Recognizing the Aloha in ‘No’

How anger too can be an expression of aloha.

The past few weeks in Hawaiʻi have seen an outpouring of emotion in response to the Department of Interior (DOI) meetings that were held across the islands. The intent of the meetings—as far as so-called “intent” goes when dealing with the federal government—was to gather comments from the Native Hawaiian community on the question of how to move forward, or if we should move forward at all, with a nation-building process assisted by the federal government.

The DOI posed a list of nineteen questions in jargon-riddled language that most people without a law degree cannot understand. And yet our people, many of whom do not have the privilege of a law degree or the legitimization of higher education, stood up proud, vocal and articulate in their positions. At times, the responses did not “make sense,” while at other times kupuna and ʻōpio alike laid out with ,brilliant precision, their arguments for either federal recognition or Hawaiian independence.

Our intent in bringing up these hearings is not to take a side with regards to the results of the proceedings, but rather to provide a different frame for analyzing the internal debates within the Hawaiian community that these hearings have made apparent. What has emerged from the hearings is that Kānaka Maoli are very aware of the injustices suffered by our people, and that this issue will only grow as our consciousness and global, indigenous solidarity becomes more prominent. In the words of one testifier, “Everybody going kūkae their pants when they see the Hawaiians come together.”

If what results from this is the Native Hawaiian community coming together, then perhaps the process will not have been such a painful waste of time. What has also emerged, however, is an obvious tension among the testifiers; a tension that is indicative of deeper conflicts within the Native Hawaiian community about what is “Hawaiian” and how Hawaiian-ness is tied to “aloha”.

These so-called “consultations” have produced, sometimes, aggressive reactions directed toward the DOI panel, the largely Native Hawaiian security force that is present at the hearings, and at other Native Hawaiians in the room who may be in disagreement. As voices were raised or people were cut off for speaking too long on the microphone, other speakers came up to “apologize” for the “un-Hawaiian” and rude behavior of other Native Hawaiians, stating that those Hawaiians were somehow betraying what it means to be really “Hawaiian” or to “have aloha,” as all Hawaiians are supposed to. This act of “apologizing” for other Native Hawaiians because they did not act properly or with the so-called respectability that Native Hawaiians are supposed to exhibit does not work to support our community.

We are a community of many perspectives, as these hearings have shown. We think differently, act differently and even look different. There is no one way to be Hawaiian, much less to identify as (Native Hawaiian, Kānaka Maoli, Kānaka ʻŌiwi are all important modes of naming ourselves). So why all the pressure to act like a “proper” Hawaiian? Why do we put up with it? Why do we hold on so hard to the idea that there is a Hawaiian way and an un-Hawaiian way that must be avoided at all costs?

Pressures from the non-Hawaiian world—pressures that are residues of colonialism and occupation—make us think we need to perform a certain way to be really, actually, authentically Kānaka Maoli and, unfortunately, these pressures shape how we understand and practice “aloha.” “Aloha” means, in this context, simply being nice, caring, respectful and inclusive of others. Our kupuna may have been that way, and we donʻt think it’s a bad attitude to aspire to, but it does not make someone any less Native Hawaiian when they deviate from this understanding of aloha.

Aloha ʻāina is Hawaiian. Hula is Hawaiian. Heʻe nalu is Hawaiian. Aloha is a Hawaiian word, but it is also a set of values and behaviors that have been turned into something that is used to police Native Hawaiian behavior, and to discipline us into acting in ways that do not challenge the very structures that got us into this bind to begin with. So some Kānaka Maoli will yell, cry and get aggressive. It might be uncomfortable and it can make people nervous. It is still an expression of aloha; aloha for our lāhui! Anger can be and, as we have seen, is Hawaiian too.

In voicing our disagreements; in listening and speaking to each other about the hopes and dreams we have for our nation, we can (and should) separate our people’s complex understandings of aloha from respectability politics. Respectability politics means advocating that a non-white community must try to act in a manner that is extraordinarily proper and “good” by mainstream standards. In the logic of respectability politics, racism and other kinds of violence directed at a community are explained, in part, by the “bad” behavior of some of that community’s individuals. For example, Bill Cosby infamously bemoaned black youth sagging their pants and urged black people to get out of poverty by simply taking more personal responsibility for themselves. By this logic, racism and structural economic, social and political inequalities can be changed if black people and other minorities simply act “better.”

Unfortunately, respectability politics often seem to be at the heart of the actions of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) and other organizations such as the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement that have advocated for federal and state recognition through avenues including the Akaka Bill and the Native Hawaiian Roll (Kana‘iolowalu). OHA’s attachment to respectability politics was startlingly clear in May of this year when OHA CEO Kamanaʻopono Crabbe sparked outrage among OHA trustees (while simultaneously garnering support from many advocates for Hawaiian independence) by sending a letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry asking for clarification on whether the Hawaiian Kingdom still exists under international and U.S. law. Calling Crabbe’s letter a “breach of aloha,” the OHA trustees combined bureaucratic legalese with a dearly held Hawaiian value to claim that Crabbe’s letter not only broke rules but displayed “un-Hawaiian” behavior. Thus, OHA trustees made this incident into something that was not just about a disagreement of political strategy, but something for which Kamanaʻopono Crabbe should be ashamed.

When the only story the Star-Advertiser has to tell about day after day of 3-hour meetings full of moving, inspiring, thoughtful, heart-wrenching testimonies is that Native Hawaiians are conducting themselves badly, we see that the politics of respectability advocated by OHA has successfully been passed off to the mainstream media as “neutral” and “reasonable.” As a consequence, anyone who opposes federal recognition appears to be “fringe” and “radical,” even when they are clearly shown to be, meeting after meeting, in the majority.

There may be good, substantial reasons to support federal recognition, especially with regards to land rights. However, because OHA has largely chosen to stage the discussion over federal recognition within the politics of respectability (and among fears over the loss of entitlements from federal programs or disenfranchisement as a result of being left off the Native Hawaiian Roll), their campaigns have been curiously empty of what those good reasons might be.

Instead, they simply argue that federal recognition is the most logical and reputable avenue towards progress. Like any critical observer, the media has a duty to ask hard questions of what OHA presents as the self-evident good of federal recognition. Unfortunately, the media has also left out the fact that there have been many testimonies by non-Hawaiians who also support Hawaiian independence, plainly stating that the U.S. and its advocated way of life—capitalist greed and militarization—has not done anyone here in the islands much good. 

We do not pretend to know what Native Hawaiians should do to transform the lives of our people, but we do know that none of us can figure that out alone. Disagreements should be expected and honored, as should a whole range of emotions from anger to sorrow. None of us can afford to lose each other, and certainly not because some of us do not appear “respectable,” as defined by OHA and as amplified by the mainstream media.

We know that Colonialism in all of its manifestations (loss of land, health, genealogy, culture, unity; all of which Native Hawaiians on both sides of the question of federal recognition continue to testify to again and again) will not go away if we simply “be good.” Colonialism will not go away if we just refrain from yelling, crying, or talking for more than two minutes. Colonialism will not go away simply because we make ourselves more palatable to the mainstream media who, inexcusably, appear utterly unable to explain why on earth Native Hawaiians might become angry and upset during the process of speaking to federal officials.

There is no individual or behavioral solution to Colonialism. As our kupuna who organized the collection of over 38,000 signatures to protest U.S. annexation in 1897 knew, decolonization can only be forged through collective action. Decolonization is not reconciliation, as scholars Eve Tuck and Wayne Yang have written; it is not about rescuing normalcy; and it will not magically emerge from friendly understanding. Our kupuna remind us that decolonization is not accountable to the settler, but rather to Indigenous sovereignty and Indigenous futures. Similarly, we know that in Hawai’i neither decolonization nor aloha will ever be defined solely by the politics of respectability.

Hearing “No!” or “ʻAʻole” so many times over the past few nights has reminded us a lot of our childhoods; of those bold declarations from our parents and many kupuna telling us not to do something. There is a way we say “No” in Hawaiʻi that is unmatched. This “No” has an emphatic tone to it that comes with a warning. This warning issues an “on-guard” to those who attempt or entertain an attempt at defying the “No.”

For all the “No” we heard, we hope that the DOI heard it too; that they heard Kānaka standing kūpaʻa in their resilience and love for their lāhui, ʻāina, queen and for each other. If the U.S. continues to violate that “No,” it will come back to them. The land has eyes and, as the Hawaiian community has shown with fierce resistance, we will never forget. This issue is not going away.

Just as the testifier at the Heʻeia hearing jokingly said to the panel “You guys scared, yeah? You should be scared” we hope that, whatever feelings the testimonies have evoked in the DOI panelists and other onlookers, our Kanaka Maoli communities can come to see that there is aloha too in all our people’s “no”s. 

This piece was written by Maile Arvin and Lani Teves.

About the authors
Lani Teves is an Assistant Professor at the University of Oregon. She grew up in Halawa and Ewa Beach.

Maile Arvin is currently a University of California President’s Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She grew up in Kentucky and on Oʻahu, where her family is rooted in Waimānalo. Her research focuses on issues of race, gender and indigeneity in Hawaiʻi and the Pacific.

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