From a Pacific – Turtle Island Muliwai

By Hinemoana of Turtle Island: Liza Keanuenueokalani Williams, Lani Teves, Fuifuilupe Niumetolu, Maile Arvin, Kēhaulani Vaughn, and Natalee Kēhaulani Bauer

We are a group of Pacific Islander women, activists, poets, storytellers, mothers, and scholars, living in California and Oregon. We arrived to the West Coast of Turtle Island for a variety of different reasons, but we are far from exceptional in being Pacific Islanders living away from our homelands. As Empowering Pacific Islander Communities has shown in their recent demographic report, there are over 1.2 million Pacific Islanders who live in the US.

Despite these facts, the Department of Interior meetings in Hawaiʻi and consultations with Native American tribes on the continent have largely failed to engage with Native Hawaiians and allied communities living in diaspora. Official Department of Interior consultations were held with Native American tribes in Minnesota, South Dakota, Washington state, Connecticut, and Arizona. However, no official meetings were scheduled for California where 74,932 Native Hawaiians (the largest population outside Hawaiʻi) reside. Three “un-official” meetings were added in Northern California, Southern California, and Las Vegas through the leadership of the Mainland Council of Hawaiian Civic Clubs and individual hula halau. At these un-official meetings, one DOI representative attended and answered questions, but testimonies were not recorded as in the official meetings. Recognizing that our kuleana (responsibility) to our people remains strong despite our locations outside Hawaiʻi, the Kānaka Maoli of our group insist that the voices of the Kanaka Maoli diaspora are essential to conversations about how we recognize and re-build our lāhui.

At times during the DOI meetings in Hawaiʻi, we have heard distrust or dismissal of Kanaka Maoli who live in diaspora as uninformed, unimportant and inauthentic. We understand this sentiment, in part, as a product of institutional efforts to engage the diaspora selectively, if those in diaspora lend support to federal recognition. In a particularly troubling example, the largest group of signatories of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs initiative Kana’iolowalu, the Native Hawaiian Roll, are 2,000 Native Hawaiian men currently incarcerated in a private prison in Arizona. We respect their decision to enroll with Kanaʻiolowalu but we wonder what OHA’s and other federal recognition supportersʻ plans are to return these men to Hawaiʻi and their families. While these and others in diaspora may certainly support federal recognition, not all do. We reject moves by the DOI and OHA to pit those in diaspora against those at home. This manufactured divide creates panic and distrust, and we are mindful that we must work towards strengthening our peoples’ connections and kuleana for each other wherever we may live.

As Pacific Islanders we understand our connections as always in flux, in movement, gesturing toward its past and its future. Muliwai, the theme of this website which evokes the mouth of a river meeting the ocean, reflects that understanding. Though the muliwai may be murky and muddy, it is also a space of renewal and richness, of movement and connection. As Pacific Islanders living in diaspora, our relationship to our lands and ocean are open in a way that acknowledges the processes that require and facilitate movement, without compromising the importance of Native relationship to lands. In Epeli Hau’ofa’s article, “Sea of Islands,” he documents the existence of a Native Pacific indigeneity that was never about fixity, but that was always in flux. Indigenous Pacific theorists help us think about the theorization of “native lands” in relation to a fluid ocean that can be thought of as a homeland for Pacific Islanders – which extends to Turtle Island where we seek to honor the presence of our indigenous kin.

As Pacific Islanders living on Turtle Island– specifically on the lands of the Ohlone, the Cahuilla, the Luiseño, and the Kalapuya, among others– we recognize that we have particular forms of kuleana and relationships to Native American peoples (both those who are federally recognized and those who are not). For example, as we meditate on the theme of muliwai, we are struck by the fact that California is in the middle of a severe drought, and this drought is impacting Native Californian lands in especially dire ways. As we reach across the Pacific to hoʻopili (bring or stick together) our relationships with our families and communities at home, we also recognize a responsibility to hoʻopili with the Native peoples whose lands we live on.  We continue to learn much from the experience of our cousins from Turtle Island who live with “nation-to-nation” relationships with the United States, and we strive for relationships that mutually acknowledge one another outside of the state.

In relation to the proposed terms of Native Hawaiian federal recognition, we reject the authority of the US federal government to acknowledge our sovereignty. Native Hawaiian sovereignty emerges from the Native Hawaiian people, and we aim to follow the ʻike of our ancestors and pursue nothing less than complete independence from the US nation-state and all its formations, if our people so desire it. However, we also acknowledge that federally recognized tribes have their own complex reasons for exercising their own government to government relationships with the US, and that tribes are nations too.

We have learned from our work in various Pacific Islander and Native American coalitions that there are countless ways in which Pacific Islanders are misrecognized, which is one reason why federal recognition for Native Hawaiians is of broader concern to all Pacific Islanders. For example, in the U.S., Pacific Islanders are constantly lumped together with Asian Americans under the label of “Asian Pacific Islander,” or its acronym, API. The API label is a settler colonial construct that further subsumes Pacific Islander identities and histories. API particularly erases our indigeneity, our ongoing political and spiritual relationships to the Moana and to other Indigenous peoples. It is not that alliances between Pacific Islanders and Asian Americans are not possible, but that such alliances are not meaningful if they are imposed institutionally without recognition of Pacific Islander political and spiritual responsibilities to land/ocean. API adheres closely to the U.S. geopolitical designation of “Asia-Pacific” or “Pacific Rim” as areas of economic and military interest; such designations are undeniably settler colonial and imperial.

At the same time, Hawaiʻi and Native Hawaiians often stand in for all Pacific nations and Pacific Islander peoples within activist and scholarly discourses in the US. We even see this disproportionate representation within our own group that consists of five Native Hawaiian members and one Tongan member. We thus strive to de-center Native Hawaiians and always frame Native Hawaiian issues within a larger Oceanic framing. Native Hawaiian relationships to the US do not make us more important than any of our Pacific Islander cousins.

Similarly, we always remain aware that as Polynesians we also represent only a part of Oceania, and strive to de-center Polynesia, which has often been made to represent all of Oceania in the Western imagination. The daily, blatant individual and institutional racism against Micronesians in Hawaiʻi is one example of why we feel we must be active in standing with those among us who have the least visibility, and always attentive to the uneven positions our Pacific Islander communities, and we as individuals, inhabit.

Stemming from our fluid connections to lands and ocean (our symbolic and literal muliwai), we all are also concerned more broadly about the impacts of global warming, the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade agreement, and the continued US military build-up and occupation (particularly on Okinawa and Guam) on all of our islands, waters, and peoples in Oceania. We are deeply critical of the RIMPAC (Rim of the Pacific) maritime exercises, hosted by the US Navy, exploit the waters of our Moana in Hawaiʻi to train military forces to be deployed across the world. These same military forces are often the main enforcers of settler colonialism and imperialism globally; for example, the Indonesian military trains at RIMPAC, and is currently occupying West Papua. Like all of our Oceanic peoples, West Papua deserves freedom and self-determination. Again, opposing RIMPAC is not only about Hawaiʻi or Native Hawaiians but all Pacific peoples, and indeed, all Indigenous peoples.

As Indigenous feminists, we are both proud and wary of the resurgence in Kanaka Maoli nationalism brought about by the Department of Interior meetings. We are also critical of nationalist discourses that require heteronormativity while foreclosing the multiple expressions of ‘ohana and identity that are within our communities. We reject nationalisms that reify and evoke structures of homophobia, classism, sexism, and racism in the name of cultivating “civilized” and “proper” indigenous citizens. We are reminded, through our relationships with other Pacific Islander and Native American peoples, that Native Hawaiians are in no way exceptional as Indigenous or colonized peoples in the Pacific or the Americas. Certainly, Native Hawaiians are not exceptional because we had (and have) a kingdom. We believe that we must examine critically all national narratives for all Pacific nations (for example, the idea that the kingdom of Tonga was never colonized), because exceptionalist nationalism can obliterate the connections between Oceanic peoples and cut us off from creating coalitions with each other. As Indigenous feminists, we ask that everyone be constantly attentive of who is being centered, and who is being silenced, in nationalist discourses which are always gendered.

We particularly reject the anti-Native American sentiment that has at times been part of statements against federal recognition, as this conflict is one manufactured by US federal government. Though we agree that Native Hawaiians are not a tribe, too often the disdain at the thought of being made a “tribe” has used the very same racist and ahistorical discourses that the US has used to manage Native American nations and deem them “uncivilized.” The terms of Native Hawaiian US federal recognition pits Native Americans and Native Hawaiians against each other as we all vie against each other for federal “benefits.” However, we want much more than federal “benefits” for Native Hawaiians AND for Native Americans. We want nothing less than the decolonization of all the lands occupied by the United States on Turtle Island, in the Pacific, and elsewhere around the world.

Federal recognition is based on the falsehood that the State itself is benevolent – that it will solve, heal, or make better the injustices. We see this project as providing a space to foreground a critical and creative analysis of the relations that have been imposed upon all Indigenous peoples impacted by colonial and imperial projects of the United States and other powers.  

We believe that decolonization happens through mainstream political channels, through grassroots organizing, and through intellectual and creative realms that our people actively cultivate. Indigenous epistemologies and Indigenous spiritual practices are important, and often overlooked, parts of all such decolonial work. We envision this website as a space to develop the intellectual, spiritual and creative. In collaboration with Nolu Ehu, we hope to put the voices of Pacific Islanders living in diaspora on Turtle Island and elsewhere into a conversation with Pacific Islanders living in Hawaiʻi and other parts of Oceania. This collaboration in itself is a muliwai, a murky meeting of mouths and words enabled by our many connections. We do not see ourselves or this collaboration as a political vanguard or a party line. Rather, we hope this website fosters a space where we center critiques not around the idea that “you’re with us or against us” but rather on the many ways that colonialism continues to divide us. Because such divisions amongst us are actually central to the ongoing workings of colonialism, they must also be central targets of our ongoing projects of decolonization. We will see you in the muliwai.

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