Aloha `Āina: Hawaiian Ecology Primer
Trisha Kehaulani Watson, JD, PhD
Introduction Traditional Native Hawaiian practitioners were scientists and expert natural resource managers by necessity. Without modern technological conveniences to rely on, Hawaiians developed and maintained prosperous and symbiotic relationships with their natural environments for thousands of years. Our environments were our families, our homes and our laboratories. We knew the names of every wind and every rain. Our elements taught and inspired us. The ability of indigenous people to combine spirit and science led to the formation unique land based methodologies that spurred unsurpassed innovation. Therefore, appreciating the principles of Hawaiian ecology today requires a baseline understanding of how Hawaiians initimately knew and cared for their environment. Origins of Hawai`i’s Biodiversity Traditionally, Hawaiians were both settlers and explorers. Beatrice H. Krauss’ Plants in Hawaiian Culture explains: “Exploration of the forests revealed trees, the timber of which was valuable for building houses and making canoes. The forests also yielded plants that could be used for making and dying tapa, for medicine, and for a variety of other artifacts” (Krauss, 1976). Analysis of Native plants and resource management practices reveals the depth to which Hawaiians excelled in their environmental science practices: [Hawaiians] demonstrated great ability in systematic differentiation, identification, and naming of the plants they cultivated and gathered for use. Their knowledge of the gross morphology of plants, their habits of growth, and the requirements for greatest yields is not excelled by expert agriculturists of more complicated cultures. They worked out the procedures of cultivation for every locality, for all altitudes, for different weather conditions and exposures, and for soils of all types. In their close observations of the plants they grew, they noted and selected mutants (sports) and natural hybrids, and so created varieties of the plants they already had. Thus over the years after their arrival in the Islands, the Hawaiians added hundreds of named varieties of taro, sweet pototoes, sugarcane, and other cultivated plants to those they had brought with them from the central Pacific (Krauss, 1976). It was the Native Hawaiians who reinforced through their natural resource management practices the biodiversity that exists in Hawai`i today. The importance of exploration and identification of all life forms that led to the ability to create this biodivesity is best evidenced in the Kumulipo, a traditional Hawaiian creation chant. Kumu Pualani Kanakaole Kanahele explains of the Kumulipo: The KUMULIPO echoes the complexities and details of the Hawaiian thought process. His skillful observation and examination brought understanding and respect to everything in his world. He realized that the powers for growth and bounty were the basic universal elements. The moon cycle was the principle motivator of the earth. It generated extreme movements of the ocean, and caused the eyes of the land and sea to Honua  Consulting  PO Box 61395  Honolulu, HI 96839        T: (808) 392‐1617  F: (888) 392‐4941 

  bloom and it dictated the time for earth to commence or rest from production. The sun and rain were the penetrating nourishing forces into the earth. The wind, ocean currents and rivers provided mobility for things and objects incapable of movement. The Hawaiian and all other natural forms of his world were the beneficiaries of this primal cadence and flow with the rhythm of the universe (Kanahele). The first Wā (Age) of the Kumulipo provides detailed identification of ocean life. 15. Hānau ka Uku ko‘ako‘a, hānau kāna, he ‘āko‘ako‘a, puka 16. Hānau ke Ko‘e ‘Enuhe, ‘eli ho‘opu‘u honua 17. Hānau kāna, he Ko‘e, puka 18. Hānau ka Pe‘a, ka Pe‘ape‘a kāna keiki, puka 19. Hānau ka Weli, he Weliweli kāna keiki, puka 20. Hānau ka ‘Ina, ka ‘Ina 21. Hānau kāna, he Hālula, puka… The Coral gives birth to an offspring, the coral head emerges The Caterpillar gives birth, digging up the earth The Worm emerges The Starfish gives birth, the small starfish emerges The Sea Cucumber gives birth, the small sea cucumber emerges The Sea Urchin gives birth Producing an offspring, a Sea Urchin emerges… (Edith Kanakaole Foundation). Hawaiians actively sought out and identified biotic elements in their surrounding environment. As self-sustaining people, such a practice was necessary to their long-term existence. As industrious people, Hawaiians constantly experimented with natural products to find uses for them in their living systems. By the time foreign contact occurred, there were not many natural resources without full and efficient use in Hawai`i. The Ahupua`a System: A Hawaiian Tool for Resource Management Hawaiians maintained a sustainable use of their natural resources for centuries. This sustainablity derived from mindful and careful planning of how natural resources would be divided and used among Hawai`i’s human populations. At the core of this sustainable living was the ahupua`a – “the ancient Hawaiian land division which extended from the uplands to the sea.” In an effort to education modern communities throughout Hawaii about the traditional Hawaiian lifestyle, the `Opelu Project created A Manual for Doing Things Hawaiian Style. In this manual, the ahupua`a model is described as follows: As an island people, we live with one foot on the land and one foot in the ocean. This duality formed the character, values, technology, economy, cultural and spirituality of Honua  Consulting    T: (808) 392‐1617  PO Box 61395    F: (888) 392‐4941  Honolulu, HI 96839 

  the Po`e Hawai`i (the Indigenous People of Hawai`i) and continued to influence us today. The ahupua`a serves both as a symbol and a system of how people should related to the environment and other life forms which live in that environment, as well as how people should relate to each other. The ahupua`a of Wai`anae, like other ahupuaa, met most of teh needs of the people who lived within in for food, shelter, clothing, tools, re-creation and spiritual sustenance. In order to survive within the ahupua`a, the people had to develop appropriate technology which would help achieve a sustainable level of develop for that ahupuaa. The peopl could not over-fish, over-harvest or raise more animals than the environment could sustain; to do so would lead to teh destruction of the whole village. Today, however, we live in a world which does not practice, nor even recognizes the value of the ahupua`a philosophy and system of sustainable development and selfsufficiency. Our concern is that, “the economy is becoming less accoutable to social and cultural values, and without community-based efforts to ensure accoutability, the values themselves will continue to be eroded.” In response to our present condition, we are calling for a more wholistic approach to living – an approach which encompasses the physical, intellectual and spiritual. The irony is that this is not a new approach to living and growh, but is part of an ancient one: the ahupua`a system (Ka`ala Farm, 1996). The ahupua`a system provided the ecological and political framework which allowed for the fully sustainable use of a community’s natural resources. Ecological Expertise and Cultural Resource Protection The ecological expertise enabled traditional practitioners to manage their resources masterfully, it also enabled prosperous and sustainable living throughout the pae`āina. The kapu system, a complex system of natural resource regulation and management, placed great responsibility upon the Hawaiian people to care for their ecosystem properly. Professor Davianna McGregor explains the constant role of community management in the kapu system. She explains: While traveling to the various `ili or sections of the traditional cultural practices region, through dirt roads and trails, along spring-fed stream, and the shoreline, practitioners continuously stay alert to the condition of the resources. If a resource is declining they will observe a kapu or restriction on its use until it recovers. They may even replant sparse areas. They are acutely aware of changes due to seasonable and life cycle transformation in the plants and animals. Plants and animals in their reproductive stage are not gathered. As kua`āina gather in their traditional area, they also renew their understanding of the landscape, the place-names, names of the winds and the rains, traditional legends, wahi pana, historical cultural sites, and the location of various native plants and animals. An inherent aspect of these practices is conservation to ensure availability of natural resources for present and future generations (McGregor, 2007). Honua  Consulting  PO Box 61395  Honolulu, HI 96839        T: (808) 392‐1617  F: (888) 392‐4941 

  It was the responsibility of the community, functioning within a complex kapu system that developed organically from the land and sea themselves, to help to maintain the overall sustainability of the resources. `Ike Kapu: Acquisition and Use of Sacred Knowledge Conversely to the western world were knowledge is seen as information that should be accessible to all, indigenous knowledge is sacred. It is not for everyone. In many cases today, it is wholly inappropriate for foreigners to attempt to access knowledge that is sacred. The transmission of knowledge has always been a highly valued and guarded practice with the Hawaiian community. Deeply sacred and intimate was the learning process between teacher and student in traditional Hawai`i. Gutmanis also explains this relationship: “No matter when the novice began his training it was based on the one-to-one relationship of a strict apprenticeship. The student was expected to have a good memory and to learn fast, `a`apo a`e. Instructions were never given more than twice or three times at the most, then no more, pau. Never questioning, always observing, the boy began his training doing menial tasks. He was in turn closely watered to assure to no kapu were broken (Gutmanis)”. Again, the important of the kapu remains central in Hawaiian learning. Gutmanis notes: “If [the novice] failed to keep this kapu his knowledge would be shallow, not deep, pulelehua ka ike” (Gutmanis). The intimacy of learning is critical in native ecology and knowledge. It protected knowledge and ensured it proper usage. Therefore, today, as in the past, being an “expert” on Hawaiian culture consists of much more than “palapala,” credentials, or simply being Hawaiian. A true expert possesses credentials, genealogy, expertise, localized knowledge and/or community bonds. It is often noted among scholars that the conflict that emerges from projects stem from a failure to employ true experts. Localized, rigorous levels of expertise is an idea that reoccurs throughout the indigenous world. As Donald L. Fixico explains in The American Indian Mind in a Linear World: American Indian Studies and Traditional Knowledge: The traditional educational system is to learn by two methods. The first is to listen, observe, be patient for a sign (which has caused others to call traditional Indians passive). And lessons are learned by receiving or taking in this information. An important point may be that it may not be most effective to try to deliberately obtain knowledge, as only information would be gained (not knowledge) and frastuation usually happens in this acquisitive process. After receiving knowledge, which may not always be understood at first, then a person reacts by imitating the elder who might be a teacher, or reacting to the instruction learned from nature, and knowledge is learned in this way like the mainsteam by doing – the practical experience and this knowledge of doing one’s job, taking an exam, hunting, and so forth is application of knowledge receiving by using this knowledge (Fixico, 2003). Herein, we see how American Indians also share the Hawaiian method of simply being patient and waiting for knowledge to be given. Even in contemporary times, releasing control over one’s surroundings and allowing external forces to control learning proved extremely Honua  Consulting  PO Box 61395  Honolulu, HI 96839        T: (808) 392‐1617  F: (888) 392‐4941 

  beneficial. Therefore, whenever the effort to acquire knowledge comes from an external need; it typically reflects this external element through a forced and contrived learning process. Since this method is foreign, by extension, the information acquired is typically largely inaccurate. The Native, organic methodology surely seems strange to western scientist, but it was necessary for Native Hawaiians. Native Hawaiians did not use western written communication tools prior to foreign contact. The Kanaka Maoli relied for thousands of years oral traditions. Oli and mele hula served as musical and artistic expression, transmissions of history and forms of education. Kumu Hula John Keolamaka`ainanakalahuiokalani Lake explains: “The oli and the mele hula are the basic forms of musical expression in precontact Hawai`i. Chanting, through the oli or mele hula in its function and interpretation represents the inexplicable mysteries of the deepest levels of physical and spiritual union in humankind and our relationship to nature” (Lake). Mele hula and oli were not just entertainment or art. They became historical repositories of Hawaii’s precontact social and political history. It is science. It is data. Within our histories were explanations of our knowledges and management systems. Kumu Lake explains: Hawaiian society was stratified into social, political, and religious levels and governed by strictly defined hierarchy. This society was subjected to the strictest form of order, bound by the mana and kapu concepts. Mana is the Polynesian concept of divine power instilled in every person. Kapu was a system of privileges and prohibitions that governed everyday Hawaiian life. These two concepts were indelible marks regulating Hawaiian behavior and attitudes. The kapu and the mana of the mele (chant) lie in its test – its `olelo (Lake). Mele and other oral language forms therefore played an important role in the education of the Native Hawaiian people. It was the transmission of knowledge; it was the transmission of data; it was transmission of sustainable management practices. Learning traditional knowledge was a sacred process and responsibility, because the survival of the people and culture relied on it. Challenges to these processes and responsibilities have led to conflicts throughout Hawai`i’s post-contact history. Aloha `Āina: Hawaiian Political Ecology While commonly used as a general term in reference to “love for the land,” Aloha `Āina is a historical term from Hawai`i’s Kingdom Era. The phrase is associated with Joseph Nāwahī, famed Hawaiian patriot, publisher, and political leader. From Puna (Hawai`i Island), Nāwahī attended some of the best schools in Hawai`i and quickly rose in the community as a leader. He served many roles in Hawai`i Kingdom government, and he was a member of Queen Lili`uokalani’s cabinet. He ran the newspaper Ke Aloha `Āina (the Patriot) with wife, Emma Nāwahī. They would also form and lead the political       T: (808) 392‐1617  F: (888) 392‐4941 

Figure 1 Example of the Hui Aloha `Āina petitions signed by men and women throughout Hawai`i in opposition to U.S Annexation.

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  organization Hui Aloha `Āina, which led efforts in opposition of the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom, restore the monarchy, and fight U.S. Annexation of Hawai`i. Research from the U.S. National Archives have led researchers to believe that the efforts of Hui Aloha `Āina resulted in nearly all adult residents in Hawai`i (both Hawaiian and non-Hawaiian) signed the Ku`e Petitions, the official petition in opposition Hawai`i’s annexation to the United States. Today, the term continues to be a rallying cry for Hawaiian communities who have concerns over the continuing impact of non-native influences in Hawai`i, particularly on the land and natural resources. Therefore, the term Aloha `Āina is a complex one, both exemplifying a universal love of Hawai`i’s extraordinary ecology and the deep seeded wounds still felt by its indigenous people over Hawai`i’s complicated political history. Conclusion Hawaiian ecological knowledge intricately integrates science and spirituality. Traditional knowledge is nuanced and possesses a depth that surpasses “western science expertise.” Generalities are not common in Hawaiian traditional knowledge. Conversely, knowledge and management was largely constructed from local geographic and ecological variables. What is practiced and appropriate in one locality may not be practiced or appropriate in another, even neighboring, locality. Therefore, the most important element of engaging in traditional Hawaiian ecology is developing a respectful relationship with the kua`āina, native residents, of a particular area. Respect and patience gives everyone the opportunity to remember what we share in common, and that the need to love and care for the earth is not something we want to do for ourselves, but rather something we must do for our children. References Edith Kanakaole Foundation. (2002-2003). “He Kumulipo No Ka‘i‘imamao A Iā Alapa‘i Wahine: Ka Wā `Akahi,” Hawai`i, available at: (last accessed September 1, 2009). Fixico, D. (2003). The American Indian Mind in a Linear World, American Indian Studies and Traditional Knowledge. London: Routledge. Gutmanis, J. (1976). Kahuna La'au Lapa'au: Hawaiian Herbal Medicine. Waipahu: Island Heritage. Kanahele, P. (2003). “Kumulipo Introduction: Traditional Hawaiian Philosophy,” Hawai`i: Edith Kanakaole Foundation, 2002-2003, available at: (last accessed September 1, 2009). Krauss, B. (1993). Plants in Hawaiian Culture, Honolulu: University of Hawai`i Press. Lake, J.K. “Chanting, the Lyrical Poetry of Hawaii: Na Mele oli a me Na mele hula.” Handout. On file with author. McGregor, D. (2007). Nā Kua`āina: Living Hawaiian Culture. Honolulu: University of Hawai`i Press. Honua  Consulting  PO Box 61395  Honolulu, HI 96839        T: (808) 392‐1617  F: (888) 392‐4941 

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