Anne Keala Kelly is a Hawaiian filmmaker who documented the Hawaiian sovereignty movement during the first decade of the 21st century. As a journalist, she has covered Hawaiian and other indigenous peoples issues and the environment, and in 2006-07 she was a Ted Scripps Fellow in Boulder, CO at the Center For Environmental Journalism.
Her most recent film, Noho (to occupy) Hewa (wrong) or the wrongful occupation of Hawai’i is a contemporary look at Hawaiian people, politics and resistance in the face of U.S. occupation.
Taste Culture is delighted to share an excerpt of an interview we did with Anne Keala Kelly about the U.S. occupation of Hawaiian culture.
Traditional Hawaiian Religious, Cultural and Spiritual Practices
It’s hard to say what is and isn’t traditional anymore because of the 200 plus years of foreign influence, intervention… the take over of Hawaii by non-Hawaiians. But some spiritual and religious values remain even though most Hawaiians are Christians now.
Truth is, though, I can only speak for myself on this, given that I do not subscribe to the Christian religion and I see the blending of Christianity and Hawaiian religious ways as a kind of schizophrenia that plagues Hawaiians and other indigenous peoples. Saying that usually makes Christians angry so I have to respect that it doesn’t seem that way to them. And maybe I’m the one who’s wrong here. But indigenous spirituality stands in contradiction to the Christianity I see practiced in this world.
Hawaiian religious ways had/have many gods, and to my knowledge the one Goddess that has survived the Christian onslaught is Pele, the Goddess of the volcano. Others, like Ku, the God of War, are known and honored by some Hawaiians, but Pele, or as some of us call her, Tutu Pele, meaning Grandmother Pele, is still very much present and part of life here.
It’s hard to deny a volcano, I suppose! Especially when she is always there making new earth, sending out smoke and ash and fire for all to see. Especially for those of us who live on Hawaii Island, which is where she lives. There are so many stories about Pele that permeate Hawaiian culture. Of course, the hula, which is the traditional Hawaiian dance… the old way, known as kahiko or hula kahiko, I think every single song ends with a refrain that honors Pele, dedicates the dance to Pele.
So even though we have this thick, suffocating blanket of Christianity on top of Hawaiian religion and spirituality, when you have a Goddess like Tutu Pele around, Hawaiian spirituality still has meaning and a direct correlation between now and the beginning of Hawaii, literally the beginning of this land, is representing herself!
Some of us are of Pele’s genealogy, so we have an even more immediate connection to her because to say that is to say we share common DNA.
There is much that can be said about all of this, but for me Pele represents Hawaiian ways in an immediate sense. And I have had direct experiences with her so she comes to mind readily if I think about Hawaiian spirituality and culture.
Repression of Hawaiian Culture Under U.S. Occupation
Repression and oppression have been the norm since foreigners arrived, uninvited. A lot of that oppression came via Christianity. And I don’t mean to sound like a Christian basher. I’m not. But western religion is rife with hypocrisy, racism, white supremacy, hatred of indigenous peoples, etc…. So I have no illusions about the nature of foreign aggression and its cost to Hawaiians.
As for the language, yes, that was one of the terrible things that happened after the U.S. takeover. Almost immediately they outlawed Hawaiian language. It was not used in schools or government or any of the institutions that run a society. So pretty quickly it went from being the first language to being the last language in Hawaii.
By the end of the 20th century, a resurgence of Hawaiian culture and language had been underway for 20 years, born out of the Hawaiian sovereignty movement that had begun in the 70s and was really inspired in a lot of ways by the Black Panthers and American Indian Movement. But like the sovereignty movement itself, which has been co-opted by the government, the language revitalization has been funded by the government.
Language As a Colonial Project
Today there are Hawaiian language schools and people who speak the language fluently. Much has been done to save the language. But, sad to say, much has been done to privilege a few people with it. And this is a manifestation of the ongoing colonial reality here.
What I’ve noticed is that for as much as it’s great that Hawaiians have access to the language, it’s still very much an academic industrial complex thing. Only some people can enter there. And from what I have seen first hand, many of these academic Hawaiians are in fact de-politicizing language. They write about it and make a decent middle class living doing what they do, but many Hawaiian language experts have no functional connection to the makaainana, the commoners–working class Hawaiians. Academics tend to stick with their own kind and are not inclined to step outside of the funded areas of their work.
That’s not to say all Hawaiian language teachers are getting rich off the language by any stretch. But it’s hard to access the language without going through the state institutions that pay for it to be taught.
I would say on a whole that most money for Hawaiian language programs comes from the federal government. And the interests of the government are to make sure Hawaiians do not rise up. So what I see is a generation of Hawaiians who have come out of the language schools and are not politically involved or engaged.
That’s not to say it won’t happen tomorrow, but although thousands of Hawaiians came through immersion schools speaking the language, no visible political leadership has emerged from that generation. So through federal control, the language lives on, but there doesn’t appear to be any political activism or intervention from that generation. Or rather, very little activism.
One of the people in my film, Kaleikoa Kaeo, is a language expert and he has been very politically involved, so already I have an example of someone who is both an activist and a language expert!
Of course, me saying this could piss off thousands of Hawaiians! Many of them believe that just by speaking the language they are political, but I believe what has happened is that there is a privileging that has gone on that mimics the American class structure.
For instance, I was on a panel last year with some Hawaiian filmmakers. I think there were five of us. At the time I was still doing community screenings of “Noho Hewa” and so I was engaged in many political dialogues throughout Hawaii Nei.
On this panel was Puhipau, one of the filmmakers of “Act of War,” a formative film in the 90s that framed the U.S. overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom as a literal act of war.
My film, “Noho Hewa,” is also very political and looks at the overthrow but goes on to frame the aftermath as an occupation, and it’s very Brechtian in a way, truly demanding that the audience read the images and text.
Anyway, also on this panel was a young Hawaiian filmmaker fresh out of the media program at the university. He is also a Hawaiian language person, having come through the immersion schools.
When asked what makes an authentic Hawaiian film, his answer was that a real Hawaiian film is done in Hawaiian language.
Mind you, he’s sitting beside the man who made the first formative Hawaiian sovereignty film ever, which was in English, and me, the woman who made the most recent formative Hawaiian sovereignty film, also mostly in English. And his idea of what makes a Hawaiian film a Hawaiian film is that firstly is must be in the Hawaiian language, which only a few thousand people actually speak!
This attitude is common, I have found, among Hawaiians who speak the language. Rather than embrace a political approach to sharing what they’ve learned, a lot of these people use their ability to speak Hawaiian against Hawaiians, and see themselves as elite Hawaiians.
So that’s why I see the language situation right now as a federal project, which is itself a colonial project.
Another example is of a Hawaiian language teacher and expert who was able to do a dissertation in Hawaiian language even though only one professor in their PhD program could read or write in Hawaiian. So this person did their dissertation in olelo Hawaii (Hawaiian language) and was given a degree. I asked if they would translate the dissertation so that other Hawaiians could read the important, cultural and historical research of Hawaiian world that went into it, so that kupuna (elders) can read it, or Hawaiians like me or any Hawaiian for that matter. And the answer was emphatically “no.”
I was told that if Hawaiians want to read it they can learn olelo.
And mind you, this dissertation was a feather in the cap of the department it was done in. So all those non-Hawaiian professors… the non-Hawaiian university applauds itself for doing Hawaiians this big favor and Hawaiians on the outside remain on the outside.
To me, Hawaiian academics who do this sort of thing are narcissists.
This is typical of some of the most well placed academic Hawaiians. They create elite positions for themselves in the academic industry because they have been funded and guided to be privileged and then they literally keep the knowledge to themselves or only share it with their paying students; Hawaiians like this person I reference here, who is now a professor for the University of Hawaii, the state run school, stand on their books and dissertations and look down on the rest of us.
The government taketh away and then giveth back only the parts it wants us to have! And when it does that, it makes sure to position the Hawaiians who will never go against the government, but will instead go against their own kind. I say that because to hoard the knowledge undermines any hope of the language being of use to the politics of Hawaiian sovereignty.
Of course, that doesn’t mean it won’t change! I mean, this same teacher could have a future leader in their class and then later when that person becomes a Malcolm X-type person I’ll have to eat my words and cheer all the self absorbed, middle class Hawaiian professors of the world!