We’ve been off Island long enough to see (without blinders) the changes.
After fifteen months away, it has felt important in these past months to explore our old haunts, to revisit the paths we’ve walked together for fourteen years, the beaches where we’ve sunned and surfed, and the mountain where we’ve slept listening to the song birds. So when there is sufficient money for gas, and leisure time too, we do just that. We revisit; we reminisce.
We live on the Island of Kaua’i. It is the northwestern-most populated Island in the Hawaiian archipelago. We live on an Island in the middle of the Pacific where for 13,000 years the native people took exceptionally good care of every malihinii (guest) who landed (by boat and now by plane) on their shores. These kanaka maoli (original people) consistently and absolutely shared their Island paradise with open arms, open hands and open hearts – and asked nothing in return.
Perhaps that was their mistake. Perhaps their requiring nothing – not respect for human, plant, or animal life on their isolated Islands – foretold the future. It has been a future where the guests got accustomed to receiving every gift one human could offer another – and offering neither gratitude nor respect in return. At the heart of this ancient culture is the word, kahiau, which means “Giving with no expectation of return.” And that Hawaiian expectation was more than amply fulfilled.
Perhaps, on the other hand, these native people, now crushed under their guests’ claims and disregard, have made no mistake at all. Maybe the mistake is ours – we who’ve come seeking satisfaction of our every material need, and ignorant at the cost to the land, the ocean and the people upon whose shoulders we build our claims. And maybe these good people, who preceded our occupation by almost 13,000 years, suffer quietly so as to awaken something quiet inside of our own hearts. Maybe they live their refusal to relinquish the one thing that marks them as different now – their utter generosity, their unwillingness to separate our interests from theirs – so as to remind us. Maybe it was, and is still, a part of some larger cosmic plan. But that does not mitigate the pain.
Too easy to speak historically: Captain Cook, the sailors, the Calvinist missionaries, the sugar cane and pineapple barons…and leave it at that. That was then. But in truth, then is now. And now, as ‘Iokepa Hanalei ‘Imaikalani and I drive and stroll our home Island, it looks like this. Those, who read these small stories of mine, know I speak anecdotally. They know that I tell small stories to reveal larger ones.
‘Iokepa and I took a very slow drive up the side of the mountain not so far from the ancient, sacred Hawaiian site where we met and later married. We crept in and out of small roads observing the changes to the places where we’ve so often walked together: a huge spreading banyan tree – gone; a quiet untamed streambed – traversed with a walking bridge; wilderness – now cultivation; fruit trees – now potted plants; and most apparently, where there had been pristine fields to stroll – there were suburban houses.
We were revisiting, we were not judging. For years we’ve watched the encroachment of the guests’ culture. Only the specifics were new, not the general direction of the change. And so we crept along at perhaps ten miles an hour, and when we approached a set of houses that we’d last seen in the process of being staked out, curiosity seized me. I am, by defining nature, curious. I am also, by nature, a landscaper. The now “back yards” had been steep and unstable river edge. I wondered aloud how they might have built so as to reclaim that which the stream appeared to own: How had they done this?
From naive impulse, and unfettered curiosity – not another thing – I asked ‘Iokepa to stop the car. I opened my door and told ‘Iokepa I wanted to take a look at what they’d done, at how they’d done it. Know this: ‘Iokepa Hanalei ‘Imaikalani is a brave and outspoken native Hawaiian. But for 200 years his people – his family – have been told in no uncertain terms to ‘know their place,’ to not ‘trespass’ on their ancestral lands. He would think 100 times before he’d exercise the impulse to step on a stranger’s grass. He, by nature, would not join me.
I am a sixty-five year old, well-groomed, well-dressed woman with dark hair that is lavishly threaded with white. I cannot imagine how and who might find me threatening to their safety and security. It was broad daylight – a warm, sunny Saturday afternoon. I walked the unfenced grass border between two homes smiling in the direction of the house, more than willing for any conversation, but not wanting to impose on the family activity inside. I didn’t expect my exploration to take a minute – the yards were not deep.
As I passed, a window flew open; a man’s head thrust through; he shrieked: “What do you think you are doing?”
I answered: “I am admiring your home…your landscaping….I used to walk these…”
He cut me off: “Well, you can’t now. This is private property!”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t mean to frighten you…or to offend you.”
“This is private property! You can’t walk here!”
And so, I silently returned to the car parked at the curb. We continued at five or ten miles an hour down the street and around the corner trying to reclaim our equilibrium. ‘Iokepa said not one word until we returned from the dead end and reentered the offending street. The man from the window was laying in wait, and ‘Iokepa said only: “I knew that he was not finished.” ‘Iokepa stopped the car; the man raced across the street and raged directly into ‘Iokepa’s driver’s window: “We don’t want you here!”
I opened my door, walked around to ‘Iokepa’s window and said: “Excuse me, but it is me you want to address. My husband has done nothing.”
And then, softly I said: “Let me introduce myself…” and I told this man my name, once again apologized if I offended him, and restated that I was admiring his home. At this point, his wife and ten year old son charged across the narrow street and joined us. She shouted: “I home school my children and I am very protective!” I repeated: “I’m sorry if I have offended you.”
“This is our neighborhood and we don’t want you here!” her husband spat at us. I quietly inquired: “And who is ‘we’…? He answered: “The neighborhood watch.” Sure enough, there was posted on this street that used to be the empty field where we’d walked: “Neighborhood watch…”
Alone again, ‘Iokepa pondered: “They fear that I want what they have. When in truth they want what I have: freedom, identity, culture. They assume that what is mine is for taking – what is theirs is for keeping. They have nothing that I want. They think I’m going to take something that they have stolen…they are fearful because they feel guilty.”
Together we reminisce a quite different exploratory drive several years before. On that day, we entered as strangers a remote, fishing village on the Island of Hawai’i. It was populated heavily with Native Hawaiians. We recalled how the assessing stares of strangers melted into smiles and hugs, shared mangoes and conversation. We recalled this other way of being that was only inclusive.
And so I am forced to repeat: “Maybe they live their refusal to relinquish the one thing that marks them as different now – their utter generosity, their unwillingness to separate our interests from theirs – so as to remind us” of what we have lost and continue to willingly lose every single day of our lives.