We stood in a circle, possibly the biggest I’ve ever seen, some under shade of the trees, and others perspiring in the hot sun. My left hand linked me to my Hawaiian kahu (pastor) of our indigenous-style church and my right grasped the hand of a gentleman I had never met. How many had gathered for the celebration? Possibly 300 or more of all ages, and colors, but mostly Hawaiian. We gathered to watch the raising of the Hawaiian flag, in the manner they had done 173 years before.
July 31, 1843, British Admiral Richard Thomas came to restore the rightful rule of the Hawaiian Monarchy after a 5-month-long illegal occupation by Great Britain. The Union Jack (British flag) was lowered and the Hawaiian flag was raised to commemorate this “pono” act of righteousness and justice. Reigning monarch King Kamehameha III was restored to the throne and spoke what is still one of the most important Hawaiian-language phrases today, “Ua Mau Ke Ea O Ka ‘Aina I Ka Pono”, translated, “The Sovereignty of the Land is Perpetuated in Righteousness.” The irony cannot be lost that the US chose this phrase as the “state” motto for their own illegal occupation.
Soverignty. That’s what we gathered to celebrate and why I joined hands with one person I knew well and one I’d never met. As we stood in silent reverence, the men in the middle tied the flag of Great Britain, and underneath it the American flag, raising them up to flutter in the wind. Meanwhile, a chant rang out from a microphone on the stage and two people dressed in traditional Hawaiian fabric and headdress made a circuit around the lawn. As they drew closer to me, I saw that one carried a calabash bowl and the other was using some implement to sprinkle water on the participants.
As the chant continued and they paced toward me, I recalled a similar experience I had several weeks ago in a gathering of North American Indigenous tribes in Portland, OR, where I experienced smudging for the first time. Dry sage is placed in an abalone shell, lit by a flame, and the smoldered so that it produces smoke when fanned with an eagle feather. As the smoke was brought to me, I pulled it like water over my head, body, and down to my feet as a symbol of cleansing. Everyone in the circle participated in the smudging and received a blessing.
My feet felt the cool of the grass as the bowl of water drew near me. Though I didn’t understand this ritual I was participating in, it reminded me of cleansing and I was grateful to feel a few drops flicked onto my skin. We were all sprinkled. I felt grateful for a cleansing from the great hewa (sin) that has occurred, represented by the two flags. Once the two had completed their circuit around the entire circle, they carried the bowl to the center where the flags flew. The water that remained in the calabash bowl was poured out at the foot of the flag pole.
I suddenly felt a lurch in my gut and my eyes stung with tears. While I didn’t fully understand what was happening in front of me, or inside of me, I felt that that bowl contained the tears of the people of Hawai’i crying out for restoration, for healing, for life. My own tears carved pathways down my face, mingling with those of generations past. I stood there still clasping the hands of those beside me letting my tears travel down my chin as I added my prayers to those of the great cloud of witnesses.
Just behind me across the street stood the missionary homes. They are a brick and mortar reminder of good intentions turned sour. While they early missionaries brought the gifts of healthcare, literacy, and the gospel of Jesus Christ to the Hawaiian islands, they also carried the heavy baggage of western cultural dominance that metastasized 3 generations later into a coup d’etat by the missionary’s grandchildren who were determined to terminate the Hawaiian Kingdom in order to preserve their own economic kingdoms.
I held tightly to the hands of those on each side of me as we watched the two flags lowered and the Hawaiian flag raised. We yelled and cheered, clapping and hugging one another, sharing smiles of hope that what England did right in restoring sovereignty in 1843 will be repeated in our lifetime by the United States.
The rest of the day was full of galvanizing speeches, powerful hula, and memorable songs, all pointing us to a kingdom restored. One day, I imagine we will gather an even more diverse group of people celebrating the righteous return of sovereign rule to the Hawaiian Kingdom. On that day we will no longer need cleansing and will shed no tears of grief. And until that day we continue to pray…
Ua Mau Ke Ea O Ka ‘Aina I Ka Pono!
La Ho’i Ho’i Ea, Soverignty Restoration day, also known as Ka Hae Hawaii or Hawaiian Flag Day, is celebrated every year on or around July 31, usually at St. Thomas Square in Honolulu, Oahu where the flag was raised in 1843. Celebrations are also held at specially chosen locations on neighboring islands. This account describes my experience at the July 30, 2017 gathering at the Honolulu Civic Grounds (St. Thomas Square is currently “under construction”).