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Maui No Ka 'Oi Magazine January-February 2016 - January-February 2016
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Land for the Good of All

Looking up at the mist-shrouded cleft of the Kaua‘ula Valley, a lone mango tree rising against the veil of clouds, one stares through a portal into Hawaiian history and thought. Keopuolani, the highest ranking wife of Kamehameha the Great, and mother of Kamehameha II and III, was born on the east side in ‘Iao, and died in the west in
Moku‘ula at the foot of the valley, the ancient center of the kingdom. Near the top of the valley, hidden by a grove of guava trees, is a beautifully preserved heiau, a pu‘uhonua (place of refuge). Maui’s chiefs hid from Kamehameha I there, then fled through the Olowalu Passage. 
Ke‘eaumoku Kapu, whose family has farmed taro here for generations, says that the valley drew so much history to it because it was once one of the island’s most fertile ahupua‘a.
Ahupua‘a are Hawaiian land divisions, usually more or less pie-shaped sections of land that extend from mountain summits through the valleys down to the outer edge of the ocean reef. Historically (and ideally), within an ahupua‘a, the people could grow or gather and exchange everything they needed for survival. “The Kaua‘ula Valley was [within] such a fertile ahupua‘a that it was called ‘p¯o ai lima’ (the fifth day),” says Kapu. This was the day during the annual makahiki harvest when the fruits of labor were brought out.
Now, residential developments stand in clusters along the valley,  and only bright green groves of trees clinging to a sinuous bend between the cliffs give a hint of the bountiful past of this ahupua‘a.
But there are still farming families here like Kapu’s, trying to live a traditional Hawaiian way of life, keeping aspects of the ahupua‘a system alive.


Though the ecological good sense of the ahupua‘a system is obvious, no one knows exactly how it evolved. Journalist Bob Krauss has poetically suggested that the concept may have sprung from the Polynesian canoes’-eye view of the islands as soaring strata of landscapes linked by necklaces of water.
Hokulani Holt-Padilla, advisor on Hawaiian culture for the Maui Arts and Cultural Center, has a slightly more pragmatic explanation: “Embedded in Polynesian chants and stories is an idea of caring for the land that manifested itself as both a social and management tool,” she says.
This is the essence of the ahupua‘a.
With fresh water managed carefully for drinking, bathing, irrigation and aquaculture, and with a healthy barter in wild and cultivated plants and the products of land and sea creatures for everything including food, tools, building materials, medicine, clothing and ornamentation, the land’s resources were cooperatively and thoroughly utilized.
The downhill flow of streams to the ocean was its axis. For a people who had no beasts of burden, it made sense to group themselves along streams near so many of their resources—taro, ‘o‘opu (freshwater fish), kukui—and create a mutually interdependent system of cultivating, gathering, trading and sharing from the mountain to the sea.
The activities of the ahupua‘a were governed by the mo‘i (chief) and his konohiki (headmen) through a kapu system of governance that prevented problems such as over-fishing and water contamination.
The ahupua‘a was also governed by a system of tribute. The term “ahupua‘a” comes from “ahu,” (altar), and the carved kukui wood head of a “pua‘a” (pig), placed on those altars, which marked boundaries and areas for ho‘okupu (offerings) to the chiefs of crops and pigs.
The system survived centuries of warfare before the Hawaiian kingdom was unified by Kamehameha I. But with increased contact and settlement by the West came booming market economies in sandalwood and whaling that lured or forced Hawaiians away from the ahupua‘a. The rise of American sugar interests clamoring for private property laws dealt the final blow to the old ways. When Kamehameha III decreed the Mahele (ironically, “the sharing”) of 1848, partitioning the lands among the crown, the chiefs, and the maka‘ainana, those commoners received just 1 percent of the land—if they even bothered to file title for the parcels, which they often didn’t. So resident aliens claimed more and more land, then bought out thousands of impoverished maka‘¯ainana who didn’t understand the new non-cooperative, non-sharing property system.
Yet, remnants of the system survived. Some of the maka‘ainana held onto small “kuleana” plots, retaining gathering and fishing rights within their ahupua‘a even after the division of the land into private parcels. But walls, fences, and control over water supplies often made it difficult to exercise those rights.
Today’s systems of land ownership and water rights continue to make the ahupua‘a concept difficult to pursue. Yet, as a way to practice their core cultural values of malama ‘aina (caring for the land) and laulima (cooperation), some Hawaiians are turning to the ahupua‘a idea.
Ku Kahakalau, director of Kanu O Ka ‘Aina, a charter school on the Big Island, leads a program in which students spend every other week either mauka (on the mountain) or makai (by the sea) in a largely unspoiled ahupua‘a in Waipi‘o. They grow taro, monitoring the stream flow; they gather wild plants, examining the interactions between native and introduced species; and they practice drying and preparing fish.
The goal, says Kahakalau, is partly to learn skills that will help “regrow, revitalize, and rejuvenate” the ahupua‘a.” But the ahupua‘a has its own lessons to teach, she says. “We strongly believe that if we can learn how to act locally, it’s easier to expand it into a global perspective. All should share different resources rather than exploit those and each other. This global lesson can be made more relevant in hands-on experiences…so the concepts can really sink in.”
Hawaiian cultural leaders on Maui, like Clifford Nae‘ole, would like to see similar programs here. Nae‘ole, who considers his most tragic “lesson in life” the loss of his family lands, believes that the teachings of the old land system should be restored. “For the success and sustainability of the village,” says Nae‘ole, “everyone has to think both of the island and the success of the whole.”


That way of thinking survives in certain pockets of Maui. In Ke‘anae and Kaupo, ‘ohana grow taro, they fish and gather wild plants, then they reach out to each other and share or exchange what they have. In the north of Maui at Kahakuloa, Oliver Dukelow has revived ancient taro fields and gives guided tours in which he explains the ahupua‘a system. You can contact Ekahi Tours at 877-9775 or Maui Eco-Adventures at 661-7720 for tour information.
And in the Kaua‘ula Valley, so close to modern Lahaina, a cluster of families including Ke‘eaumoku Kapu, still choose to live among taro l’oi, heiau, pre-contact burial sites, and petroglyphs—all the interrelated physical and spiritual signs of their ancient maka‘ainana. Nobody will sell their land, says Kapu, because “this is their soul, they feel it from the ground…they know their ancestors.”

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