Opening day at Legislature draws crowds

Lily Washburn, News

On Wednesday, Jan. 18,  hundreds of visitors crowded the Hawaii State Legislature in downtown Honolulu to celebrate the start of the 2023 legislative session. Citizens of all ages from across the state came to view the opening ceremony and represent various causes. 

Some, like “Mama T” Gonsalves, have visited the legislature on opening day for over a decade.

“I’ve been coming since my daughter Liliana has been a baby,” Gonsalves says. “Every opening day, I come to support the Hawaiian nation, and I’m also here so proud to support my daughter and her school, Halau Ku Mana.” 

Visitors begin to fill the legislature to celebrate the start of the 2023 session on Wednesday, Jan. 18. This was the first time since the start of the Pandemic that citizens were able to partake in this event without COVID restrictions. Kamakana Kaimeulon, the government Affairs manager for United public workers, touched on the value of simply being present at events like this. “If you don’t show up to these things, you don’t really understand the process or connect with those who make policy,” He says. “So I think it’s important for everybody to get civically engaged even if it’s as simple as coming down here on opening day for the first time.” (Lily Washburn)

Halau Ku Mana, a Hawaiian charter school, is one of many that came to opening day to teach students about the legislative process and the importance of civic involvement. 

Helena Stillwaters, with the non-profit project Vision Hawaii, was pleasantly surprised to see that so many young people were at the legislature on opening day. As a kid, she recalls feeling like being politically involved was less accessible than it is today because of the digital divide. 

Even elementary-aged students could be seen on the opening day behind cameras, conducting interviews. 

“I wasn’t expecting that, and that was really nice to see,” Stillwaters says. 

Molokai native Mahina Hou Ross says he comes to advocate for native land and water rights. 

He and his crew set up poi-pounding stations along the ground floor of the legislature and teach visitors how to pound their own fresh poi. 

“My brother and their hui has been coming from the beginning, and they just pound poi and make paiai,” Lehua Paris explains. “They bring their kalo, their pohaku, and they’re mainly here to fight for our rights, our water rights.”

Gonsalves believes that it is essential for all citizens to be engaged and “united on issues” because it is the best way to ensure legislators prioritize the needs of the people. 

Gonsalves is passionate about protecting land and water rights and hopes these issues will be addressed in the 2023 legislative session. 

“I want Red Hill to be shut down,” She says. “Sometimes we are divided on issues, but that one concerns us all. It’s our Aquaphor that feeds water to all of us, and water is light.” 

These pertinent rights are listed in the state water code, and according to Ross, “the number one priority for water use in Hawaii is for farming kalo on kuleana lands.” 

The kalo Ross brings to the legislature is grown on kuleana land in Halawa, Molokai. 

“The reason we started farming was to promote traditional and customary practices but also to stop development, as water is our gold right now,” he says. “So it’s really important to stay and fight for our native rights, our water rights, and pertinent rights.” 

Visitors pound poi at the legislature on Wednesday, Jan. 18. By pounding poi, citizens like Mahina Hou Ross hope to encourage policymakers to prioritize native land and water rights. (Lily Washburn)

Many also come to the legislature on opening day to represent the Hawaiian people and their right to sovereignty. 

“We got a lot of people buying up all our lands and we get taxed off our land,” Ross explains. “We get hard time live on our lands, and live our traditional lifestyle.” 

He hopes that his presence will encourage legislators to listen to the people of Hawaii and “keep Hawaiian lands in Hawaiian hands.” 

He believes that showing up to events like this is the first step towards making positive change in the world around you. 

“I say this is like the gravy,” Ross says. “Get involved with your own land, with your community, and make a difference in your small community.” 

Many of those who came down to the legislature on opening day recognize the impact that their presence has on the politicians. 

“We’re lucky in America because we can help guide policy in the direction that we want to go in and advocate for what we want,” Stillwaters says.

Many who were present agree that showing up is one way citizens, regardless of age, can learn about and engage in the legislative process.  

“Students these days, you care about the climate, you care about your personal safety, you care about the economy; you have to get involved,” Deborah Nemad says. “You just can’t be cynical. You can change it, but it takes effort. So getting to know the way this place works is super important.” 

Kaleo Perry pounds poi at the legislature opening day. Perry has been coming to the legislature on opening day with his dad for years to help clean and pound kalo. “Kalo is so important to the Hawaiian culture and we’ve been pounding it for years and years and it’s an ancient tradition,” He says. Perry hopes that by coming to the legislature and teaching visitors how to pound poi he is able to preserve this tradition for future generations. (Lily Washburn)

Nemad is the head of the Hawaii Chapter of Brady United, one of the major gun safety groups in the country. Her number one hope for the 2023   legislative session is to see the Sensitive Places bill passed.

“The supreme court just allowed concealed carry of handguns in Hawaii and that changes our culture forever,” Nemad says. “Sensitive Places is a bill that will define where guns cannot be carried like in your school and in other schools.” 

A local choir welcomes the start of the 2023 legislative session on Wednesday, Jan. 18. (Lily Washburn)

Nemad emphasized how vital it is that people come to the legislature and advocate for laws like this that directly affect their safety. Legislators depend on citizens to make decisions that benefit the people of Hawaii. 

That’s why Nemad, Ross, Gonsalves, and many others “show up” and hope the younger generation will follow by example and continue to represent the voice of Hawaii. 

“That’s the greatest thing is that your voice and your presence are powerful. You are the baton that we are passing to, and so you need to know how powerful you are,” Gonsalves says.

For Gonsalves, this starts with her granddaughter. 

“I am a warrior of love, and she’s the next generation of warriors of love,” she says. “So I’m letting her know what her power is by setting an example of that same mana and power.”