Mililani Bernadette Trask
What does it mean to be Native Hawaiian?
Mililani Trask is a well known political figure, not only in Hawaiʻi, but throughout the world. She played a significant role in empowering entire generations of Native Hawaiians, which made me come to the conclusion that it would be fitting to have aunty Mili as my first subject in my oral history series, Nāiwi. Mililani Trask is a major contributing author to the United Nation’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. She is an attorney, Hawaiian nationalist, a living treasure to the islands of Hawai’i, and an invaluable ally to native people.
NR: Aloha Aunty Mili, I hope you are doing well today. If you could please introduce yourself and who you are, where you are from.
MKB: Aloha Nainoa, I am Mililani Bernadette Trask. I was born on Oʻahu, raised in Kaneohe. I spent summers in Hana, Maui at my tutu’s, where my mother was raised.
NR: Yeah! Something that is shared between us is our connection to Hana. What does Hana mean to you, What is your familyʻs history in Hana. Do you have any other ancestral homes and how has the relationship between you and your ancestral places informed your life?
MKB (in writing): My grandmother, Iwalani Haia was from Hana. Her burial & her family burial is there and our ancestral home is there. My sister Kahala-Ann & her husband live there now. My Tutu was the makakilo of Hana, she used an old bull horn & flags and she was the one who directed the canoes from the top of Kaʻuiki Hill. She had several canoes used by the boys and all the cousins for fishing Akule. We did canoe fishing & also lay net with the community from Hana bay — hukilau style. My tutu was a slack key player & also went with the Kahu from the Catholic & Protestant churches to different homes when there was pilikia to help solve the problem. She also did Hoʻoponopono when called on.
MKB: I told Kuʻulei, you know, we started talking about Hana. We would go there over the summers, and so would aunty Kuʻulei. but we never really knew each other because Tutuʻs house wasnʻt big enough for her 8 children and the moʻopuna. So we would go for the first two weeks of summer and Kuʻulei would come later. She and I, have strong family ties to Hana. She knows more about [Puna] than me, but when it comes to Hana we have good recollections.
NR: yeah, when it comes to like specific ancestral information and personal recollections, iʻm going to separate those kinds of things from these articles Iʻm making cause you know for sure, there are some things you just donʻt share with the public.
MKB: You know — Nainoa — Hana, in a way, Hana has always been part of the big island.
NR: Yeah Aunty I always felt that you know aunty, cause — I lived my whole life in Puna — and thereʻs always been a deep generational bond between Puna and Hana. Aunty G girl Keliihoomalu was from Hana, My Tutu was from Hana. Like we have- a lot of our families here in Puna have families in Hana. Super interesting.
MKB:Yeah you remember when we were at Aunty Kuʻulei’s land during the family meeting after the eruption? I started talking and I told that story. You know? that our family is from Hana. And that’s why were from the big island! Yeah! cause we were taught that Hana was never apart of Maui. Thatʻs where Kamehameha landed. Why the hell does Kamehameha go to conquer the island and land down there in Hana. He could’ve landed anywhere — he didn’t have to go and march down the entire coastline. But he landed in Hana, because he wanted to land in Hawai’i — on Hawaiʻi island. Without battle. His plan was to land, marshall the forces, and then march. So he had to land in a place where he would be welcomed. And so he sails to Hana. In traditional times. That area is not a mistake — its not a mistake that the Piʻilani Heiau is connected to Hawaii Island. When one of da chiefs of Maui died, his iwi were taken up to Mauna Kea.
NR: I think there is an ephemerality in Hawaii, things donʻt last long through time here — especially puna- and how things quickly change in Hawaii are why oral histories and the transfer of knowledge to Keiki from Kupuna are super important; not only knowledge but feelings and experiences as well. What are your favorite memories growing up in Hawaii?
MKB (in writing): The family and community gatherings in Hana. Everyone helping when “graduation time” came around. I always did the coconut grating for haupia and kulolo. There was always music & dancing. At our family house in Kaneohe, the Trasks had political meetings & rallies. I was a child but I recall Mahi Beamer at the piano singing falsetto. The Trasks always gathered at Easter and x-mas for church and an ohana gathering after.
NR: We call upon our aumakua; or a kupuna of great mana in times of need. Are there any of your Kupuna you personally call upon for strength in your life, and if so could you tell me about them? How did their lives inform yours?
MKB (in Writing): I was taught to visualize the first ones. But when I pray, I first see my parents, my deceased brother Paul, my sister in law (Renee) & Nephew. above them I see my grandmothers on both sides. I visualize all of my kupuna in my mind, but the faces I recall, are the ones I named.
NR: Fulfilling our kuleana to our ohana, to our people, and to our ancestors is one of the greatest privileges we have and one of the greatest sacrifices we make as Kanaka Oiwi. What does Ohana mean to you, and what does kuleana mean to you?
MKB (in writing): There are two kinds of ‘Ohana for me.
the Pili Koko — family by blood
and the Hoa Aloha — family by love of the heart.
Kuleana means MY obligation to myself as a Hawaiian, Our Aina (which is also our family), and our Ohana (which is also our aina), and the Hawaiian People. It also means our (all Hawaiians) responsibility to the whole pae aina of Hawaii & also the earth. WE are the keepers of the earth & its resources.
NR I know that you went to Kamehameha, as have I. How has that experience informed your perspective on kanaka and their role in Hawaii. How did Kamehameha treat their students at that time?
MKB (in writing): I went to KS as a boarding student in 7th grade & graduated in 1969. I did not learn much about my culture there. I learned and perfected many things in western culture and a little of Hawaiian prayers and songs. I was an A student and went to college on a KS scholarship. I reaped a great wealth from my KS years, dear and true friends and teachers. I learned to stand up to people who wanted to put us into a KS Mold. I learned to say NO to KS Pressure to become what they defined as a “good Hawaiian”. It was my Trask & Haia side reacting at an early time in my life.
NR: In your lifetime, how has Hawaii, as a whole but also specifically in your hometowns/home district, changed?
MKB (in writing): Everything has changed, mostly not for the better. Local culture has greatly diminished. The Hawaiian population has greatly increased although. The Hawaiian cultural Renaissance has grown with more awareness of language and many cultural undertakings like kalo cultivation, reawakening of La’au Lapau, etc.
Hana is still a sleepy town, but there is great poverty amongst the Hawaiians in Hana because of the cost of living and poor wage paid by Hana Ranch and its affiliates.
MKB: Hana is one of the most Hawaiian places, but we lost so much Hana. But you know Hawaiians raised in Hana, they gonna be different than Hawaiians raised on Oahu im just telling you, you know. Even if you born and raised in Nanakuli and Waianae, you not gon be like the Hawaiians raised in Hana. Itʻs so different.
NR: One thing that struck a chord with me was something that you said at aunty Kuʻulei’s house. That “democracy is not Hawaiian”, and that “a feather worker has no say in the business of Lawai’a”. This to me speaks on what I think is a critical part of the foundation of Hawaiian living. That we all serve a singular function in our communities, and we do that to the best of our ability. What do you believe is your function? as a Kanaka Oiwi, as a Wahine, as Mililani Trask?
MKB (in writing): I think my function is to be a Wahine Toa — female warrior. As Kanaka Oiwi — we are designated to challenge, critique and support when maters need to be decided that are difficult. I believe Mililani Trask was born to learn the white mans law & bring pressure to issues that require the preservation and protection of our human rights [as native people].
NR: I believe if the future is not built by the wisdom of our kupuna, we will never truly stand on our own freedom as Hawaiians. What advice do you have for Hawaiian children, and/or my Hawaiian peers, and/or Hawaiian Makua?
MKB (in writing): My advice is to be the best Hawaiian you can be. To lean what we can of our traditional culture, to weave it into the modern world and to try to preserve the heart of our cultural practices and values. In the process, be open to learning from others, Hawaiian & Non-Hawaiian. It is never too late to reclaim our traditions & to be an advocate for our Aina & Religious practices.
NR: What does it mean to be Native Hawaiian?
MKB (in writing) : Being Hawaiian means we believe in and live aloha. We follow the Hawaiian way of life by integrating into the gesture of our lives:
Ahoniu: cultivating patience through perserverance
Lokahi: working collectively & in harmony with our people
Oluʻolu: Being welcoming, generous & lovingly kind
Haʻahaʻa and Haʻaheo: Being humble and listening
Aloha kekahi kekahi: being loving and caring for one another in an all-encompassing way.
MKB: BUT! this “poster” leaves out the actual practice of Aloha.
MKB: You know aunty Pilahi Paki, she was so tremendously disappointed with what happened with the commercialization of her teachings. They made a little poster of it because it made sense for the tourists. You know? But you know I told her that traditional knowledge that is spiritual and esoteric cannot be transmitted that way. It can only be passed by what you are doing Nainoa.
NR: uh huh
I learned this from aunty Pilahi Paki. She was the one that insisted upon Aloha and the integration of it into the law. She created that poster of [what Aloha means]. But when you put this [expletive] on a poster, or you put it in a state law, that’s not the internalization of it. When we worked with her, she would talk in those 5 terms. If there was a problem, you know something coming up in the legislature or between two Hawaiians — what does ahonui mean? in that situation where people are already in a fight? How do you cultivate patience as a Hawaiian? What does the practice of patience mean?
NR: Yeah, the internalization and the conversation you have with yourself with how you carry through situations. finding the wisdom hidden beneath the facade.
MKB: And she would also say, although she was very christian — you know Hawaiians were very christian––she would always point out that in da Hawaiian way, In Hawaiian traditional knowledge — we do not have forgiveness. We don’t believe in forgiveness. Forgiveness is never the appropriate way, it’s not the Pono way. When you do something to hurt someone you canʻt make it right by saying “i’m sorry please forgive me”. That is NOT the Hawaiian way.
MKB: You know these kinds of things, when you ask, “what does aloha mean to you?”, You get the commercialized answer. Aunty Pilahi’s responses were always “what you do”, “what you did.”
speaking words does not count. she would always say. you know if speaking words was the Hawaiian way we wouldn’t have any canoes. Because one person cannot go up ma uka, cut the tree down, carve the canoe, and pull it by themselves. [being Hawaiian] means you stand up, you speak words, and then you show action. so if somebody needs to plant, or to make a canoe. You are there, you bend your back, you sweat, you do the job with them.
You don’t do lokahi, by saying “we support you brah, we gon send one letter.” no! no. If the charter schools need funding we go — we testify and if we cannot make it we do what we can. But it’s not what works, and it doesn’t go very far in the Hawaiian community, like forgiveness, because actions are what put realities into movement.
when you say something false about someone, the namunamu-ing travels and attitudes are formed against that person. So you cannot go to that person and just say “oh sorry ah brah”. you know, you gotta do something more to rectify it. you have to go to the ones who heard your false statements, and you must make things right. Not to go and say “can I have forgiveness”, to the one you robbed with your speech. You must go back and undo your speech with action. Then you have made things right. Asking for forgiveness is not the Pono way.
aloha is is not a belief system but a life-way practice, and that life-way practice is what makes you Hawaiian.
MKB: oh Nainoa, It’s good when we get together and itʻs easier for us to remember them and share them when itʻs three Kanakas sitting around, and two kupunas sharing this kind of Hawaiian knowledge with one of their own Moʻopuna.
NR: Yeah im super excited to to talk to everyone
MKB: You know, you got the blood ties to plenty Kupuna and we are losing them weekly.
NR: Yeah one of the ones im rlly excited for is Aunty E, and aunty Pikake. You know uncle Jerry and uncle Howard Konanui? Their sister is aunty Pikake, and sheʻs with Aunty E. and Aunty E is my papa Benny’s sister.
MKB: Yeah you know uncle Jerry is gone now and he had such a wealth of Kalo knowledge. But ok Nainoa. you just think about what we need to do and Iʻm definitely willing to help and so is aunty Ku’ulei I think this project of yours is super exciting I just love it.