Nā Kapu Kai:
Successfully Integrating Indigenous Epistemologies into Western Conservation Policies and Practices
(Remarks Given at the Sharing Power Conference, January 13, 2011 – Whakatane, Aotearoa)
Kapu is one of those native words that got colonized. Today, foreigners use it in Hawai`i in conjunction with a symbolic “X” to mark off that which is taboo or forbidden. And while one of the meanings or interpretations of the word can mean forbidden, it is better understood to mean “regulated” and/or “sacred.” Therefore, when I come before you today to speak of “Nā Kapu Kai” I come to speak both of how indigenous people not only defined what was ecologically sacred but to speak about the reality that all indigenous peoples took steps to regulated and managed their sacred resources. You see, conservation and natural resource management are not new, nor western constructs – they are inherently indigenous.
I am the lineal descendant of both chiefs and colonizers. My respective ancestors excelled in both. I am more recently the granddaughter of a Hawaiian civil engineer and daughter of a hunter and fisherman. I grew up in a family where both math and fishing were necessities. Yet, more often than not, you will never find me in family photos. After my grandfather passed, my family gathered to go through family albums. At some point, someone noticed that I seemed to be in no pictures. Challenged by this, my entire family searched albums wondering why I was in no photos, until a cousin finally spotted me in one – in the background, in a corner, reading a book.
I finished two bachelors by 22; a master’s in American Studies a year later, with a thesis that looked at environmental racism in Hawai`i; I completed by law degree plus an environmental law certificate three years after that in 2003, and if that weren’t enough I then went back to complete a PhD in American Studies specializing in indigenous epistemologies and traditional natural resource management. I was plucked from the ranks along the way to work in research and environmental compliance at the University of Hawai`i. Two years ago I left to start my own native consulting company. Today, I advise governments on cultural and environments issues.
I need to note with a great deal of conviction that any success I have seen has been due to the fact that I work with people in government agencies who have shown an extraordinary willingness to work with me and other indigenous people. I consider myself blessed to work with such wonderful, non-native scientists and managers. This is not to say that there are not challenges, but working with people who have helped to craft solutions has given me much greater insight into where the systemic difficulties remain.
So let’s get into the problems, so we can talk about solutions.
First, “environmental problems” are defined by western science, not indigenous knowledges of realities. It is not enough that we have been howling that our environments have been under attack for years. Until there is “science” to show it, the problem does not exist.
Therefore, western science defines the problem. They control the science. They dictate policy, and thereby the money and mandates. From policy, money and mandates we return again to science, still controlled by the west. Then comes “management,” still a western controlled practice. Then finally, implementation, when maybe, just maybe – indigenous people will be considered “stakeholders” and be “consulted.”
The system is biased.
But there is a system. And when you know the system, you can change it.
So let’s discuss solutions and success:
FIND YOUR CHAMPIONS
They are individuals. They are the cogs in the machine who want to help; who know they need to help. If you are a native person – find your champion. If you are not native – become a champion.
Once you have made your match, it is up to the indigenous people at the table.
Native people: first, get in the door. Second, be great.
How do you get in the door? True, finding a champion is not enough. The bottom line is education. We live in a world where letters after you name count. Get them. Use them. If you cannot get them, make sure your children do. Neither of my parents graduated from college, but they made sure I did.
If you get in the door, you must be great. It is not enough to be good. Be great. Be ready to lead, and lead well, for from your actions as one, all your people will be judged. It is a reality of being indigenous. If you succeed, you will be able to open the door for others. If you fail, the door shuts to all of you.
It is important to note that greatness is not greatness by a western standard. Yes, that factors in, but it is not the key factor. Greatness comes from being good at what you do. Every time I’ve been hired by a government entity, they tell me what they want and need. Most times, I immediately turn around and tell them that what they want and need is neither what they want nor need.
The ability to do this comes from four factors:
1. I have the academic background (so people don’t question my qualifications);
2. I have the experience and thereby confidence to make good management decisions;
3. I listen to my kūpuna and community; and
4. I listen to the land.
I never realized how important self-confidence was until I got into my thirties. It was only then that I started to pick my fights. (I picked my fights when I was younger too, but the problem was that I was picking every fight.)
It is important to pick your fights, and it is important to develop the emotional maturity to keep your passion under control.
Americans have a song, “This land is your land… this land is my land.”
This absurd song and its chorus of land ownership helped to identify the bizarre struggle between natives and non-natives over ecological relationships. I like to call it “the competition for Earth Mother’s love.” The reality is that when it comes to conservation and management, both sides need to get past the competition over who is more committed to the land.
I have no doubt that most people love the land.
I imagine that for non-natives, when environmental degradation occurs, it is as if you are watching a woman being beaten. And it elicits emotion and passion, because no woman should be abused or beaten. But for us, for indigenous people, it is as if we are watching our mother being raped. And we have been watching it for hundreds of years.
We love her too.
And however we got here, however we see her, we now share her.
We must set aside fighting over her and get to saving her.
Therefore, western science must immediately start to better value native models of environmental commitment, knowledge and ecological excellence. And native people need to stop acting as if our ecological practices were stagnant. We were innovative and brilliant; one did not exist absent the other. We were scientists, engineers, biologists – we must not be afraid to charge into those fields. Valuable data exists in our knowledges – and our ancestors used it to define, regulate and protect our sacred resources. We must continue to do the same.
And we must charge into those fields in which indigenous people globally remain underrepresented while embracing indigenous ecological methodologies. I have yet to discover an indigenous people whose knowledge systems did not encompass three basic principles:
1. They were non-linear
2. They utilized multiple epistemologies
3. They embraced multiple ontologies
For native people, spirit and science are not only non-exclusive, but they are symbiotic.
So I come with specific advice:
Non-Natives: two words, LET GO.
Let go of your ego.
Let go of your need to know everything.
Let go of your need to quantify and rationalize everything.
Let go of your need to access and control.
Please let go of your need to speak and act for us.
Native People: six words, BE PATIENT. BE PERSISTANT. BE RESILIANT.
My kūpuna only ever gave me two pieces of advice: ho’omanawanui and pololei.
Ho`omanawanui: Be patient. Pololei: Stay on the right course. Those two words have shaped by life.
Patience is perhaps easy to understand, but staying on the right course is often harder for people.
I do so by following basic cultural protocols.
Kūpuna is our word for elders. `Āina is our word for land. The two have much in common. `Āina literally translated to “that which feeds us.” Therefore, I see kūpuna as `āina too. They also feed me, as the land feeds me. They feed me knowledge and guidance.
In my culture it is rude to not eat what you are given. I apply this to the community and the kūpuna. I take in everything that is put in front of me. I treat all of it as a gift. And I think that it is important to point out to the youth here that this is a symbolic practice with wide implications.
As youth, you are simply fed by others. You only job is to digest what you are given.
As you become older, your role changes. You can develop preferences for what and where you eat. You learn to gather and prepare food for yourselves. You become responsible for feeding others.
Learn to apply this principle to knowledge and leadership.
So in summary, find your champions, but we must all also find the champions within ourselves.
I must admit that I have trouble with the theme of this conference: shared power.
What power? Nature has all the power. She always has.
Our transformation must be one into a shared vision for survival.
Not for the land, she will survive us.
Not for us, we have it easy.
The reason we are here, the reason any of us are really here is that we know we must implement a shared path of survival for our children, and for their children and their children’s children.
It is for those who shall inherit our consequences tomorrow that we must become champions today.