I have lived in Hawai'i for seventeen years now. I have, for every one of those years, been profoundly engaged with my husband's indigenous people. And yet I have been blind-sided by what was flourishing directly in front of my apparently, shortsighted eyes. Of course, I knew about Hawai'inuiakea - the School of Hawaiian Knowledge - created in 2007 within the stereotypically western educational system that is the University of Hawai'i. Of course, I knew the names of my contemporaries who fought hard within an entrenched bureaucracy to invent and empower an institution that would owe its loyalty only to the authentic Native Hawaiian culture, language, ritual and more. What I did not grasp is that a virtual army of young people have matriculated into a powerful force - yearning for what has been stolen from them. They have the tools, they have the voice, and they are using them. More remarkably, they are commanding listeners.
Within the school's founding statements: "Ua lehulehu a manomanao ka 'ikena a ka Hawai'i - Great and numerous is the knowledge of the Hawaiians".
And then: "With respect and reverence for our ancestors, the mission of the School of Hawaiian Knowledge is...to perpetuate... and revitalize..." Within a mere eight years, they have succeeded beyond imagining.
From those hallowed halls, legions of aware, articulate, empowered youth have passed into adulthood. Overwhelmingly, they have arrived into adulthood as emboldened activists - defining a new (or perhaps, a very old) ideal of activism. These are radicals in the fullness of its dictionary meaning: "To the root or origin."
They are a distinct departure from their grandparents' generation. Their grandparents (living under 150 years of missionary-imposed law forbidding language, ritual, and every visible aspect of the Native culture) when offered an opportunity for higher education, found themselves indoctrinated as Americans, at the gut-wrenching sacrifice of their own aboriginal heritage.
They are a distinct departure, as well, from their parents' generation. Their parents, educated in the shadow of the oppression - were freed, in 1972 when the laws were lifted, to finally be angry. These were (and are still ) the foot-soldiers of the Hawaiian sovereignty movement. Their movement - their anger - remains, ironically, an imitation of the occupying nation that they oppose. Their mode of behavior is political.
But these kids' every word, action, and breath are cultural. These "kids" reclaim what preceded the missionaries and their benighted racism, the territorial take-over and the imprisonment of the queen. These young men and women have the tools; they know their history; they speak their native tongue. They embrace communal responsibility and a common good that envelopes care of the land, the ocean, their elders - every stitch of their Creator's handiwork.
But, until last year, I did not hear their voices. I did not know the youth who carry the stamp of this uniquely potent indigenous education. I had not seen them in action.
Exactly one year ago, 'Iokepa Hanalei 'Imaikalani and I returned home from yet another book and speaking tour. Our return coincided with the U.S. Department of Interior hearings. The hearings represented a U.S. government effort to pacify a Native Hawaiian populace, who rightfully want their nation back - who consider the American presence, an "occupation." I have written about this elsewhere on these pages.
I remember sitting, last year, in an elementary school cafeteria on the Island of O'ahu. For hours, I listened as one after another Native Hawaiian stepped up to the microphone before a panel of U.S. government representatives. I felt elation at the unanimity and at the passion. But what I failed to record were my whispers to 'Iokepa.
"Who are these Hawaiian kids - smart, articulate, convincing! Where did they come from?!" I was hugely impressed. 'Iokepa's sister, Momi, told me the secret. With a smile, "They're the radicals being turned out by the UH Hawaiian Studies Department."
That was last year. The "infection" has spread. Truth has a way. Every one of those bright, vigilant alums has a brother, a sister, a cousin who has heard their words.
And this year, for many months now, these polite, wise, culturally appropriate young people have been hugging their sacred mountain - Mauna Kea - on the Island of Hawai'i. The youth of Hawai'i have put their bodies between their mountain and the very university that wants to exploit and deface their sacred sites.
The University of Hawaii will collect huge sums of money for placing the world's largest telescope on Native Hawaiian land. It will be the fourteenth telescope to deface the sacred sites - and the University has been a careless steward of that fragile land, at best, and a forcefully negligent one, in fact.
For months, these young Bachelor Degree holders and PhDs have camped out on their mountain - refusing the bulldozers their path to the site. Sister-in-law Momi's oldest two children are encamped there. Where anger has failed for so many years to do more than bring down the more potent anger of the oppressors - these kids (and to me they are kids) are finding their cultural practices have clout.
The far-off, tradition-bound, New York Times editorial board has taken note. They wrote in May: "...Native Hawaiians and their sympathizers have managed to stall the $1.4 billion project, which was to begin construction in April. They stood in front of trucks on the road to the summit and declared the telescope an abomination - to the Hawaiian people and their ancient religion, to the environment and to the mountain, revered in Hawaiian tradition as the piko, the naval, the island's sacred center."
Several times these young people have halted construction. Consistently they've changed minds. Accusations that they are defying science - standing in the way of progress - rings down the laughter. These are University of Hawaii alums who've been educated in biology and math and physics at the very University that slings the accusation. But these are young people for whom "education" means more. It means spiritual values; it means compassion, responsibility, respect for what came before and deserves to be honored.
These "kids" are up against more than just their University. They are up against a powerful conglomerate of corporate, academic, and governmental vested- interest. Let's not pretend: for the university and the state government, this is about money - an estimated $1 million a year. These bright young people are fleas in the way of a bulldozer. Like the insistent voices that were ultimately dismissed and disregarded at the Department of Interior hearings - these young Native Hawaiians may be swept off their mountain exactly as their ancestors were wiped from their lands in the name of "progress."
And yes, I worry about them - their formidable bodies, their full hearts, their shining eyes.
But the truth of their young lives - patterned after the ancestors who knew a very different way of building community and caring for every lick of it; who lived a life of gratitude to their Creator - that truth will not be swept away. In the face of these young activists, the very meaning of education is under assault.