Talking story with William Aila
by Heather Heenehan -- March 25th, 2015
It’s easy to recount the events of a day in a blog. We went here, we met with so and so and we talked about blank. We include analogies, photos, quotes, whatever we can to share our experiences with our audience. But today, I don’t have any photos for the hour and a half we spent with William Aila. I wasn’t taking notes or writing down quotes because I was so entranced in the beautiful story we were so fortunate to listen to over an hour and half. So instead, I will do my best to highlight pieces of that story in the hope that instead of recounting all of the details, that I convey more of a feeling of what it was like to be in that room and listen. This is a feeling that I hope to be able to tap into for many years to come, a feeling that is a mix of inspiration, respect, beauty, and of hope.
The story began at the beginning, as all stories should. William, the former Chairman of the Department of Land and Natural Resources and current Deputy Chair at the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, took us back to the time when the Hawaiian islands were first discovered by Polynesians (and maybe Micronesians and Melanesians). He shared how the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument received its name from how the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands seemingly rose out of the water and met the sky as the Polynesian’s oceangoing canoes approached the islands. Papahānaumoku, the earth mother, meeting Wākea, the sky father. Each answer to a question was an eloquent and beautiful story, almost poetic, as it was spoken. Many of the stories doubled back in time, as William shared important events in the history of Hawai`i over the last couple of hundred years. This was an important reminder because so often we lay out the facts in an abstract, a short memo, policy brief, or an executive summary. We try to get our point across in the fewest words possible, what’s the point, why should I care? Most of the time we don’t get past that short summary. But there is something so powerful in the way that William started at the beginning and ever so carefully shared his answers. He guided us towards that answer so that we could all arrive at it together.
One of the themes woven through the course of our class has been conservation of monk seals. One of the women in the class asked William about changing the minds of fishermen who believe monk seals are an invasive species in the main Hawaiian Islands. William responded that he didn’t think we could change the minds of those few “selfish” fishermen. But… we could change the minds of their wives and their daughters. Ten young female graduate students at the table shared a smile at this comment. We were reminded about the power of our voice and the need for outreach to the public, especially to the younger generations, and the power of women’s voices, voices like our own.
William told us about preparing his own grandchildren to welcome a world with more monk seals, more albatrosses and more sea turtles in the main Hawaiian Islands. He focused on the ability of animals like green turtles to adapt to climate change and sea level rise and to find a way to continue to propagate the species.
It was an extremely powerful moment for me when I received a word of thanks from William for my research on Hawaiian spinner dolphins as I left the conference room. His words will be an inspiration for me as I go back to work on my dissertation and make a difference for the Hawaiian spinner dolphins, the Nai`a. The native Hawaiian voice is one that I’ve read about, and one that I try to consider, but never one that I had the opportunity to hear as powerfully and eloquently as I did today.
When I look back in a month, a year, or ten years on my experience in this class I will treasure the afternoon we spent talking story with William Aila. I want to remember how I felt as I listened to him speak, his beautiful communication style, and how he always took us back to the beginning.
Mahalo (thank you) William for taking the time to “talk story” with our class and thank you to Elia Herman for making it possible.