We’ve been off Island long enough to see (without blinders) the changes. After more than a full year 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 to the accompaniment of bird song. So when there is sufficient money for gas, and leisure time too, we do just that. We revisit; we reminisce.
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 malihini (guest) who landed – by boat and now by plane – on their shores. The kanaka maoli consistently and unconditionally shared their Island paradise – and asked absolutely 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 – those of us who’ve come ashore. We, who have arrived seeking satisfaction of our every material need, and ignorant of the cost to the land, the ocean, and the people upon whose shoulders we build our claims.
Maybe these good people, who preceded our occupation by almost 13,000 years, suffer quietly so as to awaken something quiet inside 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 the pineapple tycoons – and leave it at that. That was then. But in truth, then is now. And now, as ‘Iokepa and I drive and stroll our home Island, it looks like this.
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 stream-bed – now traversed with a walking bridge; wilderness – now cultivation; fruit trees – now potted plants; and most apparently, where there had been untamed fields to stroll – suburban houses.
But we were revisiting; we were trying not to judge. For years we’ve watched the encroachment of the guests’ culture. Only the specifics were new, not the general direction of the change. 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 there, 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 ta
ke a look at what they’d done, at how they’d done it. ‘Iokepa Hanalei ‘Īmaikalani is a brave and outspoken Native Hawaiian. But for almost 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 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’re doing?”
I answered: “I’m admiring your home, your landscaping. I used to walk these…”
Face in flames, 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 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 lying in wait, and ‘Iokepa said only: “I knew that he wasn’t finished.” ‘Iokepa stopped the car; the forty-something 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’s me you want to address. My husband has done nothing.”
Then, softly I said: “Let me introduce myself…” and I told this man my name, once again apologized if I had offended him, and restated that I was admiring his home. At this point, his wild-haired wife and ten-year-old son charged across the narrow street and joined us. She bellowed: “I home school my children and I’m very protective!” I repeated: “I’m sorry if I’ve 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 strolled together: “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 recalled 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 repeat: perhaps this indigenous people live their refusal to relinquish the one thing that makes them different from us now – their whole-hearted generosity, their unwillingness to separate their interests from ours – so as to remind us of what we have lost and continue to willingly lose every single day of our lives.