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A Conversation with Jamaica Heolimeleikalani Osorio

Updated: Jun 8, 2021

In a recent Zoom interview, Dr. Jamaica Heolimeleikalani Osorio spoke with Āina Momona about her background, her experience during the 2019 Mauna Kea occupation at Puʻuhuluhulu, her work as an educator at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa and her hopes for the future generation of kānaka in the midst of a cultural movement.

Dr. Jamaica Heolimeleikalani Osorio is a Kanaka Maoli wahine artist, activist, and scholar born and raised in Pālolo Valley to parents Jonathan and Mary Osorio. Heoli earned her PhD in English (Hawaiian literature) in 2018 from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. Currently, Heoli is an Assistant Professor of Indigenous and Native Hawaiian Politics at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. Heoli is a three-time national poetry champion, poetry mentor and a published author. She is a proud past Kaiāpuni student, Ford fellow, and a graduate of Kamehameha, Stanford University (BA) and New York University (MA). Her book Remembering our Intimacies: Moʻolelo, Aloha ʻĀina, and Ea is forthcoming with the University of Minnesota Press in Fall 2021.

Q: What inspired you to become an educator and poet?

I grew up with a father, [Jonathan Osorio] who was a professor, and a musician. And what a lot of people don't know about my father is, he's also really quite a beautiful poet. His poetry gets turned into music. Some people see him as a musician, but he's a really talented writer. And so I grew up with that in my house every day.

There's a lot of people in the lāhui that look up to my father. But I don't think anyone revered him as much as I did as a child. I wanted to be just like him. PC: Daniella Zalcman (@dzalcman)

Growing up, I saw this life that he was living where he could step into the classroom; Monday, Wednesday, Friday and teach all these excited young Hawaiian kids who spoke their language, or were learning to speak their language and were invested in a better future for Hawaiʻi. And then he could come home and spend time with me and my siblings, and he could travel and advocate on behalf of our people. And then he could get on stage and sing songs about how proud he is to be a kānaka.

And I saw that and to me, there was no better job in the world that would make space for all the things that I wanted to be. From a young age, I knew that I wanted to teach at a university. And I knew I didn't want to leave Hawaiʻi. So I wanted to teach at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa.

I also grew up around Haunani-Kay Trask and Lilikalā Kameʻeleihiwa by virtue of being my dad's daughter. From what I observed, it seemed to me that all the fiercest people on the front lines were also on the front line at the university. Because of that, the older I got, the more I realized that I didn't just want to be like my dad, I really wanted to be like Haunani and Liliklā; that was at the backdrop of my mind my entire childhood. I believed that this is what it meant to be a wāhine. And I want to fit into that vision of what it means to be a wāhine.

The writing side came on much later. As a kaiāpuni student, I really didn't feel comfortable in my ability to write. But I kind of fell into the spoken word community in Hawaiʻi, because I got dragged along by a friend. And as I fell in love with that art form, it felt so similar to the practices of our kūpuna and our oral traditions and how similar I felt sharing a poem on stage as I felt as a child, chanting the kumulipo with my classmates. It felt like the same thing.

As I became more and more radical, I realized that I was being given a lot of opportunities to stand on a stage in front of a lot of people. That was a place where I could talk about Hawaiʻi. I could get people to listen and take me seriously.

That's when I really started to lean in to writing as something that was going to be really fundamental to who I am and a part of the way that I was going to share stories. Ultimately, writing was going to be a part of my work in the classroom, a workshop facilitator or a performer and in my work as an activist on the front line. They were all a part of the same vision and a part of what it was that was going to make me, me and the work that I was going to do moving forward.

Q: What does aloha ʻāina mean to you?

The beautiful thing about aloha ʻāina is that you can ask 100 different people what it means and you'll get 100 different answers. I think about aloha ʻāina as not just our love for ʻāina, but it's this thing that brings us together as a community.

This is something that I think about in a theoretical sense a lot, and then on the mauna on the day that they arrested our kūpuna. When the mana wāhine took the line on July 17 2019, after the kūpuna were arrested, that theory became practice when I realized I was in a line with a bunch of women I didn’t even know. I didn’t know who they were, where they came from, but I knew they were my people and I knew they loved the mauna. In that moment, we pledged to give our lives not only for the mauna, but also to everyone we were standing beside.

And to me, that's aloha ʻāina. It's the way that our ʻāina becomes our apu, the carrying basin for all the aloha we need to have for each other; aloha ‘āina tells us we will not forsake each other in this work.

Aloha ʻāina is an understanding that the way we love each other, is held and practiced and taught through land. And so if we want to be in community together, and if we want to be aloha ʻāina, we need to re establish relationships with our ʻāina. But we also need to take seriously the health of our relationships with each other.

Q: How has your time on Mauna Kea and cultural practices such as protocol impact your life?

I think being on the mauna gave me a renewed reverence for protocol and the kumu of those practices. It certainly helped me establish a more intimate pilina with the ʻakua and with the elements that we were communing with through protocol.

The mauna taught me that there was space for me in protocol, even though I'm not studied in it. As well as carving out spaces in my normal life, for those kinds of conversations with my kupuna to continue.

The time I spend in the ocean is different since being on the mauna. The time I spend in solitude by myself is different. It's not the same outward protocol, but the protocol inside of my body has changed. The ceremony of how I commune with myself has changed. That’s something I learned specifically from Aunty Pua. She told us a lot on the mauna, kapu aloha means sacred mauna and conduct. Sacred conduct and everything that I do has to be about recognizing my relationship to the sacred and the things I do impact that relationship.

Q: What do you see as the most pressing issue facing our community today?

The first thing that comes to mind when you ask that question is capitalism because it's wrapped up into everything. It's wrapped up into white supremacy, and the displacement of Natives from our land. But it's also this really seductive thing that is constantly trying to pull us into its gravity. As a way for capitalism to survive it tries to convince us that we can make it pono to serve our needs. But the truth is that there's no way that you can make capitalism and the commodification and exploitation of our ʻāina and kanaka, pono. As my good friend Ilima Long says, “Capitalism is antithetical to Aloha ʻĀina.”

I think this is one of the biggest challenges we're facing right now is because it is deeply ingrained in us to believe that there is not an alternative to capitalism. That any kind of suggestion against capitalism is outrageously radical when in reality, all we have to do is know the history of our kūpuna and you can see an abundance of alternatives. There are an infinite number of ways we could live and sustain a community without capital.

I believe we solve a lot of problems in Hawaiʻi if we take abolishing capitalism more seriously. We can solve problems such as the housing crisis. People say that we have a housing crisis in Hawaiʻi, we don't. We have a capitalism crisis in Hawaiʻi. We have plenty of houses and units that could house every single person living in Hawaiʻi in a way that would be humanizing. And yet, we choose to allow these units to stay empty, so that hotels and Airbnb folks can continue to make money off of their real estate. While our people, and our land suffer.

We solve these problems by attacking capitalism, not by reforming it. We could also solve many of the problems with our education system by taking on capitalism. The possibilities are literally endless when we start thinking less about how we can make profits, and start thinking about how we can cultivate ea.

The problem with capitalism is that feeds us this narrative of scarcity, by doing that it creates scarcity because people hoard resources. So one of the simple things we can do is start shifting people's mindset and understand that we actually live in abundance, we actually have all the resources we need to sustain ourselves, to feed ourselves, to house ourselves, and to educate ourselves. Capitalism is what is actually getting in the way of us being self sustaining.

One of my biggest dreams is for us to be courageous in the fight to dismantle capitalism in Hawaiʻi and beyond. I truly believe that a de-capitalized Hawaiʻi is a free Hawaiʻi. Because we simply cannot cultivate Ea in a capitalist society.

Q: What are your hopes for the future generations of kānaka, as an educator?

One thing I hope is that our generation will be the last generation to ever ask ourselves, if we're Hawaiian enough. I want that to end now. I have so many students who are just trying to heal from this trauma of not feeling Hawaiian. And I think about how much more we could do if our sense of self hadn't been attacked so viciously by those who occupy our ʻāina.

So I wish for my students to surpass us in all the ways, in their fierceness, in their courage, in their compassion, in their vision for something different. I wish them to have the faith in the things that we teach them, that allows them to come up with solutions that we may not agree with, that they will challenge us, and that they will push back and beyond us even. With every generation, I think we shed a little bit more of that colonial mentality. I feel like I have a pretty radical vision of freedom but I hope that my grandchildren's vision of freedom is unrecognizably radical to me, and that they have the tools and the resources to make that vision into reality.

I really hope that we continue to invest in our young people, our ʻopio and our keiki and those who haven't even been born yet. I want them to have the humility to recognize when they are the ones who are prepared to take us into the future. That's both a vision for me in my old age and them in their new age.

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