Painting Privilege: Queer Family Goes Tiny in Hawai’i

Depicted clockwise: Spirit of Maná, Spirit of Aloha, Poli’ahu, Pelé, Hina, NāMaka, Papahānoumoku

It started with Pelé, the Hawai’ian Volcano Goddess who governs fire, lightning, volcanoes, and the flow of lava. When my little family set off on a big adventure in June 2015, I knew I’d research and paint her as a Holy Woman Icon.

It started with Pelé, the Hawai’ian Volcano Goddess who governs fire, lightning, volcanoes, and the flow of lava. When my little family set off on a big adventure in June 2015, I knew I’d research and paint her as a Holy Woman Icon.

But first, I wanted to get to Hawai’i so that I could experience her power firsthand.

After three months volunteering without running water in Vermont, a month in southern Virginia’s finest fall foliage, and a holiday season traversing the country from east to west in a camper named Freya, we crossed the Pacific in search of Pelé.

The long-term goal of nearly two years of full-time travel was to discern next steps for our queer little family, and to find land to open an intersectionally ecofeminist retreat center. We always imagined returning to the southeast, likely buying land and creating the retreat center in the North Carolina mountains. Pelé had something else in store.

After three wild months volunteering on the Big Island, we fell in love, enlivened by this place we now call home: its beauty, the diversity of people, access to living off-grid, access to growing your own food, its rich culture and history, access to a vegan lifestyle, and the ability to live the majority of our life outside. In short, all of our plans were upended and recreated in the most beautiful and challenging ways because we knew Hawai’i must become our home.

We purchased an acre, returned to the mainland to finish our traveling adventure and came back to Hawai’i this January.

At the cusp of a new year, we partnered with the television show, Tiny House Nation, to build our small home on the Big Island, the first of many steps in creating our retreat center. In fact, our episode aired on June 10. Along the way, we turned the Holy Women Icons Project into a non-profit.

As we filmed and built, several issues weighed heavy on us. We had concerns with “going tiny.” And I don’t mean worries about not having enough space. After nearly two years in a 180 sq/ft camper with a toddler, that was the least of our reservations. Rather, I mean the uncritical cutesifying of poverty, the hipster glorification of simplicity, and most importantly, the appropriation of a Hawai’ian culture that is not our own.

We came to Hawai’i as haolē (White people), not entirely unlike the colonizers who conquered and stole Hawai’ian land with the arrival of Captain Cook in 1778. Because of this, it’s imperative that we critically examine our role in Hawai’i, particularly as so many kānaka maoli (Native Hawaiians) are rendered homeless by the ongoing occupation of their land. Even though kānaka maoli make up only 10% of the state’s population, they comprise about one-third of the homeless population. Why?

Well, Queen Lili’uokalani was illegally overthrown by the American government in 1893.

The presence of Christian missionaries and colonizers slowly dwindled the otherwise vibrant kānaka maoli population. In 1898, Hawai’i was annexed by the US and officially became a state in 1959. Now, the US military controls over 25% of the land mass on Oahu alone, and owns over 230,000 acres of Hawaiian land. Currently, tourists outnumber residents 6 to 1 and Native Hawaiians 30 to 1.

What does it mean to be a queer intersectionally ecofeminist non-profit—telling the stories of revolutionary holy women through art, writing, and special events—on occupied and colonized land? What does it mean to research and paint Hawai’ian “goddesses” in the pantheon of the Holy Women Icons Project when their cosmology is not a part of my own lived history?

We are still trying to answer these questions, confident that there are not easy answers. As we seek to become accomplices in the movements for Hawai’ian Sovereignty and Aloha ‘Āina, we’re currently focused on listening and researching, drawing upon the rich work of feminist and queer scholar-activists like Leilani HolmesKaumakaiwa Kanaka‘ole, Lilikalā K. Kameʻeleihiwa, Mahealani Joy, and Lisa Kahaleole Hall

These Hawai’ian scholar-activists remind us of colonization’s present reality in the exoticization of Hawaiian bodies (hello, grass skirt and coconut bra), its erasure of a Hawaiian presence even within many indigenous movements, and its commodification of Hawaiian culture. Even though original colonizers banned Hawaiian language, traditional clothing, and the worship of Hawaiian gods and goddesses, the aloha spirit is now commodified and packaged to sell to tourists.

The moment it became profitable, Christian missionaries baptized “aloha” as a mode for conversion.

Soon after, kitschy hula costumes and plastic flower leis were imported without even a nod to the history of the hula, chant, and spiritual presence embedded in the land and cosmology of Hawaiian mythology.  

Most people outside of Hawai’i only know of this commercialized version of aloha. But what about other powerful virtues, such as pono (righteousness), maná (spiritual power), ‘ohana (family), or māhū (third gender)? As a queer scholar, I learned about māhū before moving to Hawai’i, primarily from the resilient work of transgender Hawaiian activist, Janet Mock.

While it is incorrect to claim that māhū is synonymous with the term transgender, Mock and kānaka maoli activist, Kaumakaiwa Kanaka‘ole, speak of māhū as the expression of the third self, outside of traditional gender binaries. Lisa Kahaleole Hall proposes that the erasure of māhū and the “deliberate destruction of non-heteronormative and monogamous social relationships, the indigenous languages that could conceptualize these relationships, and the cultural practices that celebrated them has been inextricable from the simultaneous colonial expropriation of land and natural resources" (Hall, Strategies of Erasure, 278).

At the Holy Women Icons Project, we refuse to be a part of this strategic erasure.

As a haolē queer feminist now living in Hawai’i, it is incumbent on me to share these histories and to support the voices of kānaka maoli who have been telling these stories for generations. 

As I research and listen and paint, I welcome Pelé into the Holy Women Icons Project, along with several others in myth: Papahānoumoku, the mother of the ‘āina, earth goddess who birthed the islands; Hina, the goddess of rain and moon; Poli’ahu, goddess of snow on Mauna Kea; NāMaka, goddess of the sea whose jealousy forced her sister, Pelé, to the island I now call home.

These Hawaiian goddesses join the Spirit of Aloha and Spirit of Maná as Holy Women Icons, reminding us of the multifaceted cosmology of Hawai’i. As the days and months unfold, I plan to write more about each of these holy women so as to share the parts of Hawai’i otherwise overlooked or erased.

It is a privilege to call this stunning place my home. It was a privilege to build alongside Tiny House Nation and attempt to share—likely with much editing from production—glimpses of intersectional ecofeminism and the Holy Women Icons Project with an audience of 5 million.

It is a privilege to research and paint these powerful women.

At the Holy Women Icons Project, we do not want to take this privilege for granted, or to allow it to cloud our visions for a more just and beautiful world for all. If we remember that aloha doesn’t simply mean “hello,” but implies “compassionately facing the life-presence in all ‘āina,” perhaps Hawai’i—and all ‘āina—can be a more just and beautiful place, indeed.

Paintings by Rev. Dr. Angela Yarber

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