At this very moment in time - yesterday, today - the Native people of Hawai'i are choosing their course. These inveterate ocean voyagers are: summoning the strength of their ancestors; owning the cultural practices that were outlawed for a century; and reclaiming their birthright connection to the land, the ocean, and to every living bit of creation, Churning in, around, and among the original inhabitants of these tiny Islands is a veritable ocean of potential change. It has caused many of our friends to scratch their well-meaning heads in confusion; ask for an explanation; beg for understanding.
There is good reason for confusion. I will make a singular (and a most humble) effort to distill the confusion.
In this one year, there have been two very distinct and, to varying degrees, worthy, public efforts by the kanaka maoli - the aboriginal people - to reclaim their Island nation. Allow me be clear here. This was an internationally-recognized, independent nation before a dozen sugar cane barons deposed and imprisoned the last Queen and, with support from the American government, occupied the independent nation. It is occupied still. These historical facts are indisputable.
The pretense of this being a state among American states is fiction. The vote for statehood was rigged. A foreign sugar cane industry held it's Asian, immigrant, field workers by the throat - jobs for votes. The Native Hawaiians were outvoted by the greed of the former and the fear of the latter. It was a vote of pure self-interest - with no accounting for the interests of the host culture. That was then. I am committed here to speaking about now.
Now, as I said, there have been two contemporaneous, ongoing, public efforts to rectify the wrongs wrought on the heads, hearts and lives of the indigenous people. Within these efforts, lay the confusion.
There has been, since April, a robustly grass-roots assemblage of protesting Native Hawaiian youth encamped on the peak of Mauna Kea on the Island of Hawai'i. They have stood their ground in the face of what they call, " the defilement" of their sacred mountain. They have quite literally placed their bodies in the path of on-coming bulldozers and tractors and trucks flattening that sacred 'aina (land) for the construction of the world's largest telescope. They have been challenged at every turn by the fully-mustered force of commercial, academic, governmental and legal opposition.
They have not budged. They have been forbidden, arrested, charged, jailed, released - and they have consistently returned to their encampment as, "protectors of the 'aina, protectors of the Mauna."
They pray; they clean the land around them; they perform traditional ritual; they speak softly, and without anger. They are committed cultural practitioners. They are largely young, educated, speakers of their ancient language. They are few - but they are supported by almost every Native Hawaiian on earth. Within days, this summer, they assembled 10,000 supporters in the largest (most dynamic, joyful, and inclusive) protest march of Native Hawaiians on the streets of Honolulu. It appears that to the soul of the Hawaiian nation, the one defining cultural truth, is the love of 'aina. They carry a multi-generational pain for its desecration.
Since April, because of the protests, construction of the $1.4 billion telescope has been halted, while the challenges make their way through American courts. This week, the State Supreme Court ruled that the original permit allowing construction of this telescope project that will bring a million dollars a year in international user fees to the University of Hawai'i was "invalid." It was deemed "invalid" because the permit was issued before "a contested case hearing was held." The court ordered a new contested case hearing. This is a major victory for the kids on the mountain, for the Native Hawaiian people, and of course, for the 'aina.
But the Native Hawaiians know better than to assume the fight is over. In this occupied nation, greed has consistently been the victor. The prosecution of the praying, chanting, peaceful protesters is ongoing: Governor David Ige said: "There is no plan to ask the county prosecutor to dismiss those prosecutions. These trials are current, ongoing, and we're not going to interfere."
Let me turn to the next , totally unrelated ongoing, public effort to rectify the wrongs perpetrated on lives of these indigenous people - the Na'i Aupuni Election. And if protesting a mere telescope on one of the Native sacred mountains has the ability to rouse the opposition of powerful commercial and governmental wrath, then try to imagine the firestorm that an actual election, by and for aboriginal Hawaiians determining the future of their nation, might incite. Then multiply and magnify your imagination a hundred-fold and you'll come close to the picture.
The Na'i Aupuni election of delegates has been underway for several months. The elected delegates are scheduled to assemble for four months this winter to hash out a unified direction and purpose document for the potential sovereignty of the Native Hawaiian people. The document would then be presented to the registered Na'i Aupuni voters for a referendum.
Yes, it appears to be such a seemingly simple and straight-forward process. Except that it is decidedly neither simple nor straight-forward. Unlike the kids on Mauna Kea (the protesters on the mountain) it has been a hugely divisive proposition from the get-go. First, of course, there are the pro-forma-by-now lawsuits challenging any entitlement by or for the Native Hawaiians as, "racist." This has always amounted to unfathomably hypocritical name-calling-via-lawsuit by those occupiers who fear a challenge to their white privilege.
These lawsuits occasionally succeed. This week, the United States Supreme Court halted the counting of delegate votes (though not the election itself) pending future legal decisions in Appeals Court.
Sadly, though, the Na'i Aupuni Election has been equally divisive within the Native Hawaiian community itself. The parameters of the delegate choices have been set, not by the voters themselves, but by the U.S. Department of Interior. Thus, though a significant majority of politically and culturally active Hawaiians want their nation returned to independence, an election within the rules of the Department of Interior actually would refuse such a choice. The only acceptable choice within this framework is a "government to government" relationship akin to the Native American tribes.
There are those Native Hawaiians who absolutely support this option. There are those Native Hawaiians who believe that this is their only, and therefore better-than-nothing, choice. And there are many indigenous Hawaiians who believe this is equivalent to handing the key to the jail to the jailers. They want their sovereign nation returned.
The supposedly independent, non profit, Na'i Aupuni election board has made multiple flat-out mistakes throughout the process. In an effort to maximize sign-up among the potential voter base they have included folks who didn't agree to be included - co-opting other organizational lists. Even with this shady effort - they've assembled less than 100,000 of the 450,000 Native Hawaiians on Island and in the U.S. How representative is that? How do you exclude the bulk of the electorate from the election?
On the Crest
Eight years ago now, 'Iokepa Hanalei 'Imaikalani declared at the top of one of our website pages:
“For too long, we have allowed others to define us, to discount us, and to commercialize our culture. For too long, we have allowed others to divide us. The Return Voyage takes us back to our genuine ohana – in its aboriginal meaning: ‘Everyone and everything you can see, that you can wrap your heart around, is your responsibility to take care of.’
“We agree on so much more than we do not. We agree that we – who are descended from the original ancestors – are brothers and sisters. We agree that our personal freedom relies on knowing who we are and who our ancestors were. We agree that the Creator entrusted the Islands to our care – that we are its stewards. We agree that we come from a people who took responsibility for one another, and for every part of the living creation. We agree: The time to share our message with the world is now.”
Now these admirable indigenous people are about to choose their course. The wisdom of the Native ancestors was anything but political. That wisdom was fully cultural, as defined within ' 'Iokepa's earlier words.
I am a grateful guest of this culture - and an astute and trained observer. In sum, here are my observations. The kids on Mauna Kea have met the expected and determined opposition with tradition, with the words of the ancestors that they carry in their very cells. Whatever else they have accomplished - they have managed to unite their people. This is where the power of the future lay: a generation of educated and culturally aware young people who have managed to respectfully challenge and invite their kupuna (their elders) around their shared reverence for the sacred 'aina.
The Na'i Aupuni election has never been grass-roots. It was imposed from above. It is in no way cultural. It fails, not because of challenges from the outside, but because it imitates an American political system that, with all it's strengths and flaws, is decidedly not aboriginal.
Naturally, as a compassionate guest married to a sovereign Native Hawaiian, I can only observe the process - and offer blessings on whatever direction my hosts determine. But from this singular vantage, it appears powerfully apparent that the energy and the future rests heavily with the protectors of the 'aina.