Friday, July 8, 2011

Into Hawaii: The Adventure Begins

"I am the last man standing," he said, the old cliche ringing with new truth on his lips.  His eyes, though clouded, bore into mine with the intensity that comes with age, enlightenment, and maybe a touch of desperation.  I found it difficult to break contact with those orbs of determination, and did so only rarely during our three-hour conversation.  Though when I say conversation, I mean mostly that he talked, and I listened.  "They took everything around Kawa Bay, but not here," he continued.  "Kawa Bay is not for sale."

Uncle Abel, with his accented, sometimes Pidgin English and blood ties to the Hawaiian royal family, is a relic of a Hawaii that few mainlanders know, understand, or care about.  Along with Uncle Moses ('uncle' here marking respect and seniority) and a rolling cast of family members and friends, he makes his home at Kawa Bay, a 500 acre tract of crown land-- family land.  It encompasses sacred surfing spots, no less than eight valuable fresh water sources, and carefully cultivated native plants.  Here, the Uncles live legally as 'native tenants,' or illegally as squatters, depending on whom you ask; an objective inquiry, however, would determine their claim to the land to be legitimate, though contested.  Here, they fly the Hawaiian Kingdom flag and live off the land like their ancestors for centuries before.

Before I continue, I would like to make a request: In the spirit of anthropology, please withhold judgement.  The Uncles and their family may to some seem crazy, anti-American, threatening or foolish, and you are free to view them through this lens, but if you can step outside these judgements, perhaps you will see the lonely beauty of Kawa Bay and its inhabitants' determined struggle for autonomy.  Am I biased.  Maybe you are wondering this.  I am touched by the Hawaiian people's losses and the indifference with which history has treated them, as I am touched by the stories of dispossessed people throughout the world.  However, I will present, as always, a truthful representation of what I have seen and learned.  My descriptions may at times be colored by my opinions, but my presentation of quotes and events will always be factual.  My intention is to narrate, not analyze.

Somewhere between miles 58 and 59 on the Hawaii Belt Road, wooden signs sprang up curbside blaring hand-painted messages like "Native Tenant Rights Not For Sale" and "Honk to Support Hawaiian Sovereignty."  Yes, here was the enclave of Hawaiian sovereignty activity that I was seeking.  The Uncles, surely, could tell me more about this movement, so touching in its seeming futility.  When I met Uncle Abel, he clasped my hand in his and did not let go.  I explained that I am a student of anthropology, and I expressed my desire to hear his stories and talk with him about Hawaiian sovereignty.  He looked at me sharply and said that first, he wanted to know, "Who are you?"  He asked if my parents are living and if I have any siblings, and then he asked if I believe in God.  I blundered through a response, hoping it would be the right answer, that it would allow me to pass through the sphinx-guarded gates of his memories.

Entering the compound was easy; no gate or guard barred our passage as we turned into the driveway, a gravel, pockmarked track just off the main road.  In passing by that tangle of pro-sovereignty slogans-- inanimate sentries-- we crossed into Hawaii.  Hawaii, pronounced Havai'i, free of U.S. law, independent, self-governed.  Sure, with a population ranging from two to ten, with only one permanent structure and a few tarp shelters, but possessed of powerful symbolic implications.

"God is everywhere," Abel answered his own question, took charge of our conversation, and did not ask me about myself again for the remainder of my visit.  Still holding my hand, he led me to his cooking tarp (I presumed), from which there emanated a strong odor of burning firewood and brush, motioned for me to sit, and stirred something on the stove.  He sat, too, and as my friend (my partner in this adventure into Hawaii) and I listened, he began to tell stories, sometimes following a certain vein, sometimes at random pulling on threads of memory and showing us glimpses of the fabric of his life.  This storytelling, known as 'Talk Story,' is highly valued in Hawaiian culture.  Until the arrival of missionaries on the islands in 1820, the Hawaiian language was only spoken, the foundation of a rich oral tradition.  Stories, like the culture they sprang from, were living and breathing entities, meant to be experienced, lived.

My eyes occasionally wandered, repeatedly coming to rest on Abel's red shirt baring the words "It's a Liger!" and a drawing of a lion-tiger beneath.  The item, jarringly out of place, reminded me that I had left America in many ways, but not all.  He showed me a photo of his wife and two older children on the nearby beach.  His wife died of breast cancer at the age of 33, leaving behind their ten-month-old daughter.  Abel's children now live in exile in Canada; were they to return, they would be placed into foster care, as conditions of living at the compound are considered unfit by federal agencies.  Apparently, Kawa Bay and the Uncles are free only of certain U.S. laws.

His sister arrived early in the afternoon and told us of Abel's 62 arrests.  She herself currently faces trial for an incident with the neighbors (rival owners of Kawa Bay?).  The majority of these cases, I inferred, spring from clashes with the town and county over land use, land rights, and the attempts of the outside world to take possession of Kawa Bay.  A certain Edmund Olson it seems also claims ownership, and the county is currently involved in negotiations to purchase this land from the Olson Trust.  The desire to develop is sharply reminiscent of the desire to colonize, the need to buy strangely similar to the drive to conquer.

Towards the end of my visit, Abel disclosed that he spent 18 years (from 1966-1984) in prison, convicted of manslaughter.  Outwardly hiding my surprise (and dismay?), I asked myself if this changed anything.  I decided that it is necessary to record this information, 18 years being a significant portion of his 69 years of life, but that it does not devalue the rest of his story.  The circumstances were not explained to me, and I did not clarify.

"When I was in school," Uncle Abel recounted, "they were teaching us about this guy, the one who chopped down the cherry tree... Abe Lincoln?"
"George Washington?"
"Yeah, that one... and I raised my hand, and I said, "excuse me, but what does that have to do with me? What about my people's leaders?" I got in trouble for that."  He laughed.  I wondered if those were his exact words or if, like all great storytellers, he was embellishing.  The sentiment, however, is the same: why were Hawaiian children in the forties and fifties (when Hawaii was still a territory, not a state) taught only American history, never Hawaiian?  Why was their language banned?  In "A Call For Hawaiian Sovereignty," Michael Dudley and Keoni Agard suggest that decades of such education, using material to which native Hawaiians cannot relate, are responsible for low scores and high drop-out rates today.*

He changed topics suddenly: "One day, the voice told me to walk along the beach.  As I walked through my lands, it told me that I must grow food here-- taro and coconuts and bananas and papayas and pineapples-- all the foods of this land, and provide for my people."  His hands hovered over a bowl of greens and pork as he blessed it ("Oh Lord, our Father, please bless this food, Amen."), and I wondered to whom exactly this voice belonged.  The issue of land rights is one that plagues many groups mired in the aftermath of colonialism, and has yet to be resolved here in Hawaii.**  Uncle Abel's sister offered a simple and effective analogy for the situation.  "This land," she said in a commanding voice that drowned out her brother's, "is like a stolen car.  If you buy a stolen car, it is still stolen.  And if the police come and tell you that you have a stolen car, you give it back, and then you can take the thieves to court, but you don't keep it."  In Hawaii, however, the police tend to side with the (relatively) new owners, not the victims.  Non Hawaiian residents, here, are like the buyers of a stolen car; they are not responsible for the situation, having mostly bought land on the islands in the last half-century, but still they must help find a solution and treat native Hawaiians with understanding.  They could take the culprits to court, but what if those responsible lived a century ago?

An interesting question, leading to many proposals by various sovereignty groups, but not one that I received any answers to on this adventure.  In short, some groups advocate for tribe status per the Native American model, others demand complete independence from the U.S., and yet others seek financial retribution.  Native Hawaiians have a stronger claim than any other Native American group, having been an internationally recognized monarchy before annexation in 1898.  A formal apology, issued by President Clinton in 1993*** further strengthened this claim.  Hawaii's history is extremely complex, and I am working on condensing my notes on it into a manageable portion.  Until then, suffice it to say that sovereignty groups who cite the illegal overthrow of their monarchy by the U.S. are not delusional.  They are also not united.  Hawaii is graced with over 25 of these groups, some political, others social, each with a different vision for a 'sovereign Hawaii'.

The Uncles, despite their frequent legal involvement, seem somewhat removed from any larger movement.  Uncle Moses, with whom I could speak only briefly, told me about his life, spoke about energies, and showed us some objects of spiritual importance, given him by various shamans and kept in a circle of gourds.  He did not speak of sovereignty, but at one point he spoke of his children, fully grown now.  "My son recently asked me why I don't get a real house," he rasped through the stoma in his throat, and I leaned in close to catch his words.  "And I told him it's because I like living here.  I have food and water and shelter; that's all I need."  Uncle Abel's most recent court case found him fighting the town's spraying of pesticides, which were running into his land and water sources.  He read from the transcript of his final statement, "this isn't about Uncle Abel yelling and screaming, this is about the spraying.  The spraying that is poisoning the owls and the turtles in my land."  He showed us images of these environmental consequences.

The Uncles are not political per se.  The mostly wanted to speak about the land, the uses of a Noni tree, life, not a movement.  Nonetheless, their cause is the cause of the Hawaiian people.  Their very existence, their right by birth to independence and self-rule has been repeatedly challenged.  They have been forced to enter the world of Western law and politics to defend their position, stubbornly resisting the rule of this foreign government that has been placed over their land like a shroud.  And so they write slogans, they defend their freedom in courts of law that do not see their side of the argument and that they maybe do not fully understand.  With determination they refuse to yield.  Their struggle may be individual-- they want to live on Kawa Bay, their people are secondary--, yet in the essence of their stand can be found the claim of all native Hawaiians for independence.

*In the state of Hawaii, schools with the highest percentage of native Hawaiians test lowest.
**A concise history of Hawaiian sovereignty is in the works.
***Public Law 103-150, signed by Clinton on the 100th anniversary of the first overthrow of the Hawaiian government in 1893.