A Mauna Love Letter to Disconnected Hawaiians
greg pōmaikaʻi gushiken Sep 9
When the Thirty Meter Telescope was slated to begin construction on our sacred Mauna a Wākea in mid-June 2019, I had no intentions of returning home to be there with our lāhui, my friends and family and those that I loved, content with doing “what I could” from San Diego. I had reasoned that it was of my own lack of diligence to the movement and to the lāhui that my kuleana was different. However, it wasn’t until I saw on Instagram that my kumu, Dr. Noelani Goodyear-Kaʻōpua, had chained herself to the cattle grate of Mauna Kea access road that I understood the call of the Mauna, too. For 13 hours, she and several kūpuna, kumu, and even my classmates lay chained to the grate as the put their bodies on the line to halt the construction of the TMT.
In my apartment in San Diego, having just returned, ironically, from an Indigenous studies conference in Aotearoa New Zealand, I felt an uneasiness that pulled at my skin setting in. As I lay in bed unable to move, my stomach folded in on itself, sinking in a way that drowned itself in the depths of Moananuiākea, the ocean from which we all come. It is difficult to place a feeling such as this in the Euromerican grammars of feeling; however, in the Hawaiian worldview, I knew that I felt my naʻau calling me to the Mauna from 2,650 miles across the Pacific Ocean. With a wrenching in my gut that traced the shaking of my bones, I booked an overnight flight home to the islands that left later that night.
I entered this space two days after these events, and I make no claim to the intense kapu aloha demonstrated by these kiaʻi. Although I had marked myself as “red,” my kuleana I found was to serve, whether that be in daily tasks in the trash, bathroom, or kitchen, or with using my limited talents in teaching. Still, even a Hawaiian who is reconnecting like myself found a space to step up and begin to not only figure out what my kuleana is but to understand that it is shifting and must always be thought through. If the Mauna taught me anything, itʻs that you need to give all that you can when you have it and, importantly, to trust others to push through when you have nothing else to give. And though at this moment I have overdue rent balances and unpaid credit cards, I know that I made the right choice to come to the Mauna and serve.
Still, I write this after my short twenty days on the Mauna not to reflect on my own kuleana, but instead to affirm and say to those who may not “feel” Hawaiian enough that, yes, you are. Many of us have given our all for now. I trust the lāhui to carry those of us who are tired, who are broken. With that being said, the Mauna needs you. Your lāhui needs you. Kiaʻi have been standing for 56 days, and now we and they need you to come stand with us.
You might ask, “why me?” Perhaps your parents were discouraged by the settler colonial workings of society to not give you an inoa Hawaiʻi (Hawaiian name). Perhaps, like me, your parents wanted you to pass as white, Japanese, anything but the weight of being Kanaka Maoli meant. Maybe you never learned the language because you were always afraid of messing it up. Maybe you never learned it because you were scared you would never find work and, thus, never live under this capitalist system we grow up in. Or, maybe, you grew up disconnected and in the growing Hawaiian diaspora. And perhaps those through which you are Hawaiian have hurt you.
I grew up with complicated relationships to being Kanaka Maoli. Growing up, I was always haunted by the way in which my own grandfather, through whom I was Hawaiian, brutally abused my mother, her mother, and her sisters. He had passed on before I was born, but our Nānākuli house always seemed to sigh in a way that made me understand the gravity of the trauma that trickled down our family tree. I resented being Hawaiian for the ways that he hurt not just my mother but me and my family. I resented the fact that he was a statistic of Hawaiians who died before 40. I resented myself as a Kanaka Maoli because I had blamed the work of colonization on ourselves. But the moment I understood that these problems––domestic violence, alcoholism, and poverty––were all symptoms of colonization and the continued separation of Kānaka from our land, I understood that it is not just my but our kuleana as Hawaiians, whether disconnected or not, to bridge that gap inside of us, to understand that there is a Kanaka Maoli world that can exist beyond the cruel horizon of settler colonization.
Thus, it is absolutely your kuleana, should you choose to carry it. It is your right and your burden as a Kanaka Maoli to come into these spaces. But you must be ready to serve if you so choose to. Even if you cannot be on the Mauna, you can choose to fight from where you are. You donʻt have to be afraid of the question of where or not you are enough. Indeed, even I thought that in many ways my presence on the Mauna was overstepping my kuleana. I asked myself, why would someone whose parents refused to send their child to kaiāpuni, whose grandparents could not even bare the thought of a child that spoke pidgin, whose family had been displaced from their own ancestral lands for 4 generations hold any space on the Mauna? But if you are there to fight and you are there to serve, your kuleana is to be there. Your moʻokūʻauhau and the relationship you have to your ancestors, our land, is what matters, and it is tying you to a lāhui in duress.
If you are a Hawaiian, you are a descendant and the continuation of a powerful people whose relationships across the Pacific, with other Indigenous peoples on Turtle Island and elsewhere, and with each other formed the incredible technology of Hawaiian statecraft all founded on kuleana. Kuleana is necessarily about how we are accountable to others and prompts us to ask questions of “what is my connection to this land/people/place? what have I done for them? what skillsets can I contribute without overstepping my boundaries?” Such questions are necessarily about pause and, yet, for Hawaiians it must be also about knowing when it is our kuleana. In other words, I think that many of us need to ask ourselves: when will we step up and fulfill our kuleana?
While kuleana is often roughly translated to “responsibility” or “burden,” Noelani Goodyear-Kaʻōpua articulates that in the epistemology of kuleana, “individuals who may be differentially positioned vis-a-vis land and ancestors [are] accountable based on those specific relationships. Such a recognition does not relieve anyone from kuleana but rather acknowledges our different social, genealogical and spatial locations.” Kuleana, thus, is a relational understanding of accountability to people and places. When we are on our kulāiwi (native land, where you ancestors rest), our kuleana is greater than when we are on someone elseʻs kulāiwi. My kuleana on the occupied land of the Kumeyaay where I study is different from my ʻone hānau of Oʻahu-a-Kākuhihewa. Kuleana is shifting, and, yet, kuleana is always about protecting those lands and people tied to your genealogy.
This week, kiaʻi expect the US Army National Guard to move in on the Puʻuhonua with chemical weapons and brute force. The kāhea to come has been put out: it is absolutely urgent that anyone who can come to the Mauna do so.
E nā Kānaka Maoli, now is the time. Whether you are stumble over the tongue they stole from you or whether you are afraid of the past that this uncovers, the Mauna needs you. We need you. Your kuleana extends beyond just you; it is the kuleana that you inherited from your ancestors, those who braved the cold and the heat of settler colonialism, disease, and dispossession to ensure that you would be here. I know that many of my kūpuna could not fight alongside their friends and family. I do not carry the names of any famous aloha ʻāina of the Kingdom era. My kūpuna did not have the privilege to fight for the entire lāhui when they were busy fighting to keep us alive. But for the kūpuna who could not stand, I continue to kūʻē not just for the generations to come but for the generations before me, for those who kneeled so that I could stand.
Mauna Kea might not be something that you associate with your own family history, but it is the piko of all Kānaka Maoli. Perhaps even more importantly, it is a chance for you to stand with the lāhui for your kūpuna who kneeled, clawed, bent, and laid down their bodies for you to someday stand. More importantly, we love each and every single one of you. And we would love you to stand with us. Now is the time. Now is the place. Kānaka, come home, in what ever way you can.