Men on Fire

Men on Fire Solomon Enos
Artwork by Solomon Enos

Text by Sonny Ganaden

Artwork by Solomon Enos

Borrowing intelligently from indigenous and western practices, thinkers in Hawai‘i are re-imaging the concept of manhood.

Let me just say this first, knowing just enough feminist theory to begin with a disclaimer; I realize that writing about gender from a straight male perspective could really get me in trouble. Considering we have it a lot easier in this culture, there are things men shouldn’t say about women and power. Dudes aren’t (usually) the gender known to internalize a world that places so much worth on feminine youth and beauty. Seeing the world from this Y-chromosome-tinted perspective means to some extent we are incapable of true understanding.

As Bell Hooks, the American author, feminist and social activist, notes, “Any coming to critical consciousness simply heightens the reality of contradictions … To focus on them is to expose our complicity, to expose the reality that even the most politically aware among us are often compelled by circumstances we do not control to submit, to collude.”

Evolving concepts of gender and the reality of contradictions bring up uncomfortable questions. How do you go “there” without being introspective about the variety and novelty of ways men tend to disappoint the women in their lives? Or the easy ways it is to be complicit in patriarchy and objectification? Yabba Dabba Doo she looks good in that dress; am I colluding?

Supposing that most guys lack the critical thinking, things can get a little confusing even for those of us raised by progressive women and after-school Oprah to cringe at the B-word. There’s nothing worse than knowing just enough of MacKinnon’s post-marxist feminist theory to ruin a perfectly boring relationship or a pleasant night of drinking. It means the politically aware among us are living that heightened reality of contradiction as we decide what to wear tonight, where to be and who to show up with.

For men, being complicit in misogyny means never really getting it. It also means a lifetime of that thousand-yard stare from powerful women, the one where she’s just waiting for you to say something stupid. Old models of masculinity that include patriarchy and sexism do not prepare boys for a world where women will increasingly hold the same power cards as men in personal and professional arenas, where leaders are more cognizant of the role emotions play in making decisions.

For some thinkers, a major hurdle of true equality is and has been the way men see themselves: as competitors, warriors, providers – or losers for not being competitors, warriors, or providers. We’ll have to go there, as the problems of sexual equality on a global power level remain the same. It is an unfortunate truth that the major religions of the world still consider women as an inferior form, and the vast majority of decisions being made in politics and the economy are made by men.

Troubled parts of the world continue to use rape as a tool of war and violence against women as a means of social engineering that can only be described as fucked up. Not thinking about it contributes to the problem.

As we venture into the 21st century, thankfully American culture is changing towards something almost resembling gender equity. Even Jay-Z, known a decade ago for the “Big Pimpin’” masochistic energy of the golden era of hip-hop, has eased his conceptions of power and women. He can be heard discussing his autobiography on NPR, explaining away the objectification in his earlier work as having more to do with his immaturity at the time than it did with sexism.

That growing up poor in America’s particular style of capitalism means many emerging artists are young and have never had real relationships. So it’s no surprise that what comes out of the hip-hop generation is boasting, something insincere to provide the illusion of power in a culture that for many won’t give you any unless you take it. It might have taken a few albums, but the bikini and cheap champagne yacht party of “Big Pimpin” is slowly being replaced by the much sexier “Venus” and “Mars.”

In Hawai‘i we have a culture that borrows much of its normative values outside of American pop culture. Here where women paddle and swim from island to island and run corporations, kids take their cues as much from chubby Jawaiian crooners as they do from rappers. Hawai‘i has been ahead of the curve in gender politics and cultural equality for some time now.

Locals and tourists know this place produces strong women; we learn quick that it was a queen that last ran the Hawaiian Kingdom, and that Roosevelt grad Yvonne Elliman was the real disco queen. In 1965, while the continent was tripping over the notion of civil rights as fundamental rights, Hawai‘i elected native daughter Patsy Mink to Congress.

It was Patsy Mink who famously pushed through legislation that prohibited gender discrimination by federally funded institutions, giving generations of American women the opportunity to pursue achievements in higher education. It was women who ran for office, represented clients, led labor movements, and made Hawai‘i a more equitable place. We have much to learn, but just as much to teach the world regarding how to raise boys in a community that aims to be fair.



I first met Professor Ty P. Kawika Tengan at a controlled burn on Christmas Eve, at the prefabricated faculty housing complex behind the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa. The young professor presents very much as a regular local guy in shorts and aloha print shirt, replete with a smile and an easy demeanor. That Christmas behind the town houses, a cohort of similarly untenured professors dug an imu at the edge of the tended communal lawn abutting Mānoa stream as their kids chased each other under the trees. In the shallow pit they engineered a small, smoldering ziggurat of dense wood, only a few feet high and lined with river stones, oriented to use the wind that famously sweeps through the valley as a natural bellows. The men wanted to get it hot, then regulate the pit to cook everyone’s meat and vegetables perfectly. Within minutes of ignition, the fire crumbled the top of the pyre and revealed a mesmerizing swirling blue flame, a tight and controlled burn of aggressive heat, the lapis color of the summer ocean.

That fire looked like it could melt anything. Hot enough to alter the composition of an idea in a crucible fueled by the trade winds. There, I learned of the professor’s work, from a not-so-regular local guy who is helping to redefine manhood in Hawai‘i from an indigenous academic space, like an intelligently designed cooking pit, merging indigenous concepts with Western knowledge to create a better system.

In his 2008 book Native Men Remade, Tengan describes the practices of the Hale Mua, an organization of Hawaiian men striving to develop a cultural foundation for men to become strong leaders and community members. He writes from his personal experience as a participant-observer and academic. As Tengan describes, “Many indigenous Hawaiian men have felt profoundly disempowered by the legacies of colonization and by the tourist industry, which, in addition to occupying a great deal of land, promotes a feminized image of Native Hawaiians (evident in the ubiquitous figure of the dancing hula girl).”

The Hale Mua focuses on the fighting arts and philosophies of warrior hood, struggling over Hawaiian identity with their bodies. In the first few pages, Tengan describes standing atop Pu‘u Keka‘a, a cliff on the southwest shore of Maui now the site of a Sheraton Hotel parking lot. There the group performed a ceremony; and in an act about both spiritual dedication and gender performance, jumped into the crashing sea several stories below.

Later in the book, Tengan vividly describes the sham battles the group engages in at Pu‘ukohola, the site of a heiau (temple) historically consecrated in the death of warriors on the island of Hawai‘i. The group trains physically for months in preparation for battle. Wearing traditional malo and armed with spears and clubs (that are padded), men from opposing groups battle each other with the very real possibility of physical injury.

Tengan describes that “having suffered American political occupation and subsequent racial, political-economic, and cultural transformations that characterize the colonized, displays of bravery and courage in the sham battle brought respect, honor and mana to the lands, communities and culture Nā Koa represented.”

‘Aikapu, a religious and political set of laws that enforced gender segregation, were inherent to the Hawaiian way of life prior to the consolidation of power under Kamehameha in 1810. In the years following the creation of the Kingdom, as the once thriving indigenous population was tragically ravaged by western disease, new models of gender were brought from foreign shores.

The missionaries may have helped bring about the end of punishing girls and women for eating with men or eating the wrong food, but with their introduction of a mercantile capitalist economy and Christianity they instituted a different type of gender acculturation.

In the American context of men owning and controlling property, we have forgotten how large a category “Property” once was, including land, water, slaves, children and women. Interestingly, it was men’s work to dig the imu and cook the food.

It is with these competing histories of inequality that the men described in Native Men Remade rework the conception of masculinity. What is striking in describing the book is that it comes off as a simple, if admirably decent academic critique of an indigenous practice. The book however is no straight genre exercise for ivory tower academics or an undergrad taking a Women’s Studies course to fulfill his major requirement.

It is a loving critique, the craftsmanship a wonder. That writing about a bunch of guys sitting around talking and figuring out their place in history, reminds us that it is possible to find freedom when one jumps off that tourist-filled cliff and dives deeper.



As Tengan describes the Hawaiian experience of re-imaging masculinity, he shows non-Hawaiians what it means to decolonize the mind. As in the case of the Hale Mua, much of that work for men must be done through our bodies, as sometimes words don’t have the same impact as, well, an actual impact.

This physical connection to masculinity isn’t meant just for the Raging Bulls, and may in part explain why mixed martial arts is booming on the islands. If one were to rank the most famous Hawaiian men in the American conception, it would likely include Kamehameha, The Duke, Don Ho, Iz, and BJ Penn rounding out the top five.

Guys that wouldn’t dare step foot in a ring have no qualms wearing a T-shirt proclaiming fandom for a fighter from Hawai‘i island who marches out to Hawai‘i ’78 and (usually) proceeds to beat another guy senselessly. There’s something visceral about physical power, and if appreciated and utilized, is a way to be brave and courageous without declaring ownership over another.

For other thinkers in Hawai‘i, the question of masculinity continues to be a complex and personal one. It’s not widely known that superstar feminist writer Rebecca Walker lives on Maui. I should preface that with a whirlwind curriculum vitae to explain why it’s a big deal. Rebecca Walker is in much demand as a speaker, making waves as she tells young ambitious women something of a shocker coming from a feminist: that if a family and babies is what you want, you should plan your life accordingly.

She has edited several collections of essays, and is often introduced by way of her mother, Alice Walker, the Pulitzer Prize winning author and activist, most famous for her novel The Color Purple. Despite the New York Times articles that described their only somewhat imperfect family, both Ms. Walkers represent a legacy of intellectual struggle against the historical oppression of racism and patriarchy in America.

For the last several years, Rebecca and her family have lived upcountry, on the slope of Mauna Kea on the island of Maui, a lush and spare landscape worlds away from the contentious American cities she describes growing up in her 2000 memoir Black, White, and Jewish. She also happens to be beautiful in that hapa way that Hawai‘i both breeds and beckons for.

Rebecca Walker graciously made herself available for an interview for this little publication. As the editor for a collection of essays in 2004 titled What Makes a Man, she wrote:

“It occurred to me that my son was being primed for war, was being prepared to pick up a gun. The first steps were clear: Tell him that who he is authentically is not enough; tell him that he will not be loved unless he abandons his own desires and picks up a tool of competition; tell him that to really be of value he must stand ready to compete, dominate, and, if necessary, kill, if not actually then virtually, financially, athletically. If one’s life purpose is obscured by the pressure to conform to a generic type and other traces of self are ostracized into shadow, then just how difficult is it to pick up a gun, metaphoric or literal, as a means of self-definition, as a way of securing what feels like personal power?”

The recent tragedy in Arizona echo the sentiment in her question. But Rebecca Walker’s in a different place now. When asked what, if any, the differences are in raising a boy on the slope of Mauna Kea versus in the progressive yet potentially violent northern California neighborhood she lived in when she wrote those words, she explained:

“It’s hard to tell the difference personally. I was co-parenting in the States a few years back when I wrote the essay in What Makes a Man. Here, there’s a lot more fluidity. I don’t get the sense that the culture is oppressing boys in the same ways. There’s less judgment.”

Further, “I lived in Berkley when I wrote that essay, and he went to school at the Berkley-Oakland border, so it was progressive on one hand. But for him I think it was hard figuring out what it meant to be a boy. He was raised by two women, and there surely could’ve been more male energy in the house, with all that goes along with that. There were some things that I think don’t get addressed in that environment like female bullying. It’s complex and there should be more discussion about it. A lot of it has to do with class, and I think it should be raised in schools.”

Just like everywhere else in the world, humankind’s relationship to these islands has been largely defined by men killing and oppressing others. It was men that politically united the islands by pushing fellow warriors off a precipitous drop on the Pali. It was aggressive businessmen that used the labor and land of others to farm and harvest sugar, at once instituting an economic base and a western capitalist system.

It was men that brought the strongest military the world has ever known to these shores, historically aiding in the ouster of a Kingdom and continuing to train for foreign wars. It was men that created law, and put women and land in the same category.

Certainly not all hope is lost for the men of these islands. Despite the brutal history, if we look closely at things, we realize that masculinity has already changed significantly in the last few generations. Even the strongest military in the world now accepts the truthful sexuality of its enlisted members.

We tend to take for granted these events when they slowly unfold before our eyes as the step-by-step nature of these sorts of cultural changes tend to minimize the shock when taken incrementally over the years. The modern warriors of the Hale Mua, and the countless men who have quietly worked toward peace on these islands have proved to us over and over again that it’s possible to be a lover and a fighter, and that the male conception of conquest can be an inward experience.

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