My Maori friends recently sent me an email: “Today is Treaty of Waitangi Day!”

It’s a national holiday celebrating the Maoris’ face-to-face treaty with the crown on that day — Feb. 6 — in 1840. Maori essentially agreed to allow the British Crown to govern the affairs of white settlers and traders while the chiefs would retain their own sovereignty and lands.

Maori already possessed tikanga (customs, traditional values) and kawa (protocol) for behaving rightly — what maybe we would say here are internal guidelines for deciding what decisions are “pono” as in our state motto “Ua mau ke ea o ka aina i ka pono (“The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness.”)

Humans flourish when they behave correctly. In most oral cultures, this ethic is learned by osmosis — intuitively, the way a Taoist would absorb the Tao or a Zen Buddhist his Buddha nature. You live in a family or ohana and you get it like mother’s milk.

I am a child of the 1950s and 1960s and enough Hawaiian to steal everyone’s opihi at the luau. I walk around at every luau, plate in hand, collecting the small Dixie cups from reluctant opihi eaters.

I did not inherit a cultural identity as thick as my Maori friends’. I can’t speak Hawaiian or think in its linguistic beauty, but I do sing Hawaiian music and love the rich vowels that ring in my cranium and chest.

Reconstruction of the Signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, a painting by Marcus King. Could the Maori experience in New Zealand be happening to Native Hawaiians? Flickr: Archives New Zealand

I still embrace fondly the memory of spearfishing off of Diamond Head or Mokuleia and seeing the back of a dark reef cave light up with red and silver light flashing off menpache and aholehole.

I still go infrequently to Tin Roof in Kalihi Valley to sit and watch the movement of the ripples and soak my feet. I have absorbed some of the land’s speech as a child its mother’s milk.

I am Hawaiian in the way that my body is poi or lomi salmon now metabolized. This is subjective and almost preverbal.

Tikanga And Kawa

When questions of identity broaden and the context expands to the socio-political, things get messy. My Maori friends have challenges, but they have a different historical journey. Collectively, they have greater unity or coherence because they have maintained tikanga and kawa and they have a constitution that politically recognizes their separate but equal status.

Yes, there are still arguments. The difference is that they argue on the same page. My Hawaiian brothers and sisters don’t yet have the page, which makes it difficult to hold together and not fragment.

I am a college graduate, which means my cultural assumptions or my deep code, my operating system, is Western. I value science and the rationality of law and my politics tilts toward the social democratic side.

This comes from my association with the Jesuits and Maryknoll Missioners who educated me. I also belong to a transnational association called the Catholic Church which comes with both problems and riches. I am complex!

I think it is dangerous to draw litmus tests of identity, to fall into factions that have pieces — true pieces — but not the whole picture.

In Anita Hofschneider’s recent piece — “Mauna Kea Ignited A New Wave Of Hawaiian Pride. Where Does It Go From Here?” — I was happy to see Jon Osorio take a pragmatic view of political sovereignty and ask the question of whether total separation from America was possible or desirable.

The Maori, for example, do not want to see England become a republic because their treaty is with the crown.  Without the crown, no valid treaty. It serves them to keep the commonwealth together.

Everyone with any interest in Hawaiian sovereignty has been asking this question: what form? Can you have self-determination within U.S. laws and norms or must there be a total break? Does complete sovereignty mean creation ex nihilo (out of nothing), creation from scratch?

As with Brexit, the volcanic fog of issues pours into the air.  Hawaiian leaders have put their bodies on the mountain — maybe a summit of thought must now take place. After 30 years, people are tired. Arguments sap energy, past trauma enters and civil discourse descends into “Game of Thrones” rivalry. This work is as hard as trying to pull Hawaii from the sea — probably harder because the sea doesn’t have an ego.

Invite legal scholars, political scientists, ecologists, union leaders and constitutional and tax experts to begin to craft a constitution with as much skill and ike (knowledge) as the finest canoe builders. Invite outside dialogue partners. To make a diverse ecology of thought and for sheer fun, invite some enemies or distant friends like all the former governors.

(“No scared. Give ’um,” we say in Kalihi.)

They may actually be more friend than foe and you can learn from both. Your critics can help you field-test your ability to go back. They can be the rough rogue waves upon which to beta test your canoe.

I have not given up on the nobler side of America.  We might all be zombie capitalists, but I persist in my hope. What would you replace democracy with?

Everyone with any interest in Hawaiian sovereignty has been asking this question: what form?

Of course the great  work that has been done to reconstitute Hawaiian identity through language restoration, cultural renaissance, voyaging and many other domains must be celebrated. But it needs to be protected from the elements. The restoration of material culture, art and ritual needs to be matched with the same force and energy in the realm of constitutional leadership.

The Maori have gathered their best indigenous lawyers and philosophers to envision a constitutional reformation based upon a treaty they already have.

Hawaiians, you are not alone. Frederick Douglass would stand with you and Martin Luther King and Jimmy Carter and Barrack Obama, the United Nations and even Jesus and his true disciples.

Kapu aloha is your tikanga and kawa. You can celebrate cultural identity without identity politics.

Who knows, one day I’ll be able to email Maori friends and say, “Heh, Happy Treaty of Mauna Kea Day!”

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