I ulu no ka lālā i ke kumu.*
The branches grow because of the trunk.
As a teenager, one of my favorite hangouts was Georgetown. There was a new age bookstore/restaurant there called “Yes” where you could peruse titles on world religion and the occult while munching on brown rice and vegetables. I bought my first books on Islam, Buddhism and Thomas Merton in that book store. It was a hope filled place. My friends and I would jump into the back of anotherʻs Volkswagen van and head for DC. Weʻd check out the books and then share a meal at an outside table and talk for hours. In the same part of town there was also an American Indian jewelry shop. It was a time when students were wearing Indian style clothing and carrying around Dee Brownʻs “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee”. I went into the shop and saw a pair of Hopi turquoise earrings that I thought my grandmother would like. They would make a nice birthday present.
On the day of Nanaʻs birthday, I brought her my gift. I sat across from her at the dining room table as she unwrapped my present. She was delighted with the earrings and as she went to put them on I had an epiphany. I realized that my grandmother was an indigenous person, not unlike the artist that crafted the very earrings I just gave her. And from there, I realized that my mom was an indigenous person. And then I realized that I was an indigenous person. When I bought these earrings I had no idea the impact they would have on my identity. An epiphany brought about by native hands and turquoise and silver.
How did I live with these women my entire life and not realize this? But in a strange way, I did, and it frightened me into silence. I knew very little about Hawaiian history at this time, even though we spoke of Queen Liliʻuokalani with reverence and were very aware that our family had a strong connection to Pele. But I suppose that years of my white complexion staring back at me in the mirror drove home a truth that at some point my family would lose its “Hawaiian-ness”. I was raised far from the sands of Hawaiʻi. Could I really call myself a native Hawaiian? My entire life I had been told by others that I didnʻt look Hawaiian, and I believed it. At some point I stopped dancing hula because of it.
But on the day of the Hopi Earrings, I knew that my grandmother was precious, her knowledge priceless, and that she was a gift for us. The American Indian Movement woke me up to the injustice my own ancestors experienced when their queen was overthrown on the pretext of protecting American businesses. Hawaiians, like Native Americans, lost a critical mass of their population from exposure to diseases carried by settlers. They witnessed the systematic destruction of their way of life assisted by the racist beliefs of the 19th century settlers and missionaries. And in this United Nations International Year of Indigenous Languages itʻs important to acknowledge that Hawaiians almost lost their language.
Forty-seven years later, I still have these Hopi earrings. They are a reminder of that day when I learned that knowing where you come from can provide a lens to a fuller understanding of who you are.
*Quote from Mary Kawena Pukuiʻs book of Hawaiian proverbs and poetical sayings. ʻŌlelo Noʻeau #1261 – Without our ancestors we would not be here.