Sunday, February 22, 2009

A Bit of Faith

The whole family went out Saturday night to see some live Hawaiian music. We trekked for an hour in the rain to see Faith Ako in Santa Rosa, California. I must say, I haven't had so much fun since, well, since the last time I was back in Hawai'i. We heard about Faith through my daughters Hula teacher, and joined the rest of a packed theater for the debut concert for her latest CD.

Her opening act and her backup band was Tunana Da Band, a trio from Maui that was just delightful. They warmed up the house with a selection of english and Hawaiian language songs, but it was the interaction between the band members that was the most entertaining. They were obviously having a marvelous time, kidding the audience about how cold it was and ribbing each other between songs.

The theater must have been at least two-thirds full of Faith's friends and family, and when she came out the place went wild. She has a great voice and though the acoustics of the performance hall weren't top flight, the selection of traditional and contemporary songs and original compositions were stirring. Joining her on stage for three numbers or so were members of a hula troupe who provided some very beautiful dancing, including one drum-driven chant in the ancient style which sent shivers up my spine.

If you get the chance to find some Hawaiian music performed in your area, don't pass it up!

Friday, February 6, 2009

Ke Ea O Ka 'Āina

I am trying, in my spare time, to familiarize myself with the Hawaiian language. I won't say I'm trying to learn it (though I am) because without formal instruction or anyone to talk to, it really isn't possible. But the self teaching is paying off, every once in a while, I just get something. 

Recently I was listening again to the song Hawai'i '78 by Irael Kamakawiwo'ole. This is a great song with most of the lyrics in English, except for a haunting introduction which plays on the motto of Hawai'i. This single sentence is symbolic of the beautiful construction of the language and offers a great segue into how descriptive the language can be, especially in Hawaiian songs about the land itself, which is what I'll talk about in this post.

Ua mau ke ea o ka 'āina i ka pono.

Let us break this down. Ua is a tense marker, it says that the action that follows occurred in the past. Mau means (among other things) preserve. So ua mau means (in this case) preserved. Ke ea means life; ka 'āina is land; and pono means (among others) goodness or righteousness. Putting it all together, the motto of Hawai'i says, in english:

The life of the land is preserved in righteousness.

The Hawaiian language features many words that have different meanings, depending upon the context. It is what makes the language such a delightful puzzle. For example, if you find the lyrics for Iz' song on the web, you'll find that some well-meaning haole translated our example sentence into something involving a constant rain falling on the land. What were they thinking? It turns out we can forgive them in this case because ua can also mean rain, and mau can also mean endless or ceaseless. Hence ua mau can indeed mean an endless rain.

I love the way the Hawaiian language provides for so many ways to describe things in a positive way. Of course people, things and places can be described this way, but these terms are frequently used in song and chant, both traditional and contemporary, in describing the land, the sea, mountains, trees, flowers, shells and other artifacts of the Hawaiians deep love for their land. 
Hanohano - glorious, magnificent, honored, distinguished

Hemolele - perfect, faultless, pristine

Kaulana - famous, celebrated, renown

Kūkilakila - majestic

Lani - heavenly

Pono - goodness, righteousness
The terms are often combined. My personal favorite is hemolele i ka malie or pristine in calmness. Think about that for a moment, if you've ever cleared your mind and just experienced a sunset, sunrise, or the view of distant snow-capped mountains on a calm day, you have witnessed something hemolele i ka malie. I think the way the Hawaiians say these things is more poetic than mere english allows, reflecting an appreciation of the land that has evolved over thousands of years.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Ka 'Āina Ka'awale

The islands of Hawai'i have stood in the Pacific for hundreds of millions of years. In that time they've endured storm and tsunami and have thrived. In the time before human eyes beheld them, these lands developed a magic that, over the centuries, people of many races have found irresistible. The power of these lands to captivate is beyond some spell, beyond mere love or beauty, it is ume mau, a never-ending attraction.

I like to think of the human discovery of the islands as being akin to the storm waves that have washed upon these islands for millennia. The first great wave was the original polynesian settlers, who braved thousands miles of ocean in vessels that most modern people would fear to voyage in. They brought with them the animals and plants that they could accommodate on their voyaging canoes. The islands, empty of human inhabitants, welcomed them, and the transformation of the land began.

In the second wave, westerners arrived, starting with Cook, and later Hawaii became a stop for merchant mariners. New England missionaries arrived shortly after and received a welcome somewhat better than Cook's. These missionaries, merchant mariners, and other early arrivals were caught in the island's spell. They and their descendants were welcomed by the people and the land, they intermarried with the original inhabitants, advised the kings and queens and chiefs of the islands. Lead mostly by American's, western thoughts on government, religion, land-ownership, and business provided a new transformation. This wave was perhaps the most profound and the most controversial. These westerners were the founders of the huge commercial agricultural companies which exerted overwhelming force upon the development of the islands between the mid-19th and mid-20th centuries.

Then the Chinese came. Their immigration was initially arranged to provide much needed labor in the sugar (and later pineapple) fields of the islands. They brought with them their own culture, food, and language. Their work-ethic allowed many to transform agricultural toil that would be unheard of by today's standards into opportunity and wealth. They became part of business and government and instead of returning to their homelands, they became part of Hawai'i too.

The fourth wave came from another island nation, Japan. Once again the demand for labor in Hawai'i's immense agricultural system caused the large western business interests to reach across oceans. Work-life was incredibly hard for these early immigrants, but they also found a place which allowed them near complete cultural autonomy. Like the Chinese, and the westerners before them, the islands worked their peculiar magic upon these people and instead of returning to Japan with their earnings, many stayed.

As each wave crashed upon the shores of these islands, the force was absorbed. Of course it wasn't always an easy transition, racial and economic tensions were not at all rare. Still, the result is something totally unique, like the islands themselves. Through generations of living with one another, and of frequently marrying each other and raising the next generation together, the people of modern Hawai'i have become the most unique and well-integrated cultural and racial mix the world has ever seen. 

Maybe it is because I am a member of a multi-racial family that I feel so utterly at home when I am in the islands. The influence of the orient is everywhere, from the food you eat to many of the customs you encounter (such as removing your shoes before entering a hawaiian home). Of course western influences are unmistakeable, from commercial enterprise to government and law. All of these influences do not replace, but are layered upon, the culture of the original inhabitants. The Hawaiians of yesterday may have been awash in wave upon wave of foreign migration, but their unique presence is still felt everywhere, from the food and language to the beautiful music and dances of the islands.

In this way, Hawai'i is a place apart, it does not feel like anywhere else in the world.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Kona Coffee

Our next trip to Hawai'i island is still more than two months away, and as I sit in my living room over 2000 miles away, I am sipping a delicious cup of freshly-ground, freshly-brewed Kona coffee. Sadly, I know by looking at my dwindling supply, just a quarter pound of beans left, that I will run out before the next resupply can occur. Every four months or so, I carefully gauge how much coffee to bring home, looks like I underestimated last time. By now you might be thinking, "just go online and buy some," and herein lies the kernel of this post.

There are many small coffee farms in that beautiful rugged country above Kailua town. If you are a true coffee lover, you should budget at least a full day of exploration in this region. These small farms usually offer tours and tasting. Some are just a few acres in size. As with fine wines, the real gems lay, not in the mass market, but in the tiny, almost anonymous farms that you really must go looking for. 

Kona coffee has a mild, yet complex earthy flavor and aroma. I can taste a hint of the volcanic soil which the coffee trees seem to love so much, as well as the cool, slightly humid mountain air of the higher elevations in which they grow. A cup of Kona coffee immediately transports me back to a sunny morning on my lanai, where I can hear the coconut trees rustling in the trade winds and the songs of the early-rising birds as they begin the days hunt for food.

Coffee was first planted on Hawai'i island in the early 18oo's and quickly became a major crop in the region due to the unique soil and climactic conditions, along with a steady supply of chinese labor, required due to the immense amount of manual labor required in tending the plants and harvesting the fruit. As the days of the mega plantation waned after the coffee market crashed in 1899, the large plantations broke apart into individual smaller farms of just 3 to 5 acres, and so it remains today.

It is true, I could probably find plenty of excellent Kona coffee online and with a few clicks have it delivered to my door. It wouldn't be the same as buying it from the back of the pickup truck just outside the Costco parking lot in Kailua, the bags still warm from the just-roasted beans. For me, Kona coffee isn't just another way to feed my well-developed caffeine addiction, it is a connection to place for which I have aloha mau, an unceasing love.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

A Visit to Mo'okini Heiau

Lest it be said by readers that I have overly romanticized Hawaiian history, I thought I would write about an interesting place that visitors to Hawai'i Island should make every effort to experience.

Despite the idyllic setting, life was not easy in ancient Hawai'i, especially for the maka'āinana, the commoners. They lived under a system of strict rules or kapu, mostly dealing with contact with the ali'i, the royalty who owned all land and were the rulers of the islands. The likely punishment for violation of any kapu was death. The life of maka'āinana and ali'i alike were guided by the religious beliefs of these times, which featured powerful gods requiring fearsome sacrifices. These forces were presided over by their human counterparts, the kahuna, the priests of the ancient religion.

On a recent trip back to Hawai'i, I visited Mo'okini Heiau, an ancient site upon which blood sacrifices were made. The site is impressive, featuring massive stone walls, some 30 feet high, all piled by human labor. It is also incredibly old, by some reckoning it was built around 425 AD. Interestingly, some historians and local authorities say that it was not originally the fearsome place it was to become. Upon an influx or invasion of later arrivals from other pacific islands, most likely Tahiti around 1000 AD, the temple was rededicated to a new god and became a site of human sacrifice.

The heiau sits on the remote northern tip of the island among dry, wind-whipped grasslands that give way to a rocky shoreline. Entering the heiau, one's attention is immediately drawn to a bowl-shaped stone slab, it is here that the sacrifice was prepared. Further on, forbidding stone walls surround on inner keep, the purpose of which can only be imagined, for the only living Hawaiians allowed within were the ali'i and the kahuna.

As I stood in this place, a very peculiar feeling came over me. Other visitors have reported all sorts of mysterious goings on, but I experienced nothing metaphysical. Instead, I felt intense loneliness and sorrow. Above all else, this place made me sad. I suppose I am guilty of romanticizing the history of this land, and Mo'okini Heiau is a stark reminder of the dark side of that history.

I will often speak of how I wish that the kingdom of Hawai'i could have been allowed to evolve naturally into a nation-state, equal to any other on earth. But do not mistake this romantic longing as a desire for her people to return to the old ways. Some things that have been lost should remain so.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

E Ala E

Cry for the gods, cry for the people,
cry for the land that was taken away...

~ Israel Kamakawiwo'ole ~

I've been thinking a lot lately about Hawaiian Sovereignty. 

I recently read the text of Public Law 103-150, a formal declaration of the U.S. Congress, made in 1993, apologizing for the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893. Although I have a rough understanding of the complex political history of the Hawaiian islands, I only recently learned for myself of this formal acknowledgement of the U.S. role in the overthrow. Although politicians and academics continue to debate the full accuracy of the conclusions written into this resolution, it provides a fascinating overview of the events of that time.

There is no disputing certain facts, however. Namely that in the first 100 years of contact with the outside world, the Hawaiians were dealt a series of near fatal blows, mostly at the hands of western powers including the United States with a supporting role played by various asian countries. First sailors, both merchant and military, exploited the islands as their personal shore-leave playground, spreading diseases, venereal and otherwise, and lawlessness. Then, Christian missionaries came to convert the population, and while these dedicated but often misguided men and women did good things, they also succeeded in suppressing the culture and customs of the people in the name of God. Meanwhile, western business interests, recognizing the unique resources of the islands, conspired to dominate them financially and succeeded in a land-grab of awesome proportions. As these events unfolded, leprosy began to ravage the islands, probably introduced by some sailor, or possibly from other immigrants, several years before.

How could any nation survive the simultaneous destruction of their populace from disease, the quashing of much of their culture, and the theft of so much of their land? Truly, the level of interference in the affairs of these people was overwhelming, even by the standards of the day.

Today, there are a number of Hawaiian sovereignty and self-determination movements of various forms. There is even legislation circulating in the U.S. government regarding the establishment of some form of native Hawaiian government. This legislation is known as the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act of 2007

I can think of nothing more damaging to the restoration of Hawaii as an independent, sovereign nation than this bill. It would create a solely race-based tribal government similar to that which has been granted to native-American tribes. Does anyone really believe that the separate and unequal governments granted these tribes in any way compensates them for the genocide and theft of their homelands perpetrated by an aggressive, young United States? But despite this, there is no logical way that native-American tribes could be restored without the destruction of the United States as a national entity. Regardless of what crimes were committed, the deed is done, and we cannot go back.

But the situation is completely different in Hawai'i, and trying to force parallels between it and that of native-American tribes is damaging to the Hawaiian cause. A Hawaiian nation could be restored. Not some parallel, tribal system based on a model a 1,000 years and 2,000 miles removed, not on the often violent, religion-based kapu system of pre-1778 Hawaii, but on the vibrant, democratic, multi-cultural constitutional monarchy that Hawaii was evolving into prior to 1893.

I know the line of unifying Hawaiian kings starting with Kamehameha I would prefer to see the Hawaiian nation become a jewel in the Pacific, welcoming all who succumb to her unique charms. They would categorically reject the permanent sequestration of native-Hawaiians within the walls of a homeland dominated by a foreign power, yet this is precisely what the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act would do. To any future Hawaiian citizens of any race I say, don't give up, and don't settle for racist legislation that side-steps the unique and complex heritage of this amazing land.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Coastal Access Rights

The incredible richness and beauty of the Hawaiian islands is as certain as the finite quantity of it. After all, there is only so much Hawai'i to go around, and it is no small wonder that many people of all economic means strongly desire a piece of this paradise. The history of land ownership in the islands is complex, and quite frankly, tragic. But that will be the topic of a future post.

Instead, let us consider something the contemporary Hawaiian state government has a good chance to get right: guaranteed coastal access for all residents of the islands. There are laws on the books to protect access rights, the legitimacy of these laws is reenforced by precedent. The Hawai'i Supreme court confirmed that all of Hawai'i's beaches are open to the public in 1995 in Public Access Shoreline Hawai'i (PASH) vs. Hawai'i County Planning Commission and again in 2006 in Diamond vs. Hawai'i. You would think this was a matter of settled law, but actual coastal access is always in danger, and vigilance by both residents and visitors alike is required to keep these rules in place.

I am ambivalent about the multi-million dollar homes going up in the coastal resorts of Hawai'i. On the one hand, these ostentatious displays of wealth are in stark contrast to the average incomes of normal island residents; while on the other, I would love to own one myself! Still, one can take comfort that they can't take the beach from us. I like to think the residents of these homes are welcome to their infinity pools, hot-tubs and breezy outdoor living rooms, so long as they don't mind me and my family frolicking in the waves in front of it all.

But there is a very delicate balance to all of this, and normal folks are at a disadvantage. The wealthy have more money to spend on lawyers and political contributions than we do, and when it comes to their private residences, it doesn't take much for them to whip out their wallets.

There are many loop holes resort owners, developers and private land-owners may take to restrict coastal access, while still appearing to obey state law. The most common is limiting parking. Most of the high-end resorts on Hawai'i island keep just a handful of parking spots available for local access, and you must go through a security gate and request a pass to get at them. Sure, you can walk in if you want, if you fancy a 30 minute trek over an unimproved lava trail. In some cases, even walking is problematic due to the ownership of the land you must walk over. I am happy that my resort, Waikoloa Beach Resort, is not one of these. Access to spectacular Anaeho'omalu Bay is free of any restrictions, and enjoys a massive public parking area in addition to being accessible via several important coastal hiking trails. But egregious examples not far away include the Hualalai and Mauna Kea resorts with no more than 20 - 25 public parking spots each.

Another often used method of restricting access is by invoking the issue of liability. Like any other place, Hawai'i has its share of bad apples. Beach parties can get wild, and incidents of drug use, fighting and even gun fire can occur. Land owners with properties adjacent to such places are understandably skittish and may use such incidents as an excuse to shut down access. It drives me crazy that local residents would hand so much potent ammunition to a land-owner. There are good laws that could be enforced in these cases, including criminal prosecution. Area closure should  never be the solution.

Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.
~ 1852, Wendell Phillips 

The moral of the story is that the right of coastal access comes with responsibility. I can't speak for the locals, I hope they feel the same way, but I certainly can speak for visitors when I say, use your access rights, but follow the rules and, as always, show respect for this amazing land and its inhabitants.

Are you a Hawai'i resident who has been denied access to your own beaches? Let us know by commenting below.