“Resistance is its own reward.”
A tribute to my kumu, Dr. Haunani-Kay Trask
Teresa Williams León
“My sister’s greatest legacy was her fearless advocacy, her strong loyalty to our people and culture and the rights attached to it . . Her understanding of our history was paralleled by her ability to understand modern issues impacting Indigenous peoples.”
~ Mililani Trask on the passing of her sister, Dr. Haunani-Kay Trask (July 3, 2021)
(Author with Haunani-Kay)
My name is Teresa Williams León (formerly Teresa Kay Williams). I am Dr. Haunani-Kay Trask’s haumana. My first semester at the University of Hawai’i (spring of 1984), I signed up for an American Studies class. Little did I know my life and consciousness would be forever transformed. The assistant professor, Dr. Haunani-Kay Trask, who stood before the class was a young, charismatic, dynamic, beautiful, Native Hawaiian woman wearing a pareo. Our reading assignments were quite intense and included excerpts from, To Serve The Devil, Vol. 1, Natives and Slaves & To Serve The Devil, Vol. 2, Colonials and Sojourners by Jacobs et. al., Facing West: The Metaphysics of Indian Hating and Empire Building by Richard Drinnon, The Wretched of the Earth & Black Skin, White Masks by Franz Fanon, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown, The Colonizer and The Colonized by Albert Memmi, Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire, Blaming the Victim by Ryan White, and Women, Race & Class by Angela Y. Davis. She played cassette tapes of Malcolm X speeches and showed a video of the Sand Island eviction of Native Hawaiians. She taught us about the 1970’s Hawaiian Renaissance, about Kimo Mitchell and George Helm, about the bombing of sacred Native Hawaiian burials on Kaho’olawe, about the struggles of people of color in the United States, American imperialism, internal colonialism, racism as a system of power, etc. The first time I ever heard the term, “Chicano” or the San Francisco State ethnic studies strike was in her class. While today, it is the “it thing” to be talking about “settler colonialism,” “critical race theory,” “militarism” “Indigenous sovereignty,” “Indigeneity,” “Pacific Islander Studies,” and “structural racism” among scholars, Haunani-Kay had long been doing this work before it had become “mainstreamed” in academe and had been demonized for it.
(Author with Haunani-Kay and David Stannard)
Something about the critical perspective of her classes –as I would go on to take many classes from her (and professor David Stannard), both undergraduate and graduate seminars-- even in the early and mid-1980s, addressing the struggles of people of color in the United States and making global connections with oppressed peoples around the world, spoke to me. What I learned was mind- boggling, disturbing, uncomfortable, and yet simultaneously resonant and empowering. Professor Trask did not mince her words. She pushed us, challenged us, made us examine our taken-for-granted assumptions about Hawai’i and about the United States. Many of the locals in her classes rarely spoke up. I was one of the few who did. When I used the word, “caucasian,” in class Professor Trask made a sarcastic comment and corrected me, “You mean ha’ole.” She was tough, direct, forthright and forceful. She didn’t hesitate to call us out. I went to hear some of her public talks on and off campus. She would regularly slam fellow panelists, even telling them to “F*ck off!” or “Get off my land!” and there would be gasps and rumblings in the audience. Her courage, her fearlessness and her righteous anger were empowering. And she knew her stuff! She could run circles around the other speakers and panelists, as well as audience members, with her knowledge and eloquence. She used to tell me that when she tells a hao’le person off, as a dispossessed Native Hawaiian, her words are expressions of self-defense, resistance, and self-determination. She made no apologies. She often called out other Native Hawaiians and “settler colonial” Asian Americans like the late Senator Daniel Inouye, the late Roland Kotani, George Ariyoshi, John Waihee, Ben Cayetano, etc. and many others for their hypocrisy, their personal indiscretions, and their support of policies that further dispossessed the Native Hawaiian people. She was revered, respected, hated, and feared. I’m sure she took it as a badge of honor when she made David Horowitz’s “100 Most Dangerous Academics” list, being in the company of those like Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, Amiri Baraka, Manning Marable, Mari Matsuda, Bettina Apetheker, Michael Eric Dyson, and Angela Y. Davis.
The world knew her as an activist-poet-woman-warrior-professor, a world- renowned Kanaka Maoli scholar and human rights activist. Her writings, her speeches, her scholarship, her poetry, her activism, her MANA will live on. To me, she will always be my mentor, my kumu, my forever teacher. I was one of her first students, if not the first student of hers, to go onto graduate school and earn a Ph.D. Without her (and David Stannard), I would not be here today as a professor. I came of age being nurtured and mentored by Haunani-Kay (and David). The last time I saw her was in October of 2005 when I invited her to speak at California State University, Northridge at her request. She gave a talk on U.S. militarism and imperialism to a packed Grand Salon here at California State University with over 200 attendees, standing room only. We spent her last night in the San Fernando Valley, having a Thai food dinner in Chatsworth. We laughed and laughed as always. That would be the last time I would see her in person, though we talked a few more times over the phone afterwards. About 5 years ago, I had a dream that she had passed away. My mother always told me that when you have a bad dream, you have to let it out immediately, and not keep it in. I remember saying out loud half asleep, “I had a dream that Haunani passed away. Please take this dream from me!” waking up my family who seemed a little puzzled by my outburst. I googled to see if she had passed away. Luckily at that time, there was no news, so I knew she was still here on this earth. I sighed a breath of relief. . .
I learned of my kumu’s passing as I stood on Yavapai-Navajo land on July 3, 2021, and my heart stood still. I am filled with both a deep sense of sorrow and heartfelt gratitude. I knew “one day” that day would come when she would take her last “ha” and return to the “aina” from where she was born. Her sister, Mililani Trask, shared the news to the world that she passed away peacefully in her sleep. I was 7 months pregnant with my daughter the very last time Haunani-Kay and I met up. Up until the last month of my pregnancy, we had planned to name our daughter, “AlohaAina” (and her twin who didn’t make it, “Ka’ Leo”), though there was something gnawing at me to rethink these names we had picked out. In the final month of my pregnancy, we decided not to name our daughter “AlohaAina,” out of respect. For a non-Native person to bear a Hawaiian name may be a form of cultural appropriation and theft. Instead, we named our daughter after her grandmothers, grandfather, uncle and auntie (with six legal names).
I didn’t want to believe that this fierce and unapologetic warrior could leave us so young, at only age 71. Though Professor Haunani-Kay Trask's physical form has left us, her life’s work lives on. Her writings continue to give voice to the unheard and to empower the "powerless." She told us in her own words, “Our stories remain unwritten. It rests within the culture which is inseparable from the land. To know this is to know our history. To write this is to write of the land and the people who are born from her.” Even in death, she is resisting and continuing to influence, inspire, and transform the consciousness of new generations of poets, scholars, land toilers, activists, change agents . . . Haunani-Kay Trask gave her mind, body and soul to the Hawaiian nation, to her people, to her land, to her students, and to future generations. It was her time to return to the aina from which she was born and back to the ancestors. I was one of thousands and thousands of students fortunate enough to be mentored by our now kupuna. I wish I had the chance to say *mahalo nui loa* from my heart and soul just one more time to my forever teacher. Rest in aloha; Rest in power; Rest in mana, Dr. Haunani-Kay Trask! Auwe! (October 3, 1949 - July 3, 2021)