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05 February, 2012

Menehune Action

A recent discussion at Olyblog got me to thinking about civic responsibility, the roles of government and the private sector, and common sense. It started when someone said that the city had told them it was fine for folks to pick up wood from trees being trimmed and felled in the aftermath of a big storm. Then they posted again, saying that no, the City had informed them that this is not the policy. I chimed in with the opinion that it probably boils down to liability, and that city government must officially say no, lest every joker who hurts themselves comes looking for a big payoff.

But what really interested me was the next comment, from a resident of Legion street, where some beautiful but doomed oaks were damaged. Under normal circumstances, she said, the city crew would cut, and the neighbors would then come through and salvage the wood. But this storm hit too many trees, and a contractor was hired that proceeded to block access to locals, while allowing someone from out Delphi Road way to come in and load up with prime firewood. The commenter said she called the City, which said that no, the contractor was not entitles to the wood.

Yet again, we see how transfer of a government function to the private sector can devolve to piracy. I don't know whether the load of firewood is destined for the market, or just heating some guy's house. But I do know that putting up barriers and preventing the neighbors from getting a share is wrong. I also see that when all is said and done, private entities will have lined their pockets with government funds, even if they are not ripping off firewood, for work that some of the neighbors would have done for free.

When I lived in Hawai'i, and worked for a chronically cash-strapped government, we sometimes relied on neighbors. Sometimes they formed a group, and signed an agreement, and became official curators of a place. But just as often, they pitched in, doing at least some of what needed doing. This kind of work came to be known as "menehune action," a reference to the menehune, ancient Hawaiians known for getting big jobs done with amazing speed and prowess.

In modern tourism-dependent Hawai'i, the menehune have been cutesified and co-opted, turned into grinning big-eyed munchkins and pressed into service selling everything from keychains to bottled water. (Disclosure: Menehune water was my favorite, but more because I knew it came from deep below Halawa Valley than for the logo.)
Long ago, Hawaiians themselves mythologized the menehune to some degree, noting their strangely short stature and ascribing to them incredible feats such as building fishponds and other massive public works in a single night.

I don't doubt the power of a determined group of hard workers unfettered by red tape, but there is at least a little of the phenomenon in which elites unaccustomed to manual labor exalt the physical ability of their laborers. The word menehune derives from Tahitian for commoners, the people who worked for the chiefs. Hawaiian lore, however, enriches this relationship with some complexities. For one, the menehune are often described as being the first people, or at least the ones who were in a place before the big Hawaiians and the bigger south sea chiefs. Also, no matter how high a chief, mistreating the menehune or ignoring their demands to work in privacy, led to them disappearing and not completing the job.

The secrecy of their work, often under cover of darkness, usually without tolerating non-menehune, survived in some of the menehune action I knew of. Where the state insisted on complicated and onerous work rules, volunteer labor sometimes evaporated like water on hot lava. Where the menehune saw something really needed to be done, and the officials were oblivious, it would sometimes mysteriously happen. Some of these officials knew exactly what was happening, their blindness was really just a long wink at their menehune partners.

Like the city guy who said take the wood. No City Official will say in print that people can come with saws and wedges and work in a right of way, but plenty of city workers know the deal, and wink or turn the other way as they drive past our own northwest menehune, cleaning the land and getting firewood.

The subject is rich, and I could go on, but it seems like now is a good time to go get some wood. The chiefs don't often work on Sundays, so I won't be bothered. I suspect that they'll be happy on Monday, judging from the number of other menehune I've seen this weekend.


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