ʻOhana

This is a new song by me (in collaboration on some of the lyrics with my husband Kevin) that was created with the thought in mind to celebrate our diverse dance community. It is called ‘Ohana (Hawaiian for “family”).

This deliberately sentimental work took on a deeper meaning for me after the recent transition of my mom. ‘Ohana calls to the waters, the wind, the mountains, the forests and the moon, and also to those who have gone before us and to those who will follow.

Many of the video clips and images are from the recent Mahea Uchiyama Center for International Dance 20th Anniversary Concert, and the rehearsals and ceremonies running up to it. They remind me of the difficult, sometimes heartbreaking work of upholding traditions we may not have been born into, how important it is to acknowledge all our different colors  and orientations, and how beautiful it is when we come together to celebrate each other.

In honor of my mom, I encourage you to know your own story. Respect the stories of others in your community. Honor those who came before you. Have the highest regard for those who will follow. And most importantly of all, be a force of love in the world.

The Winds of Change

Hurricane Sandy NOAA Environmental Visualization Laboratory

Ifa is a spiritual path that is about personal responsibility. We each come into this world with our own destiny, and the tools we need to achieve it. We do not hold that the Creator made us in his/her own image, designs “tests” for us, or in any way micromanages our lives.

If things are not going well, it is more than likely due to our own inaction or poor decision-making. Personal upheaval and mishaps are taken as messages from the world of the Spirit. If these messages are ignored, or ascribed as being “God’s will”, Spirit will try again and again to get our attention.

We are now in an era where the Orisa are repeatedly asking us to pay attention. This year alone, we have experienced monster tornadoes, drought, and now the fury of Hurricane Sandy. Yet we continue to behave as if we are above nature. My dear ones, we are a part of nature. We attempt to control nature at our own peril.  The orisa tradition is an attempt to align ourselves with the forces of nature. Our ancestors clearly understood that if we break the laws of nature – nature will break us. (Across The Kings River) The era of our continuing to arrogantly ignore this wisdom is over.

The notion that we are experiencing some divine plan for the “end of days” is nothing more than a way to shirk collective responsibility for our own poor decisions with regard to our precious environment.

That this tragic event occurred to the most populous area of the most powerful nation on earth so close to the most contentious and one of the most  bitter presidential elections in our history is no coincidence. We have had enough partisan bickering and pettiness. It is time to surround with love and support those who have lost so much in the wake of this “Perfect Storm”. It is also time to save our own destiny by respecting the divinity and balance of Nature. The Orisa have given us a glimpse of the stakes at play in the choice we will make on Election Day.

It is completely up to us.

Please consider a donation to the American Red Cross. We are in this thing together.

Love and blessings,

Iya Mahea

Hair

Photography by Margo Moritz

Let us start by stating the obvious, the natural hair texture of the descendants of sub-Saharan African people is unique. Unlike the hair of other ethnic groups of the world, African hair is curled to the point that each follicle spirals around itself in separate little ringlets. This gives it a denser texture, makes it appear to not grow very long, and requires a different method of grooming than that used for straight hair.

Traditionally, natural hair was styled in ways that defined identity and status, and beautifully groomed hair was an important part of daily life. A hairstyle could define whether or not one was warrior or elder, eligible or married. Grooming hair was a form of bonding within families and communities. The washing, oiling, twisting and ornamenting of locks was a special skill possessed by the female head of a household and was passed down to her daughters.

The 400 years of trans-Atlantic trading of enslaved peoples changed all of that. Most of the people forcibly removed were young people who not only lacked the skills and tools needed to properly care for their hair, but had no time left to concern themselves with their physical appearance.  The hair became just a big tangled nuisance to be shaved off or covered in scarves. Eventually, enslaved people began to use butter, axle grease and other household lubricants to groom their hair. Newly emancipated people experimented with bleaches, lye and hot combs to try to “tame” the mass. Ironically, these treatments over time often resulted in damaged scalps and hair loss.

By the time I was a little girl it was common for black women to have their hair either chemically straightened or for them to wear a wig. I underwent the hot comb before I started school and started wearing weaves and wigs by the time I was seven years old. By the time I was a young woman I had no idea of how to take care of my own hair. Forcing it to be something that it is not was expensive, inconvenient, frustrating and physically damaging. I hated doing it, but I hated my African hair even more. There was nothing in the culture at that time validating anything beautiful about uniquely African features.

We have become so adept at altering our natural hair that people often assume that to wear our hair in its natural state is a political statement. Even as recently as 2007, a representative of Vogue Magazine contended that natural hairstyles in the workplace were “shocking” and “inappropriate”. I am often asked what I have to do to “get my hair to be like that”!

It’s kind of amusing to see so many non-Africans now going to the salon to get their hair chemically altered to try to look like my locks. I don’t know how long that fashion will last in the popular culture, but I will say that my locks are not a fashion statement. I am not trying to be “hip”, “alternative” or “out there”. I am just being myself.

The shift for me started when I realized that I could not truly see the beauty in other people unless I could see it in myself, and know that it is true. How can we be a real and equal part of the human family if we continue to be ashamed of features that make us uniquely African? How can we consider ourselves to be truly at home if we are constantly trying to “correct” and mask what the Creator intended for us to have?

Twenty years ago, I removed the long extensions of Indian hair and allowed my own hair to be free. I stopped spending money I could barely afford to part with so that I could make my appearance more “acceptable”. I stopped telling myself that I had “bad hair” that had to be fixed. I began to see the beauty I was born with all along.

Secure in this knowledge, I celebrate all the diversity of the Creation. We are all beautiful in our unique ways. May we give thanks and praise for each other in all our variety and splendor.

See One Woman's Journey

Why We Are Here

Like many of you, I have been haunted by the untimely passing of Whitney Houston. At the height of her ase’, she possessed one of the greatest voices that ever existed, with power and emotion sufficient to send chills coursing down your spine. And she was able to command our attention and respect without the vocal histrionics, scanty wardrobe, or hyper-sexuality of many of the current popular singers who are clearly trying to emulate her.

Her descent into addiction was painful to witness, and for that reason I stopped paying attention for over a decade. Now that she is gone, I have been reflecting not on the tragedy of her self-destruction, but rather on her seemingly effortless ability to transcend the artificial boundaries we place between ourselves and Spirit.

Author Ruth King, a recognized authority on Emotional Wisdom writes, “She forced us to have a direct experience with the essence of love. Through her thunderous sounds, she made us stop, listen, and slowly shake our heads in amazement and gratitude. Imagine what it takes to belong to the world in this way.”

In Ifa, we believe that before we are born, we choose our own destiny, complete with the nature of our character, the experiences we want to have, and the tools (such as a powerful voice or a regal beauty) that we carry to achieve these goals. It is not a given that everyone chooses a life of ease and wealth; material success does not necessarily designate what is considered worthwhile for our existence. Indeed, our character can be better developed by how we meet life’s challenges. However, as it takes many years for us to gain wisdom sufficient to add to the pool of ancestral knowledge, we also believe that we are meant to live long lives on this earth.  We are all meant to contribute, in our own unique way, our unique gifts, (our ase’) to benefit the lives of others here in this existence and eventually from the world of Spirit.

Along the way, our destiny can be altered, for good or for ill, by our character and free will. We may make choices that take us off our path. It is so important to have good character, to stay in balance and on track so as to fully achieve our best possible destiny.

But regardless how successful we are in that effort, if we do our best to share our gifts, nothing but good can come of that.

Ms. Whitney’s story seems to illustrate how important it is for us to understand the nature of our own gifts, to recognize them as such and to be willing to share them with the world. Death offers a message to the living,” continues Ms. King, “and her life invites us to ask: What is my artistry? Do I trust it? Am I willing to offer it generously? In the end of this earth body, would I have touched someone’s heart?”

Blessings,

Iya Mahea

Black To Nature

Photo Credit: Our Beautiful World & Universe

Some years ago while hiking through Muir Woods with some friends, the subject of camping came up. After they each shared fond memories of outdoor experiences from childhood on, they turned to me. They were surprised to hear that I had never gone camping, and at the time had no interest in doing so. They wanted to know why I felt that way. If I were to just give it a try, I would see what I was missing. How could I explain to them that there was so much more to my reticence to be in the outdoors than just my lack of prior experience?

In African mystical traditions, the forest is the abode of the Spirit. It is where we go to pray, to heal, to plug into the Universe. We are connected to the Earth, and the Earth is connected to us. Yet, in modern times very few African-Americans venture out into the deep forest. Indeed, we seem to have a predominantly urban culture.

What happened?

For many African-Americans living in the South during slavery and the Jim Crow era, the deep woods was where one did not venture alone. Beatings and lynching were known to take place in the forests where no one could hear you scream. To feel relatively safe, one stayed in town.
My parents were of the generation that migrated from the South to the large Northern cities in huge numbers after the Second World War. There would be no looking back to spending time in the woods. As a child I learned to regard the forest not as a safe haven, but as a dark, menacing place in which evil could befall an unsuspecting soul.

Like most black families in the 60’s and 70’s, we had no concept of a “family vacation”. Resources were scarce, and anyway, where would we go that we knew we would be welcomed? The cumulative effect of these experiences has not only rendered the community inexperienced at knowing how to pitch a tent, but without any collective memory of what we have in fact lost.

It is no mystery that there is so much dysfunction in the urban community. It is the inevitable result of being cut off from Spirit. In the absence of a connection to the Earth, there is little respect for taking care of it. With no connection to our Ancestors, there is no sense of place and little regard for our community. With few creative outlets available, drugs and hyper-sexuality are the only ways our youth know how to reach out to something bigger than them.
It is up to us to show them how to connect to the Universe and become whole. Let us start by reclaiming our place in our sacred forests.

Word

Courtesy of Louis Ruth Photography www.shuttertime1.com www.LouisRuthPhotography.com

The word is on the street. Lately, it seems that almost everywhere I look, there is reference to a quote by an anonymous author stating:

Watch your thoughts, they become words.
Watch your words, they become actions.
Watch your actions, they become habits.
Watch your habits, they become your character.
Watch your character, it becomes your destiny.

Even though these words are popping up in modern contexts and in modern sources, cultures all over the world have been teaching this for millenia.

In many wisdom practices of the indigenous world, the spoken word has long been regarded with great respect. Words have the power to cause positive or negative action. Once spoken, words can create a reality. Once a thing is spoken, it cannot be taken back. In this sense, all words are loaded.

It is so very important for us to always be mindful of what we think and say.  Imagine a world in which everyone made the effort to speak consciously with awareness, integrity, and the desire to make a positive impact in their community!

The fact that an ancient wisdom is appearing as a new expression brings me hope for our new year!

Blessings,
Iya Mahea

It’s An African-Polynesian Thing…

Those of you who know me personally are aware that I am a professional dancer and musician, centering my expertise on the performing arts of the Pacific Islands.

It was not an arbitrary decision to focus on Polynesian dance (indeed, it doesn’t really feel like a decision at all). You see, I was born in our Nation’s Capital at the beginning of the Civil Rights movement. There remain with me vague recollections of denied access to the local amusement park and swimming pool. Buying new clothes meant purchasing them off the hanger since we were not allowed to try them on for size. Yet, in an effort to provide opportunities she never had, my mom enrolled me in ballet classes at the black run neighborhood dance studio before I was old enough to have had an opinion about it.

By the time I was an adolescent, ballet had lost its appeal. Yet, I loved to dance. There was no option in those years to take classes in any African derived dance and music forms. But being Washington, D.C., I was able to find instruction in hula an ori Tahiti (Tahitian dance). They are art forms based in nature and rooted in spirituality, and they seemed like a perfect fit for the young woman I was growing into.

Over the years, I have deepened in my appreciation for the dance and music of many cultures, though I continued to work within the traditional structure of Polynesian dance forms. There were many years in the beginning where I was the only black person I knew of to be involved in Polynesian dance. It is still not very common to find black people teaching this tradition. Sadly, there are those on both sides of the aisle who insist that a person of African ancestry should only do African dance, and that those who are of mixed ancestry choose which group they identify with.

Needless to say, I disagree.

So, after almost thirty years as a teacher and nearly ten years as a priestess of Ifa, I’ve begun to deliberately push that envelope, exploring the aspects of traditional dances that we share as human beings. Pahupahu (Combined Drums of Africa and Tahiti) is an expression of this. Fusing these two forms was not done lightly, as in general I deeply value being true to the essence of each.

I am thankful for my ancestors. I am thankful for my multi-heritage. I am thankful for my community and my family. I am thankful for my work. I am thankful for the path I have traveled, including the rough times, as this has contributed to the priestess I am growing to be.

Blessings,

Iya Mahea

Ubuntu


Ubuntu is the African concept of the interrelationship between all beings. The word is from the Bantu language group, derivatives of which are commonly spoken in communities throughout sub-Saharan Africa. In essence, ubuntu means that one’s humanity is understood in relationship with that of others. A person with ubuntu cares for others in a profound way, and deeply senses his or her interdependence with them. It is the recognition that one’s well being is connected to that of others, two-legged, four legged and leafy.

The concept is encapsulated by the simple Shona greeting:

Makadii zvenyu? (How are you?)
Tiripo makadiiwo zvenyu. (I’m fine if you are too.)

A person with ubuntu, upon hearing of a tragedy in another part of town, would not find solace in the notion that such an event would never take place in their neighborhood. A community with ubuntu, would experience the misfortune of others in a personal way. Having ubuntu does not mean sacrificing one’s person hood. But it does mean that we can see our well being in the well being of others. To not do so makes it easier to ignore the misfortune of others, or to justify doing them harm.

We live in a world that can make our hearts ache. A fire levels an Indian slum, HIV-AIDS rages out of control in much of Africa, an oil spill lays waste to the Gulf of Mexico, an earthquake and tsunami devastates Japan, and the ramifications of these tragedies are felt around the world.

Every act of generosity and kindness towards friends and strangers, as well as every compassionate action to heal our environment, should be thought of as a Spiritual act. Though challenging, let us try to develop a world view which is ubuntu – centered, rather than self-centered.

Ase.

A Mid-Winter Ritual

It is Mid Winter. For those of us who reside in California or a similar temperate climate, we can already see the first signs of life appearing. This is the season of celebrations, such as Ground Hog Day, Valentine’s Day, Chinese New Year, and Mardi Gras. All of these holidays have pre-Christian origins; Ground Hog Day evolved from the Celtic celebration Imbolc, Valentine’s Day and Mardi Gras are thought to have evolved from the Roman festival of the Lupercalia. And of course Chinese New Year is, well, Chinese.

What they all have in common is that they are all celebrations of renewal. If you have not yet packed away your Christmas, Kwanzaa, Solstice decorations now is the time! It is also time to prepare for the growth that you want in your life for the coming year.

A Mid Winter Ritual

This simple ritual can be done as a family, a couple or by an individual.

Gather……….
Smudge
Broom
Green altar cloth
A clear bowl of cool water
A white candle
Loose tobacco
A piece of fruit
A flower

Prepare yourself by taking a soothing bath or shower. Put on clean clothing.

Prepare the space…….
Select an area that is special to you in which to create sacred space. If outdoors, delineate the space with rocks, uncooked rice, flower petals or something that can help contain the space. Whether outdoors or in, cleanse the area of clutter, using your broom. Purify the area of negative energy using the sage. If indoors, leave a window open nearby.

Set up an altar area at the North by placing the green cloth down, preferably on the ground or floor. Arrange the bowl of water (to refresh the spirit), candle (for returning light), fruit (nourishment) and flower (new life) on the altar. Keep the tobacco nearby.

Gather around the altar, light the candle, and quietly reflect either silently or aloud on the year which has passed. Offer tobacco to the ancestor Spirits and thank them for their love and support during the past year. Reflect on what it is you would like to grow in your life during the coming Spring and Summer. Take as long as you need.

Ground yourself by singing a favorite song, and dancing with all your heart (don’t be shy!) Prepare your favorite meal and have a mid-winter feast!

Ase!

Since We’re Neighbors, Let’s be Friends

Thankfully, the furor over the incident involving Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Sgt. James Crowley seems to be subsiding, but not before we were treated to yet another example, as if one were needed, of how far we have yet to go in this country regarding race relations.

As annoying to me as this whole sorry episode was, there is one disturbing aspect of the incident which seems to have gone unnoticed; why is it that so many of us live in such a way that we don’t even recognize our own neighbors?

Several of my friends come from countries as disparate as India, Zimbabwe, Western Samoa and other places. Their backgrounds and experiences are all quite unique, yet they have each observed how lonely they often feel here in California, even in the midst of a busy urban environment.

How can it be that we can be surrounded by people everywhere all the time, and yet still be alone?

What has caused us to contract so tightly into our own separate worlds? Was it so long ago that children would play together in each other’s yards? Are we so suspicious of each other that we don’t even want to look each other in the eye and say “hello”? Is it that we afraid of crime, or are we so involved in our virtual communities that we needn’t bother to interact with actual people anymore?

Many of us are just overworked, and too exhausted to do anything other than just coming home to fall into bed. Never mind borrowing a cup of sugar to make a cake.

As Professor Gates stated, this incident was indeed a “learning opportunity”. For me, what we have learned is that it has become the norm for a woman to not recognize her own neighbor trying to get into his home in the middle of the afternoon.

I hope that we can all unplug ourselves from our Blackberries and cell phones from time to time. Let’s go out and meet our neighbors.

Blessings,
Iya Mahea