Indigenous people from across the world convened in Honolulu this month for the world’s largest summit on native and indigenous education. Delegations from across the world’s oceans included Māori, Ainu, Navajo, Blackfoot, Aboriginal Australians, indigenous Taiwanese and dozens more. The World indigenous Peoples Conference on Education (WiPC:E) ran from May 19–24 at Kapi῾olani Community College, where hundreds of representatives shared experiences, research and discussion on educational and social strategies that will benefit their communities.
Official workshops numbered over a hundred and featured a wide range of topics. One, for example, explored using indigenous principles to create a competitive and cutting-edge modern education. Another discussed the need for and efficacy of indigenous youth mentorship programs. The conference website and official topics and speakers can be found here.
The conference, as hosted by the Native Hawaiian Education Association, had the theme of “E Mau Ana Ka Mo῾olelo,” which the conference translated into English as “Our Narratives Endure.” This harkens to the perpetuation of indigenous cultures and the invigoration of their respective communities with education. In ῾ōlelo Hawai῾i, the phrase also speaks of a singular yet shared narrative. The message disseminated in the conference theme called on participants “to stand with us as Native Peoples of one world and of many.” Understanding difference and creating solidarity were recurring themes throughout the conference, and appeared in one of the conference’s most anticipated speeches.
On Thursday, May 22, Ka Pouhana CEO of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA), Dr. Kamana῾opono Crabbe, gave a keynote speech before the conference’s hundreds of delegates. Crabbe’s keynote speech, coincidentally, came mere days after an OHA meeting of trustees about the Crabbe-Kerry letter—which questioned the legal status of the Hawaiian nation—and subsequent OHA Board of Trustees rescind letter.
However, Crabbe made no direct mentions of OHA, Act 195 (concerning Hawaiian nation-building), or the personal and professional fractures within OHA that have arisen out of the past four weeks. Instead, he spoke of the significance of this gathering for indigenous educators.
Crabbe summarized the conference as a “Pu῾uhonua; a place of refuge, for us to share our experiences, strengthen hope with each other for the message to go back to your community, your whānau, your ῾ohana, your family, to carry on the legacy in which we set course.”
As an educator, community leader, and cultural practitioner, he spoke from this perspective as a participant in the conference: “Our indigenous leaders spoke this morning as peers to recognize the honor that there is an ethos and spirit about WiPC:E where we don’t have to translate everything into Western construct. We leave those barriers behind and have that opportunity to just be kānaka, to just be indigenous.
“‘It is ignorance who is the oppressor; it is vigilance who is the liberator,’” said Crabbe, quoting a Māori proverb. “And that vigilance is education.”
Dr Crabbe cited this proverb to define his message on education: “A unique element which we all share through our cultural practices here, is that education is not just about reading, math, and science; it is about our spiritual well-being, our cultural dignity; it is about our social cohesion within our community. That is what we are here about.”
Dr Crabbe expanded beyond the Western definition of utility-oriented education by depicting how education implicates issues common across the spectrum of indigeneity. Matters of “well-being,” “dignity” and “cohesion,” are at stake, but also stand to be recuperated through the generative forces of indigenous education. Education for indigenous people is not a fringe issue for economic survival, but a primary element of thriving as a comprehensive people.
“We now become agents of change in our own destinies; we empower ourselves,” he said. “And this conference gives us the mana and the strength to ho῾oikaika and do that: to empower ourselves and each other.”
Dr Crabbe’s statements were not directed exclusively at the Hawaiian community, despite his new-found position at the center of the past four weeks of conflict. He broadened his calls for cooperation and empowerment on education to the full diversity of indigenous peoples before him: “Essential to our movement is the principle that all indigenous people have the inalienable right—the inalienable right to be indigenous, which includes the right to self-determination.”
With this right to “be indigenous,” Dr Crabbe moved beyond the scope of education to call upon the overarching issues of indigenous communities: “We all as indigenous people throughout the world no longer have to ask for permission. Yet we have to advocate for the opportunity and the access to actually live it. We no longer are the deficit model; we are the resilient people who carve out our own future destiny.”
As Dr. Salu, The Director of Education of American Sāmoa, quoting a Sāmoan proverb, said, “You cannot produce sweet rich coconut oil with only one coconut.”
With both humor and seriousness, Dr Crabbe invoked this proverb to speak to the conflict and diversity of voices that come with self-advocacy and carving out a future: “We are all coconuts. Together, the oil is sweet and rich for all of our people when we all contribute our energy, our knowledge, our wisdom to the collective.”
Before him was a crowd of diverse indigenous peoples where Kānaka Maoli were but one of many. His advice to the wider effort of all indigenous peoples was that, “We are only as powerful and strong as we are together. We are vulnerable by ourselves and when we stand alone. But we are most formidable as we stand collective. Let us stand united and formidable. And those who stand as outliers, let us reach out to them and bring them into the circle. We can no longer tolerate oppression; we must unshackle those chains not just to indigenous education, but the right to self-governance, self-determination and freedom for our people. Let us stand collective, united and formidable.”
In resonance with the WiPC:E theme of E Mau Ana Ka Mo῾olelo / Our Narratives Endure, Dr Crabbe called for international solidarity among the world’s indigenous peoples. He emphasized the magnitude of the issues, incorporating education into the wider scheme of achieving self-governance and empowerment. He articulated that self-determination requires strength from collective effort and unity.
His message coincides with a time when his own community is witnessing internal conflict and disunity. This strength through inclusivity does not only apply to relations between indigenous nations, but within indigenous communities themselves. He did not explicitly call out Kānaka Maoli, yet his comments weaved a message for his own community: that the current state of in-fighting has degraded the strength and formidability of the Hawaiian community all on its own. Rather than tip-toeing around a politically sensitive topic, the kaona (hidden meanings) of Dr Crabbe’s comments called for a restoration of unity.
Speaking to all indigenous peoples, including his own, he said, “Let us challenge ourselves to act with urgency, yet to be humble in our delivery and respectful in what we say.”