It’s been days since the Aha came to an end and a Hawaiian Constitution — not the first, but arguably the first at this high level of prestige (in recent times) — was adopted in the wake of an epic battle of consciousness.

Things are quiet right now, as I write this column in the solace of a hallway that I call a bedroom, in a dilapidated 1950s house which rests between upper Mililani Town and Wahiawa – a place called Waipio valley.  

I moved here, when I was in high school, to aid in the comfort and care of my ailing grandmother. Her kane, my grandfather, David Nālani Ka‘apana, had passed away long before I was born and the only grandfather I ever knew, Raymond “Buddy” ‘Aki, lived on the island of Kauai – much too far for a child of Oahu to visit.  

Participants at the Nai Aupuni aha working toward the proposed constitution approved by delegates on Saturday. The convention and the constitution may well wind up before the Supreme Court.
Participants at the Nai Aupuni aha working toward the proposed constitution approved by delegates on Saturday. The convention and the constitution may well wind up before the Supreme Court. Nai Aupuni

It’s important for Kanaka Maoli to share pieces of their genealogy with others, because it is through our family that we find ourselves bound to one another.  It sets the bar for our kuleana — responsibility — during our lifetime and the care we owe one another.    

My kupuna, elders, were amazing; and it was here, in Waipio with my grandmother, that I was preparing for a war that I had never asked to be a part of.  A war that every Kanaka Maoli, of Native Hawaiian, was born into and one that every Kanaka Maoli fights in, one way or another.  

On The Shoulders Of Our Ancestors

My grandmother was frail, but she was the toughest person I knew.  She was so light I could carry her in my arms. But the great weight – the kuleana – she carried for her ohana, her family, made her immovable. My grandmother taught me honor, courage, and compassion.  And when she returned to be among her kupuna, she taught me unstoppable perseverance, justice, and the desire and determination always to fight for the good guys.

I walk by her room every day, knowing that I won’t see her; but I know that she is with me.  

“On behalf of my ancestors, who are with me today, I vote … to this Constitution.”  This was the sentiment carried by the vast majority of Aha participants, both for and against adopting the Constitution.  

There may have been more than 100 participants in the room, but standing behind and upon the shoulders of each and every one of us, were the lehulehu a manomano – the countless – Kanaka Maoli and non-Kanaka Maoli who are responsible for our existence.   

Tearing Down That Wall

Things are certainly quiet now, much more quiet than what I have grown accustomed to; but only days ago, more than 100 participants, myself included, were engaged in a life-changing struggle that tore at the very depths of our naau, our emotional and spiritual core, and that challenged the very essence of our being.  Loyalty was tested.  Causes were questioned.  And the future remained uncertain.  

This was a battle Kanaka Maoli had been fighting since time immemorial, more so within the last 123 years than perhaps ever before.  And we prevailed.  We overcame a great wall that had divided us for far too long. We tore that wall down from both sides, but it was no easy task and it came with many sacrifices.  

More than four years ago, I fiercely protested Kanaiolowalu (Native Hawaiian Roll).  Kanaiolowalu was enrolling Kanaka Maoli for the purpose of nation-building.  Many Kanaka Maoli, like myself, saw Kanaiolowalu as a process to force federal recognition.  

I had an idea of what federal recognition meant.  I was a Hawaiian Studies undergrad at the time; and I had rallied other like-minded Kanaka Maoli students against a process that “would make us an Indian Tribe.”  

I was (and still am) a proud Kanaka Maoli and to me, independence was the only way Kanaka Maoli could ever improve our condition and get the justice we so deserved.  This was the narrative that we had subscribed to and it was a narrative that was being pushed by certain scholars with PhDs – and for me that degree was enough validation.  

I was eventually accepted into law school (shout out to William S. Richardson School of Law).  I was receiving formal training in the very subject matter that Ph.D.s were discussing in their analyses of the legal status of the Hawaiian Kingdom, the Hawaiian Islands and the Hawaiian people, Kanaka Maoli.  

Truth And The Struggle Against Oppression

I learned international law, war crimes and genocide, and the international protection of human rights because one scholar kept talking about the Hawaiian Islands being under “belligerent occupation.”  I learned federal Indian law because other scholars kept saying that they (the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, Kanaiolowalu) were trying to make us an “Indian Tribe.”  

I learned that those scholars were wrong.  For whatever reason they were saying it, they were wrong.  

I learned the necessary criteria for identifying a belligerent occupation and realized that the Hawaiians Islands do not meet those standards set under international law.  I learned that both the Ninth Circuit and Department of the Interior don’t consider Kanaka Maoli an Indian Tribe, and that the negative use of “Indian Tribe” as a comparison for something we should be nothing like is an injustice to our cousins, who also have struggled against systematic oppression – no different than us.   

I had signed on to Kanaiolowalu in order to run as a candidate to the delegation for the then up-coming Nai Aupuni Aha, or convention.  I wanted to be a strong pro-independence voice and I wanted to ensure that independence would not be precluded by the push for federal recognition.   

Then, the lawsuit happened and the U.S. Supreme Court put a halt to the electoral process.

Determined, Nai Aupuni opened the Aha to every candidate – more than 200 in total.  Originally, the plan called for the convening of 40 delegates over the course of 40 days.  With limited funding, the Aha was reduced to 20 days. By its commencement, there were roughly 150 participants, who would have to convene from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. each day.  These were brutal conditions – no doubt the reason why many thought that we would fail.

The Aha

I entered the Aha, firm in my cause to advocate my particular interest: independence.  I knew that a constitution was to be drafted and the committees would be formed.  I knew that I had to go from committee to committee and share my views to ensure that my interests were met.  

I never would have guessed that by the week three of the Aha, I would be pushing my own interests aside in order to fight for the interests of everyone else.

I eventually found myself in the role of what many came to call “chief drafter” of the Drafting Committee – the group responsible for putting together the Constitution.  

It was through the Drafting Committee that the totality of every participant’s existence was pushed.  The totality of every participant’s feelings, desires, aspirations – their very lives – came together in a cosmic collision that ultimately cooled and hardened into a 15-page document that we call the Native Hawaiian Constitution.  

I never would have guessed that by the week three of the Aha, I would be pushing my own interests aside in order to fight for the interests of everyone else.

It is not perfect.  It does not capture everything we want.  It is, though, a testament to our ability as a people to prevail even under the most inhospitable of conditions, so long as we stand together.  

And together we can achieve great things.  

I was fortunate enough to see the power of our people in this endeavor.

I saw both defeat and triumph, sadness and joy, anger and love.   

Healing The Wound

I saw many staunch federal recognition advocates, their faces buried in their hands, weeping uncontrollably at the prospect that their chances of protecting their families in the best way they knew how, through federal recognition, was lost because of the pro-independence language in the preamble. And I saw many staunch independence advocates holding them in their arms and weeping together with them, promising that everything will be all right.  

I saw, through tears in their eyes, federal recognition advocates lay aside their interests to vote in favor of that pro-independence language.  For them, healing the wound – that great division between the Lahui Hawaii (Hawaiian Nation) – was more important than federal recognition.  And it was a great sacrifice that I shall never forget.  

I saw us put aside our political differences, as well as our individual wants, in order to understand one another and realize that beneath it all, “our highest aspirations are set upon the promise of our unity.”

To all my fellow participants, who I now regard as my family.  I shall never forget you.  Aloha.

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