By Hui Wilcox
My work as the Mission Chair in Women’s Education at St. Catherine University is integrally linked to my other work in life: being a teacher in the classroom, a mother to two young women, and a dance artist with Ananya Dance Theatre, a women of color contemporary dance theater that shares St. Kate’s mission of women’s empowerment and social justice. Through these multiple aspects of my work, I deepen my understanding as to what it means to “educate women to lead and influence.”
I recently had the privilege to travel to Maui, Hawaii, as a member of Ananya Dance Theatre. To the local community, we offered our performance Shamali, about women’s dissent at Maui Arts & Cultural Center. Leading up to our performance, we interacted with and learned from many activists and artists on the island. One lesson specifically concerns the importance of knowing our past: In the indigenous navigation system of Hawaii, one looks behind at your wake in order to know where one is heading. History is our orientation for the future.
During our 5 days in Hawaii, I realized that history or herstory is never singular. We were invited into multiple community spaces to “talk stories.” I remember stories of Hawaiian women reclaiming and celebrating cultural practices such as hula dancing: “To dance hula is a political act.” I remember stories told by a Japanese Hawaiian women about her family’s experience during WWII: “While my relatives were being killed by the bomb in Hiroshima, my uncles were fighting in the U.S. army in Normandy in segregated ranks and my women relatives were put in internment camps by the U.S. government on the mainland. My grandmother was holding the family together here in Maui.” I also remember receiving a red envelope for the Lunar New Year from an older Chinese Hawaiian woman, Wallette Garcia Pellegrino, whose family migrated to Maui from Southern China a century ago, and whose son directs the Nohoʻana Farm and is a leader of the indigenous water rights and food sovereignty movements on the island. We met a college professor who teaches Hawaiian language, and her husband, a revered freedom fighter who was arrested for speaking Hawaiian in court.
We learned that language rights, food sovereignty, rights to water, land and community are inseparable. Uncle Snake, the captain of Hōkūleʻa, the Hawaiian canoe that sails around the world using indigenous navigation methods, taught us that knowledge of the ocean, knowledge of the land, knowledge of the living things, are all related: you need to know them all in order to navigate the ocean on a 62-by-20 canoe made by wood and lashed together by ropes.
We shared our own stories as well — the women of Ananya Dance Theatre, from India, China, Minnesota, Arkansas, South Dakota, Hawaii. To our new friends in Maui, it is a wonder that we all meet, and dance together, in Minnesota, of all places.
Our stories resonated with each other, so much so that tears were flowing, both off stage and on stage, from both dancers and audience. Conversations were quick to start, and hard to end. Welcome were powerful rituals of exchanged chants, songs and dances; goodbyes were simply impossible to say.
So I continue those conversations here, and share them with the community of St. Catherine University, in my role as a steward of our mission to “educate women to lead and influence”:
History matters. Women’s history matters. When we hold each other sacred, when we hold each other’s stories sacred, we see each other, and we can see into our future. Only then can we navigate the rough waters ahead with greater courage and conviction.
Hui Wilcox, PhD, is the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet Endowed Chair in Women's Education and Director of the Otte Initiative at St. Catherine University. She is an associate professor of Sociology, Women's Studies and Critical Studies of Race/Ethnicity.