Hawaiian girl dips her toes in the Pacific on Makaha beach,
Hawai'i. After decades of cultural suppression, a slow revival
of the Hawaiian language, culture, and spirituality is taking
place. A huge part of that spirituality is their connection
to the sea. (© Cristina Mittermeier)
In Hawai'i, we have a proverb that says "He ali'i ka 'aina,
he kauwa ke kanaka": "The land is a chief, and man is its servant."
In our worldview, there is no separation between nature and people;
just as the land takes care of us, we need to take care of the land.
This concept may seem simple, but years of cultural repression
following the United States' takeover of Hawai'i jeopardized this
connection and we're only now beginning to restore it. Much
of this recovery is due to the resurgence of the Hawaiian language.
Not many people know that the Kingdom of Hawai'i was illegally
overthrown in 1893. Three years later, the Hawaiian language
was outlawed in schools, with children harshly punished and teachers
losing their jobs if they disobeyed this law. In addition, parents
could not converse with their children in public in Hawaiian.
This was an ironic twist of fate for a kingdom that, when it was
recognized by the major European powers as an independent state
in 1843, was
the most literate nation in the world.
fishers teaching youth about the practice of "kilo i'a" fish-spotting
techniques. (© Holladay Photo)
Despite foreign and missionary influences, displacement off
ancestral lands, and death and disease that left only
12,245 pure Native Hawaiians in 1959, our language and traditions
survived thanks to ancestors who practiced in hiding. Now we are
a historical treasury of Hawaiian-language newspapers that documented
daily life, stories, songs, chants, historical accounts, resource
management techniques and many other topics through the lens of
I was born in 1982, only four years after Hawaiian became an
official language in Hawai'i alongside English. I did not learn
Hawaiian until I was 13 years old, and did not become fluent until
college. Once I learned my mother tongue, many things began to reveal
themselves to me. I was able to understand the meaning behind place
names, which often describe characteristics of that landscape or
the resources found there.
For example, Kiholo, a place found in the North Kona region
of Hawai'i Island, has a few different meanings. Kiholo is a type
of large wooden fishhook traditionally used to catch large fish;
it also can refer to a large fish net. Another meaning refers to
a plentiful amount of water flow. This should sound familiar to
all who have been to Kiholo; the landscape is scattered with subterranean
ponds that empty groundwater into the ocean each day.
As I began to understand Hawaiian place names, these connections
became clearer, and it led me to think about how land and oceans
were managed and cared for. This was only the beginning of my journey
to seek out respected elders and practitioners who continued these
traditions. Over the years I've absorbed as much knowledge as I
could from them, as well as watched how they turn their observations
into management decisions. For example, Conservation
International (CI) Hawai'i has worked with non-profit to protect
and enhance the cultural and natural landscape of the Kiholo Bay
area through collaborative management with the people living there.
(Learn more in the video below.)
Today there are many Native Hawaiian scholars and traditional
practitioners of fishing, farming, ocean navigation, medicine, song,
dance and language who have documented the rejuvenation of these
arts into our daily lives and consciousness. It is now common for
our people to refer to the Hawaiian lunar and seasonal calendars
and know what moon phase we are in. Some Hawaiians can even tell
you what types of plants and fish should be harvested during a certain
moon phase according to its function and purpose.
The balance of these interactions between the atmosphere, earth,
oceans and our people has long governed our holistic and sustainable
lifestyle. Our traditional kapu (resource management) system, which
included a death sentence for rule-breakers, is much different from
today's management system that gives everyone the right and privilege
to fish without holding them accountable for over-consumptive actions.
community members gather for their annual lawai'a 'ohana (family
fishing) camp. (© Holladay Photo)
In my work with CI Hawai'i, I am continuing on my journey of
discovery and perpetuation of Hawaiian traditional resource management
practices. Over the last five years, I've helped Native Hawaiian
fishing communities identify, develop and promote sustainable and
cultural fishing and resource management practices to achieve ?aina
momona (abundance) and seafood security. We know that the most effective
resource management changes come from actions at the individual
and family level. This is why CI Hawai'i has supported the lawai'a
'ohana camp program since 2010, holding "fish
camps" for Hawaiian children and families to perpetuate these
sustainable fishing traditions.
After attending a lawai'a 'ohana camp held in Kahana on O'ahu
in 2013, we were inspired by the young leaders of this community
and their passion for their land, oceans and stewardship efforts.
Building on this relationship in Kahana, there was a shared interest
- Continuing our support of the Kahana
lawai'a 'ohana camps (held regularly since 2013);
- Documenting the degree that the community depends on nature
for fishing in their nearshore waters, farming their taro fields
in the valley and gathering food and other resources from their
fishpond and cultivated lands;
- Understanding the legal and traditional rights for Native
Hawaiians who reside in Kahana, as well as their cultural practices;
- Identifying and respecting traditional decision-making structures
within this community, which help residents develop a strategic
plan for managing marine resources.
With this information, we hope to build a case study showing
that local people can and must play in making decisions
that affect the natural areas they depend upon every day. What
we learn could then be shared in Hawai'i and with other indigenous
communities around the globe.
"I ka 'olelo no ke ola, I ka 'olelo no ka make." This Hawaiian
proverb translates to: "In the Hawaiian language we find the life
of our race, without it we shall perish."
For this reason, I choose to speak only in Hawaiian to my 18-month-old
son. When he eventually goes to school, I know he'll learn all about
science and other modern tools; however, teaching him his ancestral
language will set a foundation for him that will inform his view
of the world.
Kehau Springer is the coastal community capacity development
advisor for Conservation International Hawai'i.