EP. 2 / Hawaii

Reclaiming History

Besides his own teaching and research Keanu supports a broad range of Hawaiian educational and advocacy initiatives.

One of these includes the Hawaiian Society of Law and Politics, a multi-disciplinary, multi-national, multi-ethnic student organization he founded in 2003 that conducts research and produces educational curriculum on Hawaii’s history.

I joined Keanu for a get together with some of the members one afternoon for a discussion that went long into the night…

Dr. Keanu Sai, Political Scientist, University of Hawaii

Traveling with Keanu, I’ve experienced how he’s relying on education to reclaim Hawaii’s history in a number of schools and universities.  

But today, I’m about to see just how far his message goes.

Each Wednesday he teaches a history class at Women’s Community Correctional Center in Kailua, Hawaii. They use his book Ua Mau Ke Ea as required reading, and cover Hawaii’s history from King Kamehameha I all the way until today.

When the warden, Mark Patterson, invited Keanu to bring his program to the prison he joked, “you know the conclusion the women incarcerated here are going to come to on the last day of class is that the courts that convicted them are illegal.”

Mark Patterson, Warden at Women’s Community Correctional Center

As we enter the correction centre, we’re greeted by Mark who tells me how important this program is to the disproportionate number of inmates who are of native Hawaiian descent. Then I’m introduced to a classroom full of women ready to continue their studies with Keanu.

Mark Patterson, Warden of the Women's Community Correctional Center

While Keanu is teaching the women to question the legitimacy of the US government in Hawaii, he knows not everything in pre-American Hawaii was perfect and refuses to sugar coat history.

During his talk one of the inmates raised her hand and commented, “So, you’re telling me that all of us here were convicted by an illegal court?”. Keanu said “yes, technically you should have been convicted under Hawaiian law, but in your case, for counterfeiting that would have meant a sentence of 20 years hard labour.

She said “I take that back I’m all good.”

All joking aside the real emotional impact Keanu’s lessons have on the women is clear.

Jemmy Swanson, Inmate, Women’s Community Correctional Center

Surfing is a huge part of Hawaiian culture, so before I left, Moses asked to take me out for my first lesson. We drove over to Oahu’s famous North Shore to take in the surf and try to catch a couple of waves.

Moses Haia, Executive Director, Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation

It was the perfect way to end an incredible time in Hawaii. I’ve met so many amazing people and gained a lot of understanding of their history and struggle.

As I leave I don’t know if native Hawaiians will ever gain the rights they seek but I know there are people like Keanu, Moses, and Paulette fighting for them, and using every means at their disposal to further the cause.

In some ways they’re already there.

As Moses said to me, as we rocked back and forth on our surfboards, waiting for the perfect wave, “when we start to re-engage with the things our ancestors passed on to us, sovereignty happens. Today, I live in what is supposedly a part of the United States, but I’m living it as a Hawaiian.”

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