Last week I was privileged to visit the beautiful island O'ahu in Hawaii. On Tuesday I volunteered with a friend of a friend at the ocean; they say it was actually a pond! For 3 and a-half hours we moved large rocks as a 13 person team to build a rock wall. For me this was labor intensive! The wall was built so that the employees of the pond could see the height of the water as it related to the ocean current.
The rain fell upon us on the chilly, yet gorgeous night. As I looked down the shining rock wall and assembly line team I smiled. I saw much beauty in the teamwork happening. The team was passing rocks, building, laughing, joking, and setting a rock foundation. I was inspired.
At the end of the building I wanted to take a picture of the rock wall. Not because I was a tourist, but because the wall was extraordinarily beautiful. I wanted to remember it. As I got one of the women to use her cell phone to take the picture, a native Hawaiian laughed and said, “humph, tourists!” I thought to myself, “Me, a tourist!” My heart started to beat a little faster. Without hesitation I said, “ If I were a normal tourist do you really think I would have spent my evening in the cold rain in the ocean moving super large rocks? If I were here as a tourist I would be at a nice resort right now drinking a pina colada.”
He looked at me and laughed noting, “You tourists like doing things like this to make you feel as if you are one of us.” My presence seemed to disturb him. The people around kept silent. Some people laughed with him, others looked at me with distanced concern. For some reason I knew I needed to take a deep breathe and simply keep silent. So, I did. In my mind I thought, “I never want to feel like I am anyone else other than myself.” I walked away thinking, “Why would he seem so offended by my presence? Who and what did I represent for him? If I represented “tourist” for him, what did I trigger?”
I went to Hawaii for an advocacy and organizing meeting with the General Board of Church and Society for the United Methodist Church. The topic for the meeting was “immigration & global migration” and “indigenous peoples & Native peoples/Native Hawaiians.” Within our organizing meetings I learned quite a lot from the Native Hawaiians who were present. These insights helped me understand the young man at the pond’s reaction towards me a bit more.
In the 1890’s the Kingdom of Hawaii was overthrown and with this reality and others Hawaii was colonized. This affected Native Hawaiin’s land, language, and culture. Can you imagine having all that you know stripped away from you? Intense! Since then the US military has taken over a large percentage of the Hawaiian land. The Native people of Hawaii considered much of which sacred. Highways have been built, military bases have been built, and migration to Hawaii continues to rise.
As a result of militarization and colonialism native Hawaiian people’s cultural survival was and is impacted. Native Hawaiians spirituality and livelihood is directly connected to the land. When this was taken away this impacted and is still impacting the community. This is shown in high rates of homelessness, school drop out rates, higher infant mortality rates and the list goes on.
After digesting these realities I could now see how the native Hawaiian brother from the pond would feel a certain way about my presence at the pond. Often times I go into other contexts as a visitor not knowing the history of systemic oppression that the native people have suffered. His feelings were not just about me. I do believe for him the pond, the rocks, the ocean, the land these spaces were sacred for him and his ancestors. As an American, a “tourist," maybe for him I represented an invasive presence. And if that was the reality, I have to give respect to this gentleman and his ancestors. Maybe instead of me reacting, I could have fostered dialogue or maybe in that moment it was best to respect this brother and simply walk away.
During our organizing and advocacy meetings there were several men and women working to restore the Hawaiian Kingdom. They worked to embrace the language and teach, share the rituals with the next generation, preserve the land and culture. Though there was the reality of hurt sometimes present in their voices as they spoke there was a sense of power, passion, persistence, and perseverance that was inspiring.
When visiting a new place I know it’s not always possible to learn the history of a specific context, but one thing I do know is that there are always systems of oppression at work. Now, if I was to ever see the Hawaiian brother again I would be able to listen to his truth more, instead of making my own assumptions. Mark 12: 31 notes, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.” Hawaii is a beautiful island, but the native Hawaiian language, spirituality, land, and culture are even more beautiful. This is what deserves to be respected and preserved!