I first met Keli’i Beyer when my band flew to Oahu for a weekend of shows. He welcomed me, along with his roommates, into his home. I was struck by his intellect and passion towards Hawai’i. We spent a couple afternoons arguing and passionately debating ideas and we’ve become friends since then. When I was reminded that I should contribute some things to MRR’s website, I thought of Keli’i, and this is the conversation that took place over a few days.
Keli'i Beyer getting arrested in NYC
MRR: I know that you have been involved in a lot of different groups — especially working with domestic violence. How did you get involved with that and when did you start?
Keli’i: I’ve been a domestic violence educator now for about six years, working with the Domestic Violence Action Center here in Honolulu. My job is to talk with intermediate, high school, and sometimes college, students about the aspects of violent relationships, and how to help friends/family stay safe or get out of these dangerous situations. Initially, through my work with various community activism (i.e., anti-war protests, environmental issues, human rights campaigns, Cultural Native Hawaiian activism, promotion of gay/LGBT rights, as well as the issue of pro-choice and women’s reproductive rights), I was introduced to the appropriate networks and landed a job as an educator in the DV field (domestic violence). I try to use my experiences working with community organizations and activism as a way to connect the various issues of oppression evident here in Hawaii, and connect the dots about why these issues occur in the first place. This includes, but is not limited to, the overt militarism and history of land stewardship in Hawaii; having an economy that relies solely on tourism and the military (and how that keeps us reliant on the US for resources, food and energy, rather than a “homegrown,” sustainable and uniquely cultural approach); the sense of heightened nationalism post-9/11 (and how this influences our attitude towards American interaction with the rest of the world), and importantly, understanding how the collective cultures here in Hawaii can affect our relationships with one another, especially around ideas of race, gender, and overall identity…
MRR: Did you go to school (college) in order to do this?
Keli’i: I was actually raised in Chicago, and moved to Hawaii in 1998 to attend the University of Hawaii (and because this is the only place i ever wanted to live, even growing up). I always knew that I’d like to study art in college, but really had no idea what I would do with it. Since both my parents are teachers, I always kinda figured I’d end up doing something similar, though really had no idea until I graduated from UH in 2005 and got my job at the Domestic Violence Action Center (at which point I had already been working as an art educator with the Honolulu Academy of Arts, so that was putting my art education background to use). I think being educated in a creative field such as art has given me the mentality that it’s more important to gain awareness and experience through life, than to seek making a quick buck at the expense of those around me (including my friends and family, the larger community, and globally, through limiting the detrimental impact I might have on the planet).
MRR: How has being kanaka (Native Hawaiian) affected you growing up here and what advice would you give young kids who are kanaka and have a hard time struggling with identity?
Keli’i: I am a part Hawaiian, and have always identified more with my Hawaiian heritage growing up (since my dad was a proud Hawaiian, and my mom died when I was a little kid, therefore cutting off most ties to that side of my family). Living on the mainland and feeling really connected to the island culture is hard, as there’s not only a physical disconnect living way in the Midwest, but there’s also a major cultural disconnect as well. It’s really difficult being a kid who’s interested in Hawaiian cultural identity, being surrounded by a society that simply views Hawaii as that “magical tourist destination,” where all Hawaiians live in grass huts on the beach, husk coconuts for a living, and surf and do hula all day long (even more annoying when I hear that from tourists coming here for the first time, expecting all locals to cater to their beck and command). It was important to have this identity, but also discomforting to move to Hawaii and realize how little I actually knew about my heritage. As well, it was kinda sad to see how kids here in the islands take for granted what a truly special and unique culture they have here. I was also really surprised how little the majority of “locals” actually knew about their host culture, the Kanaka Maoli. If anything, there seems to be this idea that if you live in Hawaii, then you’re a Hawaiian. Whenever I hear that type of mentality, it always makes me cringe, for it’s almost like saying a whole group of people that lived here for centuries matter very little in the larger scheme of things (even though, ironically, these indigenous “Hawaiians” got to these islands through a series of Polynesian and Micronesian migrations over a couple thousand years).
It’s definitely helped me understand more about my role as an activist and educator, to see what struggles face our people, and where the majority of these troubles are coming from. But it’s dually important that I can educate others about the history of the Hawaiian Islands, and how that history continues to affect us today (through economics, religious disparity, loss of culture and the struggle to regain access to the past; drugs/alcohol/crime/poverty/homelessness, land issues, and a whole slew of other issues). Any advice I have for fellow Hawaiians is to understand more about where we came from, so we can begin the healing process, move forward and grow from the mistakes and lessons the past has taught us. I absolutely love the fact that spoken Hawaiian language has seen a resurgence, and I would definitely advocate that more Kanaka Maoli take part in learning and teaching their language, as well as the other aspects of Hawaiian culture that will help us move ahead.
For me, a lot of this has come from taking part biannually in a religious ceremony called makahiki, which I attend on the island of Kaho’olawe. For those that don’t know, this is a small island that was used by the US military as a bombing range for over 60 years. In ancient times, this island was seen as the center of the Hawaiian island chain, and was the most important place for young Hawaiians to learn about navigation and the celestial “map” they used to guide their travels throughout the Pacific. To see an island as culturally significant as Kaho’olawe relegated to target practice by an institution like the US military is a constant source of pain for me (and many other Hawaiians), and I utilize this pain as a source of inspiration to maintain diligence in my pursuit to teach others about our struggle, and as a source of hope for the future. To continue the healing process that has begun on Kaho’olawe and elsewhere throughout Hawaii, there is much work still to be done.
MRR: It’s important to me that people hear the truth from the kanaka and it’s very rare that this is told in punk rock circles. A follow up question, do you think that it’s hard to be kanaka and be involved in punk rock? Do you get shit from the other side of that? Do you see a connection between the Hawaiian sovereignty movement and punk rock anarcho-type politics?
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