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Meet the Young Hawaiian Activists Who Are Making a Difference in the Islands

A new wave of Hawaiian activism is surging through our community. Beyond sovereignty debates and pushback on development, younger Hawaiian leaders are emerging and reshaping advocacy in Hawai‘i.


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Jamaica Osorio

Jamaica Osorio, poet, Ph.D. student and teacher, at Ka Papa Lo‘i O Kānewai at UH Mānoa.
Photos: Aaron Yoshino

 

In the fall of 2014, the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea seemed inevitable. The large, cutting-edge observatory had gone through an environmental impact study, and been approved by the state Board of Land and Natural Resources in 2011. It would be the latest and largest in a string of telescopes that had been built near the summit since the University of Hawai‘i leased the land in 1968.

 

But at that October groundbreaking ceremony, Lanakila Mangauil and other Hawaiian cultural practitioners confronted corporation leaders and scientists at the project site. Video footage of the encounter went viral, and soon the slogan “We Are Mauna Kea” filled social media feeds, not only in Hawai‘i, but around the world, sparking the support of celebrities that included Nicole Scherzinger and Jason Momoa (who wrote the words on his bare chest), and energizing international networks including many indigenous peoples.

 

Kalo

Every attempt to begin construction of the TMT thereafter was met with resistance—determined, colorful and telegenic. By April 2015, We Are Mauna Kea was a full-fledged movement; hundreds of demonstrators blockaded the road to prevent construction trucks from reaching the site, leading to the arrest of at least 31 demonstrators. Almost a week later, hundreds gathered on the UH Mānoa campus to construct a stone ahu (altar) in support of Mauna a Wākea. The level of anger and discontent reached high enough that Gov. David Ige placed a temporary moratorium on construction and flew to Hawai‘i Island to meet with the leaders of the movement.

 

In April 2015, as hālau hula from across the world came to Hawai‘i Island for the Merrie Monarch Festival, crowds of people journeyed to the summit to offer hula, oli, pule and support for the mountain. In June, another blockade, with more than 750 demonstrators. And in between the large demonstrations, a steady, constant buzz of outrage on social media.

 

In December 2015, the Hawai‘i Supreme Court unanimously ruled to revoke the TMT permit, which sent the developers back to conduct a new hearing on the contentious project. At this writing, the project remains halted. So much for inevitable.

 

How did this happen? Jamaica Osorio, a nationally renowned spoken-word poet, Ph.D. student, teacher, and the daughter of musician and scholar Jonathan Osorio, says Mauna Kea activated an entire generation of young Hawaiians who had been primed with education, culture and the philosophy. “There is a conscious change within Hawai‘i,” she says. “Hawaiians are seeing more and more the dispossession of their own people, and it’s causing them to get enraged about these issues.”

 

Mauna Kea is far from the first time that Hawaiian activism has yielded results—the scrappy movements of the 1960s and ’70s pushed for the liberation of Kaho‘olawe from Navy control, and resurrected Hawaiian culture with the Hawaiian Renaissance and the establishment of Hawaiian-language immersion schools.

 

But those accomplishments came haltingly, with great effort. In order to engage and make a difference, Hawaiians first had to educate themselves, to reconnect to a culture they had been separated from.

 

Noelani Goodyear-Ka‘ōpua, associate professor in political science at UH mānoa, near ka lo‘i o kanewai.

 

“My parents’ generation was wiped,” says Noelani Goodyear-Ka‘ōpua, associate professor in political science at UH Mānoa and one of the founders of the Hawaiian-focused charter school Hālau Kū Māna. “There was no access to anything, and they were made to feel shame about it,” she says. “For our generation, it was just the beginnings of the post-renaissance, post-’70s rebirth, where there was a sense of pride in being Hawaiian, but an understanding that a lot was lost.”

 

Osorio sees a direct connection between that generation and this new one, a legacy of activism that’s been passed down. She references a photo taken during the Mauna Kea demonstrations, in which longtime Hawaiian activist Walter Ritte stands side by side with Kaho‘okahi Kanuha. “You can almost see him passing the torch in the photo,” she says. “There is this sense of intergenerationalism. These role models we’ve looked up to are trying to pass the torch, push us to fill the spaces they will leave behind. We have mentors. We have people guerrilla revitalizing lo‘i and fishponds on their own. I think all of that together has created this intergenerational and multicultural movement of people who are invested in the ‘āina and in justice.”

 

“My parents’ generation was wiped. there was no access to anything, and they were made to feel shame about it.” — Noelani Goodyear-Ka‘Ōpua

 

Today, as thousands of Hawaiians have grown up in and graduated from immersion programs, Goodyear-Ka‘ōpua says that experience has grounded and connected them as Hawaiian learners and practitioners. “I think this generation feels more comfortable and confident in that they are able to connect back even further; there are living kūpuna advising them. Because they have access to the oli, language and ceremony that have been passed down over generations, they’re able to connect to that mana and wisdom that comes from even further back, and that gives more strength.”

 

As Osorio puts it, “Now we get to stand on their shoulders; we don’t have to fight the same battles and we can take things to the next level.”

 

Chase Nomura, a student at UH Mānoa who occupied both Mauna Kea and Haleakalā, is one of this new generation. He says when the “We Are Mauna Kea” demonstrations started, he was moved to action by what he saw as the tangibility of the desecration. After class one day, he saw the first arrests on social media. “I knew what [TMT leaders] were doing was wrong, but reading it in newspapers didn’t faze me as much as seeing people who had the same feeling about it as I do, but who are more active,” he says. “Seeing them getting arrested affected me, imprinted on me. That could be my cousin, my family.”

 

Chase Nomura

Chase Nomura on the UH mānoa campus.

 

Nomura left with a group of students to join the blockade on Mauna Kea only days later. After his stint on Mauna Kea, Nomura became one of the eight demonstrators arrested atop Haleakalā. Why did he jump into the fray? “I was just sitting there thinking about the problem, the people I’m connected to, the lāhui (nation), my family, is getting arrested for trying to protect the land from people who are trying to destroy it. That hit me really deep,” Nomura says.

 

Yet Nomura had been prepped for this moment years earlier. He graduated from Kamehameha Schools Maui, and continued his study of Hawaiian language, botany and second-language studies at UH Mānoa, where he became familiar with an entire community of Hawaiian educators, cultural practitioners, students and activists.

 

After experiences with Haleakalā and Mauna Kea, Nomura’s activism network allowed him to return again to Kaho‘olawe with Protect Kaho‘olawe ‘Ohana to help restore its cultural and environmental landscape. And next year he says he’ll be working in Cambodia with the Peace Corps.

 

Education is vital, but immersion students are finding the need to communicate beyond the circles of their schools. Osorio, who attended Ānuenue immersion school, says of that education, “It was this amazing space where we could be mini activists. We could talk about the things that hurt our people. On the flip side, it made us feel like we could expect that everywhere. It was a bit of a disappointment when you step out into the real world and see that’s not happening outside our circles. I think that pushed a lot of us to get into activism.”

 

Of course, while the Mauna Kea demonstrations were dramatic and cathartic, civil disobedience, confrontation and sign-waving aren’t things most people can spend their entire day-to-day lives doing. Today’s young Hawaiians are finding ways to take action and practice their culture in different ways.

 

Osorio says, “It’s not just academics talking up here about injustice; it’s people on the ground saying, you can do what you’re doing in the academy, and you can write your song about it, all this is important. I want to get my hands dirty; I’m going to grow food, feed the lāhui.”

 

And that’s happening across Hawai‘i: young Hawaiians digging into the ‘āina. Kaho‘olawe and Mauna Kea both began as movements to care for ‘āina, and today there are groups revitalizing lo‘i on Hawai‘i Island, rebuilding fishponds on Lāna‘i, restoring traditional crop fields and ecosystems for the community on Kaua‘i and more.

 

Cheryse Sana

Cheryse Sana, a manager at MA‘O Organic farms in Wai‘anae.

 

“But mālama ‘āina isn’t only about ‘āina. Take it apart, everyone is taking ‘āina apart now—‘ai and –na—that which feeds. But who is it feeding? And how?” asks Cheryse Sana, a manager of MA‘O Organic Farms in Wai‘anae. While the average age of farmers in Hawai‘i hovers around the 60s, a walk on MA‘O’s fields shows Sana and the youth she mentors, some in their late teens, driving tractors, fixing irrigation systems and processing truckloads of fresh produce.

 

MA‘O is an acronym of māla ‘ai ‘ōpio, or youth food garden, and has become a multipronged tool to address related issues of food sovereignty, progress in educational attainment and health among Native Hawaiians, and restoring the once wealthy agricultural hub of Wai‘anae. At MA‘O, Sana helps manage both a booming agricultural business as well as a wildly successful leadership program for Wai‘anae students.

 

She’s a graduate of the program herself, and at first didn’t imagine becoming a farmer. But, while she worked on the farm and on a bachelor’s degree in Hawaiian studies, she found herself wanting to be at MA‘O all the time. “Overall, you love the feeling of this ‘āina, you receive something from it consciously and subconsciously; you’re building yourself from within,” she says.

 

“Growing your own food is a political statement, and that’s what we try to teach them.” — Cheryse Sana

 

Sana mentors young people at MA‘O, and says she notices a trend: “Back in the Hawaiian Renaissance generation, there was a bunch of people involved, with a hard-core group pushing to get things known while the majority was unaware. And, now, it’s totally flipped. I’ve noticed they want to be engaged, and want to learn about their culture, the politics of land; none of that is going to change.” Sana says, “Growing your own food is a political statement, and that’s what we try to teach them. That’s a political statement right there, because you’re feeding somebody.” 

 

And, in 2012, the engagement of the students on the farm wound up translating into more direct political action. The proposed Wai‘anae Sustainable Communities Plan, initiated by the City and County of Honolulu to guide public policy, infrastructure investment and land-use decision-making over the next 25 years, included on its map what became colloquially known as a “purple spot” of industrial zoning—a 96-acre parcel in Lualualei. It was a purple spot that would have allowed industrial development on prime agricultural lands.

 

Sana recalls, “We all had kuleana here on the farm and wanted to go out and support. We asked if we could finish early and testify. It was crazy, because, when it came to us testifying, all you see is 25 MA‘O interns, one after another.” Sana describes their message: “We were saying we need our agriculture land, we need this, we need more space. It was a really good eye opener for them, and we were able to stop it.”

 

These MA‘O interns showed that mālama ‘āina can mean both caring with your hand in the soil, and with your voice in the political process. 

 

Shelley Muneoka, who worked at the nonprofit Kahea—The Hawaiian/Environmental Alliance doing community outreach, participates directly in that political process: regularly attending community hearings, conducting historical research, filing testimony with the state Legislature and organizing in her community.

 

Shelley Muneoka

Shelley Muneoka at the hawai‘i state legislature, where she often testifies.

 

“Once you realize we’re being steered in an unsustainable direction, food is a way people can take back control of at least their own diet, which inevitably down the line ends up involving you in policy ... questions of water and access to land,” she says. “While it seems high level and ‘who cares,’ once you start down that path, you’ll want to do something about it.” 

 

Muneoka’s work with Kahea is the core of her mission, but she’s also active on issues that range from Mauna Kea and the Department of the Interior hearings to military contamination of water at Red Hill.

 

The process, however, is hardly ideal. “A lot of the state-run processes box you into a multiple-choice question when you want to write an essay. It’s a Catch 22, because, if you don’t participate, then they point to that absence of your voice. But if you do participate and they choose the option you’re not happy with, they use your participation to manufacture consent and legitimize the outcome they want,” says Muneoka. She still chooses to participate, in the belief that “it’s only to their benefit that we don’t participate.”

 

Muneoka became deeply involved with Mauna Kea. “I started working on Mauna Kea and it expanded my definition of mālama kūpuna, reminding me that this is kupuna,” she says. Working to defend Mauna Kea was an extension of her duty as a young Hawaiian to care for her elders, including the elder of all Hawaiian people. As for the movement itself, Muneoka credits much of the success to “political pressure in combination with solid historical information arguments.”

 

That combination of forces reverberates beyond the domains of ‘āina and education, and into the realm of culture and arts, where the young generation advocates can thrive. “Because of cultural producers doing things like slam poetry, music, apparel, I think that is a whole element of why it’s cool now,” says Goodyear-Ka‘ōpua. 

 

“It’s a good time to be a Hawaiian,” says Osorio. “There’s still a lot of appropriation of Hawaiian culture today, but I also think there’s more positive affirmation of cultural practice. It’s those little things. We’re getting affirmation back in our own media and our peers that we’re doing the right things,” she says.

 

Jamie Makasobe

Jamie Makasobe, co-founder of kealopiko.

 

Jamie Makasobe, one of the founders of Moloka‘i-based clothing company Kealopiko, says, “Fashion with mana‘o (thought, meaning). Our thing is storytelling honoring place, culture and ancestors, bringing to light all of those things using fashion as a canvas.”

 

As business has taken off for this fashion house, its mission has remained the guiding star: “What we do is multifaceted. There’s authenticity, a lot of research and connection we need to have with each design. People get dressed every day, as a reflection of who they are, and so fashion is a billboard of what you represent,” says Makasobe.

 

Kealopiko was born out of a dearth of local brands reflecting native stories. It all began with: “Let’s get together and start making some clothes that are authentic with our stories that represent us as a people and place.” Since then, this fashion house has established its brand across Hawai‘i. 

 

One design features a shirt lined with the words aloha ‘āina—meaning a love for the land, and also a Hawaiian patriot—in original Hawaiian newspaper fonts. Another design bears the image of Princess Ruth Ke‘elikōlani, who was known for speaking only Hawaiian despite her ability to speak English, and for her sharp business sense. While “aloha ‘āina” or the image of Princess Ruth may not be explicitly political, the histories they carry are. When displayed on apparel, the indigenous is immediately political.

 

Even in the realm of music—a longstanding vessel of Hawaiian political thought—many of this generation draw on it for the “affirmation that we’re doing the right things,” that Osorio describes. Local and Hawaiian music have provided new poetry and anthems, embracing assertions of Hawaiian cultural and political presence. 

 

“It’s a good time to be Hawaiian. ... There’s more positive affirmation of cultural practice.” — Jamaica Osorio

 

In 2015, HONOLULU Magazine spoke with Kīhei Nahale-a, a musician and the director of the Huliāmahi Education Alliance in He‘eia, for an article on the 25 Greatest Hawai‘i Songs of the New Century. His own song, “Huki ‘Ia” made the list, and Nahale-a said he was inspired to write the song when he and his colleagues heard an old recording of kupuna Kaka‘ekaleihiana describing the disrespect she perceived when she saw the American flag’s bottom waving above the head of the Hawaiian flag.

 

Pairing reggae and Hawaiian poetry, Nahale-a and the band ‘Ai Pōhaku produced the song “Huki ‘Ia,” or “pull it down,” referring to the American flag.

 

The lyrics ask, “No ke aha ia mea e mau nei/ I luna o ko kākou?” “Why is this always above our head like this?” Followed by the chorus referring to the American above the Hawaiian flag: “Kēlā hae lā/ Huki ‘ia lā i lalo,” “We have to pull that flag down,” explains Nahale-a. Despite the political nature of the song, Nahale-a says, “We wanted kids to identify with it.” Without an official release, and existing only as live performances and recordings, this song achieved their goals. “It really took off in the Hawaiian-language community. It became kind of an anthem for the young kids,” he says.

 

Hawaiian music continues to evolve with the conditions of its people, whether it’s a song like “Huki ‘Ia” or a new rendition of the famous “Kaulana Nā Pua,” originally written to protest the overthrow of Lili‘uokalani and first published in 1895. Nahale-a says, “It’s been one of those things, along with all those other wonderful songs being written for our nation, to identify and be proud to be Hawaiian.”

 

In the boardroom, the classroom, the music studio, the courtroom, the home, the farm and sometimes on the streets, increasing numbers of young Hawaiians are at work rebuilding a nation, laying the groundwork for the generations who will succeed them. Mauna Kea may have been a flashpoint, offering a glimpse of the power of this movement, but the real struggle, the real work, is an everyday thing.

 

After teaching many young Hawaiians with both community work and classes at UH Mānoa, Osorio says: “There’s something about young Hawaiians, not all young Hawaiians, but many, who are starting to see that there are alternatives. That’s the difference. There is a different kind of way we can live that doesn’t need to be dictated by the market economy. We don’t need the U.S. in the way that some grandparents felt they needed the U.S. And, again, that doesn’t mean that tomorrow we become independent and we’re this flourishing nation. It means that every day we take steps to live independently. If every day we can make the U.S. less relevant to our lives, if we can make the dollar less relevant to our lives, we’re one step closer to being truly independent.”

 

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