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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, November 17, 2002

Don't whitewash history while others still are hurting

By Arnold Bitner
Waikiki resident

When David Kim wrote his Nov. 8 letter to the editor, mentioning a " 'whitewashed' historical account of Hawai'i and its Hawaiians," he spoke with accuracy. Many people prefer a "whitewashed" version of historical events because they either do not want to, or cannot, face reality.

Hawaiian demonstrators demand a full share of income derived from ceded lands — an issue that still goes unresolved.

Advertiser library photo • January 1999

We have all heard it said that indigenous people throughout the world should "get over the wrongs of the past and get on with their lives." Yes, they should, and do, get on with their lives, just as every American is getting on with his or her life since 9/11. But while the average American tells the average indigenous person to "get over the wrongs of the past," the average American thinks it is perfectly OK to "never forget."

Why are the indigenous people living in America today — many of whom have had relatives mistreated unceremoniously and unmercifully, even slaughtered — while actively involved in trying to restore and preserve their land, cultural history and way of life?

Why do they feel it necessary to remind the rest of us about what went on before?

It is because they continue to have their lands stolen, cultures inhibited and lifestyles restricted by an oppressive foreigner.

Like filmaker Elizabeth Lindsey Buyers, my wife's father was beaten unmercifully by the pakeha (white person) in New Zealand because he could not speak English. He was raised by his Maori grandmother who spoke only Maori and when he started school, he, too, could speak only Maori.

Because he was made to feel ashamed of his racial and cultural heritage, and out of fear of the consequences, he turned his back on his native culture and didn't speak his native language again until a few months before he died at 73.

My wife was born into the pakeha world, was raised as a pakeha, and grew up learning absolutely nothing about her Maori ancestry or heritage. She learned the pakeha's sanitized (whitewashed) version of New Zealand's history. Everything the pakeha did was good. Everything the Maori did was bad.

In many ways, this attitude remains the same this very day. She didn't learn how measles, chickenpox, smallpox and venereal disease, which the European and American explorers, missionaries, traders and slavers brought with them, inflicted so much misery and death upon her forefathers and other Polynesians throughout the Pacific — and upon the indigenous people of another new land called America.

Native Hawaiians' efforts to have military land returned have drawn the support of members of the American Friends Service Committee.

Advertiser library photo • May 1996

My wife accidentally came across her Polynesian heritage while living in Tahiti several years ago. There, she was instantly recognized by the Tahitians as being Polynesian. From that moment on, she struggled with this new knowledge, and with the knowledge that she had been continually lied to by those who imposed a new religion and a different culture on her and her Polynesian brothers and sisters. But, like Buyers, she has succeeded in the modern business world.

One cannot completely blame the ignorance of the early explorers for carrying diseases that they understood little about and they didn't realize wasn't a characteristic of all peoples. That the lands they came across were inhabited by strange people with even stranger customs must have been mind-blowing. But denying the truth of the matter — whitewashing history to make one feel more comfortable with both past and current events and with one's current lifestyle — certainly isn't the way to go about living among those who still feel the physical and emotional impact of their losses.

Walk in another man's shoes.

Today, Polynesians continue the struggle, against heavy odds, to regain and keep control of their lands, heritage and culture. At the same time, others are determined to take more from them. Hawaiians are not alone in this fight to survive and protect that which is theirs. Sometimes the Polynesians win; sometimes the others win.

Usually, it is those with the biggest guns who win, but today the Polynesians are taking a new course of action — legal action — to regain and retain their rights to that which has been stolen by those who practiced brute force, treachery or mass murder.

The idea that Hawaiians in particular are better off today because of what Western civilization has given them, instead of what they may have ended up with by being left to their own accord, is preposterous. No one knows what they, or any other Polynesians, may have accomplished in the last 200 years if they were to have been left to their own devices while interacting with the rest of the world. Hawaiians and other intelligent peoples were simply denied the opportunity of self-determination because they were different and lived on land that others wanted so much to control.

Yes, the average American living today may know what it is like to have the homeland attacked and may feel the sorrow of a great loss of life. But the average American does not know what it is like to be an indigenous person who has had his history almost wiped out and his culture trampled on or used solely for entertainment and revenue-producing purposes.

From what I've witnessed for more than a half century, the average American really doesn't care. This can plainly be seen by the comments of those who found "Then There Were None" to be, at best, propaganda, a racist diatribe, a tottering soapbox, and a tendentious harangue.

Indigenous people around the world not only have the right to talk about their exploited forefathers, cultures and lands, but also have an obligation to every living human to share their knowledge about the wrongs of the past in order to help promote a more livable social environment for everyone regardless of racial or religious heritage. Those who cannot face the truth of the past are promoting a fool's world wherein future racial and religious problems will eventually explode in their collective faces.

Congratulations, Elizabeth!