He Hawaiʻi Au, a personal essay by Alyssa ʻĀnela Purcell

Leeward CC student Alyssa ʻĀnela Purcell is Native Hawaiian. But she wasnʻt always sure what that meant. In her heartfelt personal essay, He Hawaiʻi Au (I am Hawaiian), Alyssa explores the epiphany that changed the direction of her life in her heartfelt personal essay.

My writing is an extension of who I am, and this particular essay describes one of the larger issues with which I have struggled: Ignorance. Ignorance is a very dangerous being, and it is so prominent in today’s generation. I believe that in order to heal as a culture and as a people we each must confront our own ignorance.

He Hawaiʻi Au won a Ka ʻUmeke Kāʻeo Native Hawaiian Writing and Arts Achievement Award in Spring 2015. Pūpū A ʻO ʻEwa is pleased to feature this work by aspiring writer, Alyssa Purcell.

Meet the author: Alyssa ʻĀnela Purcell


He Hawaiʻi Au, by Alyssa Purcell

‘O Alyssa Nicole ‘Ānela Purcell ko’u inoa piha.

No O’ahu mai au.

Noho au i Kapolei. ʻ

He Hawaii au.

I have always tangoed with the idea of becoming a writer. And the first unspoken rule to writing is to write what you know. Above all else I know this: I am Hawaiian. He Hawai’i au. Though I haven’t always been so sure.

If strangers were to witness my journey through adolescence, they’d find that difficult to believe. They’d see six years of education at a private native Hawaiian institution. They’d see five years of residency in an all-Hawaiian community. They’d see a decade dedicated to the sacred art of Hula. They’d see some knowledge in the Hawaiian language. But they wouldn’t see me.

The essence of the Hawaiian culture does not lie in such superficial places. Our essence cannot and should not be forced to be felt but fall upon one naturally like the kona rain of Pu’uokapolei. It only took me a decade and a half to realize that.

In my papa’s ill last days, he often said, “Who you?”

I’d check his head for a fever and respond, “Papa, it’s me. Your grandchild. Your mo’opuna.”

“I know that.” He’d point to my chest and ask again, “But who you?”

And honestly, I didn’t have an answer. I’d always believed I was entitled to being Hawaiian. I’d always believed that by mindlessly following ancient traditions, I’d earned the right to be Hawaiian. My ignorance consumed me until there was nothing left. Until I was no one. Until I was lost.

If our kūpuna could walk the land again, what would they see? How would they react? Would they look away from their children with heavy eyes and sore hearts? Would their gaze fall upon the concrete-infested and steel-abraded earth? Would they understand the foreign tongue weʻve adopted? Would they understand that weʻve done all we could? Have we done all we could?

How will I answer when the ancestors ask, “What did you do to save the land?”

How will I ever be able to look them in the eyes?

Epiphanies often arrive like falling rain, slowly and then all at once. Lawe i ka ma’alea a ka ‘ono’ono. Acquire skill and make it deep. For years and years, I’d acquired many cultural skills, but I’d failed to make it deep. I’d been a robot, dancing an empty hula, reciting empty words, and learning with an empty mind. Something needed to change. From that moment on, I felt every movement I made. I felt every word that escaped my lips. I felt every part of me. And I knew who I was.

He Hawai’i au. I am Hawaiian.

The generations and generations of ignorance that have been planted within me still linger. It is not an illness you can heal overnight, but Iʻve finally grabbed ahold of it, and Iʻve shaken it. Iʻve stared into its eyes, and Iʻve let it know who I am. He Hawaiʻi au.

credits: feature photo courtesy of Kahoʻolemana Naone ; personal photo provided by Alyssa Purcell

2 thoughts on “He Hawaiʻi Au, a personal essay by Alyssa ʻĀnela Purcell

  1. As a fourth-generation Japanese-American, I can relate to Purcell’s short story. Often we feel we inhabit our culture simply by being born into it–by our facial features, taste in food, the cultural artifacts we display in our home. But yes, they are merely displays. To truly belong to a culture means to live it; to be it. We owe this depth of understanding and realization not only to those who have come before, but also to those who will go forth. Nice job, Alyssa. I too now know who I am.

  2. Aloha e Alyssa, Mahalo piha for your well-written and thought-provoking essay. I returned to school as an adult and am majoring in Hawaii Pacific Studies. I know what you mean when you write about the “generations and generations of ignorance” that have been planted within us. With me, it is like peeling an onion. Everyday, something I learn will touch my na’au and it is as if I am hearing the voice of my kūpuna. I went to a talk about culture given by a Maori professor. He asked two questions I think about a lot: “Who are you” and “Who are you really”? It is the second question that I am still learning about. He Hawai’i kākou. Keep writing. I look forward to reading more from you.

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