʻi.

On the morning of the workshop, I arrived to a group of people sitting on mats. The environment was comfortable. The breeze blew through our open hale (house) and we chanted to greet the day. After initial introductions to each other and to the content, we were then led through a visualization exercise. The instructor, a Hawaiian woman, explained that she was going to take us through Hawaiʻi’s history, from the past to the present. We were asked to close our eyes, to settle down, to imagine, and to essentially put ourselves in the place of our ancestors.

Like common narratives written and told before, she started in pre-contact Hawaiʻi and spoke about an unspoiled paradise, an abundant oasis, a place where people lived in complete harmony with nature and with each other. Life was joyful; it was idyllic. As listeners, we were meant to ease into the beauty of such a time, a time before “outsiders,” a time before disruption.

The woman next to me sighed, settling into what must have been the most picturesque scene: harmonious, peaceful, without worry, without fear. With my eyes closed, I could almost sense the satisfied smile on her face, the slight glimmer in her cheeks.

Meanwhile, I could feel my nose scrunch, my eyelids tighten, and the familiar “thinking lines” on my forehead begin to surface. For a second, I considered fixing my facial expressions. But, considering that everyone’s eyes were supposed to be shut, I took my chances and remained in a visual state of bewilderment.

The story continued. From paradise, we jumped (or were pulled rather abruptly) to the arrival of the missionaries. Suddenly, things began to fall. Literally. We started dying. Temples were destroyed. Customs were outlawed. Then newspapers were established to spread the agendas of the missionaries. Our people were led to believe, through speech and print, that they were inferior. They were depressed. They were hurt. They were helpless. Hopeless. They were doomed.

The woman in front of me sniffed. With my eyes still closed, I assumed she had shed a few tears, completely taken by the emotion of such sudden destruction. I imagined that she was then living the trauma of her ancestors.

Meanwhile, I couldn’t get there. I couldn’t get to the same place as that woman. My face continued to show signs of consternation as I continued to analyze the narrative.

The story continued. Jumping from the arrival of missionaries, Hawaiʻi was overthrown and then annexed. Hawaiians were further depressed. Lands were taken, and as a result, Hawaiians lost everything: their health, their connection, their freedom, their dignity. Hawaiians died physical, cultural, and psychological deaths.

The woman in front of me continued to cry. And while I heard those familiar stories, complemented by her now frequent sniffs, I was still troubled.

Finally, the story ended. Hōkūleʻa was built and later sailed around the world. Hawaiians began to dance, chant, and sing again; they began to speak their language again. Hawaiians were proud. Hawaiians could look forward to the future. Hawaiians could return to the ways of their ancestors. They could return to the past.

At this point, I opened my eyes. I wanted to gauge the audience, to see how people were responding to the visualization. I had so much to say: there were so many gaps I wanted to fill, so many clarifications I wanted to make, especially to the students present, the students who were now crying over the so-called perfect pre-European past, the fatal fall after the missionaries, and the modern-day renaissance. As a teacher, I wanted to challenge the narrative. I wanted to complicate it. I wanted to fill in the holes to show them that no era was perfect, and more importantly, that no era was without hope.

But I didn’t.

I didn’t say anything to the audience. Instead, I listened to the instructor and to the comments of those around me. Then I left, carrying something heavy on my shoulders. I did not want to disrespect the instructor or to undermine her. However, more than a week later, I’m still thinking about it. It’s still troubling me.

If I understand anything about kuleana it is that it can present itself as a burden, something heavy to carry on your back, something to shoulder for you, for your family, and even for the next generations. Contrary to what some may think, we don’t always get to choose our responsibilities; sometimes they choose us. Therefore, I thought about my dad’s often-comical yet always quite deep-set acceptance of what he knows and what he doesn’t know, and I realized that it is a responsibility to write about these types of experiences. It is a responsibility to challenge old narratives that no longer serve us. It is a responsibility to provide alternatives. And it is a responsibility to do what I believe I can do to take the conversation forward.

Thus, in order to do so, I will present what troubled me (what brought confusion to my face and stress to my pinched eyelids):

The instructor’s story was outdated. It represented what I have recently come to call the Imposed Narrative of:

  1. Pre-contact Peace,
  2. Post-contact Peril, and
  3. Present-day Promise

What’s problematic about such a story is the assumption that peace only existed before contact, that destruction was the single result of contact, and that promise and hope for the future are contemporary constructions. What’s problematic about such a story is that it does not account for the fact that peace, peril, and promise exist in every era. Every. Single. Era.

In her story of the missionaries, for example, the instructor neglected to mention the intellectuals who used the new technology of print to produce thousands of pages of Hawaiian language newspaper text. She neglected to talk about the pages that recorded our moʻolelo (stories); that were filled with sentiments of aloha ʻāina, or love for the land and love for the nation; that printed articles supporting the Queen before and after the illegal overthrow; and that essentially gave people hope. So consumed by the common (and yes, outdated) narrative of “fatal impact,” she neglected to mention strength and resilience.

Now I’m not saying that all Hawaiians were staunch aloha ʻāina, dedicated to the Hawaiian nation. (That story would also be far too simplistic.) There were Hawaiians who supported the overthrown and the eventual annexation, and who tried to encourage their people to abandon their beliefs, and to leave certain cultural customs behind. There were many, some of my own ancestors included, who believed America was the way forward.

What I am saying is that it is extremely dangerous to tell a single story, a single narrative that presents our history in such simplistic ways: pre-contact peace, post-contact peril, present-day promise. We owe it to our ancestors to complicate the story, to recognize the messiness of our histories, and to not romanticize the past, but to greet it, head first, nose to nose, for what it can teach us.

In one of her Ted Talks, Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2009) talks about “The Danger of a Single Story,” or the reduction of an entire group of people to one narrative. In her powerfully poetic way, the late Teresia Teaiwa (2015) echos these sentiments, stating “you can’t just paint one brush stroke over a nation and say that’s who they are.” To do so is not only irresponsible, it also strips people of their humanity. It ignores diversity. It flattens our stories. And it depletes our ancestors of life.

That’s what upset me.

That’s why I couldn’t sigh in delight at the idea of a pre-European paradise, or cry at the thought of “fatal impact,” or some immediate fall from grace at the coming of the missionaries. I had been taught to challenge these ideas.

In his seminal essay, “Towards a New Oceania,” Albert Wendt (1976) challenges such notions. When I first read his essay as an undergraduate student at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo (Mahalo e Seri), I was forced to confront my own romanticization of the past. I did think it was perfect. I did think my ancestors were faultless. I did believe that the coming of the missionaries ruined everything. Thanks to his work, and to the work of so many other inspiring intellectuals, however, I have been able to complicate that narrative and to understand, as he states, that “There is [and was] no state of cultural purity (or perfect state of cultural goodness) from which there is decline… There was no Fall, no sun-tanned Noble Savages existing in the South Seas paradises, no Golden Age” (p. 76). There can be no epic “return” to the past because, as he expands, there was no “pre-papalagi [or pre-European] Golden Age or utopian womb” (p. 76). There was no complete state of “Pre-Contact Peace.”

The instructor’s story, however, fell into this exact trap: the trap of the simplistic narrative. As historian Kerry Howe (1977) articulates, it is the story of “fatal impact,” or the idea that there was immediate demise at the time of first contact. The problem with such a story is that it paints our people as passive, as inactive, as helpless, and as devoid of any real agency. When I stand in front of my own students, I am aware of the responsibility I have to disrupt that narrative, to give them examples of agency, of action, and of choice. As Howe (1977) explains, so many of the stories written about our peoples “are really about Europeans and what they did. They are the subjects. The islanders are the objects, often just in the background, slightly out of focus, having things ‘done’ to them” (p. 146). They are drawn as poor, noble savages. And as justified as we may feel in grieving or lamenting the dying, disappearing, and helpless indigenous victims, a simple fact remains: the assumption that all of our ancestors were passive and inactive is based firmly in the supposed racial superiority amongst Europeans. It’s the “You-couldn’t-do-anything-to-avoid-your-own-demise” mentality. Or the “You-poor-things-didn’t-stand-a-chance” approach.

That’s what I find so offensive about the often-told narrative, the narrative that I believe we should had moved past by now, the narrative that I was asked to sit and visualize just over a week ago. As a teacher, I refuse to give my students one story. I prefer to give them options. I prefer to show them how we may have been depicted and then to give them the tools to paint new pictures, with new, complex brush strokes. I believe that ignoring the agency of our ancestors, or their ability to make choices and to act upon those choices—whether to their own betterment or detriment—is to strip them of their dignity.

Now I must explain that I don’t hide the wounds of the past. I acknowledge that our high incarceration rates, our dismal health, our homelessness and houselessness, our poverty, our poor education, our drug abuse, alcohol abuse, and domestic abuse are indeed related to historical trauma. I believe that working towards health, healing, well-being, and even sovereignty requires a critical examination of the intergenerational pain that exists in our families and communities. Colonialism was cataclysmic in many ways. It still is. At the same time, however, I choose to also talk about the ancestors who, despite all odds, maintained hope, a radical hope for a future that could somehow be better than their present. I choose to give my students examples of both the trauma and the triumph because I believe that any promise for tomorrow was inherited from those past generations who refused to be silenced; who refused to lay down, helpless; who refused to paint their ever-evolving and complex stories with a single brush.

We must complicate the story; we must make it messy. We must present it with more colors, more textures, more highlights and shadows. We must talk about the complexities so that our people, especially our youth, can be moved by the beauty and the pain; so that they can see the destruction alongside the strength; the colonialism with the resistance. Just as we inherit the pain of our ancestors, we also inherit their hope. In fact, I believe that renaissance movements are born from something internal, from a deep-seated knowing within us that we are much, much more than we have been depicted to be.

When I look at my own family, for instance, I see the impacts of historical trauma everywhere. I grew up a witness to alcohol and drug abuse. I grew up as another obese Hawaiian, another statistic. I have family members who suffer poor health, family members who have been incarcerated for a variety of crimes, family members who still struggle, every day, to cope in a society that continues to threaten their livelihood: their land, their homes, their ability to sustain themselves, their relationship to sacred sites, their ability to ground, their faith in their language, in their customs, in themselves. This is our everyday reality as Hawaiians. And although these struggles often move me to tears and continue to find expression in my own personal life, I cannot end the narrative there. I will not end the narrative there. Like every generation before me, I am also surrounded by examples of strength, resilience, and hope and I choose to recognize that as part of our collective healing. I choose to tell those stories too.

My dad is my example. He is my self-actualized warrior. He is my indigenous hero. My dad still carries wounds, deep historical wounds, from the past. He was born with a brown face and an English name; he was stripped of his language, his mother opting not to speak to him ma ka ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi; he was exposed to alcohol at a terrifyingly young age, a substance that would play a role in the larger part of his life, an addiction that he would eventually conquer; he was told time and time again that he could not go to the forest, could not hunt, could not feed his family from the land he loved, the only land he has ever known; he has witnessed so much change, change that has, and sometimes still does, bring him to tears. He has fallen many, many times. But he has also risen. He has risen. Every. Single. Time.

He knows what he knows and he knows what he doesn’t know. He may not be the next governor of Hawaiʻi. But he will continue to do what he does best: giving to his family, his community, and his nation in all the ways he knows he can. And like him, I will do what I know, drawing on my recognition of what I can (and can’t) do. In this case, I will challenge those stories and those outdated narratives when I know that they may do more harm than good.

I do not consider myself a fully self-actualized indigenous warrior. But, I do know that I’m on my path, a path towards recognizing my roles and responsibilities, and the possible contributions I have make to my people, my nation, my region, and the world. The quest for self-actualization and a true sense of indigenous warriorhood are things that I will add to the story, the story I will tell as we continue to heal as a people.

__________

References:

Adichie, C. (2009). The danger of a single story. Ted Talks  https://www.ted.com/talks/
chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story/transcript?language=en

Howe, K. (1977). The fate of the “savage” in Pacific historiography. The New Zealand Journal of History11(2), 137-154.

LaDuke, W. (2012). The Militarization of Indian Country. Michigan: University of Michigan Press.

Pihama, L. et al. (2014). Positioning historical trauma theory within Aotearoa New Zealand. Alternative, 10(3). 248-62.

Teaiwa, T. (2015). You can’t paint the Pacific with just one brush stroke. E-Tangatahttps://e-tangata.co.nz/news/you-cant-paint-the-pacific-with-just-one-brush-stroke

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)

kii5

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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Conversations with Tūtū: Reflections on Hawaiian Culture-Based Education and 21st Century Skills

The following speech was delivered at the 2017 Hawaiʻi Island EdTech Collaboration (HITC) conference that took place on March 31, 2017 at the Kamehameha Schools Hawaiʻi campus in Keaʻau. The conference focused on the blending of Hawaiian culture based education with 21st century skills and technologies. I decided to reproduce it here, as a blog, so that I can share it with the people who inspired the many stories shared in this piece. May it be nourishing for us all. 
tutu2

This keynote was inspired by a conversation with my Tūtū, my maternal grandmother.

Now, before I proceed, I should mention that I never met my Tūtū. She left the world before I came into it. Therefore, our interactions exist only in my dreams, in the memories that I’ve heard about her, and in the imaginings I’ve created with her, around her, and at her side.

A few weeks ago, I sat at the place where her iwi are buried, stared up at the Koʻolau mountains, and sent whispers into the wind for her. It was the first time in months that I had come to feel a sense of grounding, a sense of true belonging. You see she was my connection to ʻāina, to place.

Let me explain.

I currently live on the island of Oʻahu. But, I’ve always been grounded here, on the Big Island. Thus, after relocating, I found myself somewhat adrift: not rootless or anchorless, but instead somewhat uncertain of the ground I was treading upon, feeling like a malihini, or a stranger, in a place not completely new to me, but also not completely known

So, I went to visit Tūtū.

It was a late afternoon and I could smell rain approaching. I knew I only had a brief moment before I would be drenched. So, I sat with her and greeted her presence, deeply rooted in the land beneath me. And in that small moment, after reaching down and putting my hands to the earth, I looked up to see a landscape drastically changed. What were once unfamiliar mountains and streams became those that Tūtū would have gazed upon, those that Tūtū would have undoubtedly loved, those that would have sheltered her, taught her, and guided her when she had children, and those that would have soothed her soul when she was in pain.

In that brief and quite moment, her world became my world. When I stood up to leave, I knew that my ancestral connection to Oʻahu had been reawakened through her: through her story, through her life, through her memory in and of ʻāina. I could walk away feeling a bit more rooted, having been reminded that I never traverse this world alone. For, as the great poet Maya Angelou once said, “I go forth along, and stand as ten thousand”, with every grandmother at my side.

I share these reflections because, for me, they tell a story of culture, experienced in moments carved out for connection. And as I hope to share in this keynote, these types of reflections provide the space for nurturing relationships, something that I believe is central to any culture-based education. My conversations with Tūtū form the foundation of this address, one in which I will weave in and out of memory, story, analysis, and indigenous theory, one that will be rooted in ʻāina.

Before I do so, however, I should note that ʻāina is not merely the land upon which we walk, dance, sing, and shout, or the land in which we plant. ʻĀina is that which feeds. Yes, it is where our mea ʻai, or food, comes from. But, on a much larger scale, it is also where all of our physical, spiritual, emotional, and cultural nourishment comes from. Thus, ʻāina can be land. However, it can also be sky, ocean, river, and mountain. It can also be heritage and culture. It can be any source that feeds.

In the weeks prior to visiting Tūtū, I had a craving for something from the ʻāina. I had an intense craving for ʻulu, or breadfruit. I knew that we were not quite into ʻulu season yet. However, something in me wanted it. Something in me needed it. So I visited every farmers’ market I could think of, I searched between the branches of every breadfruit tree I passed in ʻEwa, and as a last and desperate resort, I thought that if I could even find processed ʻulu flour that I could finally satisfy this hunger. Weeks of searching, however, turned up empty until a dear friend gifted me a gorgeous, round, and perfectly plump ʻulu just a few miles away from where my Tūtū is buried.

So, with breadfruit in tow, I went to visit her, to sit at her side. And as I got there, I knew where the cravings had come from.

She had been trying to nourish me: my grandmother, whose name was ʻUlulani. My own heavenly breadfruit. You see the fruit was my way back to her. It was not the physical food that I needed, but rather the connection, the story, the relationship that it embodied. She wanted to connect me to ʻāina.

I’m sure of it.

Now, you may be thinking that this is a bit of a stretch, or that to link these experiences to one another is a far reach from anything realistic, practical, measurable, verifiable, or even commonsense.

That, I would argue, is precisely what a good Western education would tell me.

And that, I would argue, is why Hawaiian culture-based education is essential.

You see I believe that our people understood themselves in relation, never in isolation. There was no separation between themselves and the land, themselves and the sky, themselves and the ocean. As one of my dearest mentors, the late Teresia Teaiwa, once said, “We sweat and cry salt water, so we know that the ocean is really in our blood” (qtd. in Hauʻofa, 1998, p. 392). Our people understood themselves as part of the natural world.

Everything existed together because it had to. And the space between any entity and another was a space that connected. This is what Samoans and Tongans call the vā, the space between, not a meaningless or empty space, but one of potential and one of purpose; it is a space to be nurtured, a space of relationship.

Each one of us in this room, for example, is connected, perhaps not physically or even ancestrally. But we are here, each contributing to the energy of this space. We are here, each bound by what we are hearing and seeing and learning and tasting. We are here, each bound by the potential to form relationships with people, with place, with knowledge, and with story. And we are here, each connected by our dedication to aʻo, which is the reciprocal process of teaching and learning that must inspire our students.

Therefore, in an attempt to feed that potential, or that space between each one of us in this room—between the content we will explore, the lessons that we will teach each other, and the stories that we will share—I will offer some thoughts as a point of connection, something that we can think about, and chew on, as we get a taste of what Hawaiian culture-based education can mean for us today.

Of course, any attempt to do so, however, must begin with culture. Culture, as Samoan novelist and poet, Albert Wendt (1976), argues, is not fixed. It is not stagnant. Culture cannot be pinned down or captured. It cannot be frozen behind a glass in a museum. Culture, he proposes, is as fluid and flexible as the ocean we come from, the ocean that we call home. It must move and shift to survive. And our survival depends on our ability to move and shift with it. In fact, “The only valid culture worth having,” he argues, “is the one being lived out now,” the one moving with the current rise and fall of the tides (p. 76).

Now, his words have certainly caused a stir, particularly among those romantics of culture, or those caught up in notions of tradition and authenticity. Whatever the reaction, however, it is hard to ignore the fact that his words have power. His words make us creators of culture. His words make us those with the agency to make choices about how we will live our lives each and every day, dedicated to our people, to our customs, and to our indigenous knowledge. His words give us the mana to choose, every second, to be indigenous and to act upon that indigeneity.

We build on the past—on our values, on our core beliefs, and on our practices—and create culture so that we can extend the lives of our people into the future, ensuring that our children and grandchildren can survive as Hawaiians in a contemporary world. We build on the past and create culture to ensure that they will always have that same opportunity, or that same space to shape culture for themselves, a culture based firmly in their ancestral heritage but one that meets the needs of today. We build on the past and create culture, becoming the grandmothers who will stand alongside our descendants by the thousands, even if or when they don’t know we’re there.

Why? So that we can help them to satisfy that craving for ancestral belonging when it comes.

And it will come because our children and our students live in a world that continues to try to distance them from who they are; that continues to try to distance them from ʻāina, or that which feeds; and that continues to try to distance them from a true sense of nourishment and satisfaction, rooted and cultivated in place.

When I took my ʻulu home, after having visited with Tūtū, I could not wait to cook it, to be fed by it. So I used the element of heat, as people around the world have done for centuries, making it more digestible for my body, making it soft enough for my soul. In the process, I employed adaptations of ancient technologies, as cooking in itself is an ancient process. Where families would have once gather around the hearth, or around a pit of heat and fire, however, I used modern tools to prepare my ʻulu all the while remembering where it came from and who it came from: both the friend who gifted it to me and the craving that drove me to my grandmother.

And as the smell of breadfruit slowly filled my tiny house, my mind drifted to ʻulu-scented memories of people and places that I remembered fondly: the breadfruit my father used to bake and salivate over; the breadfruit I was given as a gift by one of my most influential teachers after I graduated; the breadfruit I ate in the Marquesas that reminded me of home and made me savor connections across our sea of islands; and the breadfruit I was overjoyed to find cradled between my friend’s hands, before she smiled and quietly placed it in my own.

Then I remembered that for our ancestors food was ceremony and consumption was ritual.

And I wondered: Do we still nourish ourselves in this way?

Before her recent passing, a close friend and mentor of mine shared a poem with me. It came from a day where she was supposed to go to church and didn’t. It was Easter Sunday. As she sat pondering her decision, her mind wandered to food rituals that are bound to religious practice. We eat wheat bread and drink grape wine, symbolic of the body and the blood of Christ. But, why, she wondered, must our Savior always be imported, shipped in or flown in from faraway lands? Why must God always be colonizer, tourist, or even cargo?

I chewed on her poetic musings for a while and realized that we had our own ways of eating that connected us to our divine entities, that connected us to place and people, that connected us to all of creation and to each other.

Therefore, as I ate my ʻulu, I remembered my grandmother and I remembered stories of sacrifice: an old moʻolelo tells us of the god, Kū, and his life as a planter on this island. Although quite skilled in cultivating and growing food, his people were once stricken by a famine that left them starving and hopeless. Seeing their pain and anguish, he told his wife that there was a way he could help them, but that he would need to leave them in order to do so. Looking at her children, slumped over in weakness, she consented and offered Kū her last goodbye.

With his family close, Kū stood as his name instructed: kū, erect; kū, strong; kū, firmly planted in the ground. And as they watched in sorrow, he began to sink into the earth, until he was completely buried in it, surrounded by ʻāina.

With heavy tears, the people cried over this patch of earth, and in the early morning, they noticed a shifting, a movement, a stir in the ground. What began as a tiny sprout of green grew into a wondrous tree, branching out towards the sky, with thick, dark leaves, and with swollen, plump breadfruit.

Looking upon this figure, Kū’s wife understood that her husband had become this tree: the trunk his body, the branches his limbs, the leaves his hands, and the fruit his head, each ʻulu containing the memory of his life, his sacrifice, and his love for his people.

When I ate the ʻulu, I remembered this. I remembered that our ancestors considered food their relatives, their greatest teachers, their communion with gods. Thus, true nourishment was not just about satisfying physical hunger. All human beings on the planet are linked by the biological need to eat. But, for us, for kānaka maoli, true nourishment came from realizing the relationship between food and body, between ancestor and descendant, between place and people.

Thus, it’s no wonder that one of the first strikes of colonialism, one of the first acts of war against an indigenous people, is to cut them off from their food, and from their resources, so that they are not only stripped of the ability to feed themselves physically, but are simultaneously stripped of the ability to nourish themselves spiritually, emotionally, and culturally. They are stripped of connection, and in doing so, from an entire way of being and seeing the world.

And we need not look far into the past to see examples of this. Think of pipelines, think of telescopes, think of oil drilling, think of dredging, think of bombing, think of the pillaging of land and the erasure of history for profit. Examples of forced disconnection are everywhere. And examples of lived disconnection are even more abundant. So abundant, that we sometimes can’t see them.

Therefore as I ate, and as I considered these seemingly disconnected ideas together, filling the vā, or the space between memory and food, between story and ancestry, between ritual and consumption, I wondered: Is it possible to eat this way again?

Is it possible to feed ourselves with foods that come from the lands of our birth, from the lands of our ancestors; foods that link us to who we were, who we are, who we can be; foods that take us back to our grandmothers?

Now, with such a lengthy introduction, you may be asking yourself what this has to do with Hawaiian culture-based education. And it is precisely this:

Education, in the traditional sense, fills.

Hawaiian culture-based education, on the other hand, must nourish.

As a teacher, I often wonder what I’m feeding my students. When I walk into the classroom am I going to supply them with things I’ve picked up off of a shelf, like the shiny and perfectly packaged foods labeled “healthy” or “nutrient-packed” when in reality they are overly processed, and often times, devoid of any true substance? Or am I going to go an even easier route and feed them a pre-designed, pre-determined, and pre-made meal, one that can be consumed anywhere in the world and still taste the same? Or, am I going to give them the knowledge, the resources, and the technologies—both old and new—that they can use to one day sustain themselves?

Now, I believe that the metaphor of food actually translates quite well into the classroom. Why? Because we live in an era of McDonalidization. (Yes, that’s a thing). And although we may not want to admit it, even our education systems are in danger of being “McDonaldized.”

Think about it. McDonalds runs on certain core values: predictability, reliability, and convenience. Wherever you are in the world, you can walk into one of these restaurants and know that they will have certain key items on the menu, thus making them predictable. These items will not only taste the same, but will also feed your increasingly homogenized palette (a product of globalization, no doubt), thus making them reliable. And, these items will be convenient, supposedly saving you time while also conveniently distancing you from ʻāina, from connection, and from a sense of identity and urgency to maintain your food ways and life ways.

As we’ve been feasting on “fast” foods to accommodate our “fast” lives, societies have adopted these same principles to the point where they can be seen everywhere. In fact, the very ubiquity of these principles makes them almost invisible to us today. If you consider it, you can see that we are constantly exposed to “quick fixes” and “time savers”, anything to help us be more efficient. Even our banks and our pharmacies have adapted so that we don’t even have to get out of our cars to get what we need; money and medication come straight to us. But the more our lives are introduced to “efficiency” through machines and advanced technologies, the more we are living the impacts of disconnect, sometimes even without being aware of it.

In fact, it’s even in the way we educate our children. Yes, I would argue that standardization is the McDonaldization of education. It is the assumption that you can serve students the same curriculum, presenting it on the same trays, with the exact same components, regardless of location, or perhaps more precisely, while ignoring location altogether. It is the assumption that you can walk into any school in the country and students of the same age will be receiving the same content, passing the same tests, and achieving at the same levels as students at another school. It is the assumption that these classrooms will produce students with similar knowledge, making it easier to assess them, easier to predict their outcomes, and easier to rely on so-called proven methods that although suited for some, are never suited for all.

Hawaiian culture-based education is the antidote to this. It is the foundation of relationship and connection that our students need. Yet, in today’s world we are presented with a challenge: with all of the advancements that make our lives “faster” and apparently more efficient, our children and our students seem to have less and less space and time to slow down and savor the richness of their heritage.

I increasingly hear phrases in my own classroom like, “I’m Hawaiian but I didn’t grow up that way.” Or, “I never knew my history.” Or “I don’t really know what my Hawaiian name means.” While I am also honored to know many young kānaka maoli who are solid and steadfast in who they are, my classrooms seem to be filled more with examples of the former: those starving for a sense of identity, not quite knowing where and how to feed that ancestral craving for connection.

This has made me realize that while our students are advantaged with every technology imaginable some of them are simultaneously disadvantaged because they’ve lost the ability—and perhaps even worse, the opportunity—to connect without these technologies. Thus, I believe that a 21st century skill to cultivate and grow is one of relationship, of teaching students how to see themselves as not only part of the ʻāina, but also part of an ongoing genealogy of people, places, and events that they can add to, or perhaps more precisely, that they must add to.

The students of today will be far more literate in modern technologies than we ever will be. Since I started teaching in 2007, I’ve noticed a drastic change in my classrooms. The students of today are those who have never known a life without swiping left, without Googling, without the wonders of the Internet. They are used to having the world at their fingertips—literally. They can go anywhere and be anything virtually in a matter of seconds. Thanks to technology, the world is becoming smaller and smaller as humans are more and more connected, and sometimes to my own dismay, more and more the same.

The students of today seek instant gratification, instant approval, instant confirmation of worthiness and importance in a like on Facebook, a heart on Instagram, or a comment, solidifying their existence. The students of today, in fact, are so connected to everything and everyone, that they are at the same time disconnected. Connected to the world, disconnected from ʻāina.

So, my question is: What are the 21st century skills that you are going to cultivate and how will these skills empower our youth to live understanding themselves as indigenous, as part of the land, as feeding from their ancestors, as standing, always, with ten thousand at their side? What opportunities will you afford them in and out of the classroom? And together, how can we mentor them and not necessarily teach culture, but provide spaces for living culture?

I believe the potential of Hawaiian culture-based education is as wide and vast as our ocean. To be culture-based is not to bring tokens of culture, small tidbits of knowledge, or relics of a deserted past into the classroom. It is not to centralize imported, shipped in, or flown in concepts and to “Hawaiianize” the foreign. Rather, it is to tap into the ways of knowing and being that our kūpuna lived by and to teach and learn in that fashion: respecting the pilina, or the bond, between all things.

Postcolonial scholar, Ngugi Wa Thiongo (1986), once wrote about what he calls the cultural bomb: “The effect of a cultural bomb,” he said, “is to annihilate a people’s belief in their names, in their languages, in their environment, in their heritage of struggle, in their unity, in their capacities and ultimately in themselves” (p. 3). I see the lingering impacts of this in our communities, in our families, in the things we say to ourselves about ourselves, in the things that our students say to themselves about themselves and their potential.

Culture runs the risk of becoming a required subject, a portioned-out time of the day, spoon-fed to them. Culture, however, must frame their day. It must be so ubiquitous that they are almost unaware of it. Culture must simply be the way things are. It must be part of every day: starting from how they meet and greet one another, to how they are welcomed into a shared space of learning, to how they become co-carriers of responsibility, with the ability to respond to the challenges of today. They must be immersed in aloha while also being primed to be cultivators of it, to ready the soil for an empowered future. Our children and our students must never be complacent, must never forget the past, must never be without connection. Our classrooms can provide the space to taste the realities of what it means to be a contemporary Hawaiian today and what it takes to carry a nation forward.

I think about my Tūtū often these days and wonder how she would have taught me, how she would have nourished me and showed me the wonders of the world. Although we never had that chance, I imagine that it would have started with ʻāina and that would have included great food: nourishing, healthy, from the soil and sea. I imagine it would have involved story-telling and ancestral memories, working and sweating, feeling the weight of our pasts: the beauty and the pain.

I imagine that it would have included sitting with her without a screen or an app between us. Instead, I imagine that we would have filled that space, that vā, with story, creating memory and creating culture.

Now, I’m not saying that technology is a hindrance to deep learning, or to a type of learning that goes beyond the feeding of facts and the regurgitation of information. What I am saying is that technology must be a tool for tapping into the breadth and depth of our ancestral knowledge. In short, it must be a tool used to cook the ʻulu as it cannot, and should never be, the “meat” or the “substance” to be consumed. It must be used to make knowledge more digestible or softer for our contemporary palettes, but must never become the sole source of nourishment itself. Culture must be what feeds. ʻĀina must be what feeds. History and ancestry must be what feeds. And modern technologies can be the spoon for that, but not the meal. It must lead us to new tastes, new smells, new experiences of connection.

A couple of days ago, I took a walk with my father and my older sister. As we hiked forest trails in mud-soaked boots, embraced by mist and the scent of dancing ʻolapa, my dad recounted his time eating hāpuʻu shoots. He had recently taught my sister how to prepare them, and as he spoke, he reminisced. Telling me about these fern shoots brought back memories of place and people, so many in fact, that he could almost trace a moʻokūʻauhau, or genealogy, through food.

When I thought about hāpuʻu, I was reminded that these shoots were once a famine food, something that our people would only eat when they had nothing else. It was a survival food. But, when my father spoke about them, it was with fondness. And when my sister recounted the process of learning how to prepare them the week before, it was with pride. They had gathered the shoots together in the forest above our home. My father had instructed her on how to choose the right ones. They then boiled them so that they could peel them and soak them, all in preparation for the final cooking.

And when they ate them, days later, it was a solidification of their relationship, a confirmation of ancestral knowledge, and a validation of connection to ʻāina. They had been fed and nourished by the experience. And they were still salivating over it.

As I listened to their memories unfold, I realized that our children need these types of experiences. Why? Because they are starving for them and are in danger of being malnourished, perhaps not physically, but spiritually and culturally. Thus, they need the so-called famine foods so that their taste buds can readjust, and rejoice, and begin to hunger for more. They need “foods” for survival because our survival as a nation depends on it.

Our students need a true taste of what it means to be aloha ʻāina.

Aloha ʻāina is far more than loving the land. As many contemporary Hawaiian scholars agree, it is about a constant and loyal dedication to the life of our nation. It is a never-ending fight for the betterment of our people. This commitment, I believe, comes through knowing the land, the ocean, and all of our sources of sustenance intimately: knowing them as ancestors, treating them as ancestors, seeing them as the grandmothers who march at our sides by the thousands.

The future of our people will reside in the ability of our youth to see beyond the screen in front of them—beyond the glow of their social media outlets, their instant likes, and their constant updates—so that they can slow down and savor the depth and richness of everything around them, so that they can put hands to ʻāina and feel its pulse.

Our children and students need the skill and the strength to ʻauamo kuleana, or to carry their responsibilities, to serve and feed their people, to strengthen ancestral connections, and to use them as a base for protecting and safeguarding all of those sources that feed. To ʻauamo is to put a pole across your back—one used to carry large bundles of food, water, or supplies—and to shoulder the burden for the next generation. Thus, our students must be awakened and reawakened, constantly, to the beauty, power, and pain of being indigenous.

What is responsibility but the ability to respond? And in today’s world, where our children can access anything and everything at the push of a button, they will need guidance in becoming stewards of what’s beneath their feet. They will need guidance in learning how and when to respond to today’s challenges. And that can only come through connection, through pockets, and moments, and silences for feeling and tasting kuleana.

Without this, we will be lost.

Thus, the 21st century skill that I hope to cultivate in my own classrooms is one of connection. Everything that I teach is taught in relation to my students. They are always pushed to find that personal relevance, or that string of thought and action that can make anything, even the seemingly foreign, somehow personal, or something with the potential to impact them and they way they see the world. Any and all modern technologies used are to support this mission, never to distract from it.

Why?

Because our youth have enough distractions.

What they need now is hope. We need to grow hope from the soil, we need to harvest it from the sea, and pull it from the clouds. We need to be washed in it. But we will not see it, or grasp it, or be nourished by such hope until we are able to cultivate it, starting in our classrooms. Hope, in itself, is a radical political act, one that defies any and all attempts to silence us, to marginalize us, or to even bomb us out of existence. It is a political act in a world that expects us to lose hope, to dream smaller, and to give up and assimilate.

Thus, we must build hope and a sense of pride and this must come from a willingness and a dedication to stand for something bigger than oneself. I firmly believe that our students will only know what that “something bigger” is when they can look up from the screen momentarily, or turn off the music in their headphones, or distance themselves from the keyboard, and close their eyes, putting ear to the breeze, putting hand to the earth, putting heart to the knowledge of who they were, who they are, and who they can certainly become.

Give your students this chance through a culture-based education that nourishes, that feeds them experience and moments for change, moments for connection, moments for communion with their grandmothers. Give them the chance to fill the spaces between with meaning and purpose.

Feed them. Nourish them. And let them sigh, audibly, “mmmm”.

tutu

Mahalo e Tūtū.

References:

Angelou, M. Our Grandmothers. http://www.ctadams.com/mayaangelou25.html

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

Teaiwa, T. (2016). Personal Communication with author.

Thiong’o, N. (1986). Decolonizing 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.