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Smith, Pi‘ilani (on native culture, politics, and empowerment)

Camille Naluai
December 2003

Piʻilani Smith is the youngest of four children of Kumu Hula Alicia K. Keawekane Smith and the late Robert K. Mahoe Smith, both of Haleʻiwa, Oʻahu. Trained in hula by her mother, Piʻilani stems from a matrilineal descent of kumu hula spanning many generations. Today, Piʻilani teaches in their family hālau hula named Hālau o nā Maolipua, where she is poised to take on the kuleana of kumu hula after her mother. In the summer of 2001, they created Mālamalama Hawaiʻi, a contemporary performance company. Mālamalama Hawaiʻi served as a think tank for the incorporation of indigenous systems of intelligence expressed through traditional systems of movement and symbology. Piʻilani is the artistic director of Mālamalama Hawaiʻi and has written, produced, and directed four performance tableaus. Her mother serves as senior choreographer of the company, and together they push the limits of tradition in order to give voice to the Hawaiian consciousness. Piʻilani also manages the ʻĪlioʻulaokalani Coalition office and continues to break new ground through her creative performance works with Mālamalama Hawaiʻi.

Camille: Where do you see the future of Hawaiian culture?

Piʻilani: It’s difficult to say. I’m not certain that when I view Hawaiian culture I see it as just Hawaiian culture. I see our life, the definitions of our identity as being a living culture. I also see aspects of interpretations of who we are in relation to, not only cultural aspects and definitions, but also political difference and the historical contexts of which we come from and which are defining us today. So, I see it very complex and very multi-layered. When I talk about culture, I talk about culture and politics in a historical context, in a traditional context, and in a contemporary context. I think sometimes when we look at culture, we see culture as something that lives in a bubble and it rarely intergrates the political situation of the times in which we live or of the time in which we are speaking of if it’s in historical context. There is always culture and politics that come together to define the context of a people. Culture and politics are inseparable. So, when I talk about culture, I’m also talking about politics. Many times I guess people think of culture as the traditional stuff, and it does such a great disservice to us as a people not to identify the political struggle that we face and our challenge just by being Hawaiian, and that’s important, to identify that.

Camille: What is the future of Hawaiians or Hawaiian politics?

Piʻilani: First, to understand and embrace a political consciousness in which we can reinterpret, not so much who we are, but what our actions will be and the decisions in which we are faced to make. I see young Hawaiians fearless because they’ve been educated. We’ve been given the opportunity where generations preceding us did not have the opportunity to know the historical facts and have the documentation to prove that we stood in resistance to statehood, we stood in resistance to the annexation. We have documents to prove that now. That has empowered our Hawaiian people greatly. We had not enjoyed those same reassurances in the past. That affords young Hawaiians today to truly stand fearless with education and being well researched, grounded in a traditional Hawaiian world view. I think of the words Hawaiian future, the ability to make crucial decisions regarding the fate of our Hawaiian community. It also gives us the opportunity to nation-build in a very dynamic way, ridding ourselves of the seeds of doubt that have been planted by western institutions that are really breeding colonial myth and despair.

Camille: How do we get Hawaiians to come out and not allow themselves to stay silent? Right now there are only a few who are going out and speaking up for Hawaiian rights. How do we get more to come out?

Piʻilani: I think we’re talking about empowering the Hawaiian community. Just from my own example, I was very fortunate to have been raised with Hawaiian practices, not so much the values but the vehicles in which to practice those values. They were very visible, as well, within the discipline of the Hawaiian art form such as hula, chant, and when I speak of chant I also include speechifying or oration. When we are looking at Hawaiian text or poetry in hula, it’s not necessarily just the poetic gesturing of the body, but those poetic texts also hold distinct argumentative aspects of the poets, and I really do perhaps take creative license to interpret it that way. When we look at mele or oli that can be categorized under poetic pieces of resistance, we are talking about what we would know as aloha ʻāina. In the historical context of systematic dispossession of our people, disempowerment, disenfranchisement, prostitution of the cultural identity not necessarily by the Hawaiian people but of the Hawaiian culture. It behooves me to say, factor those elements into our practice. At least that’s what I did as a hula practitioner. Because you can only be so pretty and so liked for so long, and once that desire or that makemake is satisfied, your na‘au will call out for something else. Your cup is never left empty, as far as one’s life connected with your spirit, that you will always be seeking for something else, something deeper or something greater.

Camille: How do we come together as one Hawaiian community?

Piʻilani: It really starts with traditional Hawaiian values. Like I was saying earlier, I was fortunate because I had hula, and it was very easy for me to get in touch with my Hawaiian identity and work out and internalize what’s being presented to me, where I am at regarding western training, traditional training, contemporary, modern, traditional situations. You need to internalize all of that because the Hawaiian consciousness, from my experience, is shattered.

Camille: How come?

Piʻilani: I think a lot of confusion. Seeds of doubt on who we are. Others define who we are when in fact our experiences speak differently. Non-Hawaiians’ colonial western structures are attempting to define who we are, but native Hawaiians are living the Hawaiian experience. Our interests are not of capital interests, they’re of inheritance. We inherit these things into our consciousness. It’s not something that we can just choose to adopt or not or divorce from. It’s built into our very DNA. It’s built into our psyche. It’s built into our entire being of body, mind and spirit integrated as one. So when we see the challenges that face us regarding what is it to be Hawaiian, or who is or isn’t Hawaiian, and the disparity of the Hawaiian situation of haves and have nots, being the Hawaiians, displacement and homelessness of Hawaiian within their homeland, I believe the Hawaiian consciousness is shattered. A good example of that would be a child saying, how come, how come we’re Hawaiian and we have a sense of homelessness, a sense of displacement, how come others are living and prospering and we are not? It really goes further than, you know, the Hawaiians need to work harder. We are working hard. But there’s a great disadvantage that has been imposed and great injustice really that’s been imposed upon our people. That empowerment to overcome it is by looking at the history of our people. We’re survivors. We’re warriors in the truest since of the word. Immediately upon foreign intrusion to the Hawaiian Islands, we suffered a great population collapse. At one time, conservative estimates were 800,000. That’s conservative, where we had perhaps even a million populating our Hawaiians Islands, and then we saw by the time of the overthrow, a hundred some years, population collapse of 95%. We are the survivors and the products of the 5% that survived. Struggle is written into our genealogy, it’s not something I think that we should run away from or that should consume us but rather something that to me inspires me to say, our kūpuna maintained themselves and fought and defended to exist in whatever ways that they could and by any means, and because of that, I’m here at least to go down on record saying, this is Hawai‘i, we are the native people.

Camille: What do you see happening to the Hawaiian people if the lawsuits against Kamehameha Schools, Hawaiian Homelands go through?

Piʻilani: We as Hawaiian people have to be prepared to bear down and face great struggle. I don’t believe that if we lose the case, the Arakaki case, or do or don’t get federal recognition through the Akaka bill, that it will change inherently who we are as a people. You know, we are in the process of decolonization and nation-building. Nation-building doesn’t require that we work with the colonial force. It’s not a requirement. I refuse to make decisions of our Hawaiian fate out of fear. I believe that we have much more to look forward to and we have much to regain. Much more than what the Akaka bill and federal recognition is posing, much more. I’m interested in creating a Hawaiian nation. I’m not interested in picking up the crumbs. Yes, we’re going to face great loss, but we have much more to fight for with what we have now. I look at the struggles that face us regarding those lawsuits in federal court and the conservative rules against affirmative action as a motivating force to nation-build. These are all examples of things that don’t work. I’m not willing to settle for less than who we are. I encourage the Hawaiian people to seek your roots and remember the things that they were taught by their ‘ohana. There are going to be some things that, perhaps because of colonial oppression, have convoluted and confused our people about who we are and perhaps unhealthy practices or applications of Hawaiian culture have been infused into the ‘ohana. That’s ‘ōpala (trash); those are weeds that need to be pulled out. They don’t have any place in the Hawaiian consciousness. Those weeds need to be pulled and discarded, leaving only the truest sense of who we are as Hawaiian people. We are children of the land. The ‘āina is our ancestor; we are an extension of that. The natural elements are also our kūpuna we are extensions of that as well. Nothing will change that. We are struggling to take care of our families, work, in a mass of confusion. The land is being desecrated. There are very few spaces or places, on O‘ahu at least, or in urban communities, to reconnect with those natural forces that are a direct link to our ancestral consciousness. We are Hawaiians. We have an ancestral link to these lands, to its natural resources; they are kūpuna, that’s very powerful. I feel that regardless about what happens to things in Hawai‘i or in the context of our Hawaiian people, that is not going to change. The spirit of who I know I am and what I’ve inherited—that is really what, perhaps, will save me. It’s always knowing I am Hawai‘i; Hawai‘i is me, and it will always continue this way. It is eternalizing what that means. It’s very difficult to put into words, and I have found it natural to put it into action. Everyone will find their own ways of doing it. I believe political activism is an expression of that feeling that we are Hawaiian, we are Hawai‘i. We are Hawai‘i! Not the person who lands here on an airplane for five minutes and then takes off again. That’s not Hawaiian people who live here, born and raised here without the koko, without the genealogical ancestry that is reiterated in the Kumulipo, with all the common ancestors that lead up to the gods. They are not Hawai‘i, only those with an ancestral link are. Not even those that are hānai. You don’t inherit that genealogy. You are cared for, and supported, and nurtured by the descendants of that genealogy, but they are not your ancestral link. That can never be. In Hawaiian culture, you are not required to abandon your biological ancestral genealogy. That was a basic understanding. Even Pauahi knew that. Pauahi was hānai. Every time she was asked to reiterate her genealogy, her genealogy descended from Kamehameha. That’s a genuine historical application, traditional application of an aspect such as hānai. I own that. I take that to heart. I take it into practice because it only reiterates how generous and how humane the Hawaiian people were and still are. Traditionally we were hānai-ing our own children. Upon intrusion, we began to hānai non-Hawaiian children as well. That is in accordance with the Hawaiian worldview. It’s maha‘oi for any of us to interpret or misinterpret a Hawaiian application and stretch it to the point where it’s reflecting the western concept of adoption. Very strange. But I look at it and I say no, that’s maikaʻi for our people, that makes me feel even stronger about who we are as a people. It takes time to demystify that and really go through what is and isn’t. It takes a lot of talking story to our kūpuna. Takes some research to find out what are the historical applications of it. There are accounts of it, some written, some in oral tradition, but it is through the practice of Hawaiian living, not so much practicing so that we get better, in the actual living of Hawaiian lifestyle and all its values connected to the ‘āina that we find out who we are. That empowers me. I believe we have a great future ahead of us. So many resurgences of the Hawaiian culture are common now. ‘Ōlelo Hawai‘i, and I don’t mean just speaking in the Hawaiian language but the thoughts are still western, I really mean Hawaiian mana‘o. It is a sight of political Hawaiian engagement, that it’s through reinitiating ourselves into a Hawaiian frame of thinking that we will be able to manifest ourselves into our Hawaiian consciousness once again.