Kaleo feet in lo‘i
Kaleo Correa at Aihualama, 2011

Planting education

Why long-lasting, publicly-funded educational opportunities that engage natives and settlers are necessary to place the health of our natural environments at the center

Noelani Goodyear-Kaopua

In a few short months, Idle No More (#INM) blossomed from four women and a hashtag to a multinational field of Indigenous uprising and vocal presence. One of the reasons for INM’s rapid growth was its organizers’ insistence on the importance of education. As Joanne Barker writes on her blog, Tequila Sovereign, INM has been about “education that builds interpersonal and social relationships of responsibility.” This latest incarnation in the resistance of First Nations to the exploitation of their lands was sparked by opposition to a bill in Canada that paves the way for more tar sands mining and the construction of a massive pipeline through Native territories. INM has gathered Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples to stand up for the health of lands and the communities that rely on them, and it has brought the importance of teaching all people about the sovereignty of original nations to the fore, once again.

Most recently, various Indigenous activists and scholars on the North American continent have asked, “what next?” Where does INM go from here? For instance Taiaiake Alfred asserts in “Beyond Idle No More: Indigenous Nationhood,”

We need to go beyond demonstrations and rallies in malls and legislatures and on public streets and start to reoccupy Indigenous sacred, ceremonial and cultural use sites to re-establish our presence on our land and in doing so to educate Canadians about our continuing connections to those places and how important they are to our continuing existence as Indigenous peoples.

The work of remedying generations of displacement and dispossession takes time and sustained commitment. It requires that those who have been galvanized by particular environmental concerns demonstrate lasting support for Indigenous nationhood and sovereignty.

In Hawaiʻi five days after, yet in solidarity with, INM’s “#J11 global day of action,” hundreds marched on the State Capitol in Honolulu. January 16, 2013 was significant here in the islands not only because it was opening day of the state legislature, but it also marked the eve of the 120 years since the US began its prolonged occupation of the Hawaiian Islands, denying Hawaiian sovereignty. Like INM, what brought Kānaka Maoli and people of various ethnicities to the streets that day was a shared concern for the poisoning of lands, waters and bodies by multinational corporations. The event was the most recent in a long battle against the rampant growth of corporate agribusiness use of lands in Hawai‘i for cultivating genetically modified seed crops. “No GMOs” has become the shorthand for opposition to a range of practices, from the patenting of Native food plants to the open field-testing of experimental GM crops. In The Seeds We Planted: Portraits of a Native Hawaiian Charter School, I write about how charter school students who became to be involved in early efforts to protect against the genetic modification and patenting of kalo—ancestor and staple food of Kanaka Maoli—learned valuable lessons about institutional power, legislative process and the strength of their own voices.

It was a new set of students from various Hawaiian culture-based charter schools that participated in the January 16, 2013 march to the capitol. Their groups poured in at various points along Beretania Street to join the ranks of marchers who had departed from UH Mānoa. Many held Hawaiian flags above the marchers’ head. Their voices boomed ancestral chants and echoed through the corridor of buildings. While these students were the most audible and visible, they were joined by hundreds of others carrying banners with Hawaiian-focused messages like, “Defend Hawai‘i,” and “Aloha ‘Āina, Deoccupy Hawaiʻi!”

The march and rally also drew out another, overlapping contingent of folks, whose signs indicated a different focus: consumers’ right-to-know and curbing corporate power over land use and political processes. “When it’s GMO, we want to know. Label it, Hawai‘i!” and “Evict Monsanto!” On one hand, the rally was—like INM—an invigorating demonstration of coalitional activism around protecting the earth. On the other hand, the fissures and need for further dialogue between the various constituent groups was plainly apparent. As I stood in the crowd, some who had come to support the GMO-labeling bill and to see world-renowned author-activist, Vandana Shiva, speak looked genuinely puzzled when Kānaka Maoli took up the mic to talk about the protection of Hawaiian burial sites or resisting the gathering of names for a state-sponsored Native Hawaiian roll. One man complained on the sidelines that the event was “hijacked” as a rally for Hawaiian sovereignty. I left feeling like the occasion opened the space for much needed further discussion and education, even between those who found ourselves on the same “side” that day. But these were the kinds of conversations that will take more time and a slower pace than the rush of an action at the state legislature.

No GMO March & Rally at Hawaii State Capitol from A New Awareness Media on Vimeo.

Remedying the ongoing violences of settler colonialism and healing the land and our relationships with one another requires more protracted pedagogical work than can be accomplished in a series of rallies. One way that we can use the momentum created by recent movements such as Idle No More and the Marches in March” against corporate agribusiness exploitation is to push for systemic change in our educational systems. In settler colonial contexts such as Canada, the US or Hawai‘i, we need long-lasting, publicly-funded educational opportunities that engage Indigenous and settler participants in different ways of relating to the land and in dialogue with one another about how to place the health of our natural environments at the center, while attending to our different genealogical relationships to lands.

In The Seeds We Planted, I describe the ways Kanaka Maoli educators seized upon the opening created by the crashing of two distinct waves—late twentieth-century Hawaiian nationalist movements and US educational reform movements based on school choice—into one another. The convergence of these movements produced a moment of possibility, as Kanaka Maoli communities could, for the first time in over a century, take direct control over our educational destinies by starting our own charter schools. Predominantly-Native communities, who were explicitly asserting Indigenous rights to educational self-determination, accounted for more than half of those groups who initiated public charter schools in Hawaiʻi. As some leaders of the Hawaiian charter school movement put it, these new schools provided spaces of liberation from the failures of assimilatory schooling, as well as the inadequacies of earlier models of Hawaiian studies education that included representations of Kanaka Maoli without disrupting dominant epistemologies and relations of power.

Reasserting Native Hawaiian land-based knowledges within a school system subject to settler laws and standards has not been without its paradoxes and problems, and I take some of these up in the book. But, these schools have created precious space for healing and liberatory education. One graduate I interviewed in 2011 talked about the seven years she spent learning hula and oli, agriculture and aquaculture, writing and storytelling, observational and analytical skills. She reflected: “What I value the most is connection to ʻāina that was found within that process.” She talked about growing up in difficult family circumstances, without grandparents or a father present. But in the years she spent learning to sail a canoe and helping to rehabilitate an ancient loʻi kalo, she “found that quiet acceptance” she needed from “our oldest kūpuna [who] are the winds, the rains, the elements.” 

These sorts of realizations and reconnections take time, more time than the few months in which Idle No More grew into an internationally-recognized force. However, the momentum and visibility generated by surges like INM or the “Marches in March” can be leveraged to fight for the kinds of infrastructure, resources and autonomy that are necessary to create and sustain the long-term strategies that will bring healing to our societies and environments. We can direct some of the energy from this moment in history to carve out more educational pathways that will allow young people to learn how to rebuild structures that nurture the resiliency of our lands and social networks. True healing often takes time and patience. Let’s nurture and proliferate the educational spaces for such necessary processes.