During the five Winter and Spring months when we are not home on our Island, it is pretty darned obvious how we fill our days. We drive through snow, ice, and sometimes sunshine to the disparate locales where we’ve been invited to speak – invited to share the empowering truth of the Native Hawaiian people and their ancient culture.
We ask for nothing except the hospitality of our sponsoring hosts. We encounter widely diverse audiences. Every Return Voyage gathering is as unique as the faces in the front row. We’re pretty darn agile.
And so, from sometime in January until sometime in May, we are on the road carrying the Hawaiian ancestral message to willing listeners across the American continent. Predictably: ‘Iokepa Hanalei ‘Imaikalani chants; we share stories: we laugh and sometimes we are also moved to cry. The gatherings are, without exception, empowering.
Those are the visible months of our year – we’re out, we’re about, we’re speaking the ancestors words to eager ears. But we realize that we are far less visible to our supporters on the American continent when we return home.
We are, of course, highly visible here on Kaua’i. Here, there is no anonymity: not when we shop at the grocery, or tan on the beach, or pick up the mail at the post office, or lick an ice cream cone on a park bench. ‘Iokepa, with his full head of flowing silver hair (“It’s cultural,” he repeats his ancestral Grandmothers words) is anything but unknown here on Kaua’i.
Then, there is ‘Iokepa’s basic nature. This a man who knows no stranger (even when they are, by all measures, strangers). So imagine, if you can, this extrovert on a very small Pacific Island (his ancestral Pacific Island at that). He is known. ‘Iokepa has yet another advantage: he is a man who never forgets a name or face.
I am gifted, on the other hand, with a husband who quietly whispers names in my ear, so I don’t regularly embarrass myself. I admit, too, to a self-protective introversion (living in a place that affords me little anonymity) that focuses narrowly on the job at hand. (Hence, even good friends have to physically nudge some part of me, to tear me away from the milk carton or pasta in my grocery basket.)
We have been home now for five months – invisible, I fear, to our myriad friends and supporters in Louisiana or Minnesota, Oregon or Florida, New York or New Mexico. I’d like to remedy that. But I’m not quite sure how I might fairly represent the fullness of our days at home. From our lanai (balcony) overlooking a mountain called Ha’upu (to remember), we are constantly reminded of purpose.
We live the truth of my husband’s ancestral wisdom both here and there. That must never change. Here, we live immersed in the power of that oppressed culture and it’s inseparable connection to the land, the ocean, and its critters. We reel under the assault to all of it. We position ourselves to be credible in defense of the land and of the aboriginal stewards of this land.
I will make a seeming diversion here – but I assure you it is no diversion at all.
A newspaper story this week, distributed by the Associated Press, described the hugely problematic feral cat invasion on the Islands that spreads disease and death to our endangered, endemic Monk Seals in the ocean, and our magnificent native birds on the land. But this news story could have as easily been written about the endangered Native Hawaiians.
The story described a fervent defender of the hundreds of thousands of sickly, starving, disease carrying feral cats on Island. She said: “Classifying animals with labels such as native and invasive creates a hierarchy in which the protection of certain animals comes at the suffering of others.”
I have heard these same words dismissing the Native Hawaiian cultural claim to stewardship and sovereignty. Non-Natives gleefully accept the hospitality of our generous, compassionate, giving Native hosts – whilst doing everything legal and illegal to deny and over-ride their original national claim.
‘Iokepa and I work daily – here and there – to protect the land and the people of this land from extinction. The work takes so many different shapes and proportions that I am mightily challenged to characterize a typical day for us on Island. Instead, I will speak to the breadth.
∗ There are the official interactions and appearances. We were summoned for a private meeting with the highest elected official for the County of Kaua’i. Between Mayor Bernard Carvalho and ‘Iokepa ‘Imaikalani there is shared Native Hawaiian blood and deep reverence for their inherited Native culture.
But the Mayor is a politician who is the object of considerable and variable pressures to pave roads, build affordable housing, and win elections. ‘Iokepa is not a politician; he is not bound by the same constraints. He is a cultural advocate and guardian. In the Mayor’s office, ‘Iokepa spoke; the Mayor enthusiastically listened. The Mayor imagined ‘Iokepa’s words being brought to bear on the new County Drug Rehabilitation Center. Healing modalities have always been a bedrock piece of their shared ancestry.
∗ Then there are the clearly cultural celebrations. Twenty years in the building (with volunteer labor alone), the Island’s traditional voyaging canoe – the Namahoe – was launched this summer in a powerful, many-hours-long ritual. There is no way that ‘Iokepa and I would have missed this event. His people were among the world’s most accomplished ocean voyagers – traveling the seas and populating Islands throughout the Pacific. The modern Voyaging Society has awakened the ancient practice of sailing the open ocean with just stars, currents, birds, and whales to guide them.
‘Iokepa was honored (and taken by complete surprise) to be summoned to the stage of the opening ritual for the launching. He was asked to represent his Grandmother who lived on and cared for that specific slice of the Island. It was his kuleana – or responsibility. Extemporaneously, and with deep emotion, he spoke.
∗ And there are our unofficial interactions and appearances. These have much to do with being a presence in the presence of the Island’s varied actors and acted upon. In this category, there is the National Tropical Botanical Gardens annual fundraiser: Moonlight and Music, an elegant evening under the stars on the spectacular tented grounds of the magnificent Gardens. These are the people who can afford $175 per person tickets (unless gifted) and very few Native Hawaiians.
It accounts, too, for why we seldom miss the noise and the caramel corn at the County Farm Fair. It is the rare social, ethnic and economic common denominator: farmers, celebrities, hotel maids, road construction crews; the rich, the definitely not rich. It seems that everyone’s children loves cotton candy. And though the night sky is not as visible above the arcade lights for the $6 admission fee as they were at the National Tropical Botanical Gardens fundraiser – the lights beneath the top of the Ferris Wheel are pretty spectacular.
It also explain why, when we returned last May, we opened our home to a lavish and deeply engaging, Sunday brunch for forty friends and acquaintances . These are folks from every ethnic and social pocket of this Island – who under ordinary circumstances wouldn’t speak a word to one another standing in line at Safeway. But in our home, conversation is always paramount, or as ‘Iokepa likes to say, “We all insist that we love the Island. In our home, we discuss what that actually means.”
∗ This year ‘Iokepa has been in a fight for the life of a sacred Hawaiian site or heiau. This particular heiau, aligned with the night sky, marks the true north of the Island, and is masterfully terraced above the visible horizon. This dedicated place of ancient ritual and prayer is being threatened by a wealthy homeowner whose home on Island sits empty most of the year. His five-acre vacation home abuts this protected site, and he is determined to do all he can to fence it off from the Native Hawaiians. “I don’t want them looking into my bathroom when my wife is in the tub.” Five acres of privacy is apparently not enough.
In this fight, ‘Iokepa has garnered the support of both our Office of Hawaiian Affairs trustee and a Kentucky attorney who shares his passion for the Hawaiian people and culture – a man who is as generous as the people he seeks to help.
∗ Finally we rest. For ‘Iokepa, “resting” has meant hefting a 35 pound, 20 inch, chain saw for five hours a day – intent on clearing the invasive jungle from our acre of land in preparation for next year’s re-planting of indigenous trees that actually began their life on this Island. And yes, I know there is a metaphor that slipped in there.
As for me, “resting” has meant planting fruit trees and flowers atop our now terraced yard – and because I am the only computer-literate person in this marriage, it falls on me to communicate via email or website with our friends and supporters in Louisiana or Minnesota, Oregon or Florida, New York or New Mexico, who wonder what it is we do when we’re home in Hawai’i.