Land. To many people, this word is equivalent to the word “property.” It is something to be owned, something to be conquered. Land is something that we must extract from and make use of. It is something from which we must take, but never something that we must give back to.
But for the indigenous peoples of the Pacific, there exists a much deeper connection to our land and our oceans. Our land and oceans are so much more than just property. They represent our collective histories, our heritages, and our legacies. Our relationship to our lands and oceans are reciprocal, for we are raised to love, to care for, and to respect them — not only to continually take from them.
Our deep connection to our lands and waters goes back generations. Through the masterful Pasefika tradition of oral history, our origin stories and our histories have been passed down — from creation stories like those told through the Hawaiian Kumulipo chant to stories of our Pasefika ancestors skillfully navigating the Pacific Ocean to travel from island to island. Our lands hold the histories and legacies of our families. For example, in the Samoan culture, many elders and matai’s (or chiefs) are able to recall specific family histories and lineages based on the names of certain villages. And from a young age, we are taught to have a deep respect and love for our lands and oceans, which is evident through the way we respectfully enter the oceans when we are swimming and fishing to the way we carefully treat the lands we take our taro and pick our mangoes from.
But historically, our lands and our oceans have been taken away from us and treated merely as property, handled carelessly and without respect. The last sovereign queen of Hawaii, Queen Liliuokalani, was forcibly dethroned and in 1898, the Hawaiian islands were unwillingly annexed to the United States of America, while Native Hawaiians were displaced from their lands and prohibited from speaking their native tongue. In 1900, the Samoan islands were split between Germany and the United States of America for strategic military purposes. Over Guam’s history, it has been occupied back and forth from Spain to the U.S. to Japan to the U.S. again, resulting in the loss of many of their cultural practices. And in the 1950s, the Marshall Islands were literally used as a testing site for nuclear missiles by the U.S., completely disregarding the fact that people actually lived there.
But this continual disrespect for our lands and oceans still continues today. The effects of toxic radiation still persists in the Marshall Islands and have caused major health problems for their native people. With tons of garbage being dumped into our oceans mostly from land-based activities in Asia and North America, our oceans are dying and our connection to it is becoming weaker. And most recently, the Kānaka Maoli (the native people of Hawaii) are currently defending the sacred Mauna a Wākea — and have been for years now — from the government’s attempt to construct a Thirty Meter Telescope for the purpose of science, which would uproot and destroy much sacred land.
What most don’t understand is that our lands and our oceans are not just a means to an end to us. They are integral to our histories, our identities, and our livelihoods. An attack on our lands and our oceans is an attack against us. Not only does the theft of our lands unfairly displace us from our homes, but it literally threatens to erase our histories and our beautiful, vibrant cultures. The stories connecting us to our lands and our ancestry to our oceans will be forgotten. Our family ties to our villages will be wiped from memory. And soon, our lands and oceans will not even be ours to reside in and raise our families.
So with next week Monday being Indigenous Peoples’ Day, I push you to not only participate in the celebration of all indigenous people and their beautiful cultures, but also reflect deeply about the oceans you have traversed and the land you are currently occupying — as well as the lands you have occupied in the past. In occupying that land, who have you displaced? Every time you travel to and from a beautiful Pacific island “vacation spot,” or any other Instagram worthy “vacation spot,” think about whose histories you have aided in erasing and whose identities have you been complicit in threatening. And every day that we are on this campus, we have a duty to recognize that the land we currently stand on and its benefits come at the cost of the displacement of indigenous people. We have a responsibility to respect the land and oceans, and recognize its connection to indigenous people so that we may prevent their erasure.
Gabrielle T. Langkilde ’21, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a joint concentrator in Sociology and Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.