How Two Ancient Cultures Co-exist IN MODERN OAHU

 By:  Mary Young
Oahu Island News

It was a bright May morning in 1963. White Crow, a visitor from the mainland, was driving around Oahu with a friend, listening to music on the car’s new four-track tape deck. Traveling along the coast, they drove by Koko Head and then Sandy Beach, following the road as it curves inland.

White Crow recalled the William Tell Overture was playing as they crested a hill when the Koolau Mountains came into view.

“I had never in my life seen mountains like those,” he reflected. “The Koolaus, Rabbit Island down there, the beautiful ocean and all that – it was at that moment I knew that this was where I would live.”

A tall, slender man with thick white hair, White Crow is almost 70 now. Today he lives in Moiliili, having retired from his management job in California and moved here in 1991. White Crow is an American Indian of the Onondaga tribe, one of six tribes of the Iroquois Nation. Long ago, he spent his boyhood near his tribal lands in the thick, remote woods of upstate New York.

White Crow is only one of an estimated 5,000 American Indians who presently reside in Hawaii, more than an ocean away from their ancestral homelands.

“Some natives that come here to Hawaii, they get homesick, and they actually go back home,” White Crow said.

Those who stay find a variety of ways to maintain their cultural ties. Many American Indians here, especially those who are active duty and retired military, meet regularly in small groups known as circles, said Kalliata Velez-Axe, a Cherokee who counsels Indians in the military on behalf of the Council of the Warrior Circle of the Veteran’s Association. Circles can be spiritual or political, she noted.

“It’s a group of people who want to get together to remember the way they were taught and the way of life we’ve lost.”

Just like the native peoples of Hawaii, American Indians have a strong connection to their homeland that existed well before their contact with European explorers, said Jodi Byrd of Chickasaw descent and a professor of indigenous politics at UH-Manoa.

“Our relationship to the land is something that was created through travel, through that promise, through having the lands that we were supposed to be on,” Byrd said.

Velez-Axe said native Americans and native Hawaiians have similarities in their legends, too, as well as their dance traditions.

“If you look at the dolphin, as an example, the dolphin is like a sea wolf. The shark compares to a grizzly bear. There are a lot of legends that are almost the same,” she said. “A lot of Hawaiians believe in what is around them very strongly. In mother earth, the life that she gives, the love that she gives.”  

Dancing is a touchstone for both native cultures. On Oahu, annual pow-wows—gatherings of members of various tribes – are presented each year by the Intertribal Council of Hawaii and the American Pow-Wow Association. While not all tribes have a pow-wow tradition, the gatherings are open to all Indians as well as to the public. Inter-tribal singing, drumming, and dancing are used to both literally and symbolically bring the tribes together. Crafts and traditional foods are also featured.

Pow-wows here start with a Hawaiian blessing and hula performance. “This is their land, and we respect this and we honor the Hawaiian people,” said Velez-Axe. “We ask our cousins, the Hawaiian people, to come and be honored.”

David Bevett, a Shawnee/Cherokee Indian who danced in the 30th Annual Intertribal Pow-wow last month, also sees a connection in the dance traditions of Hawaiian and Indian cultures.

A woman at the pow-wow approached him after watching him dance. “She said, ‘I am a native Hawaiian, and there is something in you when you are dancing. You touch me inside,’” Bevett said. “That’s a very high compliment. It was the similarity about the dancing, being able to pick up something from the dancing.”

Bevett is employed as a clinical psychologist for the Hawaii Department of Education. “I’ve gone out to Waianae a little bit, and I realized that most of the folks we work with out there are Hawaiians,” he noted. “And when some Hawaiians see my necklace they give me kind of an extra smile and the ‘hang loose’ thing.”

Is it difficult being so far from home?

Prof. Byrd says she keeps close contact with family and friends on the mainland, returning home to Oklahoma for dances, sharing the stories her grandparents told her. White Crow does loom beading, a traditional craft, and observes the seasonal festivals that are important in his culture.

“You don’t need a whole group to do it,” he said.

Most of the people interviewed for this story talk about the multiculturalism of Hawaii and feeling accepted here.

Bevett, who grew up in the inner city of Newark, N.J., said, “This is a really cool place - it’s more home to me, more even than New Jersey for sure.”

Byrd, whose Chickasaw ancestors are buried in Mississippi and Tennessee, said she will return to be with them someday.

“Even though I’m here in Hawaii, I always know where my home is, and I always know where I want to be and where I want to end up,” she mused.

White Crow has no plans to return to his homeland.

“It’s all one earth,” he said. “Being Indian is not just being your physical self. It is a state of mind.”