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An open letter to the brave members of the Kamehameha Schools class of 2016

The decision by certain graduating Kamehameha seniors to remain seated during the "Star-Spangled Banner" should be celebrated as an act of independent thought deserving of praise, not condemnation.

Noelani Goodyear-Kaopua

June 15, 2016

Aloha e nā pua a Pauahi,

First and foremost, congratulations on your graduation from Kamehameha! What an important and happy moment in your lives and for your ʻohana! Although I have not met most of you, I am confident that each of you will go on to accomplish and experience many wonderful things in the coming years. Now is the time to celebrate all that you have achieved and all that you have become in these first 18 years of your lives!

I am also writing to thank you for your courage. I learned [on June 14] that at least 12 of you decided to remain seated during the “Star-Spangled Banner,” when that song was played during your commencement ceremony. While the school’s administration has judged your actions as “disrespectful,” as a “blemish” and a “poor choice,” I want you to know that there are many of us Kamehameha Schools alumni and other Kānaka ʻŌiwi who are incredibly proud of the statement you made by remaining seated.

Your actions embodied what respectful dissent can look like. Schools shouldn’t teach young people to be mindless drones who obey anything that an authority figure tells them to do. Schools should give students fluency in multiple histories, languages, ethical frameworks and creative forms of expression. And then they should encourage you to draw on those tools to make your own judgments, to stand (or sit, or write, or sing) for what you believe in, and to create your own path in life. I know that many teachers at Kamehameha have encouraged these capacities in you, and you have done them, your families, our alma mater and our lāhui honor by listening to your naʻau. There was nothing disrespectful in what you did. In fact, you exhibited deep respect for history, for your kūpuna and for Kamehameha. Your response to the U.S. national anthem shows that you have developed into critical thinkers. You are not a blemish. You are beautiful flowers in a lei lāhui that extends back to the pō. Don’t believe anyone who tries to tell you otherwise.

Speaking of national anthems, your actions remind me very much of the Hawaiian national anthem, “Hawaiʻi Pōnoʻī.” As you probably know, the third verse goes like this:

Hawaiʻi ponoʻī
e ka lāhui e
ʻo kāu hana nui
e ui ē

I have always thought it to be absolutely unique and amazing that a country’s national anthem would call its people, the lāhui, to actively question. It does not say, “hey, citizens, don’t challenge what those who have institutional power tell you. Don’t question authority.” It says, “Ask questions! Stir things up! Activate!” E ui ē! That is perhaps your greatest responsibility.

In your actions at graduation, you have shown us that this spirit of ui, of aloha ʻāina and of ea continues on. Hopefully this spirit will carry on with the support of our beloved alma mater. If not, well, we will carry on anyway.

To close I want to share a brief personal story. At my own graduation in 1992, I gave a speech in which I talked about how proud I was of my classmates because enrollment in Hawaiian language had grown fourfold since the class who were seniors when we were freshmen. In my speech I included what was considered almost an unspeakable, swear word in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s at KS—the “s-word”: sovereignty. Later that summer, I heard that several teachers and administrators were appalled by what I had said, and they were mad that I had not gotten clearance for the content of my speech. I worried for a minute. And then I realized that I had grown beyond what KS had to teach me.

Around the same time, I got a phone call from the legendary Dr. Kekuni Blaisdell (KS c/o 1942). Although we had never met, he reached out to me to thank me for what I said in my speech. (I could barely utter a word of response; I was so star-struck and intimidated). He invited me to the 1993 Peoples International Tribunal, Ka Hoʻokolokolonui Kānaka Maoli, and to the Thursday night meetings that were held every week at his home in Nuʻuanu. Uncle Kekuni became a lama kukui on my own path into the Hawaiian movement. In any case, Uncle Kekuni taught me that it is important for those who are further along on their lifepaths to affirm and mahalo the ʻōpio who make courageous choices and who take risks to speak truth. I know that if he were alive today, he would reach out to tell you how strong you are, how proud he is.

I too am proud of you. And I am not the only one. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of us who support your decision and respectful act of refusal. Welcome to a world of KS alums who honor our kūpuna and our ʻāina by remembering that we are who we were: kānaka ʻōiwi Hawaiʻi, kānaka ʻai pōhaku, kānaka aloha ʻāina. I wish you the very best on your path, and I would happily give you any kind of support you might need now or in the future.

Naʻu me ka mahalo a me ke aloha nui,

Noelani Goodyear-Kaʻōpua, KS c/o 1992

J. Noelani Goodyear-Kaopua, PhD, is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at UH Mānoa. Her focus is on indigenous politics and decolonial futures.