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“Can Our Tears Clean the Aquifer?” by Makaiwa Kanui

Originally published in The Friend, February 2023.

Digital painting of leaking fuel tanks. Crying mountains embrace a crying mother and child. They share the same tears, streams of water from the sky to the ground.
“Can Our Tears Clean the Aquifer?” Digital painting by Makaiwa Kanui. Copyright 2022. Used with permission.

*This article is a contribution to the Shut Down Red Hill Movement. Artwork is a gift to my hoa‘āina Dani Espiritu, and dedicated to all our frontline water protectors. May it speak to the wai in you.

It's undeniable that as Kānaka ʻŌiwi we are tied to our ʻāina. When one part of the body suffers we all suffer. It grieves us in ways we don't fully understand. Our bodies reflect the bodies of ʻāina and wai (water) that sustain us. Our spirit laments, as our minds do our best to understand, adapt, resist, and fight for those we love. We do not lack injustices, rampant in our homelands. We are tired. Yet we push, and push, and do what we can to hold on to what we have left.

Following the major fuel leak by the U.S. Navy in November 2021, I flew to O‘ahu and visited my close friend Dani Espiritu, a kupa ʻāina of Waimalu, ʻEwa. I came to sit, listen, and pray for the land that raised her, and whom she dearly loves. As I sat with Dani on the grassy slopes outside of Keaiwa heiau, she turns to me and says:

"I feel like my home is dying."

Those words felt deep in my naʻau, as I realized that my friend is dying, too. The birds, plant beings, and fish beings—poisoned, betrayed, and slowly perishing. They are our relatives, too.

I remember a time once at Blaisdell Park overlooking a part of Puʻuloa once home to Paʻakea, a 12-acre fishpond that has since been destroyed. My family and I walked alongside the water with Dani and her mother, who are also godmothers to our four year old son ʻEkemana. My eyes are immediately drawn to signs tagged with graffiti, posted along the coast with the words, “Warning, contaminated fish and shellfish.” ʻEkemana runs towards the water, knowing water as his playground, accustomed to the brackish water of Keaukaha, and seeing the fish caught by his father. Dani calls out, “Eh, ʻEkemana mai komo i loko…lepo.” He stops in his tracks, as he hears her say, “Don't go in the water, it's dirty.” I imagine how confused he was, and yet I can also feel the pain in knowing that the water that once provided the fish to feed her grandparents, is no longer safe to touch.

Ke Awalau o Puʻuloa, meaning "the many lochs of Puʻuloa," was known as the breadbasket for the entire district of ʻEwa. Puʻuloa, with its numerous freshwater streams that flow into the harbor, was once home to over 100 fishponds. It was named Pearl Harbor because at one point it was so abundant with shellfish, clams, and oysters. I can barely picture it in my mind how full of richness and vitality this place once was. How did it get to this place of irreparable damage?

In my spirit, I asked, “Can these tears clean the aquifers?” A question, a prayer, and a plea. Just beyond the trees ahead, overlooking Puʻuloa, we sat there in tears as military jets flew overhead nearby.

Our tears as intercession lifted up, and yet streaming down into the soil, somehow seeping to the water contaminated by humans who forgot our ancestral ties to wai. I imagine walewale, slime, the source of the earth in our Kumulipo. O ka walewale hoʻokumu honua ia. The slime made of wai where all of creation slipped forth. I also imagine what it was like in Genesis for ʻUhane to make a nest amongst the surface of the deep water, “ʻĪ ihola ke Akua” (ke Akua spoke) and all of creation was birthed forth from this sacred pilina.

Wai made a nest in our mothers womb, and wai was the first to hold us. We slipped out of wai and walewale, and the first sign of life in our fragile bodies was the cry from our lips and the tears from our eyes.

ʻO wai ʻoe? You are water, you come from water, sustained by water.

What then happens when water is contaminated? How might that change the course of all surrounding life forms, and the chemistries of life that must take its course to keep a collective balance?

Water contamination is not just a threat to a precious resource, it is the slow massacre of all that is alive and sacred in the surrounding natural world. If water is life, contaminated water surely is the death that kills all, like a cancer metastasized. Water moves, evaporates, is ingested by animals, plants and fish that will traverse throughout our islands. I am not a kupa of Oʻahu, but from the other end of the archipelago, I know here in Hawaiʻi island that we too will be affected. The fish will tell us, the traveling rains will weep to us, and we will suffer in the generations to come.

Will we choose to remember our identity as dependent children of the land, waters?

As we remember this sacred relationship we have with wai, it does something in us. The wai in us can change, cleanse, and when granted, it flows. Our tears made of wai and paʻakai is medicine, ceremonial elements that restores, cleans, and purifies. I believe our tears, when given the space, can become nests for healing, and connect us to the family of creation, and the circles of life. Sacred tears as our hoʻokupu, sometimes that's all we have left to hold on to. Sometimes that's all we have to give.

Makaiwa and Dani hold signs saying SHUT DOWN RED HILL and Can you hear us Can you see us hashtag Shut Down Red Hill
Makaiwa Kanui and Dani Espiritu sign-waving at the Hawai‘i State Capitol

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About Makaiwa Kanui

My name is Makaiwa Kanui. I was born in Hilo, raised in Mauna Huʻihuʻi (Mt.View), Olaʻa. I currently live in Panaʻewa with my partner Maikaʻi, and our two wild boys Kauila and ʻEkemana. Mauna Kea is my mountain, Waiʻolena is my beach, and the Kanilehua and Loloku rains sustain me. I am who I am because of the family, community, and lands that raised me and continues to nurture me. I come from a family of fish merchants, and was raised cleaning, and preparing fish for the local community, my parents continue to do this today. In my formative years of life I attended Hawaiian Immersion schools. Later graduating from Kamehameha Schools, I pursued my Bachelors degree in Studio Art, and a minor in Ethnic Studies from Mills College in Oakland, California in Ohlone Territory. I serve as a campus minister and justice programs coordinator. I embrace being a musician, competitive powerlifter, and an artist! I have a dream of owning my own art studio one day. Iʻm passionate about justice. Hawaiʻi raised and sustained me, and I seek to live in a co-sustaining, interconnected relationship with my homelands, myself, my family, and my Creator. Iʻm always being pulled in different directions, but art and music has been a constant thread in my life to respond to the world around me. Mahalo for taking the time to learn more about me. ʻOia!

More from Makaiwa Kanui:

Instagram: @mau.a.mau

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