“It was about how you love and how you care for yourself in relation to the world”

Part 2 of our interview with Val Kalei Kanuha, abolitionist & pioneer in the movement against intimate partner violence

Albert and Michelle:


This week we share part II of our interview with Val Kalei Kanuha, a pioneer in what was first called the battered women’s movement in the 1970s, and now a vital voice in restorative and transformative justice movements. (You can read part I here, where she reflects openly about the successes and mistakes of her work.)

Here Kalei shares her life story. She was born and raised in a rural town in Hawaii to a Hawaiian father and a Nisei mother. She recalls her close relationship with her mother, who grew up extremely poor, was disowned for marrying a Hawaiian, and in turn fiercely protected her children from discrimination. She remembers fondly how her Hawaiian grandma came home from church with snacks like dried abalone. She shares the joy of coming out as a lesbian in the early 1970s: “At that moment I felt a sense of liberation, a sense that I finally belonged in the world.” And she talks briefly about her work in Hawaiian cultural interventions that work with survivors of intimate partner violence and men who have abused their partners.

Albert: Can you share a bit about your family background?

VK: I was born in the fifties in a little rural town, Hilo, Hawaii. In some ways it was such an idyllic time. I’m one of those boomers—I feel really lucky and fortunate that I came up then. I grew up in a pretty pristine environment and community in so many ways.

My father is Hawaiian. He was born in an area called Kohala, on the very northern tip of the island of Hawaii.  He has some Chinese from my grandmother’s side, probably about three generations back. A little Spanish, too, but primarily Hawaiian. So I am a proud descendant of the original inhabitants of the land and cosmos where I was born. (And I just want to say, I don’t like to use the term “native Hawaiian” because I think it’s redundant—I consider all indigenous Hawaiians native. For me the term “Hawaiian” is not a nationality, citizenship status, or resident of these islands; we are a people.)

My mother is actually Nisei, which means second-generation Japanese-American. Her father came to work in the sugar plantations in the early 1900s. The first contract laborers who came to Hawaii were all men. When they decided they wanted to stay, they yearned for a connection to their cultural roots, which is common to all immigrants. So my grandfather married a picture bride: my grandmother, Komatsu Araki. He basically went through a book, picked out her picture, paid for her steerage, went down to the dock when the boat came in, and looked for her number. And that’s how they got together.

My maternal grandparents settled in Hilo. My mother and her three siblings were all born there too. So our land and place were a very important part of my growing up and my history. This is where I trace my roots. I know that eventually we will move back there. And I hope that my bodily form is returned to Hawaii and to Hilo when my time comes to pass into the next realm.

AW: How much importance did your parents give these stories of your ancestry, and how was it different between your mother and father?

VK: I never really knew my Japanese grandparents, because my mother was disowned for marrying my father. Her parents did not want her to marry somebody who wasn’t Japanese. It was considered especially bad form to marry a Hawaiian. It might have been different if she’d married a haole (white or foreigner) guy, but that would probably have been frowned upon too. Even if most of the Japanese who settled in Hawaii were farmers from poor rural areas, they were steeped in an idea of upward mobility. They felt they were better than Hawaiians. This tension between being Hawaiian and being Asian was always there.

My grandparents lived on Oahu, just a short plane ride away, but it wasn’t until I was ten or eleven that I met them. That was the first time I was ever on an airplane. They had never met my father or any of their grandchildren. I think they were coming to the end of their lives and they felt it was time to make amends with my mother. So we went to Honolulu and met my grandmother. My grandfather had passed away when my mom was in her early 20s.

But we learned about Japan, and about early life in Hawaii, from my mother, Chitose Araki Kanuha. She shared a lot of stories about plantation life, about the poverty she grew up in. My grandparents’ generation of Japanese (Issei or first generation) came to Hawaii as contract workers with the intent to go back home. First-born children were sent back to be educated in and keep their Japanese heritage. They had a term for them: Kibei (帰米). For instance, my aunt, the oldest child in my mother’s family, spent the first thirteen years of her life in Hawaii, and then her parents said, “You’re going back.” She didn't know Japan or their Japanese relatives at all, and she didn’t get to grow up with her family in Hawaii. I think she had a hard and lonely life as a youngster in Japan, as her relatives were very poor and did not want to take care of another child. That was true of many children of first-generation Japanese-American parents in Hawaii. Most of the Kibei from that generation have passed on now.

I consider one of my strongest and most blessed influences growing up with my Hawaiian grandmother, Becky Niniau Arce Kanuha, who lived with us. That multigenerational connection was really important to me. She told us a lot of stories about Hawaiian culture and growing up on this island. My father told us stories, too. But he also grew up during a time when there was a lot of discrimination against Hawaiians that was rooted in the colonial structure of the islands, and the particular influence of early Christian missionaries.

Even though my grandmother spoke fluent Hawaiian, my father told her not to speak to us in Hawaiian. We would hear her speak it on the telephone, and with her friends. But she never spoke Hawaiian at home. She was also very reverential towards my father, as he had taken responsibility for caring for her by having her move into our family home. But he was distant and sometimes even mean to her, which was confusing to us kids, who adored her.

One of my biggest sources of sadness and loss is that my father was so influenced by colonization. He told us we couldn’t practice or talk about Hawaiian things. And oddly, it was actually my mother who became the most protective about preserving our Hawaiian culture. For instance I had the opportunity to go to the Kamehameha Schools for Hawaiian children; my father didn’t approve but my mother did. In retrospect, it was a boarding school on another island, so I’m glad I didn’t end up going. But I think my mother was supportive because she was happy to be married to my father, to be connected to Hawaii through him. It was a way for her to defend choosing him over a Japanese man.

AW: What was it like for your mother to live through World War II in Hawaii?

VK: She was in her early twenties. In terms of job options as a female, particularly as an immigrant Japanese female, she could become either a teacher or a nurse. She chose to go to nursing school attached to the Queen’s Hospital, which is now the premier hospital in the Pacific. When the war broke out, she had just gotten her nursing degree.

She told us about being sent to work in the hospitals to care for some of the military servicemen who were injured in the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Here’s one I really think is powerful: none of the Japanese-American nurses were allowed to care for injured American soldiers or sailors because even while they were American citizens, they were still considered possible traitors or sympathetic to this infamous event that started the war. She told me that if they walked past the ward with injured military personnel, they had to cover their faces or look away.

In some ways, my mother was spared the worst of what happened to other Japanese-Americans at that time. Life was really hard for them because my grandfather’s general store in Hilo went bankrupt during the Depression, so the family moved to Honolulu from Hilo in the dark of night, to hide their shame. They lived in a very poor part of urban Honolulu, in settlement houses. My grandma worked for white families cooking, cleaning, and babysitting. The “menfolk” (my grandpa and uncles) did yardwork for large estates. They were mistreated by many families because they didn’t speak English, and they were so unfamiliar with white people’s ways.

But they were never displaced or incarcerated. I think they just weren’t of much value because they didn’t own land, they weren’t businesspeople. Because they were in the enclave of the poorest immigrants, they weren’t a security risk and were protected from the worst outcomes. But like everyone in Hawaii, they lived under martial law for three years with curfews, fingerprinting, random ID checks, and other constraints enforced by the US military.

Michelle: Where did your parents meet?

VK: My mother finished nursing school when there was a big shortage of nurses on the island of Hawaii. I think she wanted to go back there because she was born in Hilo and she was going to be a public health nurse, so she signed up for that gig.

My parents tell a great story about getting together. She would have lunch at this drugstore down the street from her office in Hilo. My father was working at a furniture company a few doors from the drug store, and he would always have lunch there, too. She hadn’t really interacted with anybody except Japanese-Americans at that time, and she was quite taken by him. He was a really fun guy, very handsome and stylish. He also drove a red convertible!

She was in her mid-twenties when they met. She was maybe twenty-seven when she had my brother, and had three kids after that. That was kind of late to be having children back then, but it was because she wanted to start her nursing career before having kids. I consider my mother a feminist before her time. I didn’t realize until I went to college how unusual she was about the positions she took on things, especially as a Nisei daughter growing up in 1930s America.

MK: Could you describe a couple of things that were unusual about her?

VK: My parents didn’t raise us religiously. My grandmother was a devout Mormon, as many Hawaiians were, which is a whole other story. But my father was very anti-Mormon. My mother was raised, of course as a Buddhist but in her early adulthood joined a Methodist church. Go figure? But they both said, “We’re not going to practice anything, but you kids do whatever you want. It’s not our way to go to church.” That was really unusual—most families around us had some type of religious practice in their households ,especially in 1950s Hawaii. My mother encouraged us to find the meaning of religion in our lives, while my father was silent on the issue.

Another example is that when my mother married my father, she kept her maiden name, Araki. Her legal name was Chitose Araki Kanuha. Everybody would ask her: “Is that your middle name?” And she responded, “No, that’s my given name and my husband’s name.” Nobody did things like that in the 1950s. But she did, and she never gave that up; when she signed her initials, it was always, “CAK.”

And she would stand up for us when people called us names or kicked us out of places like pools or playgrounds because we were Hawaiian. She always confronted racism, especially about our Hawaiian side. For example, people would tell us how lucky we were to be half-Japanese, and my mother would say, “They are part Hawaiian.” As children, we would get so embarrassed. We would say, “Mom, please don’t do that.” And she would tell us, “You have a right to be in that pool.” Or she would say, “Nobody should call your names for being Hawaiian.” She was always outspoken when she or her children were mistreated. It was unacceptable and rare for a Japanese woman of lower class stature in the 1950s to speak out about anything. To “talk back” to those in authority was a big no-no.

My mother wasn’t necessarily educated about these things. I think she just had a feeling about what was right and wrong. I always thought marrying my Hawaiian father was also a way for her to push up against what she saw as a very regressive and repressive Japanese culture. When I was in high school, I would cut school—not to do anything bad (I was a nerdy good girl!), but to visit my mom at her office. And she would always ask, “Aren’t you supposed to be in school?” I would say, “Yeah, but I felt like coming to visit you.” She would say, “Okay, let’s go to lunch!” My mother and I were really best friends.

MK: That makes me so hopeful for my future relationship with my daughter.

VK: Totally, right? My mother died of Alzheimer’s almost exactly ten years ago. It was so sad for me to watch her deteriorate as she lost her memory and control of her body. The disease progressed relatively quickly, about five years from diagnosis. She and my father were still living together and the rest of our family all helped care for her and them.But in the end, the only person she remembered was me. She would see me from afar and call my name, no matter how long it had been since we’d seen each other. She finally just forgot who everyone was—except me.

I cry about her every day because I miss her so much. But I know she’s always with me. And I miss her more now, because I wish she had lived to meet and raise my young daughter.

AW: We have so many questions, but I want to know about your grandma, too. Can you talk more about her influence on you?

VK: It wasn’t unusual in that era to live with the older generation. My grandmother was in her fifties and already retired when she came to live with us. (She came at the insistence of my mother, not my father.) Until I was 16 years old, she lived with us and did everything from cooking, cleaning, laundry, gardening, and of course, taking care of us kids. I was very, very close to her. You know, in Hawaiian culture, elders are really important. But I only came to understand later that not all elders were like my grandma, who was the quintessential nice grandmother. She was kind, sweet, generous, funny. She was a very devout Mormon who’d always come home from church with a little snack for us, some dried abalone or little candies.

She didn’t have much schooling; I think she completed the sixth grade. She was raised by her own grandmother because her mother died giving birth to her. As with every subsequent generation, she felt her role was to care for her grandchildren. She wanted to instill in the next generation kindness and respect, good humor, and a joie de vivre. And she was that way. When I was in grade school, she used to do my math homework—long division!—while I went out to play.

At night I used to sneak out of my bed and go sleep in my grandmother’s very small single bed. I would sometimes wet her bed in the middle of the night. But to show how loving she was, she would pick me up—I remember this vividly—and put me on the floor. She’d change all the sheets and my pajamas, put me back in the bed, and the next morning no one would be the wiser. She would never scold me, and always kept letting me sleep in her bed!

During this time of voter suppression, I have also been thinking about how every election my grandma used to work at our neighborhood polling place. This is someone who was among the first generations of indigenous Hawaiians to come up on colonized land. And yet she still felt it was her duty to help with this quintessential American tradition.

So my mother and my grandmother are the most important influences in my life. Everything I am I attribute to them.

AW: That’s so beautiful. Can you talk a bit more about how your consciousness as a feminist came about? Obviously you have these amazing women as role models, but what about your own path?

VK: I was the one who would always bring home the bird that fell out of the tree or some bug that I found on the street. Whenever my brothers fell down and skinned their knees, I would put the Band-Aids on. I would pick up trash off the street and stuff like that. I must have been a total oddball.

I think I inherited some of the nurture part from my mother being a nurse, and confronting injustice from her too. But I think it’s also partly because my parents and grandmother were very, very kind and respectful. They would scold us if we said harsh words to each other. They would remind us, “You don’t speak like that to each other.”

As I got more into the feminist movement, I saw women from all generations and experiences come together to make things right. In the feminist movement, we didn’t do things alone, but with and for others. These were all direct influences from my mother and grandmother.

AW: Was coming out hard, or did it feel organic, part of the times and the community?

VK: I didn’t know any lesbians growing up. I was kind of genderfluid, but in the fifties we called ourselves tomboys. And it’s so funny, because my daughter is genderfluid, and I’m so happy for her. What I see in her is that she gets along with both the boys and the girls. I was the same way. I know it isn’t about our influence on her—she’s just like that.

To your question, two things happened to me. One is that I fell in love with my best friend in college. She had already kind of been in a relationship with somebody, and I just thought they were best friends. And then—I don’t know, it’s a comedy of erotic and “coming out” errors—my feelings changed. I just felt this deep heart-connection to her. And after over 50 years and other girlfriends, we’re still deep friends. Actually, we just texted last night about something. She came to visit me in Hawaii many years after we broke up, fell in love with somebody and stayed. She’s lived there for over 30 years.

Anyway, when I made that connection, I literally felt like my heart had just exploded. I realized what that kind of love was, that it was different from loving my mother and my grandmother and my friends. And at that same moment, I felt a sense of liberation, a sense that I finally belonged in the world. I understood that this thing constraining me was about injustice—the idea that I was not supposed to love a woman. That moment fed into my growing sense of liberation and justice. And it was certainly part of my development as a feminist.

The sad part is, of course, that I told my parents and they were devastated. My mother literally took to her bed.

MK: What happened?

VK: I had gone home from college to visit them at Christmas and decided to tell them. My mother basically burst into tears as soon as I told her. She took to her bed and never got out until I left a few days later. So it was really, really painful. We were estranged for a short time, only a year. And my father told me many years later, “You know, when you left to go back to the mainland, we thought we would never see you again.” He said, “Your mother was so sad. I was sad, but not because you loved Polly. I didn’t care about that. I cared that we weren’t going to see you ever again.”

Then we actually reconnected and healed from that time. And my parents were so fantastic with all of my girlfriends, of which there were only like three. [We all laugh.] They gave us gifts and we always went to visit; they came and visited us, too. So the healing was really solid. But it was a very hard transition. My mother said that what she feared was that I would always be discriminated against. She said, “I didn’t want you to be abnormal. I always worried about you.” And she thought she’d never have grandchildren. I said, “Just because I’m with a woman doesn’t mean I can’t have kids.” And she said, “Yes, but it won’t be the regular way.” Hearing that was both very liberating and the most traumatizing thing in my life.

AW: What allowed them to become more accepting? Or was it you who kept on welcoming them?

VK: You know what I think happened? I think our love for each other is what transcended it. I kept on writing them little notes and stuff like that. Finally I said, “I’m going to come home, and if you don’t feel comfortable with me staying at the house I’ll go stay with my one of my brothers.” And finally, one of times I wrote that, they said, “You have to come home.”

I really think they didn’t want to lose me. The hardest thing for them, I think, was deciding that they loved me more than they hated me being a lesbian. They loved our connection as a family more than they feared my abnormality or my having a hard life. I think they came to trust that I was going to be alright, because I had been alright most of my life.

They also really liked the girlfriend I came out with, and all of my partners. So fast forward forty years, and the only other person my mother remembered from the depths of her Alzheimer’s was Polly, my first girlfriend. She would say, “How’s Polly doing?” And I said, “You remember her?” She said, “She was your friend from Wisconsin.” Like, what? That was forty plus years ago, but they still loved Polly, until the end. And that really helped. All of this is what made us coming back together possible.

I think growing up as a Hawaiian and then coming out as a lesbian in my twenties in the 1970s really shaped me. When I was growing up, I thought I would never get married because I could not imagine falling in love with a boy! At the time I felt nobody would ever love me the way boys and girls love each other. Even though I had many friends who were boys, I was not attracted to them. I just thought something was wrong with me. And then when I came out, I realized nothing was wrong with me—I just didn’t know who I was. So it was a time of tremendous growth and openness.

I had gone to Wisconsin and Minnesota for college, both bastions of liberal politics. It was the height of the anti-war movement. In Minnesota I did demonstrations at nuclear power plants and at Honeywell and got arrested. I went to the Women’s Encampment in Seneca Falls, and got arrested at a protest at an army depot there. And then I just continued. I started to do antiviolence work. I feel like that was where I truly found my home.

I do this in honor of my ancestors. I didn’t know that at first, but now I do. I believe in everything, everything I am, and I know it’s because I’ve been chosen to do this work by my ancestors.

MK: I know returning to Hawaii was very formative for you. Could you tell us about that work?

VK: Coming back was about bringing home what I had learned from living and studying in America. I needed Hawaii as much as it needed me. I brought back an approach that didn’t rely on the state to do domestic violence work. And I needed to get reconnected to my culture. I had been a grassroots advocate for twenty years at that point.

Grassroots activists, mainly native Hawaiian, Filipino, Asian, and Asian-American advocates, who are really smart and dedicated to our local communities in Hawaii, had the opportunity to design something that uses Hawaiian culture. I wanted to do more healing. I wanted to incorporate batterers and abusers. I wanted to take a more of a family approach. Basically what happened is we applied for and received a grant of almost $2 million to design a Hawaiian cultural intervention for domestic violence that was grounded in the values of aloha (love; regard), respect, and connection to our ancestors and elders.

I came to love working so much with the men who were court mandated to our groups because I realized how far they have to go and how much they needed. You know, women—we’re so much smarter and more open to expressing our feelings. I also think the way the women’s movement structured gender liberation was to give us a voice to express what we thought was unjust and what we deeply valued. In our work, we gave survivors a space to be heard, to tell their stories, and to be affirmed.

But for many of the guys who have mistreated their partners, they are stunted in their ability to say what they want to say, to express their feelings—to cry, to apologize, to speak. The way patriarchy and power work is that you have to control not only others, but yourself. Patriarchy does not allow men to admit that they are scared, insecure, or wrong—that’s what women are. Misogyny teaches men to avoid, repress, punish, or control those emotions that are gendered female. In our groups, when men came to these revelations, they men would end up crying and holding hands with each other and hugging. They say, “I’ve never done this before, hug a guy that I hardly knew.”

And this intervention, I think, was the best of what is possible for us. It removed the demonization of abusers. It accentuated the strengths and resilience of survivors. It reminded us of the loving nature of our culture and people, of all cultures and peoples. It helped us understand loss in a political way: before colonization, we dealt with domestic and family violence using community accountability. But with colonialism came the enactment of Western judicial practices. Our work brought back the whole self in a culturally-based way. It helped heal survivors, but it also helped heal those who have hurt them and, in the end, helped heal our communities.