Rev. Wako Puanani Burgess

Interview by Deborah Lee

“At at one point I was an advocate, an activist; and now my activism is expressed in building beloved community, through mediation and deep dialogue.

“Although advocacy, challenge, and resistance is in my character; the way I practice it now is in a very different way. I help people go 'below the piko' (belly button) into their na’au (guts) where their deepest thinking comes from. It is there that conflicts can be transformed as part of the process of mediation. It often makes me chuckle to remember my time of sitting in front of bulldozers, carrying signs, shouting as a way of calling attention to the issues and injustices I was fighting against.

“Now, I’m able to get people into a circle, who perceive each other as 'the enemy,' and figure out with them how to create an environment in which they can have a deep discussion which maintains the human dignity of everyone, while speaking truth, even if there is no agreement.”
—Puanani Burgess
Rev. Wako Puanani Burgess, full name Christabelle Yoshie Puanani Sonoda Burgess, of Native Hawaiian, Japanese, Chinese, French and German ancestry, was born in Honolulu, O'ahu in the Territory of Hawai'i in 1947. Beginning in the 1970s Puanani became involved in various community struggles in Hawai'i as an advocate. She now considers herself a mediator, community developer, facilitator of community-building and conflict transformation. She is the mother of three, and has been married for 44 years to Hayden Burgess, who now goes by his Hawaiian name, Poka Laenui, a lawyer and advocate for the nation of Hawai'i. Puanani is an ordained Zen Buddhist priest and a poet.

Over the past 40 years, Puanani has been involved in the Native Hawaiian sovereignty movement and several key community struggles, including:

1979-1982: Protect Kaho'olawe Ohana organization and movement
1984-1987: West Beach (Ko'Olina Resort) Development struggle
1982: Founded the Waianae Coast Community Alternative Development Corporation and helped to incorporate nearly a dozen other community organizations on the Wai'anae coast of O'ahu, Hawai'i, including Ka'ala Farm, Inc., Hoa'Aina O Makaha, Hale Na'au Pono (the community mental health center), Time Out Nursery, and 'Opelu Project.
1982-1985: Makua Military Bombing practice on sacred land struggle, and evictions

From Advocate to Mediator

“In my younger years, and I'm thinking of about from age 25 to about 40, I was involved in advocacy in a very big way. The Protect Kaho'olave Ohana (PKO) was a major learning ground for me, during the time I was going to law school. ... The struggle for protection of Kaho’olawe and the building of a movement, to not just stop the bombing, but to build a consciousness of protection of the Land as a day-to-day struggle in our backyards and communities.”

“From the struggle for Kaho'olawe I got involved in the Makua issue, beginning with the evictions of people from the beaches at Makua after hurricane 'Iwa. That led to the movement to stopping the use of Makua Valley as a military training site and bombing target.”

“Then there was the struggle over the building of the West Beach development, which was a turning point for me. In this struggle I began to understand the difference between advocating, which meant that I would be on one side and other people, my neighbors and friends, and mediating, which would necessitate seeing all sides, and not just my own. This was a really uncomfortable position to be in, to be able to see things as someone else sees them.”

A key turning point in her transformation was meeting and becoming a student of Zen Master Tanouye Roshi, one of the founders of the Chozen-ji Temple in Hawai'i, who had been called in to mediate between the community and developers in the West Beach struggle. Over a period of ten years, members of the Wai'anae community challenged the building of the Ko' olina Resort at West Beach in central O’ahu, citing the destruction of precious Native cultural sites, the destruction of important reef structures, and the misuse of sparse water resources for tourist development rather than agriculture. The developers asserted the development would bring much needed employment and economic development opportunities to residents of the Wai'anae Coast. It was a classic struggle. Both sides had valid arguments, which were going to be settled through expensive, energy-consuming and confrontative court action.

In about 1985, through a series of discussions held at the Zen dojo, Tanouye Roshi met with the community and the developers separately in much the same way as the traditional Hawaiian method of resolving conflict, ho'oponopono (to restore balance and harmony). Tanouye Roshi, over a period of eighteen months, had each group think about what they valued about Hawai'i, and what it would take to create harmony and true economic opportunity for local communities. The result of his cultural translation was the formation and signing of  “The Mutually Mediated Agreement,” which enabled the formation of the Wai'anae Coast Community Alternative Development Corporation and the concept of  “community-based economic development” in Hawai’i.

A major aspect of mediation is being able to see things from the other’s point of view and being able to see things as not necessarily in conflict, which would require you to choose one or the other, but instead to be able to perceive things as paradoxical. This was a major lesson she learned through her Hawai'ian grandmother, her Tutu.

Her Tutu was a core member of the Kawaiaha'o Church, a Christian church, and a practitioner of traditional medicine and healing processes. On Sundays, they would go to church and her Tutu would pray to that God. On other days, she would thank the traditional gods to whom she thanked for her gift of healing. When Puanani asked her if that wasn’t wrong to pray to one God on one day, and to the other gods at another time, her Tutu simply said, “See, my girl, I keep them in separate houses, they don’t meet, they don’t fight, and I don’t choose.” The simplicity and complexity of this world view is key to being able to bring people to agreement or to be able to live with the non-agreement.

So, in Pua, two ways of seeing, the Zen and the traditional Hawaiian ways, intersected and supported each other.
“This is the nature of the culture that I come from. It can hold more than one reality in one space, in your mind and your heart. It’s not just inclusion, it is the ability to hold that diversity without needing to solve it all the time, and not always needing to choose between them.”

Mediation, Conflict Transformation & Building Beloved Community

“Advocacy chooses to stand by one side for justice’s sake; mediation is to choose connection to all sides for justice’s sake. If you know someone’s story, it is much harder to hurt them.”

Today, Puanani continues to be active in her community and beyond. She sees her work as being a cultural translator, facilitator and transformer of conflict. She has developed transformative processes that “allow people to talk deeply to each other about things that are important to them without treating those important things as issues.” She calls it “principles of building Beloved Community.”
“It is a process which levels the playing field so that people can begin to see each other as human, that you and I share many things that we never knew that we shared. It’s a process that creates curiosity about the other person and a willingness to hear what the other thinks and believes. The process allows me, as the facilitator, to see where there is agreement, disagreement and non-agreement. The third situation, non-agreement, is often confused with disagreement. Often, people do not actually disagree on things, but haven’t talked enough or in a safe process to reach agreement or true disagreement. Through talking story, humor and curiosity, I help to create a safe environment in which people can have a deep dialogue.

“I didn't set out for it to be spiritual work, it just turned out to be. And then when I became a priest, it helped me to become a priest, because I understood that all people are my people. That I had to care for all of them and I had to figure out a way to help them that would be satisfying, if not perfect, but at least they could live with the outcome.”
Puanani is also a poet. Poetry for her is “a way of expressing some things that I don't have words for.”

Her poem “The Liturgy” was used for a Christian Women United event in the late 1990s by a diverse group of women from Wai'anae who were Catholic women, Christian women, women who had no religion, people who were Hawai'ian and had native Hawaiian practices. “The poem is about sovereignty, the history of Hawai'i, the marriage between the cross and the flag. And how the cross and the flag would come into people's lands, and take away their sovereignty, their language, their culture, their history.”  Puanani's role was the weaver, and as moving as the poem itself was the experience of working on it as a group. “It was such a moving experience for us, because it was so tough. And we had to pierce through our own stuff with each other... so it led to some really deep and hard discussions.”

“Choosing My Name”

by Puanani Burgess

When I was born my mother gave me three names:
Christabelle, Yoshie, and Puanani
Christabelle was my “English” name,
My social security card name,
My school name,
The name I gave when teachers asked me for my “real” name
A safe name

Yoshie was my home name
My everyday name,
The name that reminded my father's family
That I was Japanese, even though
My nose, hips, and feet were wide,
The name that made me acceptable to them
Who called my Hawaiian mother kuroi mame (black bean),
A saving name

Puanani is my chosen name
my piko name connecting me back to the 'aina
And the kai and the po'e kahiko
My blessing, my burden,
My amulet, my spear

Related Links

A 1996 Honolulu Star-Bulletin article about Waianae Valley Integrated Aquaculture/Agriculture Park, one of Puanani's community development projects at the Waianae Coast Comprehensive Alternative Development Corp.

2008 Hawai'i Business article, "Puanani Burgess, Community Developer."

Video of Puanani giving the keynote address, "Building Beloved Community" to the American Institute of Architects in Washington, D.C., 2/5/2010. 52 minutes.

Videos of Puanani's reflections on indigenous worldview: Sharing and Reciprocity ; Wealth

Website with more history and videos about the Protect Kaho'olawe 'Ohana (PKO) struggl. Current PKO website.

Wikipedia article on Poka Laenui (Hayden Burgess)