Here’s another way of Un-Seeing, one involving time and space.
Google what “Hawaiian time” means and you will probably get some variation of “late.” Sometimes the definition comes with a fifteen-minute grace-period added and, often, there’s a bit of humor-filled tolerance included.
As more than one entry so delicately puts it, we island people are afflicted by a “relaxed indifference to precise scheduling.” Uh-huh.
These days, many of us have speeded up some.
Some of that is just modern living. As things crowd in and everything moves faster and faster around us, even the slower-moving ones pick up speed.
Time gets chopped up smaller and smaller and we are compelled, it seems, to cram more doing into those little bits of time.
Some of it’s about getting more in tune with goal- and future-oriented thinking.
Some of it is just another facet of being a different kind of polite, another way of showing respect.
THEY GOT IT WRONG
The thing is, all those folks on Google got it mostly wrong.
For Hawaiians, at least, time flows deep and wide.
As an ocean people, we are aware that we are sailing off into unknown waters pushed by winds and wave, guided by the stars and by our own knowledge, sustained by our skills.
We depend on each other to help all of us deal with whatever we encounter. We are on the same boat and the ocean is very big.
We know. We are all in this together and each of us depends on every other one to try to help us all get to a better place.
Each of us gets a turn to try.
TIME (AND SPACE) AND ANOTHER WAY OF UN-SEEING
There is a Hawaiian proverb that says, “I ka wā ma mua, ka wā ma hope.” One translation of that phrase is this: “In the past, the future is.” An even looser one is, “We look to the past as a guide to the future.”
However, the proverb itself, when translated literally, is layered with meaning and reveals itself as something of a paradox.
The term for the past in Hawaiian, “i ka wā ma mua,” literally means “the space/time in front of your body” and the one for the future, “i ka wā ma hope,” means “the space/time in back of your body.”
Hawaiian historian Lilikala Kame’eleihiwa was one of the first modern-day native scholars to point out and elaborate on this concept. She said, “It is as if the Hawaiian stands firmly in the present with his back to the future and his eyes fixed upon the past, seeking historical answers to present day dilemmas.”
It sounds like Hawaiians look forward into the past and walk backwards into the future, doesn’t it?
But, in a very pragmatic way, the people who are sensitive to indigenous ways of walking and who look towards the traditions of their culture for solutions to complicated modern problems accept the reality that we humans are blind to the future.
The best of the wise ones are also aware that many of the problems we now face were once addressed quite handily by the people who lived before us. (Trying to live a “sustainable” life, for example, is a supposedly “new” solution that native peoples lived every day for centuries.)
Often, those who honor cultural traditions will choose to look at and pay attention to the old ones’ solutions when they brainstorm ways of dealing with the newest iterations of age-old problems.
NON-LINEAR NATIVE TIME
This concept of looking to the distant past for solutions to present-day and future problems may be a bit confusing for more modern-minded folks.
It directly contradicts the Western view that the past is “behind us” and our future lies “before” or “ahead” of us. It refuses to agree that the past is something we need to let go so we can get on with doing the future.
To many native peoples, however, time is not particularly linear.
The native view involves cycles within cycles, day and night, season following season, generation following generation. Time spirals outward, accompanied by the rhythm of continuing heartbeats and the ins-and-outs of breaths.
The past and the ancestors are remembered. They are honored and respected as much as the ones who stand beside you now and the ones who are coming up behind you.
TOEING THE LINE
The aboriginal peoples of Australia, who are arguably among the oldest peoples in the world, call modern people “the line people.” To these ancient cultures, Line-People Time is a relentless progression, always looking and moving ahead, never stopping, never doubling-back.
Every new iteration of an old problem the line people encounter demands “better” and “improved” solutions than those tried in the past. All of it is supposed to be guided by visions of what-might-be.
It does work. Sometimes, though, the baby gets thrown out with the bath-water.
One example of this is the Big Agriculture “solution” that swallowed up small, sustainable family farms and ranches, erased a wide diversity of food-crops, and eliminated farm animal breeds that were not so profitable.
Visionary, forward-looking solutions that were supposed to help feed more and more people often created present-day monster-problems as farmlands become less and less productive, as foods become less nourishing, as problematic pests mutate and proliferate, and as resources that once renewed themselves no longer do.
LOOKING BACK INTO THE FUTURE
In the backward-walking conceptualization of time, telling the old stories and lessons learned as well as trying some variant of the old way is at least as important as racing off, blinded by visions, and flinging yourself unthinking into new.
This other way of seeing allows a person (and a culture) the time to integrate the best of the new with what is still valuable in the old.
It lets a person and a people keep track of who they are and helps them stay connected with their deeper humanity as they flow along the streams of change into the brave new world forming all around them.
For many, it is not that the traditional solutions that have worked in the past are the only ones worthy of consideration as we face the complexities of our problems today.
What is important, however, is the idea that perhaps the effective solutions we are seeking for our current problems have already been tried in the past and might still work if they are adapted to new circumstances and situations.
Poet, writer and Hawaiian activist Dana Naone Hall, in her book, LIFE OF THE LAND: Articulations of a Native Writer, expresses this idea beautifully, “In my thinking, traditions are not monolilthic. They must be continually refreshed at the roots by the present and next generations. This is your challenge and birthright as ‘Ōiwi (people of the bone) in the twenty-first century.”
THE FIRST HAWAIIAN VOYAGING CANOE IN SIX HUNDRED YEARS
This YouTube video, “Worldwide Voyage, History of Hōkūle’a and Polynesian Voyaging” was published in 2014 by Oiwi TV.
The film documents the start of a journey to circumnavigate the world by Hawaii’s most famous modern-day traditional sailing canoe, which was built by a group of enthusiastic volunteers over a two-year period and first launched in 1976 from Kualoa Beach Park in Kaneohe on Oahu.
Three men — artist and historian Herb Kane, nautical anthropologist Ben Finney, and writer and rough-waterman/sailor (Charles) Tommy Holmes — had a dream more than 40 years ago.
They wanted to answer a question: How did Polynesians settle the far-flung islands of the mid-Pacific? By accident, as some scholars claimed? Or by design?
After the canoe’s first voyage to Tahiti, from May 1, 1976 to June 3, 1976, with the skillful master Micronesian wayfinder Mau Piailug guiding the canoe using his traditional knowledge of the stars, the waves, and the winds, they had their answer: The islands of the Pacific were not settled by accident.
[For more about the sailing canoe’s worldwide voyage, you can check out Sara Kehaulani Goo’s article on the NPR (National Public Radio) online newsletter, “Hōkūle’a, the Hawaiian Canoe Traveling the World By a Map of the Stars” by clicking the button below.]
NATIVES NAVIGATING WITHOUT INSTRUMENTS
The sailing canoe’s maiden voyage also helped to spark a continuing and evolving interest in old island ways and the practices of their native peoples.
A historic connection between all of the native peoples of the islands of the Pacific as well as along the coastlines of lands bordering the ocean was renewed and revitalized and continues to strengthen with time.
The native peoples are remembering.
They have become acutely aware of a traditional perspective of time and space that reflects the spiral (a key metaphor especially in Polynesian poetry and arts) which some say represents a doubling back and a reconnecting with the past for the benefit of the future.
Traditional crafts and native practices and mindsets flourish and, for many people, they have become ways to help make sense out of the confusion of modern life.
Each person, regardless of their culture, fashions their own life using legacies left to them by those who came before. How not?
It is a basic truth that our ancestors live on in us in our DNA. This brain and heart and body are structurally the same as those possessed by human beings 150,000 years ago.
Is it such a mind-wrench to go from there to the possibility that this brain, this heart, and this body works and feels and functions in the same way that theirs did?
Is it such a mind-boggle to believe that the ways our ancestors lived their lives might hold answers to the dilemmas we currently face?
NOW IS OUR TURN TO TRY
The thing to remember, I suppose, is that each generation spends their time in the world trying to live their lives the best way they know how.
We are, each of us, a part of a journey that began a long time ago. The journey will probably continue long after we are gone.
In the meantime, while we are here, remaining mindful of our ancestors might bring us to the understanding that this time now is just our turn to try.
At some point in the future, each of us will become an ancestor to the generations that follow us. Perhaps we can hope that they, too, will remember and honor us and the way we lived.
THREE WAYS OF WALKING WITH THE ANCESTORS
Every one of us humans walks our own walk.
Here are three You-Tube videos about the choices made by individual Hawaiians who are taking their turn at trying….
The first video, “Hula Is More Than a Dance – It’s the ‘Heartbeat’ of the Hawaiian People,” is a short film by filmmaker Bradley Tangonan which was featured in the National Geographic Short Film Showcase in 2018.
The film features kumu hula (hula teacher) Leina’ala Jardin, who explains what she feels is her “kuleana,” her responsibility, to pass on the traditions of Hawaiian dance.
This next video is a trailer for “Sons of Halawa,” an award-winning feature documentary about elder Pilipo Solatario and the old-style life he and his family continue to pursue in Halawa Valley.
It was produced by Molokai filmmaker Matt Yamashita (QuaziFilms) and was broadcast on PBS in 2016.
This third video was published in 2013 by Tomorrow Ancestor and features Cliff Kapono. At the time the film was made, Kapono was pursuing a Ph.D. in Chemical Biology at the University of California San Diego.
Here’s a poem:
HAWAIIANS TEACH BY LIVING
“Kuli, kuli…too much noise,”
Tutu would always say
To the loud and curious grandchild
Who ran around all day,
Looking for the answers,
Wanting to know NOW,
Always looking for shortcuts,
Grumbling about ‘as how.
Too much questions,
Too much talking,
Too much namunamu.
Close your mouth, move your hands.
One day you will understand.
Lessons you learn in silence,
Watching hands move
With graceful skill.
Lessons you find in silence,
Hearing old voices,
Talking long and slow.
Lessons you see in silence,
By doing it over
Again and again.
Lessons you feel in silence,
While the old ones play.
Hawaiians teach by living.
It’s the only way they know.
If you want to learn, be still.
When you stop making noise,
They will show.
by Netta Kanoho
Header photo credit: “Kahoolawe, Hawaii” by Justin De La Ornellas via Flickr [CC BY-NC 2.0]
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