Bronson Kaahui’s opinion piece on the roots of Hawaiian opposition to the TMT published in Civil Beat (April 9, 2015) is passionate, but historically and culturally inaccurate. While he is correct in pointing out the masterful scientific feats of incredible navigational skills by Polynesian sailors enabled, in part, through keen observation of their environment from the sea to the stars, it was their intense spiritual faith that enabled such feats, and not, as he states, some baseless “superstition” or “irrational fear” that handicapped them; no, quite the contrary.
While the modern world may be incapable of truly grasping the depth of Polynesian spirituality, for our ancestors and for many of us today, it is the intimate relationship between our spiritual understanding and our intellectual inquiry that creates the possibilities of such magnificent achievement.
Traditional Polynesian spiritual beliefs are indeed impressive, particularly in their recognition of commonalities in physical life forms, including classifying many as kino lau (body forms) of our deities, who represent nature and natural phenomena, from the sun and moon and sky above to the earth and sea and all life forms below. Kumulipo, a cosmogonic genealogy recounting the creation of the Hawaiian universe, pairs marine and terrestrial flora and fauna based on the linguistic similarities between names or use, a brilliant classification system based on different epistemology than that used by western scientists.
For example, the limu manauea (Gracilaria coronopifolia seaweed) is paired with the kalo manauea (colocasia esculenta or taro); both are used as food and medicine in one wā (epoch), the ‘a‘awa fish (Bodianus bilunulatus, a wrasse) in the sea is paired with the ‘awa plant (Piper methysticum) plant on land, representing other aspects of environmental and cultural pono (balance, harmony), and such sophisticated pairings continue for over a thousand lines.
The concept of pono as a foundational concept of physical, spiritual, emotional and mental balance of the self, as well as in the world around us is based on the larger idea of dualism found in traditional Asian religious philosophies, demonstrating they too were transported across the Pacific, hundreds of miles of navigation west to east before even reaching the Polynesian triangle. It is reflected as well in the Austronesian language family, originating in Asia, to which Polynesian languages belong. Thus, an understanding of religious philosophy and linguistic history is critical in knowing how and why Hawaiians made such connections, links impossible to even consider in Latin, Greek, or English.
The ‘Aikapu (“Kapu System”), a religious practice of “sacred eating,” is equally misunderstood, even by Hawaiians such as Kaahui. As some of my and other brilliant Hawaiian scholarly work on the topic has shown, the ruling ali‘i class did not have absolute powers over the maka‘āinana (ordinary citizens); the people were free to move about and could easily avoid any tyrannical ali‘i.
As Kamana Beamer rightly points out in his recent book, No Makou ka Mana, Liberating the Nation, maka‘āinana always had agency, and often exercised it. Moreover, ample evidence in written historical archives shows that not only did maka‘āinana do so, but concerned kahuna (spiritual advisors to the ali‘i) conspired with the people to rise up against such ali‘i and depose them when necessary. Such is the ending of Hakau, sacred son of the ali‘i nui (high chief) Līloa, who is never discussed except as a warning of how not to behave cruelly; his half-brother ‘Umi, however, generous and kind, rises to power and continues to be remembered with respect and affection to this day.
Kaahui claims “ample evidence” exists that maka‘āinana were brutalized by the ruling class, but provides none. Rather, his line of argument follows that of American Calvinist missionaries and other foreigners who had no understanding of the Hawaiian culture they encountered. Moreover, they had no desire to understand it, or any other non-European society they stumbled upon, which they automatically considered inferior to theirs. Aside from their sense of racial and spiritual superiority, American Calvinist missionaries had an economic motivation to portray traditional Hawaiian society as morally depraved and spiritually bankrupt: if there was no need for soul saving, then the missionaries would have no function in Hawaiian society, and no economic support from the Boston-based New England mission that financially sponsored them. With such incentives, and blinded by their own cultural and racial biases, why would they ever even think to look for anything positive about Hawaiians, or ask about their epistemologies and worldviews?
To say the people were so easily fooled by their leaders is a tired colonial trope, another form of the binary “Noble Savage” but “stupid, inept, Kanaka” leveled against Hawaiians and other indigenous peoples for centuries to justify racism, dispossession, genocide, and colonization. The ‘Aikapu regulated chiefly behavior, in part, to heighten spiritual effectiveness and in extension political power, and strict enforcement—including the penalty of death for infractions—was necessary for social, political, and spiritual purposes, and is not dissimilar to how the death penalty in the western legal system is justified in our contemporary world.
Kamehameha I was a brilliant military strategist, called the Napoleon of the Pacific by Hawaiian historians beginning in the 19th century. Hawaiian accounts are clear that his political power was predicated on his spiritual piety and worship of his war god, Kūkāʻilimoku (“Island-snatching Kū”). Yes, he did take advantage of western weaponry, but it is also clear from historical records that his devout worship and care of Kūkāʻilimoku was key to his phenomenal victories over rival chiefs with superior genealogies, political savvy, and experience, and Kamehameha is but one of a long line of such spiritually devout ali‘i (Līloa and ‘Umi, his ancestors, being just two other, older, examples).
If Kaahui or others need assistance in finding sources, they might read attorney and political leader Joseph Moku‘ōhai Poepoe’s biography of Kamehameha, Reverend Stephen Desha’s Kamehameha and His Warrior Kekūhaupi‘o, or historian Samuel Kamakau’s Ke Aupuni Mō‘ī. There are over a million pages of primary Hawaiian language newspaper text spanning over a century of publication (1830s-1940) of Hawaiian knowledge. Then, as now, there was a range of opinion, and sadly, some worked against the lāhui as some continue to do today.
The Hawaiian protectors today are the descendants of the poʻe aloha ʻāina (Hawaiian patriots), our nineteenth century ancestors who fought vehemently to restore the wrongful overthrow of our government and beloved sovereign Queen Liliʻuokalani in 1893, and who submitted thousands of signatures on two written petitions to the U.S. Congress demonstrating opposition to the U.S. annexation in 1898, and who composed hundreds of mele aloha ‘āina, patriotic songs in support of our Queen and our lāhui. This is beautifully written about by contemporary Hawaiian scholars such as Noenoe Silva (Aloha Betrayed) and Leilani Basham.
Many political, religious, and community leaders such as Poepoe and Desha, mentioned above, as well as John Ailuene Bush, a newspaper editor and writer, and even Prince Jonah Kūhiō Kalani‘ana‘ole, stood up, spoke out and were arrested for the cause of Aloha ‘Āina—patriotism based on love for our land. Perhaps this is best expressed by another leader and patriot, Joseph Nāwahī, who was also imprisoned for his political views, and who said, to the people, “E Ho‘omalu i ke kūpa‘a no ka ‘Āina” (Continue to be Steadfast in Your Love for the Land).
We are also the inheritors of the aloha ‘āina movement beginning in the 1960s with the emergence of the Protect Kahoʻolawe ‘Ohana and many others who fought for land and water rights, from Kalama and Waiāhole valleys on Oʻahu to Hilo Airport, illegally constructed on ceded and DHHL (Department of Hawaiian Homelands) lands. Some are suggesting this is “the Kaho‘olawe of this generation.” Others are suggesting it is even bigger—that Kaho‘olawe was a huge fight against the powerful U.S. military, but this is an international issue more reminiscent of our own Arab Spring.
We are also the beneficiaries of the foresight of the Hawaiian educators, activists and cultural visionaries who fought long and hard to regrow Hawaiian language, culture and our lāhui (people, nation). The blossoming of ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i (Hawaiian language) over the past forty years, from the brink of extinction as a living language, has led to a Hawaiian language immersion school and Hawaiian culturally-based charter school system open to all, the establishment and growth of Hawaiian language and Hawaiian Studies programs with undergraduate and graduate programs at the University of Hawai‘i’s Hilo and Mānoa campuses, and undergraduate programs and certificates at the other campuses across the archipelago.
Even Kamehameha Schools, the preeminent institution of Hawaiian education, has transformed from a “school for Hawaiians” to a “Hawaiian school,” consciously integrating such culturally based knowledge as a foundation for their curriculum from their preschool to high school campuses as the importance of Hawaiian cultural knowledge has been clearly acknowledged and recognized as beneficial to our future; a movement both inspired by and inspiring to other indigenous peoples’ movements around the planet.
Thus, historicizing the groundswell of Hawaiian opposition to the development of the TMT reveals its place within a long standing genealogy with cultural and historical roots. It is not, as Kaahui claims, ignorant (or naïve) people misled by the New Age spirituality movement, Hawaiians “learning from the wrong haoles;” nor is it, as former governor Neil Abercrombie once stupidly quipped, being led by those “who found their cultural roots six minutes ago.” This movement is rooted in the Aloha ‘Āina of our ancestors, not in New Age colonialism.
I, as well as others, such as the members of Huna is Not Hawaiian, have written quite eloquently elsewhere on the incredible damage that New Age Spiritualism has done to the practice and perception of Hawaiian culture and religion. We refute any attempts by their movement to coopt our culture as nothing more than spiritual and cultural colonization. Like our 19th century ancestors, who faced unprecedented social and cultural upheaval that continues to reverberate today, we are kahu: protectors and guardians of our lands, sea and sky, our culture, language, knowledge, intellectual and artistic ideas and of our lāhui; honoring, remembering and respecting our ancestors, building our present and our future with all this in our hearts, guts and minds. To willfully ignore such critical historical connections to the past and present of this movement in such a shallow, ahistoricized way obfuscates our own knowledge, achievements and values.
We are not clinging to superstitions or romanticizing the past; nor are we anti-science or technology. Rather, we are interested in pono: the balance of the past and the future, of arts and sciences, of sustainability and fairness, of the intellectual and the sacred. Many of us are cultural practitioners and educators who have had knowledge passed down within our ‘ohana or hālau (school) affiliations, from hula, to navigation, to medicine and horticulture.
Many of us have also spent decades dedicating ourselves to the continued development of our cultural and professional ‘ike (knowledge), reading and researching the vast archives of historical Hawaiian materials, working the land, sailing the seas, observing the heavens, perfecting our skills. Some of us engage new technologies to help critically endangered species or habitats, to promote better nutrition and health, to work diligently to unlock, recover and perpetuate the secrets of old knowledge; some of it lost and now found, some of it taken by force and now reclaimed.
Yes, we are a diverse and vibrant people—a Hawaiian proverb proclaims, “Ua lehulehu a manomano ka ‘ikena a ka Hawai‘i: “Great and vast is the knowledge of Hawaiians”—and we have an important kuleana (responsibility) to learn, foster, nurture, understand and grow that knowledge, the greatest gift and legacy of our ancestors.
I am a kahu ‘ike, a caretaker of knowledge, and I am but one of many who seek to provide facts and possibilities for open dialogue, intellectual query and critical analysis based on such. Yes, we are a diverse people with a range of opinions and ideas, as we also represent a range of knowledge and ignorance on any given issue. We represent ourselves, our families, our genealogies, our culture, our islands, our spiritual beliefs and cultural practices, and some of us do it much better, and in a much more grounded fashion, than others.
We must all consider what is right for us to think, believe, support, or follow. In this way, I am clear about my kuleana as a Hawaiian woman of my generation, and my connection and responsibilities to care for, protect and defend, when necessary, Hawaiian culture and knowledge, even when—or especially when—other Hawaiians neglect or ignore this critical kuleana.
I imagine others who sacrifice their lives to be protectors and protesters would understand. Our hard-fought right to protect and defend our ‘āina is inspired by our kūpuna, who proclaimed the fight would continue until the last po‘e aloha ‘āina (patriot). They are the foundation of this next era of cultural and political activism, now visible world-wide as many of us voice our aloha, concern, and kuleana over the continued disrespect and outright contempt for our ‘āina, culture, values and us. We look back not to romanticize the past, but to understand and build a more positive, culturally-centered perspective on who we were, who we are, and the great possibilities of who we can become as we look ahead to our collective future.
Ku‘ualoha Ho‘omanawanui, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Hawaiian literature with an MA in Polynesian Religion. Her first book, Voices of Fire, Reweaving the Literary Lei of Pele and Hi‘iaka was published by the University of Minnesota Press in 2014.