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A Conversation with Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu

In a recent Zoom interview, Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu spoke with Āina Momona about her background, her thoughts about aloha ʻāina and the most pressing issues facing our lāhui today.

Hinaleimoana Kwai Kong Wong-Kalu, known affectionately as “Kumu Hina”, is a Native Hawaiian māhū – a traditional third gender person who occupies "a place in the middle" between male and female, as well as a modern transgender woman. She is known for her work as a kumu hula, a filmmaker, and as a community leader in the field of Kanaka Maoli language and cultural preservation. She teaches Native Hawaiian philosophy and traditions while promoting cross-cultural alliances throughout the Pacific Islands. Described as a "powerful performer with a clear, strong voice", she has been hailed as a cultural icon, and is a prominent leader in our community today.

Kumu Hina was born in the Nuʻuanu district of Oʻahu. She attended Kamehameha Schools and the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, where she began her activism journey. She is a founder of the Kulia Na Mamo transgender health project, a former Hawaiian language kumu at Leeward Community College, and candidate for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, notably being one of the first transgender candidates for statewide political office in the United States. She also served as the Chair of the Oʻahu Island Burial Council, and was cultural director of Hālau Lokahi Public Charter School. She is a recipient of the National Education Association Ellison Onizuka Human and Civil Rights Award, Native Hawaiian Community Educator of the year, and a White House Champion of Change. Recently, USA Today named Wong-Kalu one of ten Women of the Century from Hawai'i. In 2020, Kumu Hina directed, produced and narrated Kapaemahu, an animated short film based on the Hawaiian story of four legendary māhū who brought the healing arts from Tahiti to Hawai'i.

Q: As a singer and songwriter, why do you think writing mele is important as a Hawaiian tradition?

As kānaka and pacific people there’s a mele in everything. We come from a culture that is an oral culture. We come from a history and tradition that ancestral knowledge is passed down through oral history.

Many of us tend to recall what we heard. It’s a part of our culture and so singing helps us recall these memories and understanding. Mele whether in chant form, mele himeni, choir style, western music with guitar or ukulele, the idea is that that’s how we pass down the message.

In my song Ku Ha’aheo:

“Ku Haaheo e ku’u Hawai’i - Stand proud my Hawai’i

Ma Maka Kaua o ku’u a aina - Band of warriors of my land

‘O ke ehu kakahiaka o nā ‘ōiwi o Hawai’i nei No ku’u lahui e hā’awi pau a i ola mau - This is the dawn of a new era for our people, for my nation, for our Hawaiian society and I shall give my all”

Every time we sing this, we can affirm and reaffirm our commitment to who we are and what we stand for. We can remind ourselves what the purpose is. We can recollect the emotion and the feelings. When we have that drive, we fuel our spirit with that emotion and channel it through singing.

Q: What do you see as the most pressing issue facing Native Hawaiians today?

Though there are many issues, in order for our people to understand things such as aloha ʻāina issues, you can't just do something because it's popular. You can't just do it or support it in the “rah rah rah and raise your flag” sense and not consider the parameters of what it entails. You can't just engage and not know what you're doing. You cannot just crowdsource and have a crowd mentality. You have to know and think about these issues.

How do those issues impact you? What is the impetus for you to support or not support an initiative?

I would say no matter what Hawaiian issues, aloha ʻāina issues or even political issues there are, you always need to be ready, willing, and able to engage in western issues. You need to know what's going on and need to know how things impact you. Although I have not lost sight of Hawaiʻi’s political independence, I think that it's an important discussion to continue to engage in.

Again, you can't just blindly go into something. Part of doing that is actively engaging in understanding our own culture.

For me, I believe that I'm consistent in what my cultural beliefs are, my practices and the fact that I'm willing to engage because I try to have a wide perspective of the issues at hand.

The key tool for me is cultural philosophy and perspective. You can't just have Hawaiian words or a set of chants or songs. You can’t just have everybody get up and go do something. In order for the people who want to be leaders, movers and shakers on behalf of our Hawaiian causes and our people, they have to have a strong foundational grounding in our culture of who and what we are. What are our ethics? Our principles? How do we view and assess the merits of the next person? These are the things we must consider.

Q: During your time at the Mauna, what was the importance of grounding ourselves in kapu aloha?

Kapu aloha is our requirement by leadership that was guiding and driving the protection of the mauna.

Requiring our people to have the highest level or highest degree of aloha. At all costs that we were expected to honor because it was put to us in the form of a kapu. And that kapu requires us to adhere to the most elevated and sophisticated level of aloha that we could muster in every situation possible. Because of this we would not find ourselves in conflict. We chose to rise above that and not either get physical or get violent or do something that would not only reflect poorly upon the individual and where they were at, but that it would not reflect negatively on the efforts that we were all concentrating on towards Mauna Kea.

Q: What does Aloha ʻĀina mean to you and why is it important that we root ourselves in that concept?

Aloha ʻĀina to me is love of land, love of love of culture, love of language. Love of our place with love, honor and respect for all that comes with the understanding that makes us kānaka; it makes us people of this land. My version of aloha ʻāina requires me to serve our people.

Our people are multifaceted and multi-layered multi-tiered, extremely diverse people in terms of who we are and our understanding of our very own nature as Hawaiians. There are some Hawaiians who are absolutely staunch and will absolutely not talk of Western development, capitalism or anything. However there are some Hawaiians who are very staunch Americans. They believe in the American Western political and economic system they believe in looking at the world through being a Republican or a Democrat. They look at the world as being a citizen of the United States. And their mainland is the United States of America. They acknowledge that as their mainland.

I acknowledge Hawaiʻi as my mainland. And everything that I do, everything that I engage in has to be oriented with Hawaiʻi.

An example of this is how I have been criticized for being associated with different things. But for me, aloha 'āina does not restrict me in terms of how diverse I can be.

In my opinion, alona ʻāina, needs to be a concept that is dynamic, because we have to understand that there are many ways that we can be an aloha ʻāina person.

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