The Meanings of Occupation

At the summer land institute at Cornell University, I was exposed to multiple meanings of occupation. Out of respect for the participants, who are planning to publish their papers, I will not discuss the specifics of their papers but only give general impressions from the institute. Occupation comes from the Latin word occupare, meaning to seize or capture (thanks to Camilo Ehrlichman for bringing up this etymology). This made the title of my talk, “Occupied minds: was Hawai’i ceded or seized?” apropos to the theme of the institute.

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I still hold to a fairly strict legal definition of occupation – Benvenisti holds that it is:

“the effective control of a power [occupant]
… over a territory to which that power
has no sovereign title, without the volition
of the sovereign of that territory.” – Eyal
Benvenisti, The International Law of
Occupation (2012, 3).

But this week opened my mind to the ways in which occupation takes plural forms and can be disguised as other “legitimate” activities. The group visited the site of a highly controversial gas storage facility at Seneca Lake in the finger lake region of New York near Ithaca and Rochester. Just as we stood observing the site from the road, about a dozen cars honked their horns in support thinking we may be preparing for an action against the company. Both sides in this struggle have pointed to science and economics in support of their claims, in ways that reminded me of the Mauna kea struggle – in fact one protest group calls itself We Are Seneca Lake.

Protesters blocking access to the site of underground gas storage in the finger lakes region of New York

In their case, this slogan was quite literal – the lake is the drinking water source for 100,000 people in the finger lakes region, and as the body is 65-70% water, those citizens are quite literally made of Seneca Lake water. Even I drank a couple of glasses and was thus partly made of the lake.

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In my talk, I tried to recognize the Cayuga nation, on whose traditional lands Cornell lies. But I neglected to ask what the native nation(s) of the Seneca lake region thought of the gas storage issue. One participant – from UH actually – quietly proposed that the movement might constitute “settler activism.” I found this troubling and it made me immediately think of Kahea: the Hawaiian- Environmental Alliance, whose mission I find relevant to this issue and perhaps the most important of all the nonprofits in Hawaii; to heal the insane rift between environmentalists and Kanaka Maoli.

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