by Romin Lee Johnson
Indigenous peoples and communities have long used stories to understand the world and our place in it. Seedcast is a story-centered podcast by Nia Tero and a special monthly column produced in partnership with the South Seattle Emerald about nurturing and rooting stories of the Indigenous experience.
We are now in our third month of Indigenous storytelling with this wonderful mixed-media column of personal essay, podcast, poetry, and imagery. This month we want to underscore, through this reflection on episode two of Seedcast, the voices of two charismatic Pasifika leaders who demonstrate the ability to navigate the western world of politics with a deeply rich and culturally nuanced balance of Indigenous-centered policy.
In the second episode of Seedcast, Nia Tero’s Jessica Ramirez interviews two well-respected elders at the forefront of Indigenous Pacific Islander issues, Taholo Kami of Fiji and Sen. J. Kalani English of Hawai‘i. In this episode, they each reflect on the Pacific Islander tradition of talk story as an act of resilience, identity and public policy, youthful romanticism for the past, and how these island communities have had to adapt in the age of COVID-19.
Taholo Kami is Tongan-born, was raised in Papua New Guinea and currently resides in Suva, Fiji. He is a senior policy advisor for Nia Tero on Indigenous issues affecting Oceania but with a particular eye on climate policy. His deep, measured voice commands attention — not in an intimidating way but in a way that effortlessly invites discussion. He embodies the essence of talanoa, a traditional Fijian term denoting an inclusive gathering for productive discussion.
Kami reminds us that even in Pacific Islander cultures, privilege is not black and white but rather a spectrum of gender, class, ability and cultural access, along which its constituents —and especially its representative leaders — must constantly check themselves.
“Is there a color to privilege? Is it just white privilege or do we have to recognize and challenge what is perceived as privilege all the time?” Kami wonders aloud. “What does identity in the context of privilege mean? How does it carry across from the village to those in the urban setting or out into the diaspora? Given our different narratives, we always have to ensure that our interpretations of issues on behalf of even our own people are inclusive.”
Sen. English is a Kanaka Maoli, also known as Native Hawaiian, and is senate majority leader of the state of Hawai‘i, and although he considers himself an “accidental politician,” he is a politician with purpose. As a Hawaiian leader, it is critical for him to find a balance between Hawai‘i as a state and Hawai‘i as a kingdom that long predates U.S. intervention.
For untold generations, Kanaka Maoli were self-reliant, with intricate social, spiritual, and food systems that supported their own thriving communities. As a region of voyagers, for many generations Hawaiians traveled throughout Polynesia with purpose and voyaging mastery. The islands were a multi-ethnic society in which many cultural groups co-existed, guided by traditional protocols for interacting. But in 1893, U.S. forces illegally overthrew Queen Lili‘uokalani and deposed the nation’s constitutional monarchy, throwing Native Hawaiian society into chaos and eventually leading to the kingdom’s forced annexation in 1898. More than a century later, Native Hawaiians continue to confront their difficult and complex history.
“Yes, we’re politically integrated into the American system, but it doesn’t mean that we give up our Pacific identity, nor do we give up our language, our culture, our heritage, nor our background,” Sen. English says passionately. “And we’re still alive, thriving, well, and are regenerating and generating.”
Both Kami and Sen. English identify a certain yearning for tradition among younger generations that is heartening — wearing cultural tattoos and costume with pride, a longing to return to subsistence farming traditions like raising taro and expressing love for their culture through art and music. And while some in the elder generations see this sudden interest among youth as little more than cultural virtue signaling, Kami and Sen. English hope to cultivate it into something lasting and meaningful.
And perhaps this reclamation couldn’t have come at a more important moment. COVID-19 has necessitated a hard look at how reliant these Pacific Islander communities such as Hawai‘i have become on imported goods from the mainland. According to Sen. English, 98–99% of all goods in Hawai‘i are imported, and COVID lockdowns have exacerbated this unsustainable sustenance model.
In this moment of transition, due to the pandemic, Hawai‘i and other island nations have had to look to their past in order to survive the challenges of the present. Many are embracing this opportunity to explore and reconnect with more sustainable practices. There are practical challenges though. Sen. English laments the lack of traditional villages, infrastructure, and available arable land in Hawai‘i, and yet spoke with pride about how his island, and especially the youth, have come together at a grassroots level to provide for those in need during the pandemic by helping with food gathering and mutual aid.
Kami and Sen. English consider themselves lifelong friends with a shared passion for Pasifika peoples and traditions. They represent a single link that makes up a sprawling yet cohesive web of personal connections throughout Oceania, a collective talanoa that will continue to prove critical when facing the growing challenges facing Indigenous peoples like climate change. It seems that nowhere does that old motto e pluribus unum — “out of many, one” — apply more than in the Pacific Islands.
Romin Lee Johnson is a writer, journalist, and grantee of Nia Tero as the producer of “The Sacred & the Snake,” a feature documentary film about Standing Rock.
Featured image: Taro field on Kauai, Hawai‘i (Photo provided by Nia Tero)