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Michiana Chronicles writers bring portraits of our life and times to the 88.1 WVPE airwaves every Friday at 7:45 am during Morning Edition and over the noon hour at 12:30 pm during Here and Now. Michiana Chronicles was first broadcast in October 2001. Contact the writers through their individual e-mails and thanks for listening!

Michiana Chronicles: The gift of law

Emily T. Phillips

Laws are evolving documents that govern our daily lives, each harboring their own complex history and Daedalian genealogical ties to the societies who birthed them. How far back do the histories of these documents stretch and how wide are their intricate genealogical nets? What yarns are commonly celebrated in mainstream society? In other words, whose wisdom and ancestral practices are we told our Constitution and laws embraced as guiding principles? Has the spirit of these guiding principles been honored and upheld? What have we yet to learn and address?

On January 6, 2021, as some were entering the Epiphany Season, I was heading out to Michigan to indulge in a three-day retreat to begin the process of translating into French poems by Brandy Nālani McDougall, a Kānaka Maoli, or Native Hawaiian poet and scholar. As I packed the car, my spouse ventured: “You said you wanted to stay away from the news in the next few days, but you may want to listen to the radio on the road, something is happening at the Capitol.” Ironically, I was doing research on the layered Hawaiian concept of aloha which nests at the core of McDougall’s texts. In my research, I was reminded that in Hawai‘i, the Aloha Spirit has been a state law since 1986. It was presented as a gift from Kānaka Maoli to the people of Hawai‘i. This is an excerpt from chapter 5 of Hawai‘i Revised Statutes, section 5.7.5:

(a) "Aloha Spirit" is the coordination of mind and heart within each person. It brings each person to the self. Each person must think and emote good feelings to others. In the contemplation and presence of the life force, "Aloha", the following unuhi laulā loa may be used: "Akahai", meaning kindness to be expressed with tenderness; "Lōkahi", meaning unity, to be expressed with harmony; "ʻOluʻolu" meaning agreeable, to be expressed with pleasantness; "Haʻahaʻa", meaning humility, to be expressed with modesty; "Ahonui", meaning patience, to be expressed with perseverance.

[…] (b) In exercising their power on behalf of the people and in fulfillment of their responsibilities, obligations and service to the people, the legislature, governor, lieutenant governor, executive officers of each department, the chief justice, associate justices, and judges of the appellate, circuit, and district courts may contemplate and reside with the life force and give consideration to the "Aloha Spirit". [L 1986, c 202, § 1]

Such is the gift of law. When I first came across this Hawaiian state law, I found myself wondering what Indigenous life forces have governed the general area of the state of Indiana. I also remembered reading about the controversial origins of the American Constitution. In an article titled “American Indian Constitutions and Their Influence on the United States Constitution” published in 2015, Robert Miller, a legal scholar, tribal court judge, and citizen of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe, argued that:

the evidence shows that the Founders observed tribal governments and cultures that practiced democratic principles and incorporated similar principles into the U.S. Constitution, including separation of powers, popular vote, presidential veto, freedom of religion, and later, women’s suffrage and the right for all citizens to participate in their government. These were practiced by indigenous governments long before the U.S. Constitution (40-41).

If you beg to differ, you may want to refer to the concurrent resolution voted by the U.S. Congress in 1987 to “acknowledge the contribution of the Iroquois Confederacy of Nations to the development of the United States Constitution and to continuing the government-to-government relationship between Indian tribes and the United States established in the Constitution.”

A Native American world view is part of the DNA of our Constitution. The irony is that, as Miller points out: “a new constitution was needed to create a stronger national government that held the exclusive authority to conduct Indian Affairs” (41). I will let you draw your own conclusions on the gifts of law, constitutional borrowings, and the foundational legacy of disenfranchising ironies.

Music: “Witchi Tai To” by Joy Harjo

Anne is a literary translator and Associate Professor of English at Indiana University where she focuses on Indigenous literatures of the Pacific. She has been writing for Michiana Chronicles since 2019.