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Running Into Wealth

Ua lawa mākou i ka pōhaku

I ka ʻai kamahaʻo o ka ʻāina

We are satisfied with the stones

Astonishing food of the land

- Ellen Kehoʻohiwaokalani Wright Prendergast

Some time ago, I sat in on a virtual meeting just like any other in this pandemic reality, but this time we talked about poverty. Specifically, a guest speaker was invited to talk about “poverty culture.” There are hundreds of instances and nuances I could list about how wrong this conversation went, but what wrung me by my gut was her mentioning of “running into wealth.” She mentioned that growing up in poverty had been her normal, and she didn’t know she was poor until she ran into friends whose parents owned houses (on stolen lands), had nice clothes (on stolen lands), drove fancy cars (on stolen lands).

I think you can guess where I’m going with this...

In all the generalizations this woman was making of what poverty is, and what it makes of a person, I noticed that “wealth” in her context was material possession—the things you can have or own, when you have money. That may be so in the context of whiteness, where the early settlers chose to rip their ancestral roots out of their grounds in exchange for power, but as a person whose ancestors treated our homelands as family, wealth and I have a vastly different understanding of each other.

I am a Kanaka woman from the Island of Oʻahu. In Hawaiian, our word for wealth is “waiwai”—that’s freshwater twofold. Water in Hawaiʻi, like everywhere else in the world, is life. The wealthiest person in the eyes of our nation’s leaders, had water flowing from the mountains to the sea, nourishing and molding all things in between. From this, we were rich in sustenance and relationships with all the things that nourish us. Ownership was not a concept. This is how I feel wealth in my naʻau, but in modern Hawaiʻi, living off the land—our eldest sibling—is nigh impossible and riddled with obstacles.

In modern Hawaiʻi, there is no “running into wealth” because it’s in your face constantly. As a child, when I woke up and caught my first glance of the day, I saw concrete buildings, metal fences, and signs to warn the passerby of “trespassing.” The very concept of “private property” and trespassing on the unceded lands of an illegally occupied nation is colonial wealth in my face. Poverty to the Indigenous Person is not just about lacking necessities or possessions. It’s about looking at your ancestral homelands and knowing that you can’t visit the lands privately owned by haole, and that your people are likely not in positions to manage public lands. It’s having to pay a state-run university to teach you the culture the state itself ripped away from your people. Poverty is the symptom of learning that ninety percent of your people died in the span of one hundred years due to foreign disease and other brutalities. It’s not knowing your ancestors because the communication of their histories was broken with the banishment of your language. It’s your family paying twenty-five hundred dollars in rent every month to the haole man that owns the house you live in, on the lands your ancestors died for. It’s watching tourists pay five hundred dollars a night to experience the “luxury” of “paradise” while there are Native Hawaiians sleeping in the streets and dying of chronic illnesses previously unknown to us. It’s lack of sovereignty. It’s watching an illegally occupying government prioritize the development of a telescope on your most sacred mountain, knowing full well that further construction will disrupt a highly delicate and endemic ecosystem, for the extraction that Western science demands and for money your people will never see. It’s watching on the news from thousands of miles away as flash floods destroy Native food production practices, knowing that the old forests that would have lessened these tidal blows were chopped away and replaced with the lesser roots of invasive species. The list goes on.

When the goal of pushing Indigenous Peoples into physical, spiritual, mental, and financial poverty is so deeply entrenched in the systems such as those in Hawaiʻi (and, dare I say, the rest of the United States), there is nothing left for the Indigenous Person to do but to uproot the systems. But how? How can we uproot centuries-old oppression, and what the average settler learned to believe was simply “the norm”? How do we restore traditional wealth? Together.

How do we do this, when the earth itself is in the throes of colonial abuse? As recent flash floods ripped through loʻi kalo cultivated by traditional mahiʻai, my heart broke. When natural “disasters” like these happen, it’s hard not to take them personally. Yet, in a time of communal grief, we must keep going. My response was to pour myself into the work that I do, building curriculum for emergency responders serving Indigenous communities, and serving a council that works with Indigenous-led nonprofits to secure grant money. I have the fortunate circumstance, where both of these duties have to do with serving each other, and making sure the next generation will be in better hands even after I’ve met my ancestors at the leina (the leaping place of spirits). It was when I was working on curriculum—trying to get my mind off the flooding, to do some good—that I received an email from one of my favorite teachers from high school, telling me she had submitted her grant proposal and reassuring me that her farm and family had not been harmed.

In Pasifika, running into wealth is not difficult. Our islands are naturally full of the very riches needed to sustain life: water, clean air, dense forests, non-human relatives of the lands and seas, and family. Yet, our peoples have suffered great losses in culture, spirituality, and autonomy at the hands of Western and East Asian imperialism. We are now impoverished, not because the resources have completely gone away, but because the ability to steward our lands have been ripped away. Today, our hands are bound with the circumstances of our captors, while the lifeblood of our islands face extraction or destruction for overseas profits that will one day have no real value. It is of utmost importance that we regain our sovereignty through our own efforts as Indigenous Pasifika Peoples, so that we may re-center our lands and seas as wealth. Despite what we’ve lost, our peoples have still made waves on the global scale with our voices, our educational practices, and our canoes. Despite the uphill battles we have ahead of us, we must continue to take action for ourselves, and with our ancestors behind us.

How do we move forward? Together.


Hōkūlani Rivera is a Kanaka woman who grew up in Pauoa Valley, Oʻahu. Having been raised in her homelands, she uses writing as a way to express the mixed emotions that come with living and learning Indigenous, while being exposed to occupation and the over-commercialization of nohona Hawaiʻi. When Hōkūlani is not writing, she is working as an AmeriCorps VISTA member, a curriculum consultant for FEMA, a student of the Hawaiʻinuiākea School of Hawaiian Knowledge at UH Mānoa, and a council member for the Climate Adaptation & Mitigation Program Fostering Indigenous Relationships and Education (CAMPFIRE) Council.


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