Niihau cliffs aerial

Niʻihau family makes rare public address

On the last day of WiPC:E, the Robinson family, stewards of Niʻihau, spoke of maintaining the unique way of life still practiced on their island.

Ikaika Ramones

The World Indigenous Peoples Conference on Education (WiPC:E) ended last week after eight days of discussion between hundreds of representatives from indigenous communities around the world. Exchanging experience, networking and building supportive connections between indigenous communities was a primary goal of the conference, to build international solidarity and strength.

As political leaders, education front-runners, researchers and representatives from around the world convened for their last day of the program, they had a rare opportunity to hear the Robinson ʻOhana from Niʻihau give an address. The group of seven, with ages ranging from preteen to octogenarian, closed the conference with their own experiences and perspectives as a unique community among the indigenous people of Hawaiʻi, and of the world.

The Sinclair family purchased Niʻihau in 1864 from Kamehameha V on the condition that they care for the people on the island. 150 years later, the Robinsons, direct descendants of the Sinclairs, are still acting as stewards of the land and protectors of its people’s way of life.

Gilbert Kaʻohelauliʻi, 80, was proud to say that the way of life from childhood to present has been maintained. He summarized their history leading up to the present, saying, “[The Sinclairs] bought the island from our king and they chose to honour our practices and continue to allow us to live that way, to speak our language, to just be ourselves. So there was no restriction on the way that we use our language or the way that we live on the island.” He emphasized, “We continued to do our practice because it wasn’t looked down upon. Other things weren’t imposed on us.”

With freedom to live, speak, and think according to their traditions, culture and philosophy, Leiʻala Kaʻohelauliʻi shared that, “I’m a resident of Niʻihau who chooses to live under the leadership and guidance of the Robinson family.” In relation to the rest of Hawaiʻi she sees her home as special, “I thank God that the King allowed the family to purchase Niʻihau. Sometimes I question, ‘where would we be today without the Robinsons?’ With the other islands struggling today, where would we be?”

Despite voluntary and coerced political, economic, and spiritual change on the other seven islands of Hawaiʻi, Leiʻala explained that Niʻihau is famous throughout Hawaiʻi for having maintained the language and traditional ways of life through the almost 150 years since its purchase. The people of Niʻihau are often admired by people from the rest of Hawaiʻi for their maintenance of cultural dignity as Hawaiians. Leiʻala commented that, “Every time we come to Kauaʻi or Oʻahu we get so much respect from the people and the ʻohana.”

Niʻihau is Hawaiʻi’s only island where ῾ōlelo Hawaiʻi is the primary language of communication, and it is also the only community of native speakers. Some even credit Niʻihau with playing a crucial role in the revitalisation of ῾ōlelo Hawaiʻi. Leiʻala explained, “[The Robinsons] are very supportive of our lifestyle; they respect our ʻōlelo. They did not force us to learn English. They learned Hawaiian. They learned “Niʻihau.” They chose to be among us and to live among us. And that, I respect.”

Some might argue that preserving ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi as the primary language can hamper the Niʻihau community, yet the family was proud to announce that a group of students from Niʻihau graduated from college this year with degrees in education. Leiʻala continued in eloquent English, “If you want to learn English, you have that choice. But the ʻōlelo was never taken from us. The ʻōlelo lives on Niʻihau since the day they bought it.”

As for the Robinson brothers themselves, most outside of Niʻihau know little about their role on the island outside of land ownership. Leiʻala continued, “The Robinsons will approach our kūpuna of how best to approach any project. They work among us. They are not just people who come to Niʻihau, give orders and go back to Kauaʻi. No. When we have projects on that island, they roll up their sleeves like everybody else, and they come to work among us.” Echoing the respect and gratitude expressed by other family members, she remarked, “They don’t treat us like kauā [slaves]. If I think about it, they work for us. That’s how humble they are.”

Leiʻala explained how she first reacted to the rest of Hawaiʻi: “From Kauaʻi to Hawaiʻi, if you live anywhere on an island or in housing, you pay taxes and rent. On Niʻihau, the Robinsons take care of all that. No rent, no tax. Where in Hawaiʻi Nei can you find that kind of living?”

Some posit this relationship between Niʻihau residents and the island’s owners as dependence and passive benefit. However, the historical and contemporary relationship as described by Leiʻala describes how the Robinsons shielded her home and kūpuna from the “struggles” in the rest of Hawaiʻi, and “allowed” them to live and work for themselves, according to their own needs and wishes. Enoka Kaʻohelauliʻi, son of Gilbert Kaʻohelauliʻi, still fishes to support his family as his own father once did, just as many others continue to do. It is a reality that they must provide for themselves and their families; they cannot simply depend on the Robinsons for hand-outs.

Leiana Robinson, a native of Niʻihau who married one of the two living Robinsons, expressed a nuanced view of the rest of Hawaiʻi: “The poʻe aʻo ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi (instructors of ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi), aʻo i ka lehulehu (teaching the people), and the konohiki (land and fishing division) rights have been taken away. But on my island it’s still the same.”

While the Robinson’s protect the land and arrange communal labour efforts, much like konohiki, the Niʻihau residents maintain, work and live from the land and water for their own livelihoods. Within this system, residents maintain their own culture, civic life and language. Leiana continued, “If our aliʻi were alive today, they would be happy to dwell and walk on my land.”

Enoka explained how his upbringing and tradition taught him, “basically how to live on the land, how to respect the land, how to live with nature and not just take.” Enoka said he was taught “how to use the land to sustain yourself, but also how to not take all and not leave nothing for the next day.” Life depends on the land, water, and the residents’ own efforts to cultivate it.

However, the ʻohana did not paint Niʻihau as a utopia, citing the difficulties they face. Kauaʻi and Niʻihau fisheries have been depleted by outside demand; fishing expeditions to Niʻihau result in stolen ʻopihi and other vital resources; all while mounds of oceanic plastic debris line beaches on Niʻihau. As Enoka recounted, he used to support his family from two hours of fishing with his father. But environmental decay requires him to work an entire day to hopefully fish enough.

Leiana commented: “Lately our resources are being stripped, they are being taken.” She wants to, “make Hawaiʻi aware of what’s going on. I know it happens on every other island, I know that. But we wanted to come out.” And as Senator Clayton Hee famously stated, “Just because your icebox empty does not give you the right to go to somebody else’s ice box and help yourself.”

These natural resources are integral to not just survival, but the cultural and social livelihood of the families of Niʻihau. Without these resources, they are not able to work for themselves, endangering a tradition of self-sustainability and integrity of culture. The Robinson family stated, “We come from a land where kālā (the dollar) is not the issue. It’s about our resources; it’s about our people; it’s about bringing everybody and hanging in there.”

Now, a new generation is taking root in Niʻihau. Leiana spoke from her own experience when she attended Waimea High School on Kauaʻi as a child. She spoke about a classmate from the Philippines, who asked Leiana, “Why are we always in the back?”

“In my culture, they give this nane (parable), that someday you and I will be at the forefront,” Leiana replied. From this story, she spoke to the youth of Niʻihau and all of Hawaiʻi: “I know what it’s like to come from the bottom. I’ve been there. And as I rise, I pray that all our young people rise to the call, to our kuleana (responsibility).”

The kuleana of the youth is to restore and maintain that which Leiana said has been stripped from most of Hawai`i: the poʻe aʻo ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi, aʻo i ka lehulehu and the konohiki rights.

A member of Niʻihau’s young generation, Brianna Robinson, shared that, “As the next generation, we want to perpetuate what’s there. We are fighting to keep what is on the island now. That is our kuleana. My mom was raised completely on Niʻihau. As her kids we were taught and raised with the aloha of the people, but with the responsibility that comes with my last name. In the next generation, we are part of the people, but still they are our kuleana.”

To close their keynote, the ʻohana left the crowd with lines from one of Hawaiʻi’s most precious songs: “Kaulana Nā Pua,” also known as “Mele ῾Ai Pōhaku.”

“ʻAʻole mākou aʻe minamina / I ka puʻukālā a ke aupuni.’ We don’t value the government’s money. ‘Ua lawa mākou i ka pōhaku.’ On that island, the rocks are enough, which is the land. That’s enough for us.”