It’s not okay to be dumb, haole

A response to Sylvia Dahlby's May 18th op-ed in Civil Beat

Bianca Isaki

It’s unclear whether Sylvia Dahlby, in her May 18 Civil Beat op-ed, described herself as a “dumb haole” in a misguided attempt to take ownership of anticipated criticism, or to preempt it. Either way, her article gets it wrong in enough ways to bear comment on ignorance and its location amidst sectors of Hawaiʻi’s settler colonial society. This response is not that comment. My point is that settlers cannot be dumb about who we are in Hawaiʻi. 

Dahlby’s article injected her voice into weighty discussions about Hawaiian sovereignty, which she acknowledges have been going on “[f]or many years,” without seeming to have a grasp on critical aspects of those debates. First, prefacing an article about Hawaiian independence with a quote from Senator Daniel Akaka, the author of the controversial nation-within-a-nation Akaka bill proposal, displayed great insensitivity to the nuanced, productive debates about the shape of self-governance, indigeneity, and settler colonialism in Hawaiʻi. Second, Dahlby relies exclusively on quotes from those who have elsewhere announced their support for the TMT without mention of the volume of commentary and response to those quoted assertions. How did these important facets of Hawaiian sovereignty discussions escape Dahlby? Perhaps it is because she is a latecomer to the Mauna Kea “bandwagon”—another vehicle (excuse the pun) for Dahlby’s criticism of the Kū Kiaʻi Mauna. 

She asks (or really, accuses): where were the defenders during the environmental impact statement (EIS) preparation phase of Saddle Road in 2010, which impacted many acres of Mauna Kea? Why do they not also protest the Army’s occupation of Pōhakuloa Training Area (PTA)? My first criticism of these questions is that they have many answers that were not hard to locate. Saddle Road is not located on Mauna Kea’s sacred summits. The comparison with Pōhakuloa is closer because it is, like Mauna Kea, a sacred piko. Mauna Kea Hui members, especially Kealoha Pisciotta, Kū Ching, and E. Kalani Flores, have been closely involved in monitoring desecration at PTA and were featured in a Kamakakoʻi video on the topic. Kū Ching and Auntie Maxine Kahaulelio have brought suit against the state’s leases of Pōhakuloa lands to the army. The Mauna Kea ʻOhana has worked to protect Hawaiʻi’s lands, waters and sacred sites at Kaloko-Honokōhau and sites across the archipelago.

Dahlby’s article triggered this response because we, as settlers in a place shared with us, need to do better at recognizing Hawaiian self-determination processes. They do not only, or even mostly, take place in U.S. Department of Interior hearings or on the Office of Hawaiian Affairs’ websites. Dahlby’s “bandwagon” inquiries mischaracterize the structure of exercising Native self-determination under settler colonialism as a failure of foresight or, worse, disingenuous on the part of the protectors. The myriad, diverse lives assembled at the mauna are not evidence that Hawaiians lack awareness of the importance of peace, higher education, technology, or science. Rather, these assemblies manifest self-determination in decisions about which lands and peoples, and what actions and histories, are critical to Hawaiian independence.

Dahlby’s article harbors no traces of reflection on her position in Hawaiʻi. Instead, she writes herself into Hawaiʻi’s “we” and its expectations of “our leaders” in regard to “use of natural resources for the greater good[.]” Hawaiian sovereignty loads all of these terms—the “we” fractured by Hawaiʻi’s ongoing settler colonial histories; the political system within which those leaders assumed their positions; and especially the “greater” good use of Hawaiʻi’s natural resources.

No place has been set for us in discussions about Hawaiian self-determination. But, the point is not that we must step back and never criticize. That would, as scholar Gayatri Spivak has said, amount to merely salving our consciences and abetting the settler colonial status quo. We settlers have to do our homework. We need to learn what is going on and in tandem with a historical critique of our positions in Hawaiʻi (as my friend put it, “where you from? And, what you like?”). We have to double-down on learning our many and disparate historical locations, as well as those of Hawaiʻi and Hawaiians, to enter discussions about Hawaiian sovereignty. We cannot avoid those discussions and we cannot be dumb about this.

Bianca Isaki is an educated Asian settler living in Liliha.