Words and Images by BIANCA HENNESSY
I travelled to Hawai’i in November-December 2014 as a guest of the ANU’s Pacific Islands Field School. This is a collection from my journal kept during that time.
Out of all the places I’ve ever been to, Hawai’i has offered me the most intense sense of a history held enduringly present. The streets in Honolulu, where I stay for a month, are named after Hawaiian kings, queens, princes, princesses; and as I ride the bus every day, I learn how to pronounce their names as a computerised voice announces the next stop: Kapiolani, Kamehameha, Kuhio, Liliʻuokalani. The smooth consonants slip out of the autospeaker like honey. The names echo in my head for weeks.
One night, I share a few beers with a friend in a sports bar. At one point, the band plays a song popularised by Israel Kamakawiwo’ole (he of the famous ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’ cover.) The song begins, ua mau ke ea o ka ʻāina i ka pono: ‘the life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness.’ The previously-raucous haole (white) crowd falls quiet and a smaller group of people sing along, in that drunken-stoic way only possible at a bar at a certain time of night. My local friend later explains to me the lyrics of the song – about land lost, tourism-driven overdevelopment choking the islands, and about what the kings and queens might think if they could see Hawai’i today
Could you just imagine if they were around
And saw the highways on their sacred grounds
How would they feel about this modern city life?
A few days later, we watch as a panel of activists and academics debate the Hawaiian sovereignty movement. They want their country back. It’s an emotionally charged topic, but the room has an air of sobering dignity. One of the activists says that her work is in service of her Queen, Liliʻuokalani. The name echoes in my mind in the bus autospeaker’s voice, and I realise that I know the word only as a street name. I resolve to start learning more about Hawaiian history when I get back to my hotel. My cursory Googling reveals that these monarchs live on in the built environment of O’ahu by the things named after them: streets, suburbs, government buildings, hotels, bars. I wonder how many tourists know that their new favourite Korean barbeque place is on a street named after a Queen who was imprisoned by the United States for resisting the overthrow of her own kingdom. But how would they? I certainly didn’t.
As the weeks progress, my discussions with friends hover around themes of feeling confronted. There’s very visible poverty here, state-endorsed structural violence upon the homeless, overdevelopment of the land. It feels like there’s too much going on – a bursting capsule of so much inequality, all bound up and imposed upon a tiny island in the middle of the ocean. My studies of the Pacific have taught me the fallacy of thinking of the islands as small, and instead to see the vastness of Oceanic cultures, knowledges and histories. Still, I can’t help but feel a little claustrophobic.
The island itself is unpredictable. Almost every day brings a tempestuous combination of sun, rain, wind, and rainbows. We’re staying at the university, in the Mānoa Valley. The campus is constructed upon underground streams of water flowing down from the mountains into the ocean. Sometimes, I’m told, heavy rain can make the underground streams burst and flood the valley. It feels like the island taking back something, violently.
Hula is everywhere. In a huge shopping centre, scantily-clad dancers perform a hula-styled routine to the tune of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer to hordes of snap-happy tourists. Looking down on the dancers from a high balcony, I feel a sudden sting of tears – perhaps shame at participating in such an absurd ode to capitalism? I’m not sure. I feel restored that night, watching an entirely different sort of hula, performed by a group of Hawaiian dancers at a Polynesian student event. Their hula was strong, proud, and elegant. A few weeks later, we learn a hula for ourselves, barefoot on warm volcanic rock underneath a banyan tree. Our teacher tells us that hula lets you dance the land into being. The phrase rings like a clear bell in my mind.
Like hula, aloha is something with multiple incarnations. I’ve mostly heard the word howled to tourists during pantomimed performances and from cashiers in the convenience stores that dot the Waikīkī beachfront: “Alooooohaaaaa!” But during a panel discussion of Hawaiian scholars and activists, we hear it spoken as a solemn greeting of respect. I don’t understand the word, but perhaps it’s not mine to understand. Aloha might be this unidentifiable electricity charging through these islands. It might be something else. Again, I’m not sure. I’m fairly confident, though, that aloha is probably not the American service culture, with its sticky-sugary smiles in resorts and imported sand on an ever-thinning beach.
Whenever I feel cynical, something unexpectedly awe-inspiring happens. We are invited to visit the Ka Holo Wa’a canoe-making project, which seeks to revive ancient Polynesian seafaring techniques. I sense that this is the best of Hawai’i bound up in one humble shed: people using what they have – ancient knowledges and proud cultural practices – and leveraging these to fill gaps in what they don’t have. Families from the impoverished Palolo Valley join us and we sand down the canoe, scrape hau bark to make rope, learn to tie knots, and dance and chant the stories of the sea.
We learn about navigation from Plasito Eseluquipi, son of legendary Hokele’a navigator Mau Piailug. We sit in quiet awe as this man shares knowledge as old as knowledge itself, knowledge which first allowed humans to cross the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean. He demonstrates the rising and setting of stars using pieces of coral, stone and rope. In this mode of navigation – wayfinding – the vessel is perceived as stationary and the stars and ocean move around it. If you know enough about the sea, it moves for you. He tells us that he learnt the names of the star points from his father when he was five years old. The million-dollar yachts outside seem like cheap plastic imitations of this sort of knowledge.
Americans are good storytellers, and this place is teeming with stories. Hawai’i is always a generous character in these tales, sweeping up those searching for something and giving them a space to be in ever-perpetuated harmony and conflict with each other. We meet lots of characters: a German student, a Japanese backpacker, a French engineer, a Russian oceanographer, and so many others. Over and over I keep hearing themes of surrender– “I chose Hawai’i, but then Hawai’i chose me.” Like a strange volcanic magnet stuck to the bottom of the ocean, people seem drawn, they stay, and sometimes they can’t explain why.
We hang out with a surfer who drives us to Makapu’u, the eastern-most point of O’ahu. I sit in the back of his truck while the ocean wind whips my faces. We sit in a car park as dusk settles. He says that the land has an aura, glowing golden against the darkening sky in the second just before the sun sets. I don’t know whether to believe him, but I take a photo anyway.
For all her serene beauty, Hawai’i is still occupied by a turbulent nation-state. I have cable TV in my hotel room and America screams through it every day. I am stunned that even from the middle of the Pacific, I become feeling so intimately entwined with the plagues of this country. I know I’m supposed to be learning about Hawai’i, but America keeps bleeding though. In my notebook I write frantically, unpunctuated, trying to make sense of everything that’s happening: Eric Garner couldn’t breathe and America can’t breathe and the students at the university write ‘we can’t breathe’ with chalk on the pavement and all I can think about is the video of that man dying and dying…
My white skin glows in a place where white people have killed and oppressed and continue to silence others – a place not unlike my own home. For days I feel lost in shame. This place isn’t mine but these problems belong to all of us. I try to feel the full vastness of my own horror. I cry watching the news and yet I keep turning it on to listen to the same story again and again.
I later learn that some scholars explain the word haole, which refers to white people or foreigners, to mean ‘a person without breath’ or ‘those who fail to breathe life into their prayers.’
I feel the island breaking through the calloused skin of my arguments, tides breaking over me, things unnamed taking root in the sand washed bare. Then, as before, a restorative encounter happens when I least expect it. We tour a museum full of the most precious objects in Hawaiian history – feathered kāhili, sacred atua, glittering artefacts of an ancient kingdom. Our guide is patient with our questions. She offers chants of welcome and blessing to us – us, a crowd of gangly novices, foreigners in every respect. We shiver in the warm, dark hall.
We visit ‘Iolani Palace, where Queen Lili’uokalani was imprisoned in a single room for 8 months while her kingdom was stolen. There lays a silken quilt sewed by the Queen while she was a prisoner. It’s adorned with cheerful zigzag lines crossing flower and butterfly motifs. The scraps of fabric look like they’re torn from clothes. Our friend at the museum shows us a ribbon written on by the Queen during her imprisonment. The ribbon reads do not forget me.
Dear Hawai’i: I promise I won’t.