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Where EAST meets the Northwest

From The Asian Reporter, V16, #18 (May 2, 2006), page 19.

Entwined and dependent, in a good way

The Hawaiians: Reflecting Spirit

Produced and directed by Edgy Lee
Distributed by FilmWorks Pacific, 2005
DVD, 58 minutes, $26.95

By Josephine Bridges

The Hawaiians: Reflecting Spirit packs a staggering amount of information into less than an hour, beginning with the birth of the Hawaiian islands from both a spiritual and a geological perspective. In a Hawaiian creation story related here, nature is "the elder brother of mankind." Not only are humanity and nature inextricably connected, "the land is chief, man is her servant."

Against the background of stunning photographs of molten lava amid breaking waves, the geological story of Hawaii’s beginnings unfolds. Hawaii is not only one of the world’s largest mountain ranges, "with most of its mass hidden under water," it is also "one of the most isolated places on earth."

It took millions of years for plants, animals, and humans to populate the bare rock that was Hawaii’s original landscape, but it took only two centuries to make this idyllic locale "the endangered species capital of the world." In 1778, with the arrival of Captain James Cook, the westernization of Hawaii began. This brought such advantages as a written language — within 20 years of its inception, Hawaii had attained the highest literacy rate in the world — and such disadvantages as smallpox, cholera, venereal disease, and typhoid to a people who had never suffered so much as the common cold. Ninety percent of Hawaii’s population perished from these diseases.

As if the few remaining native Hawaiians didn’t have troubles enough, by the mid-1800s foreign business interests and governments pressured Hawaii’s king to treat the land not as an elder to be respected, but as a commodity to be divided, bought, and sold. In 1893, with the nation of Hawaii deeply in debt, the queen was deposed in an illegal coup. Five years later the islands were annexed to the United States. Grover Cleveland, who had ordered an investigation into U.S. participation in the coup and opposed the annexation during his presidency, wrote, "As I look back upon the first steps in this miserable business, and as I contemplate the means used to complete this outrage, I am ashamed of the whole affair." Twenty years later, 42 percent of the entire native population of Hawaii was living in the city of Honolulu, far from their elder brother, the land. In 1959, Hawaii became the 50th of the United States. "While masses celebrated in the streets, many felt profound sadness."

The final portion of The Hawaiians: Reflecting Spirit is a series of interviews with Hawaiians who are trying to nudge their future in the direction of their distant past, rather than their recent past. Inspired by the U.S. civil rights movement, within a decade of Hawaii’s statehood, Hawaiians began to explore their own heritage.

Nainoa Thompson is Hawaii’s first celestial navigator of modern times. Exploring the Pacific as his ancestors did in a large seafaring double-hulled canoe, he maintains, "Our culture wasn’t lost, it wasn’t dead, it was sleeping."

Hawaiian healer Alapai Kahuena learned about the medicinal properties of plants from her grandmother and one of the islands’ most respected healers. She shares her knowledge freely, including some concepts unfamiliar to Westerners, such as, "You have to have faith that the medicine will work."

The first Hawaiian to receive a Ph.D. in science, Dr. Isabella Abbott is a professor of botany and ethnobotany at the University of Hawaii. "A scientist and a Hawaiian, her life and career have proven one can embody both modes of thinking — intuitive and empirical."

John Kaina, a farmer, speaks with eloquent simplicity: "Take care of the land. That’s where we all came from and that’s where we’re all going." Wilma Holi’s family has been making salt since the 1700s. "Despite intrusive government interference wanting to regulate the making of salt and others who are disrespectful of the culture," she says, her voice quavering with passion, "despite all odds, we continue."

Composer and musician Keri Kealii Reichel, "who brought Hawaiian music, dance, and chant into the mainstream of world music," is respected both internationally and at home in Hawaii. His complex and compelling rhythms play in the background as he contends, "It is never a question of whether I can make my Hawaiian-ness fit into my career, it’s making my career and whatever else I do in my life fit my Hawaiian-ness."

Senator Daniel Akaka has represented Hawaii in the U.S. Senate since 1990. His parents, who grew up during Hawaii’s monarchy, believed that their children should learn English and become Westerners, but when he began to raise his own children, Daniel Akaka "felt strongly that my family should be more Hawaiian than I was."

There’s a fascinating look at Niihau, also known as the Forbidden Island, which is privately owned and inhabited by native Hawaiians "who speak the dialect their ancestors spoke centuries ago." Kupuna Kahala Kanahele, a Niihau elder, tells her own life story with the same grace and dignity usually reserved for a society’s most revered chronicles, beginning and ending with the same sad words.

But The Hawaiians: Reflecting Spirit ends on a happy note. Against the backdrop of the ocean and the faces of Hawaiian elders, the narrator reiterates the goals of native Hawaiians — to sustain an identity, determine a future, self-govern, share the wisdom of the ancestors, and lead the world in the spirit of Aloha — and concludes, "From the creation myths of Hawaii, we have always known we are entwined and dependent on the beauty and abundance of nature."