This is the insistent (seldom kindly spoken) challenge that ‘Iokepa Hanalei ‘Īmaikalani hears whenever he dares to speak of the future of the Native Hawaiian people – or of their nation. The implied conclusion is: these people would not know what to do with their sovereignty. The implied assertion: deny them that choice. ‘Iokepa answers the question in a larger way.
He begins by reminding me of a single moment last May. We sat, just the two of us, snug inside our Toyota Camry at a bed-and-breakfast parking lot in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. We were six months into our second speaking tour, with perhaps three more to go.
We had $100 in our pockets. We’d just been informed that access to our Bank of Hawai’i checking account was shut down – the account had been drained with a pirated debit card. We had no pre-existing plan; we’d made no firm commitments. In that single moment we asked one another and the universe, “Where to next?” ‘Iokepa focuses on that moment of possible anguish and uncertainty to make his point: “In that parking lot in Delaware, we were free. There were absolutely no demands made of us. We could go anywhere we wanted.”
In that moment, I chose to go to Maine. We’d never before been to New England; we knew not a single soul; it simply felt right. I could not have offered a rationale that would have satisfied anyone I know – except ‘Iokepa, who like me, asks out loud and then listens. We honor the answer we hear in our heads, our hearts, and our guts.
From my impromptu decision to drive onto the Interstate and head for the northernmost state on the Eastern seaboard, with just the barest possibility of gas money, and none for lodging – life delivered abundance.
Oh, the stories I could tell of Maine and beyond: the out-of-the-blue cell phone call from a friend in Hawai’i (“You’re in Maine?! My family lives there – let me call them.”); or the dentist who repaired my newly broken tooth, gratis; or the clarity of purpose that unfolded from my freely made choice.
‘Iokepa says: “People don’t believe that kind of freedom is attainable. They can’t imagine it for themselves. They can’t fathom that anyone can live a life without allowing external demands to limit their choices. They don’t believe it’s possible.”
But it is real – for every single one of us. The only demand that matters is the one that comes from deep within us. All choice is our own; it is our human default setting.
We are free unless and until we agree to hand our freedom over. We are enslaved only when we give up that freedom on someone else’s say-so. Nelson Mandela may well have been the singular freest human who ever breathed – in prison for half a lifetime. On the other hand, most of us walk the streets in chains. We answer phones, take vacations, and never breathe a free moment in our lives.
The challenge remains – for the Native Hawaiians, sure – but no less for each one of us who walk this good Earth: “What will we do with our freedom?