Lei Lāʻī: Opening Remarks for the 2019 National Humanities Conference

By Aiko Yamashiro on March 7, 2020

November 7, 2019

I want to make you a lei.

A lei is a story, about a place and a person. Each flower and material has a meaning. A personal meaning, a historical meaning. Who taught you and why. Who you make it for and why. The intention of that time and energy. The gratitude. The warmth and vulnerability of physical connection when you give a lei. The history and the story and the culture and the practice is what turns a plant and hands into a lei.

Our coworker, Rob Chang, has been teaching humanities classes in the correctional facilities here for twenty years. When he tells stories about this work, it feels to me like he is making a lei. He lays one story next to another, humbly, with space between. A sincere question, an unexpected response, a memory, a wonder. He doesn’t try to change or force anything. He listens. Always with appreciation and respect for each piece, where it came from, who it came from. Part of making a lei, like writing a poem, is beholding the beauty in each thing. Lei is more than a thing, it is also a technique. A way of being in the world.

My families are Japanese sugar plantation workers and World War II veterans, Okinawan farmers, peddlers and car repairmen, Chamorro troublemakers. We have called Hawaiʻi home for four generations, which is just a tiny amount of time. And in these ten minutes, which is just a slightly smaller amount of time, I want to offer some humble thoughts on lei as a way of thinking about the humanities, with gratitude to and in hopes that I honor many teachers who have shared so much with me, including–the ʻaʻaliʻi of Lānaʻi, the lāʻī my mother talks to in Kāneʻohe, ʻO Kalei Puakenikeni, the coconut trees of Malesso’, the crownflower at the Queen’s feet, crazy loving ‘āina o Pōhakuloa, kabeaholoikauaua o Barbers Point, grouchy and kind awamori drinkers, the guys in Hālawa Valley, and the pua of Hawaiʻi History Day. 

I want to make you a lei.

Lei is a Native Hawaiian cultural practice. Which means lei are a deep and long and lasting collaboration and cocreation between this place and the first people of this place.

This place. The Kanaka Maoli word for place is: ʻāina. ʻĀina is alive, ʻāina is its own power. It is not accurate to say ʻāina is Mother Nature, or The Environment or The Wilderness or these other sorts of things that come out of a particular English language cultural framework. Scientist, teacher, lei maker Mehana Blaich Vaughan says: ʻāina is place, ‘āina is person, ʻāina is ongoing connection and care. 

ʻĀina is people and land in long long relation with each other, such that they feed and make and story and belong to each other. ʻĀina and Kānaka together are what turned plants and hands into lei, and this has a lot to teach all of us.

Lei is not something you do to flowers. Lei is something you make in partnership with ʻāina. Asking. Only gathering if there is enough. Only gathering what is there. Giving back to ensure abundance. How long does it take a plant to make even one leaf, one flower? What did it take to make that soil? How is the water, the air? What histories and deities live in that place? And us humans–what part did we play in caring for our resource? As my little brother will say, “you gotta take care of the land so the land takes care of you.” A lei is a circle we are a part of. The everyday work of connection takes everyday time, everyday presence. How do we partner with organizations, with communities, with ʻāina itself to do humanities together? We all gotta learn to speak a lot of languages, and listen to a lot of voices, including the tides, the wind, the fish, the kalo, the ʻulu, lau hala, the stones, the mauna, the fresh water. We gotta take our time.

I want to make you a lei.

There was an educational movement to revitalize Hawaiian culture and language in the school systems that began in the mid-1980s. 

I want to pause a moment to let us wonder together about why we might need a dedicated movement to revitalize a language and culture in its very own homeland. I want you to hear the anger and pain and sadness in my voice as I think about how myself as an Indigenous person and many many others across this nation and our world have been intentionally strategically cut from our own tongues–the languages that hold our values, wisdom, love, connection to our places and our pasts and who we are. 

What are the humanities in Hawaiʻi? In the Pacific? I think the humanities are brave enough to face our hard histories and hard questions. Because thereʻs a commitment that runs to the core. Caring for culture and history means caring for the health and well-being of its people and its home. A lei is a circle we are a part of. We demand nothing less.

So the mid-1980s. In 1991, I was in first grade at Pūʻōhala Elementary School. Thanks to the work of community leaders and visionary teachers and humanities folks, the Department of Education had just a few years prior launched their kūpuna in the schools program–meaning Hawaiian elders, who did not have western-style degrees in education but who were treasured experts in many other kinds of (humanities) knowledge–became regular traveling teachers throughout elementary schools. They told us stories about birds and mountains and streams and land divisions and government and how all of these things are connected. 

Not just what, but the way they taught us. I still distinctly remember Kupuna Medeiros’s crackly voice and smile, her tender joyful way she greeted us by name and hugged each one of us every morning. Other kupuna I have met since remind me of her and teach me new things about lei. Not forcing, not scolding, gentle, encouraging green growing souls, marveling at each bright petal. Never a burden. Always a wonder, always a gift, in Auntyʻs hands. Aloha.

I want to make you a lei. 

Uncle Calvin Hoe from Hakipuʻu is a kalo farmer, a kumu, a musician, a historian. He teaches me a lot about the importance of enjoyment, challenge, activation, in this context of decolonization and reconnection. When you are practicing culture with ʻāina with each other–you feel alive in the relationship. “Itʻs fun to make lei with red tī leaf,” for example. “Fun!” He will always say. The beautiful bright circle of a lei. Fun and beauty are very serious medicine in our colonial context. We need our histories, our cultures, our identities, our languages, our ethics, our philosophies, our governance. We need lei.

This lei is for you, in honor of who you are, in thanks for the ancestors and places who made you, in recognition of the heart you bring to our gathering. The word kuleana can mean responsibility and also privilege. It is something we are given and something we earn. It is a huge kuleana to do what we are doing–to care for our stories and our cultures and our connections. To listen, to speak. When the kuleana scares you, as it sometimes scares me, I hope you will wear this lei like an embrace. A reminder of all the ones who hold you tightly, believing in us and our dedication to our peoples, our ʻāina, and each other.