There are two distinctly competing versions of this story. Both are equally true. In both stories, ‘Iokepa Hanalei ‘Īmaikalani and I have just returned home to Kaua’i – the northwestern-most Island in the Hawaiian archipelago – after more than a year on the American continent. In both versions we loved touring the U.S. with our new book and in both versions we were yearning for home. In the first version: last Thursday, we put up our great-in-the-rain-and-cold, but less-great-in-the-tropical-heat donated German tent. It is our fourteenth tent in thirteen years without a house on the beaches of Hawai’i.
In the first version of this “welcome home” story, we are swimming each morning in the cool, clear Pacific Ocean, removing a year of exhaustion. We are sleeping under the most incredibly vibrant canopy of stars – the Milky Way a visible blanket in the sky, the Southern Cross at the horizon. We are witnessing daily rainbows, dazzling sunsets, and walks around the Salt Pans where my husband’s people have traditionally harvested the salt for thousands of years.
Equally gratifying on this return home: with every single step we’ve taken on this Island populated by 65,000, we are greeted by familiar and less familiar faces who have missed us and who let us know this in no uncertain terms. We are hugged by all, and by Native Hawaiian kindred we exchange breaths as greeting – in Costco, in Safeway, in the parks, on the beaches, at the Post Office.
We are welcomed by folks who have heard about Grandmothers Whisper, have looked at our website, but have waited until we returned home to buy their copy of the book. They (in the way of small places everywhere) wanted to get it from our hands with our stories. They wanted it personal.
Hawai’i is nothing if not personal. And that which is personal includes parts of creation that are not strictly speaking persons: the sharks, whales, sea turtles, albatross; ki leaf and kalo plants; coconut, mango, and banana trees.
So, in the first version of this story, we are welcomed home to a fairy tale: tropical beauty, people of good heart and compassion.
But I’ve never been in the business of writing fairy tales, so there is a necessary second version of this story. In this one my kanaka maoli husband (and I, by association) are made to feel much less welcome.
In this version, I sit next to my silent husband in the Honolulu airport on our way to Kaua’i and I say from my heart: “I’m sorry.” And my Native Hawaiian husband – this man who has surrendered his life to the resurrection of his battered culture, people, and land – smiles slightly through an almost impassive mask, because he knows that I’ve read his heart. After so many years together, I can hear with his ears, see with his eyes, and feel with his heart.
I am sorry for so many things large and small which are in our faces from the moment we put out feet on my husband’s sacred ka ‘āina. I am sorry for the glaringly sunburned tourist who is making a joke of something she doesn’t understand; she is mocking a hula that she has no idea was always and only prayer. I am sorry, too, for the man in the plaid Bermuda shorts who is describing in gruesome detail the traditional Native Hawaiian foods he found inedible at a festive lu’au. I am sorry that none of these innocent tourists feels compelled to consider the presence of a Native Hawaiian in their midst – and how their words and actions might sound to his ears. Or maybe they’re not so innocent and they simply do not care.
I am sorry for the recorded announcement bellowing at the entrance of the airport on Kaua’i: “Aloha. Curbside parking is for loading and unloading only. Vehicles in violation will be ticketed and towed…Mahalo.” I feel ‘Iokepa cringe at the misuse of his beautiful Hawaiian language – aloha, in the presence of all of God’s creation; mahalo, gratitude to that Creator – used to frame a TSA security threat.
‘Iokepa murmurs quietly. “Because this is a state, they think they’re entitled.” I am sorry that only in the Honolulu airport is my husband’s refusal to carry state or government identification a cause of nastiness. In all our years of travel, his simple explanation: “I’m a sovereign Hawaiian” and a computer generated, laminated photo ID sufficed; we were always treated with respect. This time, on our last leg home to Kaua’i, a TSA employee (not, of course, a Native Hawaiian) shook his head in disgust and simply refused to engage ‘Iokepa at all. This, only in Hawai’i.
And finally this:
‘Iokepa and I have lived in tents on the campgrounds of Hawai’i for all of these years together. Each time that we have returned home, after swapping our “speaking-in-public-clothes” for swimsuits, shorts, and flip-flops, we set up our tent in the county beach park where we lived for ten solid years – the Salt Pans.
This time it went like this. We enter the familiar County Parks and Recreation office, looking for a camping permit. As usual, the person behind the desk asks our names, hits his computer button, and there we are: in the system for these many years. FYI: This permitting process is not about security, only about residency. Visitors are required to pay; residents are not.
But this time – to this sullen and taciturn man – our being in the system for more than thirteen years did not prove residency. Carrying a Native Hawaiian name and face did not prove residency. He wanted an ID. ‘Iokepa handed over his laminated, computer-generated card. “I’m a sovereign Hawaiian.” The man found it inadequate. Like the man at the Honolulu airport, he shook his head, disgusted. Like the man at the airport, he wasn’t Native Hawaiian.
Apparently, there were brand new rules – new requirements to prove that you were not a tourist. You were required to produce proof that you voted in the most recent general election (sovereign Hawaiians do not vote in U.S. elections) and a valid Hawai’i driver’s license (sovereign Hawaiians do not carry government-issued identification).
Apparently there is an exception to the new rules – always there is an exception: “All active duty military personnel stationed in Hawai’i” are automatically considered residents. Native Hawaiians are not.
We were bounced to this man’s boss. Here the story takes an even more ironic twist. This man’s boss turns out to be the park ranger who had personally checked the permit hanging on our tent every single morning for thirteen years at the Salt Pans. He’d been promoted to the desk job while we were gone. This is a small Island; we know one another well.
That should have boded well for proof that ‘Iokepa is a qualified resident. John, with a serious beard the length of all my years on the island, greeted us warmly; we exchanged family stories. Then this: “I’ll issue you a permit for just one week. I’ll have to send this to the county attorney’s office for approval.”
With that said: he xeroxed ‘Iokepa’s computer-generated photo ID card and his Costco membership card. (Don’t ask – it had his picture!) Further irony: not one person asked me for identification. Maybe that is because in the matter of colonization – that is, of American entitlement – I look the part. I have nothing to prove – but my kanaka maoli husband is suspect.
And that is the story: version one; version two. Both equally true.