Remembering Who We Are: Recovering Indigenous Mind (PDF)

Traditional Greeting

It’s good to be here. My name is Apela Colorado; I will open this talk in a traditional Native way with a chant — a prayer. Foster Ampong, a Ka ko’o, or helper, is going to do that for us.

(Hawaiian chant, “E ho ‘i Mai,” a request to enter and to merge with the sacred wisdom.)

Can you feel that good, strong feeling in the room? It seems like Foster’s been doing this all his life, right? In reality, Foster just came back to his culture in January. I’m acknowledging this because the most powerful thing I can share with you is the belief in ourselves as native people and the proof that anything is possible when we’re in our indigenous minds. We can remember our power. We have an hour and a half to spend together and when I’m done with my presentation, I will ask Choctaw Elder, Pokni, Mary Jones, who has worked with me, taught me,and helped me for so many years, to listen, to reflect, and to close off our session prayerfully. We’ll also have a question-and-answer time at the conclusion.

I was excited to hear about Coumba Lamba; in fact, I’ve waited for more than 20 years for this day to happen. In the 1970s, I was doing my doctoral research on native alcoholism. I believed, and was trying to prove, that the answer to healing Native American addiction, which is the leading cause of death, was the return of true culture and spirituality. At the time it was a very radical claim to make. But I faced a difficult personal reality, one that ultimately brought me to this gathering. I wanted to find out why almost everybody in my family that I loved was either actively alcoholic or had died of addiction, and I didn’t want it to happen to me or to my children. So I started researching everything I could get my hands on. I read every study I could find, not easy in the pre-internet age, and besides I was living in a remote Native community without library or bookstore. After reading more than 250 scientific studies of Native alcoholism, I found out there were 247 differing opinions on what caused Native addiction. It seemed more like personal opinions than rigorous research. My sense of this was heightened by the fact that all of the research was conducted by non-Natives. None of the millions of dollars for the studies ever went to Native people, and certainly, none of it went to treatment for our suffering. The context of cultural control and domination evident in the research process drove home the point that addiction among American Indians had to do with being an invaded, oppressed people. Before contact we didn’t have addiction, after contact we did have addiction. Not hard to figure out, but none of the studies addressed it.

When I began my doctoral dissertation research, experts were telling us, “It’s your biology. You

lack the proper genes to metabolize alcohol – you are weaker, that’s why you become addicted.”

The subtext being that drinking alcohol is normal (at the time the Harvard University had

received a multi-million dollar grant, the largest ever to look at the genetic causes of alcoholism.

The donor was Seagram’s whiskey company.) I wanted to find evidence to support the view that

Native addictions resulted from invasion and expropriation – loss of culture, spirituality and life.

I succeeded, but what happened to me in the search, and how it happened, opened up the mystery

of the ”Great Knowledge.”1


I grew up in Wisconsin, and the one cultural person left in my family was my grandfather, who

chose me from his grandchildren and taught me Native values and ways. I wasn’t aware that was

what he was doing. I just knew that I loved him and wanted to be with him. Out of all of his

grandchildren, somehow, I was the only one that was born with a cultural leaning, with that kind

of calling and role in life. He saw it.

My grandfather died when I was just a young teenager, but before he died he relapsed and went

back to drinking. So, I actually lost him much earlier in a terrible way. The one person, in our

huge extended family, I could connect with emotionally was taken from me by alcohol. And then

I was alone. But because of that, I became totally committed to doing something about addiction.

But my grandfather was cultural and knew he should pass on what he knew of the Great

Knowledge. Just before he died, he made my grandma drive him three hours through a

dangerous snowstorm – to come talk with me. I was about twelve years old and really angry with

him for drinking. I did not want to be with him and he knew it. He sat in the easy chair, looked

hard at me (this made me madder) and leaned forward on his cane, and began to speak. What he

said scared the wits out of me. He described my life, naming things he could not possibly know,

and then laid out my future. He wanted my attention and he got it! Then he said, “Remember the

Pipe, Remember the Pipe, Remember the Pipe,” the Pipe being a central way to American Indian

Great Knowledge.

I didn’t even know what he was talking about. I had never seen an Indian pipe in my life. Until

1978, it was illegal in North America for Indians to practice our spiritual ways. It was made

illegal through the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Administrative Codes and Practices. You could get

penalized, be imprisoned, or have food rations withheld for practicing indigenous ceremonies.

The ceremonies went underground and missionaries made certain that we grew to fear our own

ways. They justified this to stop the “reckless giving away of things.” A Blackfoot woman once

said, “the worse thing the white man ever did was to kill the buffalo and put us on welfare. They

only give us enough to live and we can’t share with each other.”

As I matured, I felt such loneliness. I kept looking for my reality, for the unconditional love that

underpins Native culture and that I felt with my grandfather. I recalled that he had wanted me to

go to university. So I did. Even though I was not conscious of it, I kept pursuing advanced

education trying to find him and to realize that love in my life. At age 27, I was accepted into and

entered a doctoral program at an Eastern Ivy League school. The wealth and privilege of the

place was beyond any experience I had had. I wondered why I had been accepted and learned

that the personal statement to my application is what did the trick.

1 Private conversations with Credo Mutwa, Great Sanusi of the Zulu, he refers to the ancient

indigenous wisdom as the Great Knowledge.

I had been afraid to apply, thinking I was not smart enough or good enough. The fear was so

great that I procrastinated until the night before the deadline when I picked up a pen (I didn’t

even type it) and wrote about my grandfather and I, and how he wanted me to go to university.

This was a completely unexpected thing and paradoxical. I was sitting in a busy airport, using

my lap as my desk, but was in a liminal state—a light, energetic, feeling came over me. I felt

alive again, and I had a hunch that I would be accepted. I was.

Getting in the door was one thing. Surviving was another. I didn’t know much about being

American Indian. There were no other Indians and few people of color. My identity and values

were challenged in every way. I did not fit and became more and more angry. This was a Jewish

university filled with brilliantly educated people, who were also intellectually competitive. In

class discussions, I never said a thing. I kept waiting for my chance, but was in a culture that

operated by different ways. People argued, asserted, cut each other off, and never, ever, left a

space open for someone like me to speak.

So, I started to fight. When the professor lectured, up went my hand, the only way to get the


Kihawahine (PDF)


Apela Colorado

The Kihawahine is the oldest Aumakua or spiritual helper in Polynesia. She is the life energy of fresh water. Her movement is symbolized, in tattoo and Kapa designs as a wave line punctuated with a period or dot in each dip of the wave.

Polynesian designs are symbolic rather than representational. They reveal the function or physics of the spiritual energy that the design evokes. The Kihawahine depicts the power of the knowledge of the integration of dualism (conception). She brings the spiritual and earthly realms together through the heart. In Christian tradition, her power is the Hieros Gamos or Mystical Union.

Her Kinolau or animal form is the lizard or Mo’o. Every island has a Mo’o, but only Maui has the Kihawahine. In Moku’ula, a 13 acred pond site situated at the base of the West Maui Mountains, a 36 foot black lizard appeared periodically with the cycles of the Moon. She became manifest through rituals and was last seen in the late 1800s. Thousands witnessed her appearance, including missionaries, sailors, and other Europeans who doubted her existence.

This Mo’o or Lizard took on the name of Kihawahine, or fresh water spirit, because the royal family of monarchical Hawai’i dedicated the spirit of a deceased princess to this Mo’o. From then on, the Lizard and the Princess were one, which is why the image of Ki’i has the form of a beautiful young woman. Moreover, only women can conceive.

Metaphorically, the Kihawahine in the pond is representative of the fetus in the womb, which is another reason that Polynesians revere her. Each vertebrae of the long lizard spine represents a generation. The tail is the ancient ancestors.

The Hawai’ian language also illustrates the significance of the Mo’o. a chat of one’s genealogy is a “mo’olelo”. A favored grandchild is the “Mo’opuna.”

The spiritual and cosmological power that this Ki’i, or image, represents is awesome and fierce. She holds the power of generations or of generating. The great warrior, King Kamehameha, could not conquer the Hawai’ian Islands until he obtained (improperly) the power of the Kihawahine. Using the Kiha, he took the image of her and placed it on his altar with his war God and married a woman from the Lizard Clan. Through this misuse of the sacred feminine, he succeeded in dominating the islands and overpowering the original earth and feminine spirituality. After becoming King over the islands, he went to the most powerful priests of the islands, those from Molokai. He asked them to lift the effects of what he had done with the Kiha. They refused and prophesized that because of his violation his line would die out which it did. the devastation generated by Kamahameha’s actions have had long term effects including the neglect and repression of the ways of the Kiha.

Prior to the arrival of the Europeans, the pond site of the Kiha was held in such high regard that common people were not allowed on the small island at the west side of the pond. Dropping any kind of rubbish in the area was such a serious offense that one might pay with one’s life. After the European and American colonization of the islands, the last Kamehameha retreated from the capitol at Honolulu to the small island in the pond to renew. But as prophesized, it was the end of the dynasty. Yielding to political pressures, he returned to the city of Honolulu. The pond and Kiha were forgotten. About a hundred years ago, the sugar cane plantations covered the island and pond wiping out all traces of her. Lahaina, once referred to as the Venice of Hawai’i, became semi arid.

Today, facing global catastrophe, people are seeking ways to connect with and heal the deep wounds of patriarchy and geocide. Here on Maui we are remembering the beautiful, wonderful Kihawahine. We are working to restore the pond. At Pakala, our home and a Goddess Conference Ceremonial Site, Apela’s husband, Keola Sequeira, Kahuna Kalai Ki’i, or master wood carver and spiritual practitioner, has recreated the image of the Kihawahine, which has been held in the Berlin Museum since the late 1800s, for local ceremonial purposes. The Maui Goddess Conference is an historic event, the first of its kind to shed light upon and to rekindle the reverence for the Goddess Kihawahine.