It’s Thanksgiving Day; ‘Iokepa is threatened with jail. The challenge of Return Voyage, always and only moved by ancestral guidance, intensifies. In the long, deep, ubiquitous story of freedom denied, of national identity obliterated, of oppression institutionalized – there have been wars waged, anger and violence righteously uncorked against oppressors.
But there has always been another way: the brave, singular acts of civil disobedience of Mahatma Gandhi, who ripped India’s freedom from the British stranglehold without fist or sword; the disobedience of Nelson Mandela, who freed his South African indigenous people with his hands and feet in chains. And, of course, Martin Luther King, who staged sit-ins – illegal acts of defiance – against the established laws of his land.
Each of these men disobeyed unconscionable laws; each was imprisoned as a result.
“I cannot recognize a law that enslaves my people.” ‘Iokepa Hanalei ‘Īmaikalani echoes their example.
It has always seemed so small, the substance of the specific disobedience: a seat at a Woolworth luncheonette; a swim in the local pool. ‘Iokepa’s lapse from adherence to the law of the land appears no grander. The issue at hand is small; the significance of the freedom call is enormous.
For thirteen years, my husband has refused to carry any identification that ties him to the United States. His grandmothers instructed him: “You will claim identity only to your Hawaiian nation.” He dropped his hard-earned, twenty-six-year-old, flawless commercial driving license into the trashcan at the Kaua’i airport. He tore up his social security card and never again used that number.
He is a Native Hawaiian – a descendant of a 13,000 year lineage that binds him to his aboriginal roots. His nation is Lahui – the authentic name of these Islands. It means nation, tribe, or people.
When you are a Native Hawaiian and your ancestral grandmothers (who died long before you were born) ask this of you, apparently you do not refuse.
. . .
‘Iokepa met me, on my brief vacation to Kaua’i from Portland. I encountered a man (without a car) who walked a minimum of ten miles a day. Walking became his meditation. If necessary, he hitchhiked.
When my son and I joined lives with ‘Iokepa, we brought with us my 1991 Toyota Camry. It was registered and insured in my name. I am not kanaka maoli and I do not pretend to be one. I carry an American driver’s license.
As I’ve said, ‘Iokepa and I lived in that car for ten years (several with my teenage son). It was our home. It held almost all of our worldly possessions. We camped in tents out of it, and we slept in them.
For every one of those years ‘Iokepa drove that car, and he walked each of the Hawaiian Islands as well. When we left the Islands for the first Return Voyage speaking tour, we gave that Camry away (then 16 years old).
Between the first and second tours, we returned home to Kaua’i for only four months. We had no car.
Our dear friends, a magnanimous couple, whose respective occupations involve healing, had just bought themselves a new car and had long-planned to surprise ‘Iokepa with their old one: a 1998 Subaru Legacy wagon. It had an active registration until the following September, 2009. We left the car and Island just after Christmas 2008.
. . .
When we returned in September, the car’s registration and insurance had expired. Without a U.S. drivers license, it’s impossible to buy car insurance. Without car insurance, it’s impossible to register an aut0mobile.
So, on November 10, when ‘Iokepa was driving his unregistered, uninsured Subaru on the streets of Kaua’i – without a government-issued driver’s license, he was stopped and ticketed (by the rare officer who didn’t know him). From the moment he rolled down his window to address the ticketing officer, he knew that it was time to speak his words on behalf of his nation inside a courtroom.
On February 11, he will go to court; he will plead not guilty. ‘Iokepa: though faced with fines he cannot pay and with jail he does not seek, calls this an opportunity to raise the consciousness and change the consensus.
He enters court, less to challenge American law than to defend his people’s right to their cultural and spiritual identity. He enters court to try to press past the fence that separates spectator and accused, to speak of a culture that “welcomed every guest here with open arms, open hands, and open heart.” He enters court less to oppose than to embrace.
Let there be no confusion. ‘Iokepa admires and supports the United States and yearns to see it live the fullness of its potential. But his Hawaiian blood and DNA make a prior claim.
“American law is this wide.” (He holds his hands inches apart.) “It takes care of a few. My culture is larger.” (He spreads his arms wide.) “It takes responsibility for every soul and every part of creation.
“There remain laws that require that I carry identification with a nation that isn’t my own; that ask me to obey laws that remove me from my cultural practices and my identity. I cannot.”
He enters court: the living embodiment of God’s plan for the kanaka maoli – the Native Hawaiians. He enters court asking nothing for himself, and everything for his people.
When my brother asked me: “What if he loses?” I answered for both of us. “He cannot lose.”
By that I do not mean that he will not be jailed. I do not mean that I want my husband shackled – or that my husband wants that for himself. We are not masochists. We very much prefer sleeping curled together. We savor our freedom.
But when I met ‘Iokepa those many years ago, he warned me: “This isn’t about us.” And it is not. This is about a captive land, an oppressed people – and their freedom.
This small act of civil disobedience is a clarion call from a mountaintop to every one of us. Nobel-Prize-winning author Toni Morrison once wrote: “The function of freedom is to free someone else.”
I ask: Let your imagination be your guide; share this small act; retell this oldest of stories – the freedom of a people to live their own culture, steward their own land, and speak their own language to the ears of their Creator.
Allow the Native Hawaiian people to teach the rest of us what is meant by Aloha.