Mai Hilahila: Uncomfortable Conversations are our Kuleana


Survivors of the Maui wildfires have embarked upon the long road they must travel to regain some sense of the normalcy and repose that constituted their lives before the fires raged in August.

Deeply personal and painful loss is at the center of heated debates ranging from who is to blame for the devastation, how effectively the response was rendered, and what the rebuilding process will entail.

While these conversations are uncomfortable, it is our kuleana to aloha one another by embracing this discomfort. It’s a time to invite complex and critical thought, and it’s a time for listening.

We are in a polycrisis – a period of great disagreement, confusion, and suffering that is caused by many different problems happening at the same time so that they, together, have a very big effect.

Articles have surfaced telling the history of the marginalization and dispossession of Hawaiians by American businessmen who, in concert with the United States, forcibly overthrew Queen Liliʻuokalani and the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi; how their plantation systems ended the ahupuaʻa system of diversified agriculture and diverted and dewatered Native Hawaiian communities who depended upon that water to survive.

Analysis of the global climate crisis provides additional insight into understanding forces that fanned the flames.

The Office of Hawaiian Affairs’ longstanding efforts to return stolen water to Native Hawaiian communities are legion. Lahaina, once known as the “Venice of the Pacific,” was a lush wetland with fresh waterways coursing through it before it was dewatered and became dry and parched. These histories tell of America’s imposition of settler laws designed to elevate the rights of business interests over Native Hawaiians living in the western region of Maui known as Maui Komohana (West Maui).

To move forward, we must acknowledge what got us here. Sometimes love comes in the form of accountability.

Most Hawaiians I know pride themselves on their relations with one another and their practice of aloha. We are a networked people and our connections have lifted our lāhui through numerous trials and tribulations.

We are haʻahaʻa (humble). We fill each other’s cup even when we’re running on empty. We are generous. We are pono. It is due to these, and many other immeasurable qualities, that I am proud to be a Kanaka Maoli.

However, we must be careful not to subconsciously carry out the legacy of colonialism which blurs the lines between humility and shame.

Shame means we are told, time and time again, “Eh, no ask questions,” and, “If you no can say something nice, more better you say nothing.” We’ve become so accustomed to being silenced that we participate in silencing ourselves.

We do the work of the oppressor and suppress one another in the name of respectability politics and to “make nice.” This line of behavior precisely follows the playbook for internalized oppression.

It’s like thinking about who we might run into at the family lūʻau – a son who works in tourism, a cousin who is in real estate, a sister who teaches in Hawaiian immersion, an aunty who works as a county planner, and a friend who is a kalo farmer – everyone wearing the hat that pays the bills. Yes, we all must survive and make a living, but we must also remember that we are connected as Hawaiians and locals first and foremost.

Cultural and historical erasure occurs in moments like this, where, because of our desire to be aloha with those with whom we come into contact in that moment, we pretend we have not been colonized.

That is because the recitation of that history, and the truth-telling of our present, brutal reality makes us feel uncomfortable and puts us at odds with people who are our friends and relations – those who are simply trying to survive in a Hawaiʻi which they feel powerless to change.

Being pono and having moral clarity calls upon us to speak up when our internal dialogue urges us to remain silent. Being pono means listening to those across the aisle, and across the table from us, even – and especially – when it makes us think about and feel aspects of our identity that we may have buried.

It is a false binary to believe that we must choose to either recall our true history or to soldier on in the present reality and simply “make the best of” the situation.

Rather, we are asked now to uplift a plurality – one where we work shoulder to shoulder together in the present with aloha for all whom we encounter – and stand upon the shoulders of our kūpuna by speaking up and by speaking our truth.

“Mai hilahila” means “donʻt be shame.”