Economic Recovery – Hawaiian Style

This is an essay I wrote for a Native Insights contest on Economic Recovery. This essay was one of five winning essays and was chosen in the Native Hawaiian category.


There was once enough for everyone. That was before Captain Cook “discovered” our Hawaiian islands on his way to find a northwest passage, before the missionaries came to save our heathen ancestors and before the American businessmen called in the U.S. Navy to protect their land investments. For centuries before western contact, the Hawaiian people flourished. There was no disease, no hunger, no homelessness, no economic recession. That was then. Today, we who call Hawaiʻi home are mostly mainstream Americans, often holding two or more jobs just to survive, and are dependent on the outside world for virtually everything, even bottled water.

When Captain Cook arrived on our shores in 1778, the population size was somewhere between 400,000 and a million. Complex agricultural systems, sophisticated fishing laws and a deep spirituality that was at the heart of government and community life were all evidence of a highly advanced people who had been living throughout the islands for many hundreds of years. Hawaiians knew when to fish and when to plant according to seasons and the phases of the moon, they knew what herbs and prayers to use to cure illnesses and broken bones, they had names for everything. Our ancestors had highly developed arts and leisure time. They spoke in poetry and metaphor and had great oratory skills. They could trace their genealogies back to the time when gods and humans lived freely among each other.

In the Hawaiians’ worldview, everything was connected, including the trees, the stones, the birds, the stars. As humans, their role, or kuleana, was to be the guardians, to maintain the balance and harmony of all things. To help carry out these responsibilities, Hawaiians were born with spiritual powers, or mana. Any abuse or misuse of these powers would result in a loss of one’s mana, as in leaders who showed greed or who did not act in the best interests of the people. Mana could also grow in those who demonstrated exceptional skills, whether it was in fishing, healing, canoe making, and so on. Great warriors and leaders were revered as having very powerful mana.

The cultural practices of the people assured that food would always be abundant and that the earth, in its bounty, would provide for everyone. These practices were based on taking only what one needed and only when those things were plentiful. When fishermen had successful catches they fed their families, then the community. They would trade with farmers for taro and other staples. Nothing was wasted.

After over two hundred years of western influence and immigration to our islands, our sovereign government is long gone, mana has no correlation to leadership and the global market now dictates the success of our tourism-based economy. In the mainstream, we are like most other Americans, bombarded by slick ads and peer pressure to buy large screen televisions, bigger cars to protect ourselves from everyone else’s big cars, and more food on our plates than we can – or should – eat. We are encouraged to buy things we can’t afford and don’t need. Natural resources are being depleted faster than they can be renewed to keep up with this compulsory demand, a trend that making our land and water toxic and has contributed to our Islands’ loss of sustainability.

High fuel costs and the downturn in the national economy have taken an enormous toll on our state. Fewer visitors to our islands have caused businesses to close and new construction to be delayed, which in turn has increased unemployment and is draining the State treasury. Our government leaders’ response to this economic crisis has been to raise local taxes, decide which government programs to cut and whether to furlough or lay off state employees. These quick-fix choices do not present courageous or visionary solutions to this or future recessions, instead they only serve to reinforce how dependent we have become on the outside world for survival and what little control we as individuals have over our own lives.

While analysts predict that recovery is around the corner, they caution that the economy will not likely return to the high growth rates of the past few years, at least not anytime soon. This contention is supported by the ongoing instability of foreign governments, the aging of our own American population, now increasingly concerned about having money for retirement, and in the longer-term, the effects of global warming on the environment. Although we are gaining confidence that it is safe to spend again, we would be well served to take the experts’ warning as an opportunity to re-think the economic philosophies that guide our country, our state, and most importantly, our own ways of thinking.

Although much in Hawaiʻi has changed, the values of our culture have been passed down to us, and by looking both backward and forward, we can forge real solutions that will improve our sustainability now and in the future. Growth in our western economic system is based on increased consumption. This is a contradiction to the most basic precept that our ancestors passed down to us: take only what you need. If this idea can be at the heart of decisions that leaders, corporate executives and even consumers make, then economic crises will become obsolete.

We do not have to stop consuming or abandon our western lifestyles to achieve sustainability, nor does the gross national project need to grow at high rates every year to maintain a stable economy. If we consume only what we need, even when we are not in a recession, the economy will eventually adjust downwards and stabilize. This would decrease the power of the multinational corporations and the volatility and impact of global economics on our local communities. To think, this could all happen because we stopped buying things we don’t need, or at the very least, started buying less of what we don’t need!

The earth and the economy are inextricably tied together. As we deplete our natural resources we can expect that there will be increasingly less of everything in the future unless we think in terms of using less and replenishing what we take. This idea is consistent with the Hawaiian concept of kuleana, that is, taking personal responsibility to be sure that what we take is not more than we need and that we replace or compensate for what we take so as not disturb the balance of all things.

We adopted the ways of the colonizers in order to survive. In spite of the decimation of our populations, we are still here, and we still carry the DNA of our ancestors who understood the rhythms of nature and lived in harmony with the earth. Americans are starting to lose confidence that past solutions to our economic problems will continue to be effective. Our system may eventually collapse if we do not fix what’s really wrong. As Native people we are in a position to help shift the paradigm of western economic thinking by leading through example – consuming less and taking only what we need. The more we take responsibility for our own actions and support leaders whose policies are in our best interests, the sooner the changes can start to be made that will assure the survival of our grandchildren, their descendants and most importantly, our beloved Earth.

The Hurt Locker/Avatar

The Oscars are tomorrow night and two of the movies up for Best Picture are The Hurt Locker and Avatar, both of which I actually got to see. I just saw Hurt Locker last night at a theatre – there were only around half a dozen other people in the theatre, which I presume means everyone else is watching it on dvd.

This was a very powerful movie. Painful to watch but I believe a very important movie. We invaded Iraq in 2003 under the false pretense of searching for weapons of mass destruction. We predictably didn’t find any yet we are still in Iraq seven years later, fighting a war that is not ours, in a country that is not ours, in a situation that we can’t possibly win and where we are hated by most people in that country. Hurt Locker featured three main characters, each representing a different kind of soldier. Some people have said the plot was weak and the characters were unlikely. Regardless of that, the movie is a very real snapshot of the damage that is being done as much to the American men and women who are fighting in this war as to the Iraqi citizens who are living in constant fear and chaos. It is disturbing and it is impossible to imagine living in this kind of situation, either as a soldier or a civilian. It explains why troops who return from this war may have most of their body parts intact or put back together but their hearts and minds are gone, the psychological damage is beyond repair. It also explains why we are hated. We should not be fighting wars in countries that do not want us on their land, that have been fighting their own civil and tribal wars since time immemorial and that have no hope of resolution, at least by the United States. The soldiers have a clear disdain for the Iraqi people, maybe because the soldiers resent risking their lives for people who are not European and/or Christian. It seems that if one is going to risk one’s life, it should be for a cause one believes in and this movie leaves me wondering if the soldiers have any idea who the enemy is and what will constitute victory. There is genocide going on in the world that we are ignoring because those countries do not have anything we want (oil, harbors, for example). We are not fighting for justice, we are fighting to protect and feed our greed and I hope people watch this movie and think twice about the high price we all are paying, who is benefiting and if it is really worth it.

On that note, I hope The Hurt Locker wins. And I definitely hope Avatar does not. While people may get caught up in the New Age and environmental themes, those of us who are indigenous laugh at how it takes a member of the colonizers (ie the white guy) to save the tree hugging people who are entirely too inept to save themselves. The “hero” gets the ultimate wannabe wish to become indigenous and lead the people, who fall at his feet. Sorry, it doesn’t ring true for those who know the history of invasion, colonization and genocide of native peoples. It’s ironic that these two war-themed movies, directed by two people who were once married, are so different. Real vs fantasy, truth vs fiction. May the truth prevail.

Wilma Mankiller

Update, April 6, 2010, I heard that Wilma passed today. Here is my otherwise unchanged blog from March 3rd:

I got word today that Wilma Mankiller is not well. That’s a huge understatement but it is not for me to speculate on her health and anyway, there is information elsewhere about her condition. I was mostly relieved that the news wasn’t what I originally thought it was going to be. She is hanging on and that means I will pray for her: pray that she is not in pain, pray that whatever is wrong will not get worse and pray that her family is holding up during this most trying and devastating situation.

Wilma’s name and legendary reputation preceded my meeting her, which made me feel all the more honored when I did meet and get to spend time with her . She included me in her book “Every Day Is A Good Day”. Although some people are under the impression that a group of women got together and had a conversation that Wilma then transcribed into this book, that is not what happened. I sat down and ‘talked story’ (as we say in Hawai’i) for a couple hours with Wilma on one of her trips to Kona, where she and Charlie rented a house near the ocean. Wilma had a list of very profound questions on various topics. Fortunately she gave me an opportunity later to edit my answers after I had more time to think about the questions. I haven’t looked at the book in a few years but I do remember the incredible depth of the conversation as it came out in the book. I was flattered to be in the esteemed company of the other women who were included in the book and hope I represented my community adequately.

I have seen Wilma a couple times since then. She was always involved in something and always intellectually curious, very sharp. When I think of people whom I deeply admire, Wilma Mankiller is at the top of that list. The world is a better place because of her. Mahalo, Wilma.

2010 American Indian Youth Literature Award

2010 American Indian Youth Literature AwardThe American Indian Library Association gave out its awards this past June 28th for youth literature. My book, Between the Deep Blue Sea and Me, won for best Young Adult Fiction.

My publisher, Kamehameha Publishing, sent me to Washington, D.C. to receive the award in person. It was a great trip and a fun ceremony, fun because the Piscataway Indian Nation Singers and Dancers, who offered a cultural presentation, invited the audience up to participate in two dances! Itʻs always nice to visit Washington, where I lived for almost 15 years. Thanks to Jim McCallum for the photo.



The ocean ebbed and surged but not enough to cause damage. The tv reporters earned their pay and Kirk Caldwell got some free airtime as acting Mayor, an opportunity I’m sure he was happy to have as he waxed on and on about the awesomeness of nature and how great everybody was to evacuate when they were told to do so. I watched the ocean from my house as it filled with boats that moved far enough out to sea to theoretically escape damage should a big wave hit. I also watched the coverage of the approaching wave(s) on a variety of local stations, including CNN, which was carrying the same coverage as the local stations. In other words, the whole country (can’t speak for what the rest of the world was watching) was poised, watching and waiting for the big wave to hit Hawai’i.

I’m sure many of us, especially those of us who live here, were visualizing the images of disasters we’ve seen on tv, like the recent ones in American Samoa and Haiti, and superimposing them on our own beaches and homes. I can’t say it wouldn’t have been cool to see a giant wall of water rush in but considering the consequences, I’m grateful it didn’t.

After the tsunami scare passed I decided to salvage what was left of the day and ventured out to Hawai’i Kai to meet some friends for a hike around Hanauma Bay. The freeway was still relatively deserted and people weren’t going all that fast. The feel was somber, as if we were all reminded of our mortality.

We are left with much to be grateful for that the tsunami didn’t hit our islands with any severity. Mahalo e ke akua for that and for all the prayers everyone sent us to help to avert disaster. In the meantime, let’s not forget about the people in Chile, who are still in the throes of disaster. Maybe now the news will focus on them since there is nothing further to report about us.

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