On the Mauna

“I think,” my daughter Ua said gravely, ”I want to go up on the mauna.”  In Hawai’i, these words have a distinct and edgy meaning lately.

The mauna (mountain) she was referring to is Mauna Kea, where an encampment of kia’i (protectors/protestors) of the mauna have halted construction of a cutting-edge telescope  by occupying the access road. Continue reading “On the Mauna”

Trans-species Pidgins

Why ask anthropology to look beyond the human? And why look to animals to do so? Looking at animals, who look back at us, and who look with us, and who are also, ultimately, part of us, even though their lives extend well beyond us, can tell us something. It can tell us about how that which lies “beyond” the human also sustains us and makes us the beings we are and those we might become.  – Eduardo Kohn, How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human

One of the most frustrating things about Western civilization is its relentless anthropocentrism and human exceptionalism.  Most of us modern, Western, scientific humans think that we are the only truly conscious beings, the only beings that can think, feel, and communicate.  Itʻs a form of blindness or self-mutilation, in my opinion, as if we deliberately bound our feet or shut down one of our senses in order to belong to Team Civilization. Certainly such blindness makes ruthless exploitation of the natural world a lot easier on the conscience – if you consider all of it to be mindless matter then why not bring on the bulldozers?  Continue reading “Trans-species Pidgins”

Mo’olelo (stories) about the volcano

Pele, they say in the legends, was a traveler from the ancestral homelands of Kahiki who came to this island with her clan of brothers and sisters and settled in the area named Keauhou.  There was a war between the early settlers and Pele and her clan took refuge in a great cave.  The volcano erupted and the cave collapsed, sealing  the clan inside.  This is how she became identified with the volcano Kilauea.

In the old days those who came as visitors to the hostile, numinous lands of Pele had themselves tattoo-ed using a blue dye made from a kind of iris that grows only near the volcano.  Others brought the umbilical cords of their children, or of themselves, to place at the doorstep of the volcano.

Piko is the word for the belly button where the umbilical cord was attached.  It is also the word for a spiritual place of origin and power – a center of the universe. That earth is fire, that we are connected from birth to the molten core of our earth, and live always under peril but centered in the knowledge of that connection – this is what might be expressed in the tradition of presenting the umbilical cord to Pele.

It is treacherous to cross over the volcano these days, when Pele is awake and the road cracks and buckles.  It is not treacherous in the way it was for Chief Keoua’s army, that perished in a sudden rain of volcanic debris and molten glass two centuries ago, leaving their footprints behind in the hardened ash deposits. 

How many times have I passed over the volcano? As a child, bumping along on the narrow old road through the lava fields in the back seat of the family car, dreamily seeing fairy realms in the forested slopes above; as a teen venturing through with my cousins, telling ourselves ghost stories as the darkness closed around the beams of the headlights; as a young mother hurrying home through the lava desert with my baby, singing to keep her quiet.

The more likely danger even now is falling asleep at the wheel on the curving road over the volcano and running into the unforgiving basalt fields on either side. That is how people lose their lives now.  It is a long drive in the dark; do they begin to dream of ghostly shapes – of a white dog, of an old woman, of a young woman with fiery eyes?  These are the forms that Pele is said to take when she appears to travelers.

Metamorphic: for all the Wild Ones

For we cannot think like Indians; at most, we can think with them.  – Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, Cannibal Metaphysics

As far back as I am able to think, to remember, which is a kind of thinking, there are memories of places, of plants and animals, of a kind of light and air, the smell of water on leaves, root and dirt, the strange sight of lava flows reaching the sea, the band of white coral touching blue ocean, of roads leading through orchards, of flowers against the sky, of moss-covered rocks and river pebbles.

I have these myths.  These are my myths.  Continue reading “Metamorphic: for all the Wild Ones”

What story shall we tell?

The community in which Jedek is spoken is more gender-equal than Western societies, there is almost no interpersonal violence, they consciously encourage their children not to compete, and there are no laws or courts. There are no professions either, rather everyone has the skills that are required in a hunter-gatherer community. This way of life is reflected in the language. There are no indigenous words for occupations or for courts of law, and no indigenous verbs to denote ownership such as borrow, steal, buy or sell, but there is a rich vocabulary of words to describe exchanging and sharing.

This is not a fable from a galaxy far, far away. It’s from a study by researchers at Lund University in Sweden. Jedek is spoken by a small community of people in the Malaysian highlands, and the language features described above are not uncommon among cultures not yet swept aside in the civilizational deluge. They are part of our human heritage.

It’s been known since forever that words both reflect and determine how we perceive the world, and what’s more, that it is possible to instrumentalise that tendency of language to determine perceptions. The relevant techniques are routinely learned and applied by advertisers, demagogues, preachers, storytellers and cognitive therapists, to name a few. What is less widely known, though, is the invisible way that a language’s deep-down warrants — what it does and doesn’t permit, what it privileges and what it plays down, what it values and what it disdains — shapes its speakers’ understanding and expectations of other people and themselves.

Now, contemplate for a moment what it means to live within the confines of a language-culture which values ownership and transactional self-interest to the extent that ours does…and wonder what that might do for our capacity to recognise and share our common interests. Our capacity to play, not compete. Our capacity to love.

I’m sure a healthy culture fills minds with a rich vocabulary for sharing, supporting, exchanging, listening and understanding, and offers only a meagre selection of words for those other things, best forgotten. A healthy culture wouldn’t even have words to express esteem for a “great deal”, or for obscene wealth, or for the act of blasting a junk automobile into orbit to attract “likes”, because those would be beyond all possibility of being esteemed.

But back to the speakers of Jedek. Their world is not a utopia and it’s not a new-age fantasy. They’re real people leading normal lives, albeit normal in a way that people from our culture would typically dismiss as less than cultured. But that reflects a deficit in our language and values, rather than in theirs.

As one of the Lund University researchers writes:

There are so many ways to be human, but all too often our own modern and mainly urban societies are used as the yardstick for what is universally human. We have so much to learn, not least about ourselves, from the largely undocumented and endangered linguistic and cultural riches that are out there.

how’s that again?

have been running from required activity to required activity and not paying enough attention to some of the earlier thoughtful posts and comments, so want to go back a thread or two, to a story you all might find relevant to both the consumerism and life style thoughts. To me just naming how we live in terms of words like those implies an external point of view, similar i believe to the comments about the GDP value being greater for the overweight about to be in court smoker fellow than the obviously poverty striken family living within their means… Seems it’s about how we measure things, how we value the things that make up our lives.

The story goes somethng like this:
A successful norteamericano businessman is on a seaside vacation in a rural area of the Central American coast. He is walking along the beach in the morning below the village, and a small boat comes to shore and the three fishermen begin unloading a half dozen good sized tuna into an old rusty truck. The vacationer wanders over to inspect the proceedings, and inquires where they got the fish. “Oh we went out before dawn this morning and caught them just off here.” “Well that’s a good catch and it’s only 10 oclock in the morning. What are you going to do now?” The captain said they were going to take them up to the village, and cut them up to sell. Then we are going to go to the cantina and have some food with our families.”

The vacationer considers the reply for a bit then says “…well you know that if you stayed out longer then you could catch more fish and you would make more money.” “Well senor, that is true but…” “Then you could get a bigger boat and catch even more fish… If you did that then you might even be able to buy another boat or two.” “But senor, why would i want to do that?” “Then you could make even more money, and hire people to run your boats… and then you would have time to spend with your family.”

Uncle Abel Versus The World

Uncle Abel is not really my uncle.  You call almost everyone of the older generation Uncle or Aunty in Hawaiʻi.  In the twenty years that I have known Uncle Abel we’ve been on the opposite sides of the question more often than not, which is to say in enemy camps, although not exactly enemies.  But the differences don’t matter as much as what we have in common. What matters is that we love the same place.  We have a shared history with a small bay and section of land called Kāwā. He lived there for years, and I worked there for years.

Kāwā might not look like much at first glance.  It’s a small bay with a rocky, pebbly beach where the wind is usually blowing briskly.  There is no white sand and no palm trees.  The surf is  rough and the water cold. However, on a small bluff above the bay at Kāwā are the spectacular ruins of an ancient heiau (temple) and on the flat below the foundations of a village site.  These are what we used to call “archeology,” and what we now refer to as “cultural resources.” Not long ago relics such as these were considered of minimal significance compared to the demands of commerce and progress, but now they have become vital links to the pre-contact, pre-industrial past.  There is a large brackish pond behind the beach that is considered an important wet-land  for multiple species of endangered native birds.  Kāwā also has one of the few surf-breaks in the district and that in itself makes it precious to surfers of all ages.

I worked with my family on the ranch lands above the bay where Abel lived. We both impinged on each other’s realm with a casual, lawless tolerance that is nearly un-imaginable now-adays.  We pumped brackish water out of the pond and his crew of hippie-hangers-on set up camp on a piece of land inset within the ranch.  They had a Rainbow Festival one weekend and a number of the visitors stayed on for months in a constantly dwindling camp.  We thought they were funny and harmless.  None of that would be possible now.   You have to do everything by the book even out here.  You have to have all your permits in order these days.

We haven’t spoken much, Abel and I, over the years, but we’ve been on the same land. We’ve known of each other as distant neighbors. Weʻve both heard stories of each other, as one does in a small community; we’ve seen each other coming and going for a couple of decades now.

Abel is politically radical, a native sovereignty activist who camped for years near the beach at Kāwā.  I’m politically centrist, non-native, middle-class, highly indoctrinated into conventional life.  I can count on my two hands the nights I’ve slept anywhere but on a nice, soft bed.  I’m on the slightly unconventional side of conventional; Uncle Abel takes unconventional to a whole other level.

Uncle Abel has the long gray-white hair and the thin, high-cheek-boned face of a Chinese sage, but his skin is dark brown, mottled with sun spots.  His eyes, somewhat rheumy now, can glare at you with a manic insistence. Today he is wearing two ti leaves around his neck which he has tied together and shredded.  Also he is wearing a pareau in black, green, gold and red.  All of these things have a specific meaning: the two leaves – a minimalist ascetic lei  -asserts his pure spiritual authority; the pareau echoes the colors of the flag of the Hawaiian sovereignty movement.

We are both at a county government hearing for an advisory commission that recommends lands for preservation.   Abel is giving one of his famous speeches. He is protesting everything.  I’ve always admired his gift as a speaker.  He had the dramatic genius of a Shakespearean actor. When he was in top form, he was a public enemy to those in power and a cult favorite for those who were not.  He was able to keep large crowds spell-bound by his unpredictability and mad prophet oratory.  Even if you did not agree with him, even if he made you uncomfortable, Uncle Abel meant “action” – as in quite possibly police action.  It was high entertainment.

Abel has a signature line that he uses in every speech I’ve heard him give: “Ka’ū (the name of our district)” he intones meaningfully, drawing out the last vowel, “ has never been conquered.” He says this in a dramatic whisper,  turning around to confront his audience his eyes wide, daring anyone to contradict him.  His voice rising in volume, he continues: “I no recognize no government: county, state, federal.  We was never conquered you see? We the government. We, the people.”

Technically speaking he is wrong.  Our district was conquered over and over again by various ancient chiefs, but we are dealing with political myth-making here, not pedestrian historical facts. And his favorite line expresses something that is, in a mythical sense, essential. Ka’ū is the hinterland of the island.  It has always been sparsely populated and poor.  This is mostly because there are few sources of fresh water, because the district is downwind from the volcano, because the soil is rocky, the climate arid, and the oceans rough.  It is a difficult place to make a living.  Nevertheless, the people of this district, Ka’ū, are passionate about their land and fierce in their politics.  Ka’ū is known as a land of rebels.  We don’t bend the knee.

But Abel had the calling to take it quite a bit farther than the rest of us.  He wonʻt go along with our modern conveniences, like private property, representative government, hot showers and refrigerators, and in his passions he calls shame upon all of it and all of us. (He does have a Facebook page though, of course.)  In his radical rejection of all modern forms of life, we part ways with Abel, and yet not completely.   We say to ourselves, “Well, he is crazy.”  And yet he humiliates us in our acquiescence and opens up a space for questioning the status quo.

He has heart.  Even his most ardent detractors would have to give him that.  And there are plenty of people who dislike him intensely.  Mostly people who he has challenged in their position of public or private authority.  My friend who works for the county parks department has had many run-ins with Abel.  He says: “Abel doesn’t like me much, because I made him spend his seventieth birthday in the county jail.”

He loves to make trouble to those in power.   He’s good at it. Once when the County evicted him from Kāwā he planted a taro patch on the lawn in front of the big glass windows of the Mayorʻs office.  He is a political performance artist, a show-boat, an anarchist. But I’ve never heard of him doing anything low-down and dishonorable. At least recently.  Well, he used to shake down the beach visitors.  From what people have told me, including he himself, he would demand things – hoʻokupu (small offerings) like toilet paper, or money – to support his occupation.  He once asked my father if he could kill one of his cows.  My dad said no.

There was a rumor that he had murdered somebody in Honolulu a long time ago.  Thatʻs why he  holed up in Kāwā in the first place.  And then somehow he decided that it was his to guard.  I would be very surprised if the rumor was true.  There is an Old Testament madness to him, but no malice and no sneakiness. He might say outrageous things about you but he’ll do it straight to your face, which is better than some people. Heʻs not a violent person – well, there was that one time that he and his sister got into a doubles wrestling match in the brackish pond with Kyle Soares and his wife.  The police had to break it up, evidently. And, well, Iʻm sure there was plenty of blame to go around on that one.  But other than that, Abel is peaceful, as far as I know.

Having named himself the konohiki, or guardian of the place, Abel lived at the beach for years, and kept a close eye on all goings on.  He was famous for confronting anyone who showed up in an official-looking vehicle and chasing them off.  As konohiki he considered it his right to do so, as they were threats to his authority.  He also grew native food plants and organized surfing contests at the beach in the heyday of his self-appointed reign as guardian.

Other people in the community had better documented familial ties to the lands of Kāwā than Abel. They considered him a usurper and a fraud. Some people found his retinue of penniless hippies distasteful. But they mostly tolerated Abelʻs antics because his occupation threw a wrench in any attempt to develop Kāwā and helped to maintain their native, familial claims to the land without actually having to live on the beach themselves.

Abelʻs advocacy for Kāwā may have backfired on him. His term as konohiki of the beach at Kāwā ended when it was purchased by the County of Hawaii for public space and natural resource preservation.   At first Abel refused to leave and there were many tense confrontations between he and his followers and County officials. Eventually Abel was evicted. On one level he failed, in that he is no longer the konohiki of Kawā. On another level he succeeded in his very failure – the public purchase of the wild beach and ancestral sites of Kawā protect it for the foreseeable future from the commercial developments that transform  shorelines all over the world into resorts and other artificial paradises.

Is Abel a saint or a fool? A visionary or a clown? One thing is clear: he long ago stopped worrying about how to make a living or being respectable or playing the game.  He gave all that up in a way that makes me slightly vertiginous just to think about.  He walks a wild edge of the mind with only the place, Kawā, to return to, to keep him centered.   He is a brave person.

Image: Kawa Bay is pictured here in 2011. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)