Dr Emalani Case brings a Hawaiian voice to her role as Pacific Studies lecturer at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University in Wellington. It’s not a grateful, comforting voice when she speaks of the impact of the American “takeover” and militarism on her country — or of New Zealand’s enthusiasm for playing war games there.
But there is hope in what Emalani sees as the benefits of Pacific countries embracing their shared heritage and uniting as whānau and partners in the Pacific region. Here she is, with Dale, reflecting on that scene.
Aloha, Emalani. That’s a lovely name. How did you come by that?
Kia ora, Dale. My full name is Emalani Mailekaluhea Kanekapolei Case. And Emalani is a combination of an English and a Hawaiian name. Ema comes from the English Emma, and Lani is a Hawaiian word that means sky.
My great-grandmother’s godmother was Queen Emma, one of our monarchs when Hawai’i still had a monarchy. Emma was a beloved queen, and her people wrote lots of songs about her and for her. And they Hawaiianised her name and called her Emalani. I feel blessed to have been given that name.
My last name, Case, comes from my English grandfather, who moved from Connecticut to Hawai’i, met my Hawaiian grandmother, and had a family there.
My family is from the Big Island of Hawai’i, the biggest island in the archipelago, and I come from a town called Waimea. That’s where I was born and raised.
And your middle names?
Mailekaluhea refers to a variety of maile, a very sweet-smelling vine. In Hawai’i, we love to wear lei, and the fragrant green leaves of maile are one of the most precious components of a lei.
Kanekapolei is a kupuna name, an ancestral name that comes from my whakapapa. Kanekapolei was the wife of one of our reigning chiefs on the Big Island, named Kalaniʻōpuʻu.
And here’s an interesting fact. Te Papa used to have an ʻahu ʻula and a mahiole — a Hawaiian feather cloak and helmet that belonged to Kalaniʻōpuʻu, although they’ve since been returned to Hawai’i.
But when I first moved to Aotearoa, I would often go to Te Papa and visit the ʻahu ʻula and the mahiole. Just standing in the presence of those taonga made me feel like I was at home.
One of the things you’re renowned for is your knowledge of, and skill with, hula. Can you tell us about this side of Hawaiian life, and how you grew up in it?
The media and Hollywood movies have done a disservice to hula by portraying it as just a beautiful dance without much meaning. But it’s full of meaning. It tells stories and maintains histories. Hula can be beautiful and graceful, but it can also be deep and meaningful.
You can dance in celebration, but you can also dance in protest and resistance. In Waimea, I was fortunate to grow up with my cousin Pua Case, who was and still is my kumu hula, my hula teacher. I grew up dancing and chanting and learning hula with her. And my views of the world have definitely been shaped by hula.
I often talk about how hula has taught me to see the world as being storied. Every single thing has a story. Every maunga, every awa, every landscape, seascape and skyscape has a story, and recognising that teaches us to interact with the world in a more respectful way. When you can acknowledge that every stone has a story and a place in this world, then you tread a little more carefully.
When I first moved to Aotearoa, I felt that I had to try and learn the stories of this place, and although I’m still at the beginning of my learning journey, hula has taught me to see Aotearoa as a place full of meaning and full of story.
That’s really what hula is. We become the physical embodiment of these stories of nature, of our history, our chiefs, our ancestors. And we also compose stories that speak to our experiences today.
So it’s not just about the past, but also about creating and choreographing our histories in the present so that our future generations can learn from them.
When you look at other Indigenous Peoples and their expressions of dance and movement, do you see a thread that weaves us all together?
Definitely. I love watching other styles of dance. Whenever I watch kapa haka or siva Sāmoa or a Tongan tauʻolunga, I celebrate the uniqueness of all those dances. And I love that we all have different ways of telling the stories that have come from our unique environments and from our ancestors.
But what binds us all together is that we’re using our bodies and our voices to tell our stories and to record our histories and to demonstrate who we are and how we are and where we come from in the world, in ways that mean something to us.
It’s been beautiful living here in Aotearoa because I feel like I can not only bring a bit of my own culture, but also experience the beauty and diversity of cultures that are here.
As with a lot of colonised people, we were denied access to our culture and our land. We’re on a reo revitalisation move, and we’ve come a long way in the last 30 or 40 years. But I note that you felt compelled to enhance your level of reo Hawai’i. We assume that all Hawaiians grow up speaking the native tongue, but that’s not the reality, is it?
No, no. I think the histories of Māori and Hawaiians have been similar in the sense that we’ve suffered and continued to live with the impacts of settler colonialism that has attempted to strip us of our languages and our values and beliefs — and our dance as well.
In Hawai’i, our language was banned at one point. Our grandparents were punished for speaking the language. In my own family, my grandmother was fluent in Hawaiian, but she didn’t speak to my father in Hawaiian. She didn’t want to pass the language on to him for fear that it would bring consequences to him and that he wouldn’t be able to succeed.
And she gave him a very English name: Lloyd Everett Case. Here’s a Hawaiian-looking man carrying this name around because of the belief that you wouldn’t get anywhere if you continued speaking your own language, and that you’d be punished for it.
I was fortunate in that I was born in the 1980s, in the wake of what’s called the Hawaiian Renaissance, a period when Hawaiians were growing in political awareness and were trying to revitalise our language, our hula, our customs, practices, ceremonies and protocols.
Of course, revitalisation is ongoing. But I was fortunate to be raised in a time where it was okay to be Hawaiian again, and people were wanting to learn more about who they were and where they came from.
I didn’t grow up speaking my language. I had to learn it at the university, so I am a second language learner. But I was fortunate to have had experiences in hula with my cousin Pua that introduced me to the language.
I was also lucky to have had people in my life who modelled the importance of learning and contributing to our people. I grew up with a father who was always trying to protect our right to have access to certain forested areas to collect kai, and a mother who advocated for the start of a Hawaiian immersion preschool in my town, even while trying to learn the language herself as an adult.
Growing up in that time, there was so much happening that you couldn’t help but be part of it. And that has definitely guided my mahi since. I continue to try and learn more and to support Indigenous movements at home and here as well.
Māori often look towards Hawai’i and feel an instant connection. Our stories of Hawaiki are so strong. How might you explain to a Māori what the word “Hawai’i” means? Is it part of the Hawaiki story?
When I came to Aotearoa and started to engage with stories of Hawaiki, I was inspired to go back and look at our own Hawaiian stories of a Pacific-based homeland. Where did we say we came from?
Growing up with hula, I knew that we called that place Kahiki — and when I talk to people about Hawaiki, I often say it’s similar to our concept of Kahiki. Kahiki is where we say we came from before we arrived in Hawai’i. It’s not a specific place on a map. It’s more the knowing that we came from some place in the Pacific. For me, Kahiki is my ancestral connection to the region.
I see Hawaiki in a similar way, in that Hawaiki may or may not be Hawai’i, just in the same way that Kahiki may or may not be Tahiti. It may have been Tahiti at one point, but it could also be so much more.
When I talk about Hawaiki with my Māori friends here, I don’t ever try to explain what I think Hawaiki is because that’s not my role. But I do say that names like Hawaiki and Kahiki remind us of our connections to each other, and that we have ancestral obligations to one another that come from whakapapa.
I think it says a lot about us as peoples that even in our migrations we maintained these ancestral memories of connection and of obligation to one another. Those connections and obligations are embedded in the names.
We know of the historical damage that was done by America’s takeover of Hawai’i. So I wonder if you see yourself as a Pasifika person?
That’s an interesting question. I definitely see myself as a Pasifika person. If you want to look at the categories created by western explorers, we are part of Polynesia, the top part of the triangle.
It’s unfortunate that being associated with the United States and being illegally taken over by the United States has led some other Pacific peoples to see us just as being American, and to associate us solely with the colonial power. It’s been interesting moving here to Aotearoa and seeing how I’m categorised by other people.
There are certainly some people who don’t see me as being a Pacific person. That’s usually because I’m not part of the dominant Pacific populations who are living here in Aotearoa and who are part of the New Zealand realm.
So there are people who don’t see me as a Pacific person because of that, and there are also people who don’t see me as a Pacific person because I carry a United States passport.
Reflecting on this reminds me of the staunch resistance of the incredible Haunani-Kay Trask who passed away last weekend. She is well-known for saying: “We are not American. We are not American. We will die as Hawaiians.”
She’d tell people that when they were in Hawaiʻi, they were not in America. They were in the Pacific. She was incredibly influential in reminding us, as Hawaiians, and reminding the rest of the world, of our place in the Pacific.
That’s part of what drove me to study in Pacific Studies and to now teach in Pacific Studies. Part of the work that I do is to dismantle these colonial categories and to say: “Hey, we get to decide how we understand each other. We know we’re connected. We have the migration stories to prove it. We know that we’re all related. So let’s look back to these older understandings of the region and decide among ourselves how we see each other and how we treat one another.”
It’s not about me trying to stake a claim in a Pacific community, but simply saying: “I am part of this Pacific community because of whakapapa.”
You know, Māori are a part of that as well, as Alice Te Punga Somerville explored in her book Once Were Pacific: Māori Connections to Oceania. We all are Pacific through genealogy, whether we embrace that Pacific identity today or not.
What would you say about nationalism — the sense that there’s a country, there’s a border, there’s a flag, rather than that we’re all related. What has that done to our perceptions as Pasifika peoples?
I talk about this all the time with my Pacific Studies students. I’ve just finished teaching our introductory course in Pacific Studies, and I had a Sāmoan student who said: “Wow. I never thought of myself as a Pacific person. I thought of myself only as a Sāmoan, and I never realised that there was this whole regional identity that I can embrace.”
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being staunchly loyal to our specific places. I tell my students: “You can be a strong Sāmoan, a strong Tongan, a strong Niuean, a strong Fijian, just like I’m a staunch Hawaiian. Our regional identity doesn’t have to replace our national identities. But it can be in support of those national identities.”
Epeli Hau’ofa, the amazing Oceanian scholar, wrote an important essay called “The Ocean in Us”. He talks about the fact that we are so much stronger when we think about the region as a whole, and when we support each other and recognise that some of our struggles are the same. He says that we can also come together when we recognise that we have the ocean as a shared inheritance.
So, drawing on that inheritance, if we tackle climate change, for instance, as a region, if we tackle colonialism as a region, if we tackle racism as a region, we’ll be so much stronger than if we try and do it as individual nations.
Thank you, Emalani, for mentioning Epeli Hau’ofa. Can you mention any other writers, books, films or people that might help others come to terms with a Pacific-wide identity?
Well, there’s Albert Wendt, the amazing Sāmoan novelist, painter, poet, writer, essayist and teacher. He’s incredible, and his work on culture and the problems of “tradition” in the Pacific has been especially influential for me.
When I came to Aotearoa, I studied with Teresia Teaiwa, who was of I-Kiribati and African-American descent, and who unfortunately passed away in 2017. But she too has been critical for me in looking at how we can come together as Pacific peoples.
These people were very important intellectual inspirations for me. But I learned about my connections to the Pacific long before I ever set foot in a university classroom. And to take it all the way back to the start of our conversation, that learning came from hula dancing as a seven- or eight-year-old — dancing stories about Kahiki and about epic voyages across the Pacific.
I think people like Epeli and Albert and Teresia built on what we’ve always known as peoples of the region — that we’re connected. These writers articulated those connections in ways that help us understand our connections today.
How can we do better as Pasifika people in improving the way we relate to each other?
There’s so much work to do and, of course, I don’t have all the answers. But one thing that I do think is incredibly important is that we acknowledge that our issues and our futures are connected.
Just to give you an example, last year I was engaged in efforts to put an end to RIMPAC, the rim of the Pacific maritime exercises. They’re basically war games that take place in Hawai’i every other year.
I was living here in Wellington, and it was during Covid lockdowns, so I had to do a lot of my activism work from here. But what being physically grounded here taught me is that I should recognise and really highlight the connections between our issues.
RIMPAC is not just an issue for Hawai’i’s people because it takes place in Hawai’i. RIMPAC is also an issue that affects us here in Aotearoa. New Zealand sends a contingent to RIMPAC. It’s also an issue that affects West Papua, as Indonesia sends contingents over to Hawai’i and all of these military teams train together.
They do live-fire training. They train in counter-insurgency and counter-piracy techniques and tactics. They learn how to invade homes. They’re learning these things and then going back to their countries and inflicting violence.
So, if you see Indonesia training in Hawai’i, then going back to West Papua, which is under the military occupation of Indonesia, you can see these connections. You can see the New Zealand armed forces going to Hawai’i and training with the United States, then coming back here.
I bring that up as one example of how we need to highlight the connections between us, and how what seem to be individual and contained issues actually have an impact on all of us. When we can show people how we’re all connected, there will be more motivation to stand and fight as a region.
We have to recognise that the supposed separations between us are a myth, that we’ve always been connected and that our future and our fates are connected, and we are therefore obligated to stand with one another in whatever way that feels best for us.
Not everybody has to be active in the same way. Not everybody has to be holding the microphone and speaking at a rally. Sometimes it’s in educating, sometimes it’s in talking with our families, sometimes it’s just in cooking the kai for the people who are standing on the frontlines of the protest movement.
You came to New Zealand to do your PhD, but there’s something about the timing. We’re at a period of our country’s history where there seems to be more understanding and acceptance of why, as a First Nations people, we need to challenge the injustices of the past and create a better future for our mokopuna. What would you say of the timing and of Aotearoa as a base for developing thinking that can be shared among First Nations people?
I’m often asked why I am here, given my fierce love for Hawai’i. Yes, I came here to study, but, after I graduated, I did move home and I secured a job there. But I moved back to Aotearoa in 2018 after the passing of Teresia Teaiwa.
I was hired at Victoria University to teach her courses in Pacific Studies. That was initially what brought me back, but I do know that I am here for other reasons, and I feel that being here and not being able to go home right now has been fruitful for me.
It has pushed me to consider issues of indigeneity in ways that I would never have done at home. It has pushed me to ask these questions:
What does it mean to be Indigenous, when you’re not living on your Indigenous land? What does it mean to be a true ally? What does it mean to stand for tino rangatiratanga for my Māori whānau while also still standing for sovereignty at home in Hawai’i? What does it mean to be a true part of the region? How does that change my activism? How does that change what solidarity looks like and feels like for me?
Moving here and being here during this time of growing global awareness of not only the struggle of Black lives but also the struggles of Indigenous lives, has been good for my own work but also good for me on a personal level. So that I can challenge and critique myself as an Indigenous person, as I think about my activism, my scholarship, my own obligations to the region.
Tell us about your book Everything Ancient Was Once New: Indigenous Persistence from Hawai’i to Kahiki.
I am so excited about this pukapuka being out in the world. It’s been quite a journey to write it. It comes from my PhD research on Kahiki. I initially submitted my thesis as a book manuscript, and it was accepted by the University of Hawai’i Press. And then in 2019, when I was supposed to be doing some light revision, I ended up basically rewriting most of it, because there was so much happening.
That year was when the governor of Hawai’i gave the green light for construction to start on a controversial telescope project on the summit of our most sacred mauna, Mauna Kea. In protest, my people at home camped at the base of that mountain. I was here in Aotearoa at the time, and I ended up flying home to be part of that movement.
That was also the year where eviction notices were delivered to the kaitiaki at Ihumātao. It was the year of Tuia 250 and all the controversy around commemorating Cook’s first invasion of Aotearoa. With all of that happening, I just looked at my PhD thesis and thought: “No, this needs to change. I need to write something that can speak to our movements right now.”
So I took Kahiki, the concept that was at the centre of my PhD research, and I brought it into these movements. Thankfully, UH Press were happy with the changes and they accepted it for publication.
But the title of the book, Everything Ancient Was Once New, comes from the title of a poem written in 2019 after a few of our structures on Mauna Kea were destroyed by state officials in Hawai’i. I woke up here one morning after my sister had sent me a few text messages saying: “Hey, you gotta turn on the news and see what’s happening.”
I turned on the news and saw pictures of our structures being dismantled, and I was frustrated and angry at the justification for taking them down — that they weren’t “old”. They weren’t “traditional or customary”, because they were built in contemporary times.
I carried this phrase — that “everything ancient was once new” — on my shoulders the whole day, and wrote a poem about it, not thinking that it would influence the book. But when I sat down to rewrite portions of the book, that phrase seemed to speak to so many of the issues that I talk about in the book. So I decided to give the book the same name.
But I will say that, even though it starts with that poem and the emotion of seeing things that we had created being dismantled, there’s a lot of hope in the book.
And I try to maintain a balance of speaking to the hard realities of being Indigenous, but also of holding on to the sense of hope that we still carry as Indigenous Peoples.
I live in Tāmaki Makaurau, which is described as the most Polynesian city of the world, yet many of our people are denied that reality through the damage done by the colonisation of the mind. How are we going to counteract the damage done by the colonisation process?
There are so many things we need to do. Education is key. We can’t tackle the issue of colonialism until we can see everything it has done.
One of the things that I talk about with my students is how colonialism is so present everywhere that we actually stop seeing it. It’s in every national flag and every street name that celebrates settlers over Māori stories. And it’s in every statue and every memorial that’s celebrating a colonial story.
One thing that we can do is look at our local environment and see where colonialism is visible and then counter that by learning the names and the stories and the histories of the places that we’re in.
As Pasifika people here in Aotearoa, we have an obligation not only to learn about the places where we’re living, but to also celebrate our own cultures and our own diversities and to continue speaking our own languages and to continue to experience ourselves as Pasifika people.
Even while we live in a place that acknowledges us as Māori and Pacific, there’s still a strong effort to marginalise us, and to push our histories, our cultures and our languages to the side.
By just being us, and being who we are as Pasifika and Māori, we can do a lot. But it also takes actively identifying where colonialism exists, how it looks, how it smells, how it feels — and then working out how we can then challenge, critique and grow Indigenous hopes and Indigenous futures in the process.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
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