In Langscape Magazine Articles

Biocultural Diversity as Observed from the Hawaiian Nation

August 18, 2018

Text and photos by Harvy King

lily pad

Lily pad pond of antiquity, Ahupua’a Hakipu’u. 2017

As humankind’s connection to land and water evolved, our development of agriculture produced the availability of abundant food systems. Our civilizations grew; our cultures became more diverse. Religious and spiritual relationships between humans and nature maintained overall well-being and progressively improved the quality of life. Then, something changed. Spirituality became neutralized; the dynamic and cyclical flow of all living things and the reverence for that interconnectedness of life were reduced to forms of structured devotional worship maintained in shrines, temples, and churches. In the doom and gloom over our global social and environmental challenges, we cannot look only to God for our salvation. The time has come to transform our psychology from our modern, religiously founded vantage. Instead, we must step back into nature; we must return to our roots as stewards of land, freshwater, and oceans that swell across the horizon.

We must return to our roots as stewards of land, freshwater, and oceans that swell across the horizon.

The opportunity and inspiration for me to write this article comes from having attended the International Union for the Conservation Nature’s World Conservation Congress, held in Hawaii in September 2016. The following commitment opportunities were identified by the world congress:

  • Linking Spirituality, Religion, Culture, and Conservation;
  • Engaging and Empowering Youth;
  • The Challenge of Sustaining the Global Food Supply and Conserving Nature; and
  • The Challenge of Preserving the Health of the World’s Oceans.

Since then, I’ve been immersed in an integration of ancient Hawaiian ahupua’a resource wisdom and our modern ecological management.

Kaneohe Bay

Looking south along the Kaneohe Bay from the Moli’i fishpond rock wall. 2017

Since before science and technology, from the darkness of antiquity, humans have created art. Art is beautiful. Any figure or form of a person’s life could be said to be his or her art. As our technology has evolved so has our art. The earliest artworks of humans will captivate us for as long as we are able to maintain our civilization. To be able to understand certain aspects of culture, we must look to how people express themselves in this way. Hawaiian culture is incredibly important to consider when we look to Indigenous cultures to help reclaim control over today’s global environmental challenges.

The traditions and value systems of Indigenous Hawaiian/Polynesian cultures are passed down orally. In Hawaiian history, the culture, environment, and the people are one mind, body, spirit in a collective responsibility of caregiving. The Hawaiian word for responsibility is kuleana. A person’s kuleana is to their family (ohana) and the land that sustained them (aina), all interwoven in a system of resource management understood as ahupua’a. An ahupua’a is a geographical valley within any of the Hawaiian Islands. The ahupua’a is also the flora and fauna and every species of life within the ecosystem, from the mountain to the sea, mauka to makai. Central to each ahupua’a is the freshwater source, or wai. The root of this style of resource management is the food and the livelihood of the people. The literal root crop, taro or kalo, was the traditional staple of the Hawaiian people and part of their creation story. Hawaiian ahupua’a wisdom understood the natural flow of life and cultivated it.

West Oahu community

West Oahu community supporting East Oahu taro farmer at Ahupua’a Hakipu’u. 2017

Ahupua’a is all-encompassing and recognizes the simple concept that a whole ahupua’a can be affected by the slightest change. Ahupua’a can be easily understood as the homeostasis of the land and people, measured in abundance of food. The notion of wealth becomes the vitality of the people. This is true richness, wai wai. The very connection between the people and the natural environment is food. Everyone collectively contributes through a system of caregiving. The only responsibility is to take good care, to malama. Historically, a hierarchy of responsibility through chiefs and priests maintained the flow of ancestral knowledge that provided life to the people.

In Hawaiian history, the culture, environment, and the people are one mind, body, spirit in a collective responsibility of caregiving.

In Western culture, as the scientific revolution solidified, so began to unfold the true nature of the biology of the planet. The theory of evolution and its mechanism of adaptation, according to the need to survive, struck like lightning into the collective awareness of human understanding. Humans dove deeper, peering down into forms and figures at atomic level and back again. We developed a model of DNA and observed as the information it carries is copied into RNA, translated through protein synthesis into multicellular organisms that use and transfer energy. The transformation of the sun’s energy into all the life on Earth is only possible because of water, which creates a condition of connection known as a hydrogen bond. Water is life. Photosynthesis and cellular respiration resemble very closely an ancient Hawaiian concept, only two letters long, called ha. Ha is the Breath of Life. Aloha is to share this space of understanding of our place in the cosmos. Aloha is a sense of belonging to the cosmic unfolding.

Dr. Christian Giardina of the U.S. Forest Service recently spoke at the University of Hawaii Sustainability Summit on the “Biocultural Fabric of Land and Seascapes.” His emphasis was on the integration between ancient and modern systems of knowledge and the need to better define traditional knowledge. In the same panel discussion called Meeting of Wisdoms, Kealakaʻi Kanakaole of Big Island spoke on Hawaiian traditional wisdom. Hawaiians developed a system that managed humans, not nature. He explained that ancient Hawaiians managed their life source, which was the human element and water. To Hawaiians, the gods were anything that humans could not produce, which was everything in nature. Hawaiians could only control the flow of their own life force, the full understanding of which was reserved for those who were known as “Keepers of the Gods.” Other members of the Kanakaole family, Ku’u and Luka, spoke at the panel discussion and touched on other areas of Hawaiian wisdom. The oral tradition of chanting and prayer retained the information of the rainy seasons, the cycles of nature, from generation to generation. The ancient wisdom of recognizing interconnectedness using practicality and logic helped develop the techniques of continual use according to reciprocal relationships where Hawaiians were, effectively, in communication with nature.

children in taro patch

Introducing children to a taro patch for the first time with the Hawaii Nature Center. 2017

Another layer to this traditional culture is that Hawaiians are known to have practiced human sacrifice. The historical context of these practices and their origin is often scrutinized, with good reason. Much of this history is not well defined and often a matter of speculation. By contrast, the kapu system, which was the form of law traditionally practiced by Hawaiians, is well known, and within it the act of breaking kapu was punishable by death. To go against the kapu value system was to go against the natural order. By doing so, a person had forfeited the right to live and could only escape death if he or she could make it to a pu’uhonua, or place of refuge, where the worship of the gods was reserved for the high priests. It is speculated that earlier Hawaiian governance systems were predominantly peaceful. An important perspective from this time was that humans do not control death or decomposition. To me, the most profound Hawaiian teaching also comes from this era. It is called ka’anani’au, or simply put, the rolling beauty of time.

With this understanding we can begin to bridge the gap in how we operate today as a society. I have learned that the true reign of power and influence doesn’t happen sitting in a chair—it happens standing tall, just as the mountain tends to do. The knowledge that was imparted to me by an Indigenous Hawaiian Elder has begun to weave who I am into the culture here. The mission of Ho’i Ho’i Ea, the Hawaiian cultural nonprofit for which I am a regular volunteer, is environmental conservation through Hawaiian cultural education and restoration, which encourages a deeper understand of Hawaii’s history and values. This is a nonprofit founded by a disadvantaged and displaced Hawaiian farmer. He has encouraged me to seek out new opportunities to apply myself with these understandings.

I’ve been able to attended the University of Hawaii Sustainability Summit for two consecutive years. The summit’s emphasis on integrating cultural knowledge with Western science is at the forefront of how Hawaii will best address being self-sufficient and sustainable, while struggling from a variety of social crises. Just this kind of integration is planned at the National Estuarine Research Reserve that was recently inscribed at the He’eia watershed in the Kaneohe Bay. The new reserve means to include the use of cultural practices to study the ecosystem. Much research has been done around the ecology of Hawaiian Indigenous cultural practice, but not yet at this scale and level of environmental protection. Another example of a contemporary application of ahupua’a wisdom comes from the City and County of Honolulu, which recently established the Office of Climate Change, Sustainability, and Resiliency to effectively navigate the uncharted waters of our future. Current areas of concern with regard to the climate change are the effects of flooding in the coastal zone and saltwater inundating vital freshwater systems.

I’m currently attending The Green Program, which is an experimental intensive initiative on sustainable food and energy systems. The emphasis of this program is to view Hawaii as a place to introduce models of complex systems understanding, as opposed to the traditional linear models. The Green Program directly relates to the United Nations’ seventeen Sustainable Development Goals.

Personally, my biggest concern is the field of economics. Hawaii is still tapped into an economic system that encourages the neglectful abuse of fair housing markets as well as unequal distribution of natural resources. The public interest of the people of Oceana is manipulated to justify the gentrification of areas that are very much at risk of sea level rise in the first place. To top it off, the public health system cannot move fast enough to educate people on the need to massively increase food production within the state. Hawaii currently imports ninety percent of its food. If all commerce were to cease, Hawaii would only have enough food to last ten days.

The metaphor of weaving together all of the values, just the way a rope is woven, illustrates the strength of the Hawaiian culture.

The metaphor of weaving together all of the values, just the way a rope is woven, illustrates the strength of the Hawaiian culture. Polynesians are well established as ocean-faring people. The Polynesian explorers required rope to assemble and operate their double-hulled canoes. Without the strong rope, there was no ability explore beyond the island they inhabited. With every foot of rope woven, another generation of people inherited the responsibility of carrying the cultural practices into the next generation. There is a disconnect in the modern age in which the systems of power and religion are not adequately sustaining the general population with proper management practices. The greatest effect this has is on the youth, and it begs the question: What will happen when we run out of rope? What are the effects of neglecting our values? The greatest responsibility is to live up to and maintain your values—to hold on to your ancestral line. This is the very thing that keeps us from getting lost into abysmal nothingness.


Ulu or breadfruit. 2017


Ulu, or breadfruit, growing on location at Hakipu’u. 2017


Back to Vol. 7, Issue 1 | Read the Table of Contents | Like Our Stories? Please Donate!

Harvy King is from Guatemala, raised in Michigan. Currently in Hawaii, he is a U.S. Navy veteran, former aircraft mechanic, and an Environmental Compliance Coordinator recently stationed at the Marine Corp Base Kaneohe Bay. He is currently acting secretary with the Hawaiian nonprofit Ho’i Ho’i Ea and Butcher in Haleiwa. Read more from Harvy King

Further Reading

Cook, B. P., Withy, K., & Tarallo-Jensen, L. (2003). Cultural Trauma, Hawaiian Spirituality, and Contemporary Health Status. California Journal of Health Promotion. Retrieved from

Meyer, M. A. (2003). Ho’oulu: Our Time of Becoming. Honolulu, HI: Ai’ Pohaku Press.

Stone, M. (2009). Yoga for A World Out of Balance. Boston, MA: Shambhala.

University of Hawai’i. (2018). Hawai’i Sustainability in Higher Education Summit. Summit conducted on Hawai’I Island, Hawai’i. 



Tags: , , , , , , ,