As Ocean People, We Will Sail On

Trisha Kehaulani Watson, JD, PhD Honua Consulting, LLC

This summer, the world watched as devastating fires overtook Maui. The reports from our community partners were heartbreaking, and First Nations joined in the effort to get needed financial support to our Hawaii relatives.

As Maui continues to respond and rebuild, we are honored to share this guest blog post by one of our esteemed colleagues. Here, Dr. Trisha Kehaulani Watson reminds us of our connection with the land and waters, and inspires the people of Hawaii – and all of us – to keep moving.

We are ocean people. The gentle blue of the Pacific serves as the backdrop of our earliest memories. The ocean is peace. It is health. It is a calming, cleansing force for the heaviest of life’s burdens. It is also connection. While Westerners have seen the ocean as a barrier to other land, we are an ocean people, as we found ways to connect our people across vast distances in ways that had not been developed before.

And yet, for all the goodness and connection that the ocean brings, we are taught never to turn our back on it for the ocean can be a giver of life, but it can also be a harbinger of death. Those who sailed many thousands of miles know the power and the unforgiving nature of the ocean when tempted and when underestimated.

And so, we never did turn our back on the ocean. As the climate crisis grew and as models of sea level rise crept into our social consciousness, we studied and prepared believing the greatest threat to our well-being lay out in the vast ocean that surrounds us.

We worried about tsunamis and floods. We fretted over things that we had never heard of like king tides and saltwater intrusion into our natural environment. We prepared for hurricanes that would inevitably find our shores. Our long-term disaster planning talked of the ways that we would rebuild higher and better after a planned retreat of nearshore areas as the sea creeps in around us.

And then less than two months ago we found that we were wrong about all the things. Wildfire consumed the parched earth in Lahaina Maui, and the climate crisis that we thought was lapping at the shores became reality with a fireball that shot down the mountain faster than humans could run.

And we weren’t ready. Nor are we ready now to start to think about the implications of the way of which a history of colonialism and capitalism has laid our land bare in ways that we still cannot begin to imagine. The fire burned thousands of homes and businesses and thousands of acres to reveal the incomprehensible truths; that the reflection of how some have valued this place may be our undoing. Not unlike the unforgiving sea, the land too can be unforgiving  punctuating this, the deadliest wildfire in more than a century.

Meanwhile our community is still in shock, taking day by day in search of some of the basic necessities that are needed to persist: food, water, shelter. And then the conversations begin about what’s next. It’s impossible to consider the “what’s next” without the understanding and internalizing of what happened. The community is being asked these large questions without an understanding of who was lost or having had the time to have funerals and say goodbye to loved ones.

There are those who turn to the sea again for the power of reflection and inspiration that sometimes only those long ocean journeys can provide. Our people found their way. They knew direction without a magnetic compass and built craft with Stone Age tools. With this technology and this craft, they sailed into the unknown and found new destinations over new horizons. The pride in those feats reverberates to this day as these words hit the page.

And so, we acknowledge that not only did they find their way, but we will find a way too. A way forward. A new destination, not unlike our ancestors found thousands of years before this. The sea is one of ash and the horizon is uncertain, as it is clouded with the particulate in the air that dulls our senses. But this is not our first voyage, and so we will sail on as the sea and the fire continue to fight on in our memories.

Trisha Kehaulani Watson, JD, PhD
Honua Consulting, LLC