My husband is a Native Hawaiian. ‘Iokepa’s words are quoted in this post’s title. He speaks them with a profound sense of grief — and a barely hidden anger.

He struggles with those divergent sentiments. He knows that to speak his mind is to court accusations and dismissal as “another angry Hawaiian.” And yes, there is a great deal to be angry about.

But ‘Iokepa Hanalei ‘Imaikalani knows that ears close when words are daggers. The last 21 years of his life have been about crafting words so that ears remain open, and hearts receptive. These years have been about his speaking and feeling an impulse toward inclusion. People who’ve heard him speak from edge to edge of the North American continent know that he’s pretty darned good at it.

A view of Hanakapiai Beach from the Kalalau Trail on the north shore of Kauai.

Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat

But today, I’m reminded over breakfast that it has been awhile since I’ve used these posts to name and explain the heart of the danger, and the loss.

“My Islands have become someone else’s playground,” ‘Iokepa said today while reading our tiny Kauai newspaper over coffee — “their playground, without any sense of responsibility.”

Let me explain here what may not be obvious. To a Native Hawaiian — a kanaka maoli — responsibility is inextricably a part of existence — sucking in breath and releasing it. Responsibility is carved from a far larger canvas than our Western world’s narrow boundaries. I challenge my own choice of words here. “Responsibility” to Hawaiians is not “carved from” at all. It is cellular connection to and for every piece of creation.

Hence, these Native Hawaiians who have for thousands of years welcomed strangers — fed them, educated them, cared for them with open hands and hearts — cannot fathom their guests’ disinterest, disengagement, and disdain for both their adopted land and the people who’ve welcomed them here.

Human Disconnect

I think that ‘Iokepa’s grief and anger actually disguise his real sentiment: incomprehension. He and his kin cannot imagine such a human disconnect. They anguish: How can they not know?

What is it that we, who’ve chosen to live or visit these Islands, do not know? ‘Iokepa’s words again: “They see their home here as an ‘investment’ that requires no greater commitment.”

This, in a culture that had no concept of ownership at all — only a shared imperative to care for and about every living thing.

‘Iokepa says, “They don’t understand: It’s what the islands want, not what you want.” He invokes a primal Native Hawaiian precept of wrongdoing: “They take more than their share.”

The world rightfully frets about global warming, and its resulting catastrophes are increasingly in our faces. Still, in some tragic sense, that remains an abstraction. What the Native Hawaiians grieve is undeniably concrete — an everyday attack on everything this culture holds sacred: their undeniable union with the aina (land), the kai (ocean), and their community’s care for one another.

And so, “My Islands are dying” means: reef fish and seaweed are now poisonous to eat; a swim in the ocean on more days than not is a risk to our health; great expanses of land and beach are inaccessible for ritual and traditional practice. “My Islands are dying” means the commercialization of what is sacred and the destruction of native values.

What Native Hawaiians grieve is undeniably concrete: an everyday attack on everything this culture holds sacred.

I am neither unaware nor impervious to the daily doses of pain, angst and global tragedy that I awaken to each and every morning. In some ways, it is that very horror show that has prevented me recently from adding another word to the endless cacophony.

But, today, I awaken on this small island in the most isolated archipelago on Earth, among a people who are, what remains on this planet, the singular living embodiment of selflessness, inclusion, and yes, personal responsibility for every other soul — natural or human.

And I am sorely aware that to ignore this place, these people and their remarkably generous culture — to lose it and them — is to miss our sacred opportunity to awaken and remember that which we have too widely forgotten.

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About the Author

  • Inette Miller
    Inette Miller was a national and international journalist for 16 years — a war correspondent for Time magazine in Vietnam and Cambodia. She is the author of "Grandmothers Whisper," which was awarded the Visionary Award for memoir. She is currently writing her Vietnam memoir, "Girls Don’t!" The website that she runs with her husband is www.ReturnVoyage.com.