Editor’s note: Kealii Lopez is a candidate in this month’s election of delegates to a Native Hawaiian constitutional convention, or ‘aha, that will determine if a reorganized Hawaiian government will be formed.

Like so many others I have a great love for our people, our heritage and culture.

Whether you are a cultural practitioner or an avid observer, the essence of who we are is within us. No one can or has taken that from us. Who we are as Native Hawaiians is intrinsically intertwined in every fiber of our being, our soul, and our na‘au.

It is who we are, and no matter how we each choose to live our lives, it’s there.  Even if it’s only a pinky’s worth of koko, it courses through you and connects you to these lands and to the generations who came before you.  It’s beautiful, loving, nurturing, strong, vibrant and connected.  It shows in our aloha, our kuleana, and our ‘ano.

Thousands participated in the Aloha Aina Unity March. 9 aug 2015. photograph by Cory Lum/Civil Beat
The Aloha Aina Unity last March demonstrated the strength and passion of the Native Hawaiian community. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

I believe we are at a crossroads for our people. We have been wronged, but we cannot dwell on what might have been. We can continue to argue over what we can become for another 120 years, or we can take action today on a future that will have a starting point.

I believe there are voices that have not been heard in the struggle for sovereignty. I believe I represent that silent majority in believing that we can act on the best opportunity we have had for our people in more than a century.

Working together with representatives of all points of view will only make us stronger. Waiting until there is a “perfect moment” will see our ‘ohana struggle on without a nation for perhaps generations more.

I have been involved in community work for what seems my entire life. I remember standing outside of Mel’s Market in Waimanalo asking our neighbors to sign petitions at the age of 13. I have served on the Winward Commnity College Konohiki Council to enhance and improve students’ college experience and created educational videos for the Salvation Army to help teen mothers while at UH Manoa.

I dedicated myself to helping communities find and express their voice through ‘Olelo Community Television.  I have been a public servant in state government, and seeking ways to help families work, keep their homes, and put food on their tables. Like others, I have made service my life’s work, and it results from the central Hawaiian ethic of fulfilling one’s kuleana.

I have never felt the pull of kuleana as strongly as I do today. Many have been engaged in sovereignty, self-determination, and self-governance efforts for decades, and in the beginning, there was an absolute need to be “radical” to convert Hawaiian claims to Hawaiian rights.

Like so many of us in the middle, I have always wanted better for our people, and recognized the importance of our place in the heart of who and what Hawaii is today, but could not join in on the anti-American radical messages that were perhaps needed to bring us to where we are today.

As we mahalo the “radicals” for their important work in heightening awareness of our indigenous rights, it is now time to begin the process of healing ourselves and our relations to those with whom we now share Hawaii. It is time for the hard work of reconciling our past, present and future to begin.

While I am aware that there are still those within our community that feel there are more rights to secure, I am concerned that the tone, rhetoric and personal attack tactics that have become routine in these circles have begun to eat away at the very essence of what makes us Hawaiian, our aloha and our kuleana.

If we cannot be pono as we advocate our claims, then securing the rights don’t matter, for who we are will have been lost. To them, I offer this gentle reminder: True na koa do not throw spears at the lahui they are sworn to protect, and they do not insist that all na koa pick up the same weapon to achieve the goal.

Much progress for our Hawaiian community has been made in the last 40 years because we stayed focused on our concepts of aloha and kuleana, and the responsibility of each Hawaiian to contribute to the well-being of our community with the tools, skills and opportunities they each had in hand.

Sovereignty has been advanced through the work of many over decades. Some radical, some not. Akaka, Aluli, DeSoto, Helm, Kame‘eleihiwa, Kanahele, McGregor, MacKenzie, Silva, Trask — all names who have contributed to the recognition of our indigenous rights as a people.

There are so many others too. They have served our people in lo‘i and halau, in community, in state offices and through the universities, from mauka to makai. They have served far away from home, in the halls of Congress and the federal government agencies.

Each effort, layer upon layer, building up the understanding within our own community, and a better understanding of us outside of it.

Last year, the U.S. Department of the Interior came out to hear our thoughts on a federal rule that would finally resolve a disparity in federal law that has prevented our people from accessing the same powers of self-governance already in use by indigenous peoples on the continent, powers that the indigenous peoples use to solve their own challenges, overcome the effects of a terrible history, and promote a more indigenous future for their future generations.

I saw the true tension that exists within our people from all sides. I saw Hawaiians working for our people through their posts at the DOI. I saw them bring along others who they thought could help. I saw the “radicals” and felt the sense of powerlessness that longstanding neglect has created. I saw the confusion many of us in the middle have felt, and the fear of expressing our views at the risk of being called a traitor or worse.

It was beautiful, awe-inspiring, promising, horrific, tragic and pilau to see all at the same time. I wrestled with these powerful emotions at every hearing I attended or watched. The beauty, promise and inspiration came from the deep passion for our people, the knowledge of our history, the high level of engagement, and the love for our people.

The horror, tragedy and hewa came from the nasty name calling, disrespect and efforts to silence through intimidation and derision. Too many in our lahui were made to feel it wasn’t safe to share their mana‘o by our own people. It is this horror, tragic behavior and pilau antics that have compelled me in such a visceral way to step forward in a way that I would not have previously considered.

I was taught never to stand by while others are being bullied and to stand up for each person’s right to their own sense of self. I understand the anger, frustration, hurt, anguish, humiliation, loss, injustice, and so much more. It is a part of all of us, but so is our aloha and our sense of kuleana.

We are not the first generation to be confronted with the question of how to act when our na‘au is so conflicted, but we are the first to begin to take the lower road. 

This decision of how we will act, as a people, is a defining line between whether we are victims of a tragic history, or strong survivors who thrive in spite of it.

I call upon the middle of our people, the important silent majority, to get involved in making the future better for our lahui and all of Hawaii nei. While we mahalo our na koa who have won so many battles on our behalf, we can no longer expect they can carry us into the future we want for our keiki and mo’opuna.

For me our everyday efforts, sacrifice and struggle is to build a beloved nation, not a warring nation. We must all accept our kuleana to step forward and serve our lahui with the best of our talents, skills and opportunities. As our lahui rises, so does Hawaii.

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