This Native Hawaiian is a Future Voyager

Jonah Apo, E22, finds meaningful ways to connect with his Native Hawaiian heritage, even thousands of miles from home
"Hawaiians see the land as the chief and man as its servant. There's a common thing: Aloha ʻĀina. Aloha means love, and ʻĀina means the deep love you have for the land," said Jonah Makanaakalā Apo, E22, in the video above. Video: Jandro Cisneros
November 9, 2020

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Jonah Makanaakalā Apo, E22, is a civil engineering major from Nuʻuanu, Hawaiʻi. As a Native Hawaiian, or Kānaka Maoli, he brings the Aloha spirit of love and respect for others to Tufts University.

“Hawaiʻi is definitely a special place to grow up,” said Apo, who attended a K-12 school for Native Hawaiians. “The culture of Hawaiʻi is a lot different than anything else you'd find on our continent and a big mixing pot of cultures in general.”

Tufts Now caught up with Apo for Native American Heritage Month to talk about how he honors his heritage and incorporates Native Hawaiian culture into his life at Tufts, more than 5,000 miles away from his hometown.

Tufts Now: Why is the ocean so vital to Native Hawaiians?

Jonah Apo: In Hawaiian culture, you have a connection with nature and with the ocean. You're surrounded by the ocean, it's a magnet and a big part of life. Growing up, we would spend time in the ocean, play in the water, or go surfing. When I'm home, I like to spend as much time in the water as I can.

The first Hawaiians migrated from Pacific islands throughout Polynesia, which is shaped like a triangle. At the top is Hawaiʻi, and the bottom two corners are New Zealand and Easter Island, with many islands in between. The first Polynesians were master navigators who sailed from island to island using the stars, the winds, and the clouds. Even though these islands are very isolated, the ocean connected them like a sea highway that these navigators traveled efficiently and precisely without any maps or compasses.

That's the origin of how I'm here today. I can say I'm Hawaiian because of these people who traveled thousands of miles on a canoe, sailing with the stars.

How do you connect with Native Hawaiian culture?

I'm training with the Polynesian Voyaging Society, or Hōkūleʻa. It's a group of people who make replicas of traditional Polynesian voyaging canoes—like you saw in the movie, Moana. Hōkūleʻa travels through the Pacific and across the world without using modern instruments, instead navigating in the traditional way with the stars, sun, and waves. Most recently, they did a circumnavigation of the world to show how Polynesians were master navigators.

I've been involved with that since my junior year in high school. When I'm home for the summer, I spend a lot of time volunteering, training, doing star studying, or working with the canoes.

I was lucky enough to go down to the Galapagos Islands when Hōkūleʻa was making a stop there. And I was able to do a 10-day sail to Papahānaumokuākea National Marine Monument near the Northwest Hawaiian Islands, which are untouched by man. There were birds flying everywhere, and we went swimming with the fish and the reefs. That voyaging was able to take me to these places and see nature how it should be was just a very amazing thing to see.

What values do Native Hawaiians share with other Native Americans?

The love for the land is a big value. Hawaiians see the land as the chief and man as its servant. There's a common thing: Aloha ʻĀina. Aloha means love, and ʻĀina means the deep love you have for the land.

Hōkūleʻa travels with the message of Mālama Honua, or “to care for island Earth.” There’s a saying: the canoe is an island, and the island is a canoe. When you're out on the canoe, it's only you and the resources you brought with you. You need to be able to sustain yourself and travel safely to your destination. That's the same with the Earth as a whole: There are limited resources for all the people on Earth, and together we need to live on this island sustainably.

One of the most recent issues is the Thirty Meter Telescope being built atop Mauna Kea, which Native Hawaiians consider a very sacred space. I spent time at the blockade and camp trying to stop the telescope. If you look at other Native American groups, you see similar issues of land rights or lack thereof, like with the Dakota Access Pipeline.

What is your experience like as a Native American student at Tufts?

When you're at Tufts and you're a Native American, you have to put your Native part to the side a little bit, because there really wasn't a space for that to be expressed. Building the Indigenous Students of Tufts (ISOT) organization definitely helped with finding a sense of community at Tufts. I'm the only Native Hawaiian student in ISOT, but everyone comes from different Native and Indigenous communities.

ISOT is a space to discuss Native issues, express your Indigenous identity, and build relations with other student groups. This year, we grew with our presence on campus by doing things like writing land acknowledgements and building a bigger Indigenous Native presence at Tufts.

Once the temperatures drop, I start to feel disconnected from home. I try to make comforting foods from home, or I'll play my ukulele, or just listen to local music from Hawaiʻi. Every Friday is fried rice Friday, and I make Hawaiian-style fried rice for my house. It’s cliché, but it’s the Aloha spirit. It's the way you treat everyone with Aloha, or respect, and I try to continue that up here. I think my housemates are very happy with the fried rice.

Angela Nelson can be reached at angela.nelson@tufts.edu.