“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.” — Richard Feynman.

“Ignorance is a bliss” — I don’t know about you, but I’ve always hated this saying … yet my opinion doesn’t really matter, nor does yours. Regardless of whether we agree with it or not, when it comes to the controversy surrounding the iwi kupuna (the bones of the ancestors), ignorance is never a bliss. In fact being ignorant is a lavish trait that we can’t afford to possess.

Let me show you why.

Once in awhile, so often these days, a new controversy arises about bones that have been purportedly “inadvertently found,” yet so willingly excavated in the midst of development projects, all over Hawaii. This never fails to surprise some — I use the word “surprise” when “bother” would be the most rightful term in this case. If you attend the burial council meetings, you become quickly accustomed to these rhetorical mantras.

The Royal Mausoleum State Monument, called Mauna Ala, is the burial place of Hawaiian royalty. It includes members of the Kamehameha and Kalakaua Dynasties with their retainers, according to the state Department of Land and Natural Resources. Flickr: jericl cat

Wait, because then comes the inevitable “but bones are everywhere,” the rationale behind such a statement being the disturbance that such a finding entails, as it contradicts the assertion that bones are merely remnants of a tangible yet far distant and admonished past. In other words: a past meant not only to be forgotten, but to stay forgotten. Well, bones are everywhere because Hawaiians were everywhere, and in fact still are.

Not ‘Merely’ About Bones

Understanding the perennial controversy surrounding the bones requires to deconstruct a discourse that entrenches the view of bones as mere past “remnants,” which in turn leads us to the crux of two enmeshed yet antagonistic and irreconcilable perceptions of time and systems of belief.

Time is conceived as binary in the Western world, with an underlining clear-cut distinction that separates the present from the past. It blatantly implies that a past that had occurred is also intrinsically over, one that is at best meant to be remembered and occasionally revisited and gazed upon in museums, or at worst relegated to history books. In other words: a dead time, in outright rupture with the present.

Bones are everywhere because Hawaiians were everywhere, and in fact still are.

Such a conception is foreign to Hawaiians and to a greater extent to Polynesians, for whom there is an organic and in fact interdependent continuity between past and present. Any separation between the two is perceived as a disruption. The present time is contingent to exist in the light of the past and is best embodied by the self-explanatory Hawaiian saying: “Ka wa ma mua, Ka wa ma hope” — the future is in the past. Applied to the bones of the ancestors, slowly comes the realization that in fact: the future is in the bones.

Indeed, the iwi hold the most sacred mana (spirit) in their essence and are the living embodiment of Hawaiian ancestors that, though they came before, they continue to guide Hawaiians and to exist in the now, both physically and spiritually. There is no clear-cut separation because what is commonly referred as the past informs and guides the present and future — the future of Hawaiians, but also the future of Hawaii.

Knowing that, the quicker comes the realization that erasing the cultural and spiritual symbolism of Hawaiian ways of knowing and living encapsulated in its highest form in the iwi kupuna consequently echoes erasing the present. In fact, relegating the iwi kupuna to a so-distant past appears as a subtle yet self-explanatory rationale which unabashedly implies not only that Hawaiians have no legitimacy in being part of a present but they are denied of any future.

Thus, deconstructing the discourse makes us realize that as several layers overlap, the same dismissive logic of erasure of the indigenous people is applied and in fact is still so shamefully effective. This is in part why the whole controversy framed supposedly about bones is not only, nor is it “merely,” about bones.

A Settler Structure

The controversy about the bones is not so much the root of the problem as it is the consequence of an unresolved iceberg of colonial issues intermingling with capitalistic profit-making purposes whose source, extent and gearwheels are far more massive. It is but a segment of a deeper erasure mechanism of a well-established settler-colonial apparatus that as Patrick Wolfe reminded us is a structure, not an event. A settler structure which strategically compartmentalizes the struggles and is effective at blinding its whole structure while still forcing natives to grapple with the consequences.

As a settler, the realization can be overwhelming and the first reaction would be to discard it. You have nothing to do with this after all, right? But as Cheryl Strayed once said, “This is not your responsibility but it is your problem.”

As you slowly become aware of it, please don’t stop there. Think about it, grapple with it, and have the courage to ask yourself what part do you play in this structure. None?

The names of alii at the the Royal Mausoleum State Monument in Nuuanu on Oahu. Flickr: dustin.daily

Well, bad news, because being inactive also constitutes a part, as Nassim Taleb once wrote, “If you see fraud and don’t say fraud, you are a fraud.” You are part of a process performing a polymorphic erasure of Hawaiians, where every potential remnant is a threat, since unlike oral traditions and moolelo (stories) that are denied any validity in the western framework, the bones of the ancestors stand as physical evidence that reconnect Hawaiians to their ancestors in the ground, which in turn organically reassert their ties to the land as well.

In many aspects, protecting the bones comes down to the preservation of Hawaiian history, a bone of contention — pardon my lame humor — still unresolved, and in fact one that will remain so as long as Hawaiians will be embedded in a perspective of erasure and of blatant and ubiquitous blame and denial for their existence.

Think about it: Protecting the bones requires to constantly reassert, show and prove the historical viability of such burial ground and such lineal tie. Hawaiians are constantly required to come up with evidence to prove their anchorage to such place or such genetic affiliation to that ancestor, without ever knowing if those ties will be acknowledged.

Not only is it emotionally debilitating but it is also humanly disempowering. Beneath the tricky and never-ending bureaucratic maze and process, what Hawaiians are constantly asked to do is nothing more that prove over and over again that they exist. By now, you should grasp why protecting the bones becomes more than a cultural urgency: it is a survival mechanism, performed out of necessity.

For The Dead And Living

The emotional sorrow that comes with the desecration of the iwi kupuna will never be winnowed, yet with the struggle comes meaning: knowing that a raw inherent strength will also be forever attached to the iwi. If a fair amount of bones was desecrated, wiped out of the aina, many of them — if not the great majority — will forever remain undisturbed, protected, both the guardians and the testifiers of a bright past. Some others will continue to rise from the land, either forcefully or voluntarily to find a spot in the sun and will remind us that Hawaiians were there, and still are.

The bones encapsulate in their sacred essence this conflation of propitious and painful prescience that Hawaiians are forever tied to this land. It is inherently theirs as this organic resistance offered by the aina. But with it comes the need for a monolithic resistance and testimony of acts of courage past and present.

The controversy about the bones doesn’t solely pertain to the dead, but to us, the living.

In turn, the bones of the ancestors’ organic resistance is telling of Hawaiians themselves, some might have been silenced, oppressed, crushed but history reminds us that there have always been people who resisted, who resist, and who will continue to stand tall. And in fact the number is only growing stronger.

In the end the controversy about the bones doesn’t solely pertain to the dead, but to us, the living. In many respects, protecting the iwi kupuna comes down to respecting Hawaii nei for what it once was, still is and for what we want it to be. It is not “just” about bones, nor it is an issue that pertains to Hawaiians.

Ask yourself this simple question: If the iwi kupuna that have been here longer than you and reverberate the most sacred element of Hawaiian culture, are delegitimized, impudently dehumanized and brushed aside so swiftly, then what happens to the living? To Hawaiians but also simply to those who inhabit the islands? It would be foolishly naive to believe that the capitalist logic only applies to Hawaiians.

Whether you are a local, a haole, a settler or a Native Hawaiian does not matter, because the best part about this demonstration is that you don’t have to be Hawaiian to understand that, you just have to be human.

I know, these days it feels like appealing to people’s humanity is not so trendy anymore.  Ignorance may be a bliss, but it is a blindfolded bliss that is a mirage in itself. I know, knowledge can feel heavy at times as with knowledge comes responsibility.

But by now you can’t call yourself ignorant anymore, that’s both the beauty and the trick of knowledge: Once you learn you can’t unlearn.

Now, considering that you are more knowledgeable of the issue and that the promises attached to new year’s resolutions are still in the air, please for this new year choose to be less ignorant and more human. And act upon it because as Marcus Aurelius reminds us, “You can also commit injustice by doing nothing.”

The path toward truth for the sake of justice is the road less traveled by my friend — that I concede, but truth can and is in fact always a relief. Yet only if we allow it to be.

Allow this truth to relieve you, and I promise by being less ignorant and more human, there can still be — no, in fact, there will — assuredly be more bliss along the way.

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