Our Back Story
To those who know something about ‘Iokepa and my twenty-year journey on behalf of the 12,000 year old Native Hawaiian culture, know too that at its start, we relinquished almost every material possession, dissolved all bank accounts and other holdings. They know too that we lived without a home - on the beaches of Hawaii - for seventeen of those years, without a phone for ten. We hadn’t watched a television show until last year.
Throughout these years, guided only by the Hawaiian ancestors,. we were immersed into the ancient rituals embedded in my husband’s culture. We work to reclaim a matrilineal culture that refused hierarchy, violence and war. I wrote that story in my memoir Grandmothers Whisper and later, The Return Voyage.
Those who’ve read the books, or simply perused this website, know that we’ve never charged a dime for the work we do here in Hawaii and across the continental U.S.. The journey is supported, only and always, by the generosity of folks who find that Native culture worth reviving after being outlawed for 150 years.
In sum, we have lived for twenty plus years out of a donation bowl.
I repeat all of this - familiar to many - simply to place the story I’m about to tell into a context.
This Week’s Story
We’ve all read about the infamous Bernie Madoff who defrauded his near-and-dear of $65 billion - often from the charities he “served.” We are aware of the “Nigerian Prince” scammers who invade our email boxes with promises of great wealth.
That happens to others. Not to ‘Iokepa; not to me. We own almost nothing - and yet we have more reasons for gratitude than we can crowd into a day’s prayer.. Our work daily delivers chance meetings with amazing strangers; consistently fills us with purpose greater than ourselves. Life is very very good.
It is that time of year again - autumn in places other than here in Hawai’i. It’s the time of year when I set plans in motion for our winter’s speaking tour on the American continent. We book our flights; we rent an inexpensive “base” to travel out from. We decided to scale down this year - three months instead of the usual five or six - no planned tour, but a more serendipity one. Still we needed a place to stay.
I call myself a “techno moron.” We have no smart phone or scanner, iPod or iPad. We have a four year old laptop that I use for emails and word processing (essentially, typing this blog).
But this time I took the big step: a Craigslist search for a temporary apartment rental in Maryland.
I established what I thought was a warm and personal email relationship with Hector - the man who placed the ad. I understood that he may be suspicious of me so far away in Hawai’i. So when he sent me a photo of his Maryland driver’s license and requested mine, I thought…well…if this helps him believe I was for real…sure..
My neighbor (technically more proficient than I) scanned and emailed my driver’s license
Hector and I dickered over price. I asked about parking; I asked about laundry; I asked about wifi. I asked, and Hector answered warmly. By now we’d left the Craigslist email behind, and I was writing directly to his personal email. By now I knew a fair amount about his family in Baltimore and in Panama City. The apartment was his sublet for the year. The owner was elsewhere.
Hector produced a rental agreement. It spelled out the terms. There were no surprises. Again, I went to my neighbor - she scanned the signed agreement and returned it to Hector.
The agreement required two months rent plus a security deposit - and listed the owner’s name, bank, account and routing number. I was to wire money to that bank. I wasn’t the least bit suspicious, just overwhelmed at the prospect of wiring money.. So I insisted that we make this easy on me - I would send a check.
There was resistance, apparently, from the owner, but Rosetta finally agreed. Hector gave me her mailing address outside Chicago. I sent the check and assured them it would be there in three to five days. In three days, there were worried emails: “Why wasn’t the check there?”
I assured them that: When ‘Iokepa and I said we’d sent a check - we had in fact sent a check. I explained: Our mail left our small Island in the middle of the Pacific, flew to a larger Island, then to somewhere on the West Coast - and only then, to Chicago. Two days later, I was assured that the check had indeed arrived. But Rosetta complained that she could not cash it because she had no bank of that kind near her.
I thought this remarkable. My bank is national. Our Return Voyage account was (thanks to the generosity of our supporters) more than adequate to cover that check.
Now the story - in retrospect - gets truly suspicious. But only in retrospect. Hector and Rosetta each wrote me that Rosetta’s cousin had died suddenly. Rosetta was required to fly immediately to Michigan, “To care for my cousin’s children.” I felt for those children. I wrote that I understood - and I did.
Rosetta had no time to find a bank to cash my check before her flight. “Would I please now wire the money?” I wrote back: “Do not cash the check. I will wire you the money within two days.” I hustled off to our bank, asked the teller to walk me through the transfer - and I wired another two months and one security deposit to Rosetta’s account.
I drove home, opened my computer and found an email from Rosetta (about to catch her flight) that she had indeed been able to cash my check. “Oh no!” I wrote. “I just wired the money to you.”
“Oh,” she said, “I thought you wouldn’t do that for two days.” She emailed the receipt with the key box code for the Maryland apartment, and assured me that she would wire the money back to my account, “As soon as I’m back in my office.”
We exchanged a few more gracious emails: she, assuring me of her gratitude for my compassion; me, assuring her that it was obviously just a confusion of good intentions.
Three days passed. I realized that I didn’t know how long Rosetta planned to stay in Michiagan. I wrote. No answer. I wrote Hector. No answer. I assured myself: Rosetta has more on her mind than my over-payment. Hector, I knew was subletting his sublet because he was visiting family in Panama City. I rationalized, he too was busy.
Two more days passed, and then another…. I sent daily emails. Our bank account was perilously close to empty. I couldn’t sleep. I was a zombie, fluctuating between rereading the emails and assuring myself that I knew these good people - or realizing the truth, that I’d been taken. Was I cruelly suspicious, or, alternatively, incredibly naive and stupid? Those were my only choices.
I woke up Sunday, called my son in Maryland and asked him to go over to the apartment. “Mom, it didn’t look anything like the pictures on Craigslist. It kind of smelled. And the person living there said, ‘It is not for rent!’”
‘Iokepa insisted that I write just one more email. This is it.
Aloha Hector and Rosetta,
Clearly, at this point, I realize that only one of us has been dealing in good faith. I want to offer a few last words.
My husband and I relinquished every cent of our life’s earnings twenty years ago to devote ourselves only to the resurrection of his Native Hawaiian people - a people who have been oppressed and disenfranchised in every way for more than a century. We never charge for our work; we live in faith. Unsolicited donations from generous strangers and friends fund the flight to our speaking tour - and the rental of a place to stay.
Now you are in possession of those donations. To that end, Hector, Rosetta or whomever - our bank account has been emptied; but our hearts are full. Native Hawaiians lived the word ohana - a concept that defied separation and spoke to our shared responsibility for one another.
To that end, we solemnly refuse to be shamed by our trust for in our ohana. In truth, we would have been truly shamed, if we were the people who had refused to trust you.