Image by USGS, Public Domain
Can’t You See Us Rising?
A few weeks ago, as many in Hawai‘i were focused on whether or not the Trustees of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) would rescind their support for the Thirty-Meter Telescope project on Mauna a Wākea, the OHA board approved another $2.3 million to continue paving a state-initiated path for nation-building. One can trace this path directly back to Act 195, the 2011 Hawai‘i state law that established the Native Hawaiian Roll Commission (NHRC). The NHRC was charged with establishing a roll of qualified Native Hawaiians eligible to participate in the formation of “a reorganized Native Hawaiian governing entity,” and they spent $444,288.88 in 2012 and $1,903,943.21 in 2013 to do so. Now OHA is contracting a new consortium called Na‘i Aupuni, to complete the government-building process. One could also trace this path even further back to 1974, to the Hawai‘i Democratic party’s first attempt to bestow cheap justice for the overthrow of an independent country’s government. That year US Representatives Spark Matsunaga and Patsy Mink introduced the Native Hawaiian Claims Settlement Act, which would have tasked the US Secretary of Interior with establishing a roll of Native Hawaiians, and our sovereign claims would have been traded for $1 billion to a “Hawaiian Native Corporation.” Forty years later, institutional powers in Hawaiʻi are still attempting to limit Hawaiian sovereign expression. What follows is an open letter to Hawaiian elders who have urged Kānaka Maoli to participate in the recent state-initiated process to establish a Native Hawaiian Roll and, what Act 195 calls, a “reorganized governing entity.”
Dear respected aunties, uncles, trustees, professors, legislators, and commissioners:
Lately I have been inspired by the protectors of Mauna a Wākea who have urged us to maintain a kapu aloha while resisting the desecration of our mountain. As I understand it, this kapu is grounded in the teachings of our kūpuna and is about carrying ourselves with the highest level of compassion for our beloved ʻāina and for all people we encounter. It requires discipline to have empathy for those with whom we disagree. It is not a command to compromise with or assent to harm. The kapu aloha is not intended as a release valve that makes it possible for us to continue enduring intolerable conditions, or to look away when we see wrong-doing. This kapu aloha compels us to act and speak with focus and courage. Particularly when this kapu has been put forward in the season of Kū, the kapu aloha compels us to confront difficult political issues. And so I intend this letter to be a loving way to tell you that I believe you are leading our people down the wrong path. The recognition of a Hawaiian “reorganized governing entity” under the State of Hawai‘i or the US federal government will not usher our lāhui into a better future.
In the last couple of years I have listened as you spoke in OHA meeting rooms and hallways, in debates at UH Mānoa and UH Maui, in Washington Place, at Thomas Square, and even at my daughter’s Pūnana Leo preschool classroom. In each of those places, you presented various reasons that we should participate in this state-initiated process. Since OHA’s latest approval of $2.3 million to Na‘i Aupuni, I have been meditating on some of the reasons that I repeatedly hear you offer. The responses I share in this letter have not been easy to compose, but various ʻāina deepened my resolve to write to you. And so I offer these thoughts, penned across time and place, with aloha.
You say: “Our people are suffering, and recognition will preserve state and federal funding for crucial programs.”
A response from ‘Alewa:
This past year, my husband’s parents moved back into the family home where my father-in-law grew up. The wind and rain are colder here than at the Waipiʻo home they left behind after thirty years. They downsized after much of their retirement savings was exhausted in my young nephew’s fight against cancer. They would never characterize themselves as “suffering,” but I know it hasn’t been easy. If they mentioned it at all, they would talk about how much of a joyful responsibility it is for ‘ohana to take care of one another. Mom explains away her difficulty sleeping by saying how the view of the city lights is so captivating that it wakes her up at 3am. I think about how no state programs have helped make their kupuna years any easier.
As ‘ohana do, my second parents care for our 9-month-old baby while my kāne and I work. Some days I pass my son over to them and write from their ‘Alewa lanai. From here I can see Mokauea and the Honolulu airport’s reef runway that was built over Mokuoeo, a small island where my mother-in-law’s elder brother and their ancestors before them fished regularly. I think of how the settler state routinely builds infrastructure to accelerate foreign capital accumulation over ʻŌiwi economic cornerstones.
We don’t need an extension of the status quo. Our lāhui needs collective access to land. The health of our bodies and our families depend on strong relationships with our lands and waters. In the last 115-years, settler state-sponsored programs have never solved the problems that the occupier’s presence created in the first place: houselessness, pollution, diminished local food production, substance abuse, and the overall devaluation of ʻŌiwi ways of living. At best, the settler state mitigates its own harm. Yet you are asking us to submit to a process initiated by that very state. In so doing, the new governing entity would enter any negotiation for a landbase from a weakened position right from the get go.
The occupier’s M.O. is to destroy and replace. Their intent in “reorganizing a Native Hawaiian governing entity”—an entity that never historically existed—is to destroy our independent consciousness.
Last year, my mother-in-law scattered her brother’s ashes in the waters near where he used to fish, where the remains of Mokuoeo lie.
“Honolulu, HNL Runway” by Ron Reiring via CC By 2.0
You say: “Independence people don’t have a better plan.”
A response from Toronto
It’s May, but here, further north than Pittsburg and Niagara Falls, I have to remind myself that a blue sky and bright sunlight do not necessarily mean warmth. The cold air numbed my fingers as I was jogging this morning. Amidst the non-descript architecture and grey concrete of this industrial area, one green grassy field stood out. I slowed my pace as I noticed chains and warning signs. A black-necked goose sat on the hard sidewalk outside the cordoned field: “Keep out. High pressure petroleum line.” And in bold letters: ENBRIDGE. Enbridge operates about 16,000 miles of crude pipeline across North America, cutting through and polluting the territories of dozens of Indigenous nations, most of whom are “recognized.”
A group of Hawaiians thousands of miles from home, we’re here for a conference on colonialism and extractivism but we can’t tear ourselves away from the online channels allowing us to stay connected to the continuous flow of our people’s resistance to the TMT. Watching some of you at the OHA meeting from our smart phones from the lobby of the Best Western, Andre Perez interjects a story about how he challenged the trustees to name the four people who comprise the Na‘i Aupuni consortium about to receive $2.3 million for nation-building. He asked the OHA board: “Why not just give that money to me, Kaleikoa, Dexter and Keanu?” He tells us that when the crowd erupted with laughter, he retorted, “It sounds ludicrous, right? Well, giving it to Na‘i Aupuni is just as ridiculous.”
Let’s be honest. What Na‘i Aupuni will be doing is not really nation-building; It’s bureaucracy-building. Nation-building is what our people are doing everyday when we plant kalo, speak our language, celebrate Makahiki, blockade roads to protect ʻāina, lash hale, read Hawaiian scholarly work, chant, dance, or navigate by the stars.
Your plan has a genealogy that you have not been forthright about. In Canada and in the US, recognition processes are about creating bureaucratic apparatuses so that the settler state can negotiate with them and try to quiet Native claims. These processes have also set up destructive ways of classifying Native people. Here in Canada, the 1867 Indian Act left behind a legacy of complicated rules about who counts as a “Status Indian.” In the US, the establishment of Native rolls goes back to the 1887 Dawes, or General Allotment, Act. The essential goal of both of these laws was assimilation, and one of their principal effects was massive land loss for the original nations of Turtle Island.
The millions of dollars spent on Kana‘iolowalu’s roll and on previous efforts to secure US federal recognition have not included meaningful education about the baggage that the terms “reorganized governing entity” and “reorganization” carry within the context of US law. Our people need to know that these terms go back to the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act (IRA). After the ways general allotment fragmented and impoverished Native nations, was the IRA’s allowance for limited tribal self-governance under US plenary power was a step forward? Well, yes, a small one. But why would we follow a model that is over 75 years old and that we know has often entrenched Native peoples in American bureaucratic models rather than in their own Indigenous forms of governance? In his analysis of contemporary recognition politics in Canada and other settler colonial contexts, Glen Coulthard shows us that “when delegated exchanges of recognition occur in real world contexts of domination the terms of accommodation usually end up being determined by and in the interests of the hegemonic partner in the relationship” (p. 17).
1969-1971 Mauna Ulu eruption of Kilauea by D.A. Swanson (USGS). Public domain.
When I got too cold jogging this morning, I headed into the hotel fitness center. A morning news program on TV caught my attention. Halemaʻumaʻu is overflowing for the first time in thirty years! I wonder: Does Tūtū Pele have a plan outlined in advance when she births new lands? I am thinking about her creative power as I later sit at a conference panel on Indigenous hip hop. Cree/Dene scholar Jarrett Martineau describes the cipher—a jam session in which all participants contribute in turn to the creative process—as a form of Indigenous resurgence. The MCs or dancers don’t script it out beforehand. Circling up, they turn to face one another, building original narrative visions together in a space of collaboration and contention.
Meaningful independence will not emerge from a colonial blueprint. Meaningful independence will emerge through a practice of turning our backs on institutions that hold no promise for our collective futures and turning instead to one another.
You say: “I don’t want to leave this issue unresolved so that my moʻopuna have to deal with it.”
A response from Hāmākua
I am in Hāmākua because my PhD student, Noʻeau Peralto, is defending his dissertation research proposal. Usually these meetings happen in isolated university classrooms, in which rain and sunlight cannot directly touch our skin. Here along the cliffs of Koholālele, I worried the clouds would bring hard rain, but the only drops that fell were welcoming affirmations when each of us visitors introduced ourselves to this ʻāina through oli.
Noʻeau belongs to a new generation, and he has called us together on his ancestral lands. So, four of us professors work alongside four generations of ko Hāmākua, pulling weeds amidst a eucaplytus forest that was planted by the land owner for capital extraction. Noʻeau has built a community organization, HuiMAU, that is reclaiming space and stories on this ʻāina that they do not own, but to which they have deep, ancestral kuleana. Noʻeau’s research challenges the erasure of Kanaka connections to ‘āina and the myth that Hāmākua has been rendered empty by the legacy of the plantations. A project like his and a meeting like this could not have happened in the university twenty years ago.
HuiMAU began clearing the tall, sharp cane grass a little over a year ago. Since then, pōpolo plants have popped up in every possible space. It was the first native to come back, Noʻeau tells us. We are surrounded by them. My daughter Laʻilaʻi collects handfuls of the tiny, dark berries. I think about the prophecy that Andre just presented on in Toronto: Hōʻale ka lepo pōpolo. When the chiefs are gone, it is the makaʻāinana who will rise up.
Holding up a map of the island, Noʻeau reminds us that the district of Hāmākua does not just run along this lush and dramatic coastline; it extends upland, encompassing all of Mauna Kea and across the plain of Pōhakuloa over to the base of Mauna Loa.
I flash back to a moment two days earlier during our visit to the encampment of kia‘i on Mauna a Wākea. We sat under the kitchen tent singing songs that remember our connections to specific ʻāina. There, in the highest parts of Kaʻohe, my 15-year-old daughter Hina shared a mele she had composed during a six-day sail across our paeʻāina—from Oʻahu to Kawaihae—under the tutelage of navigators trained by Papa Mau Piailug and Captain Clay Bertlemann. With her ukulele she sang: “E wili pū ʻia nā kaula ʻōiwi/Kūpaʻa a kū like a i ka hopena.” As she explained, each of us is like a rope stretching to our ancestors. Woven together, we will be strong and reach our destination.
I share these reflections from Hāmākua with you to illustrate that the generations that are coming immediately after us will be far more prepared to restore our independence than you or me. If there is one thing that you should take away from seeing the spontaneous upswelling of our people at the 2014 DOI hearings across the archipelago and now around Mauna a Wākea, it is that we are only just beginning to see the first fruits of restoring our wholeness as a lāhui. You can leverage your positions of power to support our people’s own grassroots efforts to make kaula ʻōiwi for building and binding our own political vessels, untethered to the state.
I have heard more than a couple of you say things like, “I’ve been fighting for 30+ years and I’m tired. I want to see something happen for our people.” I know why you are tired. It’s because you have worked so hard, and we are trying to undo a century of being alienated, whitened and fragmented.
Mahalo for your labors of love for the lāhui. It is because of you that my feet have touched the hard earth of Kohemālamalama-o-Kanaloa; that as a 19-year-old I got to stand in solidarity with fellow Kānaka who were labeled as “squatters” for struggling to deepen community on Hawaiian land in Waimānalo; that I began to learn about and eventually chant my own family’s genealogy, and that I first heard the words “Hawaiian” and “sovereignty” uttered together in the same breath. I didn’t get those experiences until college, but our children will have them from birth.
So please don’t forget that this is an intergenerational struggle. We don’t need to seek gifts of hollow justice from the state to see something good happen for our people. Our people are what’s happening. Can’t you see us rising? Please don’t rob your moʻopuna of the kuleana for which we have prepared them. There is no shame in being the grandparents of the 7th generation. Your moʻopuna will be better equipped because we have cleared the space for them to grow. Don’t fence us in now.
Ke aloha ʻāina nō,