Thursday, June 25, 2009

Renewable Project Backers Hear Significance of Native Hawaiian Religious and Cultural Practices

Daviana McGregor gives her views on renewable energy development.
Myron Thompson was among several other Native Hawaiian panelists.

Last night’s Sakamaki Extraordinary Lecture panel on Native Hawaiian Perspectives on Renewable Energy featured eight Native Hawaiian participants, some of whom appear to have views that are diametric opposites regarding renewable energy development in the islands.

Some hold key executive positions in renewable companies and therefore spoke on the importance of outreach to communities and neighbors. Others are legislators whose responsibilities include creating energy policy to reduce the islands’ dependence on foreign oil. The moderator and a pastor articulately framed the discussion in terms of Native Hawaiian cultural values.

From our perspective, the most penetrating remarks were by Davianna Pomaikai McGregor, a professor and founding member of Ethnic Studies at the University of Hawaii. Professor McGregor is a practitioner of Native Hawaiian religion and culture and described why she and other supporters of the Pele Defense Fund continue to discourage if not resist altogether renewable energy development.

Everyone on the panel agreed that respect for Native Hawaiian values and members of that and the broader community is mandatory for renewable projects. However, Professor McGregor’s comments reveal a gulf between renewable developers and those who observe Native Hawaiian cultural and religious practices that is wide and appears to require innovative approaches to bridge.

We recorded most of the panel discussion and are posting much of Professor McGregor’s presentation here to give her position a wider audience than she enjoyed last evening. A portion of moderator Ramsay Taum’s closing comments are at the end of today’s post.

Professor Daviana Pomaikai McGregor:

In the traditions of Pele, we know that every time someone assaults her, that she moves on to form another island or moves on to another place on an island. And the belief of the Pele Defense Fund practitioners is that it is not a renewable resource, that it is a source deeply depleted of Pele herself and saps her life force, and that if geothermal energy is expanded, that she will move, and she already is moving on to another island off shore. And that those of us who worship Pele will no longer be able to witness her manifestation as she dances on the ridge or in the steam that rises, or witness the manifestation of her brothers and sisters (unintelligible) in the realm of Pele. And the (unintelligible) or mandate from Pele in the chants that come down, the specific chant is, “You can join my dance if you want to dance, but all this hot belongs to me.” And that is the belief of the Pele practitioners.

So I first began to be involved through that and then with colleagues in the School of Social Work…. We did the cultural impact study for the geothermal project and interviewed people in the community on both Hawaii Island and Maui, because it was going to be transported by cable to (Maui), and we interviewed people on both sides of the channel and came up with the first cultural impact study that was ever done in Hawaii…..

Energy Forms as Deities

We’ve come to understand that Hawaiians really honored all of the energy forms and the natural primordial energy forms as deities. So Pele, if we look at geothermal, is a deity as Pele. If we look at hydroelectricity, the water is (undecipherable). If we look at solar …. And the winds were honored by Hawaiians, some as the (undecipherable), are believed to be a form of a deity… and the Hawaiians named the winds as they did the rains. So that all of these energy forms were honored, and we as humans are small in comparison, and the mana that we get from these natural elements, these are forms that we cannot create or destroy, and we honor them as deities. So when you look at renewable resources in Hawaii, we begin to understand that they have an impact on Native Hawaiians that they do not have on the rest of the community because of our belief system in natural energy forms as deities.

The other aspect that has a particular impact on Native Hawaiians is that a lot of these renewable resources are in remote areas or seek to be developed in remote areas. Puna is a remote area. Wind resources are sought in remote areas. And these areas are in my research are called cultural kipuka where the Hawaiians who lived outside the mainstream of economic development and off of the grid and off of the water systems, just in the elements, were able to perpetuate our Hawaiian cultural practices and language and belief systems, so now the development of these so-called renewable forces brings an industrial element into reserves and places that have been refuge for Native Hawaiian cultural practice and will impact upon very pristine resources and will also challenge whether or not Hawaiians can continue to access the natural resources that we have continued to rely upon generation to generation for their subsistence and their cultural practices.

Looking to the Long-Term Future

So this is the concern when we begin to look at branching out into renewable energy resources. Hydroelectricity will impact upon the free flow of the (undecipherable) and the pristine qualities of the streams…. Siting is another issue of concern. Will the sites impact upon cultural sites? Burial sites are of particular concern. Will it block access to subsistence resources? And the distribution, the infrastructure for the transmission is of concern. An underwater sea cable will have impact on the ocean and (unintelligible) of the resources. And the (locations) that are suggested invariably are sited on Hawaiian Home lands or ceded lands that are Hawaiian national lands and which we as Hawaiians looking to the future, at the sovereign future, the Akaka Bill perhaps or other forms, seek to have control over these national lands, and so we need to be part of the planning. Is this what we want for the long-term future of these national lands?

And there’s the additional impact that some of these remote places are also places where one goes to renew our connection to our deities. And how do these industrial structures impact upon visual impact and the experience in these remote isolated areas where we are best able to connect to these natural life forces? There have been other projects for ocean platforms to generate electricity, siting the Penguin Banks, which is a heavily fished aquatic fishing grounds for not only Native Hawaiians but (undecipherable) fishermen.

So these are all the kinds of concerns that have emerged when you look at it on the impacts on Native Hawaiians. In this study we looked at receptors, and we said we need to look at how would it impact on value systems, on community networks, on health and human wellbeing, on cultural and natural resources, on national lands and on Hawaiian rights, and those are some of the things to consider as we look at development. And the last thought is that we should probably begin to look at principles that would help to protect Native Hawaiian rights. The development of these resources should not deplete the life force of the deity. Islands should be self-sufficient and should not be expected to support Oahu for its development. Access to sites of natural cultural resources needs to continue to be open. I’ll leave you with these thoughts. Mahalo.

Taking the Next Step

Moderator Ramsay Taum, Director of External Affairs and Community Partnerships at the School of Travel Industry Management (TIM) at UH, ended the evening with his own Native Hawaiian perspective by recalling his conversation with a cherished elder near the end of her life:

…In her wisdom and her thought process, she said,

"Change the way you see the world and to not be afraid to take the next step, because all too often we of culture, any culture, find comfort in walking in the footsteps of our ancestors. The challenge, as we come to the end where they have left off, most of us turn around and start walking back again to find the comfort, but we know that when we continue to walk in the path of our ancestors, it becomes a rut."

Our challenge today is to take the next step, is to take what they taught and learn from it and begin to take those next courageous new steps and create a new path for the next generation. And hopefully it’s through events like this that we all will be able to take the next step in the journey that we’re all on together, especially here in the middle of the city. And with that, we’ll say Mahalo, Aloha and A hui hou.

Henry Curtis of Life of the Land videotaped the entire event and will present an edited version on ‘Olelo Community Television sometime in July.

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