Some baby steps toward a decolonial love story


Some baby steps toward a decolonial love story

by Aiko Yamashiro

What is decolonial love?

“You have to cut the fence and put your hand through to feel what’s on the other side.”

I have heard Nakem teacher and healer Jeffrey Tangonan Acido (telling stories about his teachers, including the fearless warriors Terrilee Keko‘olani, Kyle Kajihiro, and Shelley Muneoka) tell stories about how the experience of transgression is crucial to our demilitarization and sovereignty activism. When the military puts up a fence, marking what is off-limits—including ancestral homes, including beaches that are sacred burial grounds for Kānaka ʻŌiwi people, including storied and living valleys and mountains and waterways, including places to make salt—what is being carved is a violently defended “reality” of isolation and control. As activists for genuine security, we have to cut the fence and put our hand through to feel what’s on the other side. We have to taste water from a stream that is owned by no one but cared for by everyone. Once we’ve experienced that freedom, that sovereignty, that pleasure and joy, in our own bodies, once we know what these things feel like, we will want them. We will crave them, demand them. We remember what we are fighting for.

I have been cutting fences lately. But not at the Kāneʻohe Marine Corps Base or Pōhakuloa Training Area. I have been cutting fences between our guarded bodies. The fences of heteronormativity and heteropatriarchy: the ones that tell us one woman belongs to one man (like property or cattle to be husbanded, sold, used, degraded), that any other combination is abnormal or sinful, that romantic love is only meaningful if hidden and private between two people (the nuclear-ity of intimacy), that our value and happiness depend on locking down your one soulmate (a world of scarcity, not abundance), that attraction to and deep love for other amazing and inspiring people must be compartmentalized and controlled. These stable values undergird the morals of the nuclear family and the great American nation. They have severed indigenous peoples from land and cultural ways of being together. They are enforced through laws about who we can marry and who can inherit our property, through movies and music and advertising about being incomplete outside of marriage, outside the norm. We in turn learn to internalize these anxious logics of happiness. We learn to fence in our own desires and our possibilities, our infinite ways of relating to and supporting and celebrating each other. We teach these fears to our children.

But what if we want a radically different reality? For all of us committed to fighting for science that values our ancestors’ wisdom, economies that do not destroy the land and ocean, pedagogies of freedom and community, the brave clarity that comes from facing our colonial traumas, poetry and art and music that helps us imagine other futures, sacred sovereign islands in the Pacific, how do we also mālama our most intimate spaces? How do we do the work of liberating our capacity to love and care for each other? What is decolonial love?

It is only because of brave and loving queer women of color and indigenous communities that I even have the words for that question, so I want to take a moment to be grateful to a few of those people.

To Audre Lorde for reclaiming erotic knowledge as a chaotic and creative female power, that can build tremendous bridges between people and nurture an “open and fearless” capacity for joy. To Aurora Levins Morales who reminds us that reclaiming our bodies’ joy and connection with others means to refuse all the normal ways our bodies are sacrificed—in poisoning our earth, in demanding impossible labor, in wars—for profit. To the beautiful trans woman I met a few weekends ago at a gender and social justice workshop, who shared with us how miraculous it felt to be asked openly to dance in a club in Sāmoa, to be able to hold hands with a lover on the street without being stared at. To Leanne Betasamosake Simpson for insisting that battling gender violence has to be at “the core of any indigenous mobilization,” for saying “I approach my vagina as a decolonizing project.” To Noʻukahauʻoli Revilla, for her poetry: “look with your wire / cutters, she / says. Look what the world has done to you.” To all our ancestors we are rebuilding our relationships with, who had words and ways of honoring the pleasure we take in our sacred bodies and land before English, before missionaries. I refuse to cut fences alone, in secret. Only when I hold hands with this community of creative lovers can we cut the fences together.

What is decolonial love? Let me try some baby steps towards this question.

My love has eyes that are mountains in the morning sun. His words are smooth heavy stones at the bottom of fresh water. He dances on the ocean like a dark laughing long-haired seal, to reggae and soul and hip hop. His giant hands make bread and too-large musubi, to feed all our friends. We have grown to be able to see each other fully: our poetry, who we come from, who we are, and who we want to be. Somehow, in our love, we have built a house strong enough to invite dear ones in to take shelter, and have explored that growth with intention for almost eight months now. When I am afraid, he gives me words in his language, like punalua, like ho‘omana. Like trunks and branches nourishing each other. He reassures me we are “stretching our boundaries, pushing us to new places, making us more limber, proving how supple love is—not just ko kāua love, but ko kākou love.”

I have been loving another beautiful man lately too. His legs are scarred from fish hooks and broken uluhe branches. He collects hopeful flowers, time-traveling stars, and other discarded treasure abandoned on roadsides. His dreams are too vivid and full of fight to let him rest, and he gives away everything he can, like most of the other activists we know. We find joy in each other’s generosity. Every week is an exercise in creating a reality of support and companionship, and letting go of possession with grace and gratitude.

I marvel at both of these strong, honest, creative, and deeply loving men. Sometimes the three of us eat waffles or pizza together, and laugh or sit quietly. Maybe it is ridiculous and self-involved to tell you these things here. But I want to remember and honor in this moment the simple fact that the people we love and who love us change our lives.

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This intimate transgression has already radically transformed the way I approach my commitments to activism, teaching, and caring for my family. Baby steps. Here are just two things I am reflecting on:

How do we heal deep destructive patterns we’ve carved into our lives? Letting go of possessing my love helps me practice letting go of power and control over all my relationships. I can’t save my family or community from depression or drinking or loneliness. I can’t fix broken people in an hour or a day or a week. All I can do is show up with an open heart, so we can build other memories together. Memories of trust and love that help us release our grip on our fears. Memories like armor or eyeglasses, that help us walk into a different future. Decolonial love is creating pu‘uhonua, being puʻuhonua. Refuge. Activism demands everything from us: our tears, our dreams, our miracles, our sleep, our deep joy, our families, our health, our losing. Loving each other can create places of quiet respite that help us remember our goodness. We can nurture kīpuka from which something stronger and more hopeful might grow.

Loving and appreciating someone’s beauty is the easy, pleasureable part, and what I am trying to describe is something much harder than chasing ass. Decolonial love is rigorous and fierce, and demands we be honest about our rebellious feelings. We have to be willing to face the words that undo us (as women, especially): You are crazy. You are selfish. You are a whore. You are hurting everyone you care about.

We also have to be brave enough to ask these questions together, with our friends and lovers: What are the roots of our fear and jealousy? What makes us mistrust our resonant connections to other people? Where did our ideas of happiness and family come from? What do I want? What do you want? What are we worthy of?

Shame, doubt, grief, loneliness, wonder, surprise, humility, gratitude. When we let these feelings rush through our pathways, and follow their movement, they can sweep away everything we assume about “reality.” As our mana flows again, as the barriers crumble, this is when we, naked, practice the courage to say yes to our power to create something that does not exist. Say yes to vulnerability, our stories stretching to receive the rushing wave, wind, and rain. Say yes to chaos, as we are shaken by the new world we are writing in mud, in faith, in root. Decolonial love places our wild feelings up in the sky where they can puncture the darkness and guide us toward integrity, a new home.

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“Bring it back to the body. That will make it new again.”

As we fight to create a world filled with more hope and love and possibility and connection, I need to know what that world feels like, as a memory awakened in my body. In a workshop for my literature of Hawai‘i students, poet and whale-singer Rajiv Mohabir showed us how bringing our writing—full of cliche and generalizations and expected outcomes—back to vibrant bodily senses will make our language new again. When we can feel our mouths and fingertips, our skin and tears, our thighs and the bottoms of our feet, we can feel each other. When we can sincerely express every nuance of our feelings, we can relate to each other. When we bring our whole selves back to the body, we can move each other. We can make our world new again.

What is decolonial love? I know I am not changing the world by telling you this small story, but I also know that my world has already changed. And I will tend that ground of possibility quietly and tenderly, in case you need some land to grow your own love story. Baby steps. When people say “baby steps,” they often mean an action that is slow, contained, tentative. Be patient, be cautious. Don’t want or expect too much. But when I watch our dear friends’ baby Kaikainali‘i take her first steps, I feel the fences in my mind fall away. Her body plummets across the room, laughing, falling. She teaches me that baby steps are the bravest steps I know: fierce and impossible, rushing headlong into imagination.


In addition to all the necessary people named in this blog, mahalo always to Anjoli Roy, Dawn Mahi, Kat Burke, Tagi Qolouvaki, and Lyz Soto for holding my fears with such wise and healing love. To Wayne Tanaka for being brave enough to learn, grow, wonder, and be honest with me. To Bryan Kamaoli Kuwada, for believing in my name, for finding our infinity.

4 thoughts on “Some baby steps toward a decolonial love story

  1. Mahalo plenty for this. My ʻohana speaks of this often. About the implications that this has on the building and rebuilding of kauhale and trust amongst kānaka. Our children must not possess or be possessed, for it breeds the jealousy that our ancestors taught us, through many stories, was and is unhealthy. This is about educating our children so that we limit the generational inhibitions at the root of the alcoholism, drug abuse and domestic violence of our people. This is so important…yet so difficult for many. Mahalo for presenting this in writing. We need more places to carve this kiʻi in public.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Kalehua for such a kind and thoughtful response. The connections and trauma you talk about are so real. I donʻt talk about those things too much in this post, but one of the articles I link to really takes those important hurts head-on ( I am so moved by the power in Kānaka ʻŌiwi peopleculturelanguage to envision a better way. I couldnʻt have written or thought about the things in this blog post without the ancestral ideas (living in moʻolelo, living in ʻōlelo, living in kānaka too) that Kamaoli teaches me about, that he helps keep alive. So mahalo to you, for what you do to care for that wisdom and help it grow, so it can heal all of us.


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