I ka ‘Ōlelo ke Ola, in Words Is Life: Imagining the Future of Indigenous Literatures
Abstract and Keywords
This article reflects on the history of Indigenous literature as well as its future prospects by focusing on the Hawaiian proverb I ka ‘ōlelo ke ola, i ka ‘ōlelo ka make, which means “in words is the power of life, in words is the power of death.” It traces the development of Indigenous literature from chants, songs, prayers, stories, histories, genealogies, and more, and the emergence of a whole new way of recording, remembering, studying, transmitting, and sharing knowledge and experience among Indigenous peoples. It looks at the evolution of Indigenous literatures and the cultural renaissance within Hawaiian history in the 1880s and in the 1960s. It also considers the metaphor of light to describe the direction of Indigenous literary studies.
I ka ‘ōlelo ke ola, i ka ‘ōlelo ka make, “in words is the power of life, in words is the power of death,” is a well-known and oft-quoted Hawaiian proverb that speaks to the power of words, of how we use language. Our Indigenous ancestors composed chants, songs, prayers, stories, histories, genealogies, and more, the importance of human knowledge and experience captured in words, in our ancient, traditional, beautiful languages, the best way to record, remember, study, transmit, and share with others around them, with future generations. As time went on, writing was developed or introduced, and a whole new way of recording, remembering, studying, transmitting, and sharing knowledge and experience emerged. I ka ‘ōlelo ke ola: language carries life—the lives of our ancestors, their thoughts, experiences, memories, triumphs, tragedies, lessons, warnings, celebrations—to us, through us; through the spoken, chanted, sung, prayed word, through the written poem, genealogy, history, narrative, novel, story, recipe, journal, autobiography, biography, memoir, and more.
The Hawaiian word mo‘olelo means a number of things, including story, history, narrative, literature. It is comprised of two root words, mo‘o, a succession, and ‘ōlelo, words, language; mo‘olelo is literally “a succession of words.” Traditional Hawaiian mo‘olelo such as the epic of Hi‘iakaikapoliopele, the youngest sister of the volcano goddess Pele, demonstrate that the life and death power of words can be literal—Hi‘iaka chants supplications to her gods, and Lohi‘au, her sister Pele’s mortal lover, is revived from the dead. Young victims of illness or accident are immediately cured, their health restored through the power of Hi‘iaka’s words. Hi‘iaka chants other prayers to her gods, and enemies who are obstacles in her path are immediately destroyed. In other writings, in order to graduate from their training, kahuna (healers) had to pray a pig to death, the words and chanter’s voice having the mana (power) to do so, a somewhat extraordinary, but not impossible feat.
(p. 676) Renaissance, Enlightenment, or…?
The ola (life) and make (death) in words is as real as it is metaphoric, enlivening or destroying the spirit, if not the physical body outright. Through the onslaught of settler colonialism over the centuries, Indigenous languages and voices were tragically silenced, some forever; some were reborn in writing, some regrown through tremendous effort and dedication through language immersion programs, many supplemented or replaced with the colonial languages of English, French, or Spanish, which were in turn adapted and interwoven with Indigenous words, still sung, chanted, prayer, recited, remembered, written. Through the myriad generations, the memories, wisdom, and experiences of our ancestors, languages, and words that have lived, died, and live again in us, through us, one thing is certain, as the editors write in the introduction, words matter, and they always have. Are we Aboriginal? Native? Indigenous? First Nation? Yes. And we are more, defined within our own languages, in our own ways, such as tangata whenua, the Māori term meaning “people of the earth.” We are defined by multiple terms within our own languages and cultures; in our language, Indigenous Hawaiians, for example, are Kanaka Maoli, Kanaka ‘Ōiwi, and Kanaka Hawai‘i, the last term specifically linking us with our ‘āina (land, which more literally means “that which feeds”); in our languages, our identities are not dependent upon the laws and artificial boundaries drawn by settler nations. We continue to challenge defining terms and their inherent boundaries in part because we have always been philosophical, intellectual peoples who have always engaged critically with the world around us, interpreting for ourselves, our communities, and others who we are, who we want to be. It is part of our familial genealogies that are ever expanding through space and time. We continue to rediscover, reclaim, and reflect upon the wisdom and experiences of our ancestors through their words, their arts. We are part of their creative, performative, and literary genealogies or mo‘okūauhau. Mo‘o, succession, kū, (to stand upright), ‘auhau (stalk, stem, bones); kū‘auhau simultaneously means genealogy, the recitation of a genealogy, and traditions, particularly old ones, and historian. Thus, we are part of familial and literary mo‘okū‘auhau as much as we are mo‘okū‘auhau, as we continue to compose, critique, analyze, assert, argue, and share our own creative, intellectual, philosophical, analytical thoughts and experiences for ourselves, our communities, and others, including future generations, to help guide their paths, to help them understand us. I ka ‘ōlelo ke ola—words matter.
Similarly, does this Handbook reflect a renaissance or an enlightenment? As the editors note in their introduction, “a renaissance presumes a dark age of obscurity or ignorance before…people produced ideas or artistic works of merit.” One of the opportunities of being involved in the study of Indigenous literatures is to see beyond the confines of Western terms, definitions and analyses thrust upon us, and engage in expanding or reinterpreting terms in ways that are more appropriate to our worlds, cultures, histories, and experiences. Within a Kanaka ‘Ōiwi context, for example, pono (balance, harmony, justice) is achieved through the dualistic balance of pō (darkness, night, chaos) and ao (light, (p. 677) day, order). Our preeminent ko‘ihonua (chant of creation) Kumulipo (“Source of deep darkness”) begins with Pō and the birth of Kumulipo, a male, and Pō‘ele‘ele (Black night), a female. It is the time of the gods, the blossoming forth of life, a sacred space, not an ignorant one. Humans appear at the dawning of the eighth wā (epoch), half way through the 2,000-line long epic. In this period of light, humans organize and utilize the knowledge passed down to them through the gods and ancestors from the most fertile times of creation and production. It is not a contrast between ignorance and enlightenment, but of kinship between gods and humans, elder siblings (the elements of the land and sea), who care and provide for their younger siblings, the people. In this way, mo‘okū‘auhau of familial kinship ties and literary production are intertwined through the performed (and later written) lines of Kumulipo and other recounted traditions. I ka ‘ōlelo ke ola—in words there is life, and inspiration. Perhaps it is not a matter of renaissance or enlightenment. Words, or their definitions and our understandings of them (or how they are applied) can sometimes fail us. Perhaps it is, as the editors write, a revolution that is under way. But it seems it is even more than that; as “a field with deep roots and branches,” the state and future of Indigenous literatures is also in the midst of ongoing evolution—ever expanding, growing and changing with us and our cultures. Once (and perhaps still, in some cases), settlers were determined to kill and destroy us, our cultures, our practices, arts, traditions, knowledges; our words. But we are still here. Not all of us are thriving, but none of us is willing to give up as we collectively work to ho‘oulu lāhui, revive and restore our nations and peoples beyond survivance so we may all flourish.
Within Hawaiian history, there are two major periods of cultural renaissance. The first was in the 1880s, after the election of David La‘amea Kalākaua as mō‘ī (king) of the Hawaiian nation. When American Calvinist missionaries arrived in Hawai‘i in 1820, they had immediately set out to convert Kanaka to Christianity, which included the banning of important traditional practices such as hula. More than performance for fun and recreation, hula was and remains an important vehicle for transmitting culture and history, for remembering and celebrating traditional gods, such as Pele and Hi‘iaka, and the beloved ali‘i (ruling class). When Kalākaua was elected, he defied a fifty-year-old law prohibiting the performance of hula by prominently including it as part of his week-long coronation ceremonies, to the outrage of missionary descendants and American settlers. He reinstituted the Hale Nauā, a genealogical society, and was involved with the practice of lua, a traditional Hawaiian martial art, and the promotion of surfing. He commissioned the first written version of the Kumulipo, was an accomplished composer who penned one of Hawai‘i’s preeminent national anthems Hawai‘i Pono‘ī, and wrote one of the first published book collections of traditional Hawaiian mo‘olelo. He was an editor for several Hawaiian-language newspapers that included traditional mo‘olelo; between 1860 and 1940, more than seventy-five Hawaiian-language newspapers containing an estimated 1–1.5 million pages of writing in the Hawaiian language was produced, an astonishing accomplishment Kalākaua was a part of. After Kalākaua died in 1891, his sister Lili‘uokalani inherited the throne, and, in 1893, the Hawaiian kingdom was overthrown by a small band of white American and European settlers with the backing of the US military. Hawai‘i was annexed to the United States in 1898, and a push to Americanize the islands and its Indigenous people began.
(p. 678) The second period of cultural renaissance began in the 1960s, influenced in part by the US Civil Rights movement and the realization that, after six decades of assimilation efforts, Kanaka Maoli hadn’t faired particularly well. A renewed interest in Hawaiian language, music, chant, and hula blossomed once again, Hōkūle‘a, the first modern double-hulled long distance voyaging canoe based on traditional Polynesian designs was built, traditional navigation without modern instruments was relearned, land rights issues spawned calls for Hawaiian sovereignty, and Hawaiian literary arts flourished once again. In the Hawaiian renaissance of the 1960s–1980s, prominent Hawaiian nationalists and writers such as Haunani Kay Trask, ‘Īmaikalani Kalāhele, Mahealani Kamau‘u (now Perez Wendt), and Dana Naone Hall emerged; other prominent Kanaka Maoli writers such as John Dominis Holt, Joe Balaz, Leialoha Apo-Perkins, and Michael McPherson also starting publishing presses in order to disseminate Hawaiian literature and Hawaiian voices largely shunned by the predominantly white and Asian settler-controlled presses within Hawai‘i, as well as larger presses beyond our shores. These early Kanaka writers established the foundation of Literary Nationalism in Hawai‘i and paved the way for additional writers who emerged in the 1990s–2000s, such as Māhealani Dudoit, Brandy Nālani McDougall, Matthew Ka‘ōpio, Michael Puleloa, Lisa Linn Kanae, Lopaka Kapanui, Sage U‘ilani Takehiro, Kai Gaspar, No‘ukahau‘oli Revilla, myself, and many, many more. Some of us have been involved with the creation of new presses. New technologies, such as desktop publishing, blogs, the Internet, social media, and e-books, have helped us increase the reach of Indigenous voices across time and space in ways our ancestors might never have dreamed of. I ka ‘ōlelo ke ola—in words there is life. And when one considers our collective, extraordinary, literary pasts and presents, how is it not possible to envision a similarly bright, robust, exciting, expansive future?
The editors discuss the importance of tribal specificity in the shaping of this Handbook as a means of ethical practice; it is also a way to see how our collective histories resonate with each other, a way to celebrate and honor our specific experiences while perhaps honoring the histories of others and finding points of similarity and solidarity. In Hawaiian culture, the past is ka wā ma mua (the time before), while the future is ka wā ma hope (the time that comes behind), which directly contradicts the Western view that the past is “behind us” and our future lay “before” or “ahead” of us. For Kanaka Maoli, the best way to seek answers for the future is by looking to the past. It is a perspective that reflects the spiral, a key metaphor in Polynesian poetry and arts that represents a doubling back and reconnection with the past for the benefit of the future. What can we discover by looking back?
We know our ancestors traversed thousands upon thousands of miles over vast continents and oceans. Long before modern ships, automobiles, and jet airplanes, they formed links and alliances. They initiated trade routes over land, across waterways, and between islands, some thousands of miles apart. They created and solidified bonds through friendship and kinship. They composed, created, performed, and developed tremendous archives of cultural knowledge, shared songs, stories, chants, prayers, literature. The modern voyaging canoe Hōkūle‘a is but one singular link of a long history of voyage and navigation that links Hawai‘i to other Pacific nations, peoples, and cultures, and to American Indian cultures from Alaska down the west coast of North America to (p. 679) the southwest. Places as far inland as Idaho contain place names rooted in Polynesian languages, and as far inland as Utah stories of ocean-crossing canoe people from the west. The ‘uala (sweet potato), so central in Pacific peoples’ traditional diets, is native to South America, and did not merely float into the Pacific on its own. Our mo‘okū‘auhau and mo‘olelo memorialize our treks back and forth across the Pacific, and speak to the power of words and story that carry us all. We have never been defined by settler-state boundaries. Why should we cloak ourselves with such restrictions now? We have always had a shared history of contact and exchange, Indigenous peoples who have always traversed continents, oceans, and islands, whose transnational networks continue their global expansion across tribal national and settler-colonial borders.
In the twentieth century, our feet sprouted horsepower as we put the pedal to the metal, we happily collect airline miles as we jet around the globe, zip through cyberspace like digital natives, prepare to board wa‘a transformed into rocket ships and space shuttles that carry us into the heavens to traverse the realm of our gods. Likewise, our literatures, theories, and critical analyses travel with us and beyond us, in words spoken, recorded in audio, video and written, in articles, books, and blogs. Our ancestors were global before globalization, and today we still are. For us, this vast region is not the New World of European discovery. Rather, it is Our World, the place we’ve always been. Our literature, our voices have always been far more expansive than any single continent, island, archipelago, or ocean can contain. Vibrant Indigenous voices have occasionally been stilled, but they have never been completely silenced. I imagine they never will be. Our literatures, as the editors write, have always been more than mere “ethnographic reportage” and about issues of “authentic” identity politics. The concept of makawalu (multiple perspectives, literally, “eight eyes”) comes from a traditional mo‘olelo of Pe‘ape‘amakawalu, an eight-eyed bat, who had extraordinary powers of vigilance and observation. It is also applied to the diversity of our worldviews, philosophies, opinions, practices, theories, and writings that tell us such diversity is culturally acceptable, encouraged, and even necessary for our cultures to thrive. Our arts have always been cornerstones of our cultures, transforming and evolving with us. As the poetic and literary accomplishments of our cultures spiral through time, connecting the past and present with the future, we are reminded that “the past and present is bright with moral, intellectual, and artistic significance,” as the light of understanding shines from the past and illuminates our continuing work today and tomorrow.
Ua Ao ē (Day Has Dawned), or This Is Not George H. W. Bush’s “Thousand Points of Light”
The editors skillfully employ a metaphor of light to describe their hopes for the Handbook and the direction of Indigenous literary studies. The undertone of a beacon of hope (p. 680) inherent in this metaphor might suggest a Christian origin for some. But it is an ancient, Indigenous metaphor utilized in cornerstone cultural practices, such as navigation, as travelers and wayfinders utilized Indigenous forms of astronomy and the movement of constellations and celestial bodies, among other natural elements, to traverse the planet. Stories of origin and adventure detail women falling from skies in some traditions; in others, stars represent gods and ancestors. In Hawaiian tradition, Ho‘ohōkūkalani, the beautiful star daughter of Wākea (Sky Father) and Papahānaumoku (Earth Mother) is the mother of Hāloanakalaukapalili (Long Breath Quivering Stalk), the first kalo (taro) plant, progenitor of the Hawaiian people, and Hāloa, his younger brother, the first Hawaiian. Western science tells us that stars are literally hundreds of thousands and millions of miles apart from each other and only appear close together because they are so far away from us. Yet all of our cultures recognize patterns in the stars we call constellations, our ancestors recognized patterns of movement up among the stars that guided them in their cultural, intellectual, and artistic pursuits. For Kanaka Maoli, for example, the stars in Orion’s belt are Maiakū, the Three Canoe Paddlers, the Pleiades is Makali’i, the “Little Eye” that marks the beginning and end of Makahiki season, a four-month period of peace and celebration of the arts from October to January. Metaphorically, our ancestors are these thousands of starpoints of light in the sky, the light they emit their creative, poetic, intellectual works that continue to guide, inspire, and enlighten us. Western science says that even when a star “dies,” the light can still be transmitted to us, the distance between here and the stars is so great. Similarly, our ancestors may no longer physically live with and among us, but their spirit, wisdom, knowledge, and words live on with us and through us, enlightening our minds and spirits, beacons of light to guide us as well. And yes—we, too, are stars and starpoints of light in the sky, constellations of brilliance that spiral with the turning of the heavens across time and space, touching the past and future simultaneously, part of an expansive and expanding evolving body of peoples and literatures, intellect and artistry.
Stars are not our only source of light and enlightenment—we are inspired and nourished in this way by our land as well. For example, Kohemālamalama o Kanaloa is an alternative, poetic name for a smaller, uninhabited, and relatively unknown island located to the south of Maui in the Hawaiian archipelago, more commonly known as Kaho‘olawe. Kaho‘olawe means “to carry,” referring to the ocean currents. Kohemālamalama o Kanaloa is “The bright shining vagina of Kanaloa.” Kanaloa is one of the four major male gods associated with the ocean, and metaphorically represents the ocean. Kanaloa also means “secure, established, unmovable.” Mālamalama, a reduplication of malama, stresses the qualities of “enlightenment; shining, radiant, the light of knowledge.” It suggests mālama, to take care of, to care for. Kohe is vagina, the passageway to life in the birth process; it is also “a place that receives and nourishes.” The channel between Kaho‘olawe and the neighboring island to its west, Lāna‘i, is called Kealaikahiki, “The pathway to Tahiti.” Kaho‘olawe was an important place of navigation between Hawai‘i and Tahiti, the ancient homeland, described in both ancient chants and mo‘olelo, and modern compositions as well.
(p. 681) Kaho‘olawe is but one of many special wahi pana (sacred, storied places) in Hawai‘i treasured by Kanaka ‘Ōiwi; all people of all cultures and lands have such sacred, significant wahi pana. Perhaps what is most special about Kaho‘olawe in this context is how it became a particularly important cultural and political symbol for Kanaka Maoli beginning in the second cultural renaissance of the 1960s–1970s, a touchstone for modern Hawaiian literary nationalism that is a particularly poignant beacon of light for modern Kanaka Maoli. Despite archaeological and cultural evidence that suggests Kaho‘olawe had always been inhabited by Kanaka Maoli, beginning in the late 1890s, the island was leased out to settlers with various ranching dreams; by the early twentieth century, the land was overrun with feral goats and cattle, which all but destroyed the island’s fragile native ecosystem. When World War II broke out in 1941, the island was seized by the US military for training, including bombing raids. Growing up in Hawai‘i in the 1970s, all that most of us knew about Kaho‘olawe was through its grim modern epithet, “The Target Island.”
Around that time, a small group of Kanaka Maoli and their supporters formed the Protect Kaho‘olawe ‘Ohana (PKO) and began the long, dangerous fight of stopping the bombing, returning it to Hawaiians to be used for cultural purposes, and restoring the native ecosystem. In the 1970s, many scoffed that Kanaka Maoli had any chance to defeat the most powerful military in the world. The fight was long and not without tragedy—after occupying the island in March 1977, Hawaiian activist and Moloka‘i native George Jarrett Helm and Maui native Kimo Mitchell were declared “lost at sea,” their bodies never recovered. In 1981, the island was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, and, in 1990, President George H. W. Bush declared an end to live-fire training on the island. In 1993, 100 years after the overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom, Kaho‘olawe was declared an Island Reserve; State Law dictates specific uses, such as Native Hawaiian cultural practice. When a Hawaiian government is established, management of Kaho‘olawe will be transferred to that entity.
During the fight to reclaim and restore Kaho‘olawe, many cultural practitioners, scholars, and educators pored through old documents, stories, chants, and histories for the island, looking for everything they could to document to island’s important cultural past. Oral histories of kūpuna (elders) who had lived or worked on Kaho‘olawe or fished in its surrounding waters were recorded. Many kūpuna involved with the fight and restoration themselves recalled old chants and stories. Some, like Uncle Harry Kūnihi Mitchell, whose son Kimo was lost at sea after occupying the island in protest, composed new ones, such as “Mele o Kaho‘olawe” (Song for Kaho‘olawe) to document their times of struggle and their feelings of aloha ‘āina (love for the land, nationalism). Others, like musician, scholar, and Hawaiian nationalist Jonathan Kamakawiwo‘ole Osorio composed songs of remembrance for George Helm and Kimo Mitchell, such as “Hawaiian Soul.” Cultural practitioners, such as esteemed kumu hula (hula master) and scholar Pualani Kanaka‘ole Kanahele composed new chants to accompany revived rituals to celebrate Makahiki season on the island and to document the island’s mo‘okū‘auhau and ancient history.
(p. 682) As with other political movements of the decades since the modern cultural renaissance, the political enlightenment of the people went hand in hand with cultural enlightenment, and such cultural enlightenment was dependent upon the words of the past—the ancient chants, stories, histories, genealogies—recovered, recorded, remembered, along with the words of the present generations of composers, poets, intellectuals, activists, and scholars, writing new songs, poems, stories, chapters, and scholarship, brought together to protect and defend the small, uninhabited island traditionally known as the Bright Shining Vagina of Kanaloa against its abuse by the mightiest military in the modern world. I ka ‘ōlelo ka ola—in words there is life, hope, inspiration.
What is the future of Indigenous literary studies? We will continue to expand. New voices will join the chorus of ancient and modern artists and critics. We will not all agree with each other’s perspectives. That is the nature of makawalu. The complexities of our diversity will make us more vibrant. We will form thousands of brilliant constellations of thoughts, ideas, opinions, intellect, artistry, connecting across the broad expanse of the globe, the universe, cyberspace. We will perfect our craft with established literary genres. We will continue to create new ones. We will build literary structures and networks and admire them. Some we will decide to tear down, others we will remodel. We will continue to be enlightened. We will experience joy, and pain, and sobering realizations, and be inspired, sometimes all at once, in reading the novels and plays and poetry and stories and criticism of our ancestors and our peers and their ancestors and our collective familial and literary descendants. Some stars will die out, some starpoints will fade. But many will continue to shine brightly and illuminate the path of those willing to take a chance and look up, contemplate their wisdom and beauty. I ka ‘ōlelo ke ola—we speak it into existence, because words have power. E ola!