“Everything is alive, and we are all relatives.” The sentence showed up in an essay I read this week by a Native Hawaiian philosopher named Manulani Aluli Meyer. Manulani was quoting a teacher of hers who said that this one sentence, with its two simple ideas, is what Indigenous peoples from around the world all know: “Everything is alive, and we are all relatives.”
Each Indigenous group has its own ways of understanding this philosophy, and since we moved to Hawai‘i a year ago, I’m getting to know the Native Hawaiian form of it, which is called aloha ‘āina. Aloha means compassion or love, and ‘āina means land. Aloha ‘āina: we love and care for the land.
Manulani Meyer says that ‘āina literally means “that which feeds. That which nourishes. That which takes care of us.” So Manulani says you can turn the two words around, and they are just as true:‘āina aloha: the land loves us back. She says, “The idea that that which nourishes also loves us is why we have a relationship with the ocean; we have a relationship with the soil; we have a relationship with the winds, with the rain.”
So it’s all about love: “Everything is alive, and we are all relatives.” When we get this, we get that the world is built upon love and thrives upon love.
Yet that is not how my culture sees things. In the dominant worldview, we do not start by loving nature; we start by using it, especially for profit. And this path is leading us to destruction—of the land and climate, of the animals and water, and therefore of ourselves. To get off this path and onto a better one will take a revolution of love. This is a very big job.
It’s a big job because it gets right to the heart of what we think we know about ourselves and the world—and anyone who has worked on healing their own wounds knows just how hard it is to fight your way toward a new way of understanding yourself and others. Changing from the inside out is some of the hardest work there is.
But here’s the good news: the revolution in love that we need is also a simple one, in this sense—because we’re making a simple mistake of perception, and to change our perception will change everything. In short, we’re not seeing the world accurately. We’re starting from the wrong place. Which means that if we can start from a truer place, we’re already most of the way there. And that more accurate place is, “Everything is alive, and we are all relatives.”
So consider the nature right around your own home. Maybe you live in a city, and the only parts of the natural environment you see are clouds or a few trees. Maybe you’re in a suburb, as most Americans are, with green grass and trees and flowers. Maybe, like me, you live on the edge of a town, looking out at prairies or fields or a desert or an ocean. Maybe your area is wounded or broken now, with forest fires or smoky skies or floods. Wherever your home is, consider the nature around you.
Now consider how most of us grew up looking at the nature around us—essentially as a collection of things. Trees are things that we can plant and grow and place where we want them—to give shade or to fill a corner of a property. Grass is the thing that blankets the ground and smells fresh and needs to be mowed every week. Flowers are things that grow from seeds that we place in the soil, which is the thing that underlies it all, the thing that we walk on. The rocks in the soil are things that we remove so we don’t trip over them—or if they’re big enough, and pretty enough, we might place them in a corner of the lawn where we can look at them and enjoy them. Maybe we drill a hole in a big one to send water up through it—water, which is the liquid thing that quenches thirst and makes a pretty sound when it trickles and flows over rocks.
This is the perspective I grew up with—being surrounded by the “things of nature,” some of which have their own life, but all of which exist for us to move and manipulate and use as we wish, to grow or cut down as we please.
But what if we looked at this same scene with different eyes? Let’s consider it again, this time starting with the thought that “everything is alive, and we are all relatives.”
We consider the clouds and sky—all alive. So are the trees and plants, the birds, animals, insects, down to the microorganisms in the soil. Every natural feature of the ground, every rock—all alive, all participating in life. And we are related to all of them, just by living near them. We are in relationship with them. We’re all part of the same family sharing this little corner of the world.
From this perspective, even if I own title to the land where I live, it’s less about what belongs to me and a lot more about where I belong, and especially to whom I belong. My heart opens. I might find myself asking, How can I help keep this land-community healthy? What can I do to help make sure the soil and water can nourish those who eat and drink from them? How can I preserve the quality of air for those who come after?
I meditate on questions like these every morning at breakfast, looking out from our tiny deck at the edge of town over the lower slopes of Haleakalā, slopes that are now ranchland—hills that end, down below, in more city and then in the ocean.
When we first moved here, a year ago, it was hot—climate-change hot, in the upper nineties every day with high humidity. Unusual weather, I now know. I looked out over these rangelands and felt exposed. There was nowhere to go to escape the burning sun.
It wasn’t until I’d lived here a few months that I learned that Haleakalā used to be forested. Tropical forests covered this island from shore to shore. But once Europeans arrived in the late 1700s, they cleared the land for agriculture and ranching, and now these slopes are vast yellow-brown mats of kikuyu grass.
I find myself longing for trees, for the forests that used to be here. The longing has always felt larger than just my own, and I’ve come to understand over this year that I am hearing the whispers of the land itself. The land is longing for its trees, for the forests that were taken from it.
The land is missing the tree branches that used to catch the rainwater and filter it slowly down to aquifers—the aquifers under Maui’s soil that are now running low. The soil is missing the trees and shrubs that shaded and moistened the ground, preventing the brushfires that now rip across the leeward side of the island during dry season. The land is missing the tree roots that cleaned and cooled any runoff so that the seawater at the shoreline never got so hot that it threatened the health of corals and reefs.
To live here is to be in relationship with a wounded land-community, and to want to help restore its ability to give life. To belong to any place is to want to do the same—to contribute to the family, to want to preserve its health and well-being so that it can nourish those who come after.
And this is the revolution in love that we need in every place and every community—a revolution of people thinking less about what belongs to us and more about how we belong to the place where we live. A revolution of people moving away from a mindset of using nature and toward one of contributing to the life of the land-community where we belong.
Because when nature is just things, we will just use them. But when nature is made up of relatives, we will want to love and care for them.
At the very moment I am jotting down these thoughts, a funny thing happens. An email arrives from the Democrat running for Congress in my district of Hawai‘i. His name is Kai Kahele, an Indigenous Hawaiian man, and the first sentence of his email is in Hawaiian: “He ali‘i ka ‘āina, he kauwā ke kanaka.” He translates it: “The land is the chief, the people are its servants.”
Kai goes on, “This is one of many Hawaiian proverbs that speaks to the importance of the ʻāina (land) to the perpetuity of the people and culture of Hawaiʻi.” But he adds that this doesn’t have to do just with Hawai‘i. “This proverb has no bounds,” he says, because the land is central “to the health, happiness, and quality of life of us all,” regardless of where we live.
And that is why I believe that the biggest job on Earth, right now, is to shift our perspective to serve the land, instead of asking the land to serve us. The good news here, once again, is that this is all about love. And love is what heals. Love is what makes us whole. Love is what refreshes us and makes room for us. Love is how we know we belong.
So while healing work is some of the hardest work on the planet, doing this work also multiplies joy. More love is more joy! More love gives us more ability to feel joy even in perilous times. And joy helps us keep our eyes on the long view, on the world we are working toward. And joy provides the fuel, the energy, for getting there.
“Everything is alive, and we are all relatives.” It’s the most joyful, inspiring, life-giving starting place I can imagine. A starting place that Indigenous peoples have never forgotten. A starting place that the rest of us can catch up with. Because no one is left out. If we have been born, we belong. And the work of healing needs every one of us.
For digging deeper
The essay I was reading by Manulani Aluli Meyer is “Holographic Epistemology: Native Common Sense,” China Media Research 9, no. 2 (2013): 94–101. Available for download at oregoncampuscompact.org.
For a video interview with Manulani Aluli Meyer, see the “Aloha Authentic Ep 107” page at the KHON2 site.
For an in-depth conversation with Manulani Aluli Meyer from 2017, see the online arts magazine Works & Conversations, “Awakin Call with Manulani Aluli Meyer.”
Kai Kahele is the Democratic candidate for the 2nd Congressional District in Hawai’i. He won the four-way primary in August with more than 75 percent of the vote.
I continue to be inspired by the animated short A Message from the Future with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, illustrated by Molly Crabapple, with a Green New Deal vision for turning the big systems of society in more Earth-friendly directions. The film is nominated for a news Emmy.
On Sept. 22 there will be a webinar on Indigenous-led laws and initiatives regarding the rights of nature, and you can find more info at the Movement Rights website.
For how the philosophy of Aloha ‘Āina shapes the Indigenous movement to protect the sacred mountain Mauna Kea on the Island of Hawai‘i, see the Resilience website.
A Métis professor in Ottawa, Dr. Zoe Todd, is making part of her fall term course in “Indigenous Ecological Ways of Knowing” available free to the public. Follow along with weekly readings and class discussions at Dr. Todd’s website. (If the links to weekly readings in the syllabus are not active when you view them online, try downloading the syllabus, and links should be active there.)
Indigenous and white people are working together in places to heal land and protect water. See “How Native and White Communities Make Alliances to Protect the Earth,” by Mary Annette Pember in Yes! magazine.