Lessons from the Past

What can the ancient Hawaiians teach us about preserving today's resources for tomorrow?

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“Their whole life was to sustain,” says Hokulani Holt-Padilla, Native Hawaiian cultural advisor and kumu hula. “If ancient Hawaiians were not able to draw upon the land and the ocean, they were doomed to die. If they did not recognize the growth cycles of fish and plants, the movements of the clouds and the rain cycles, they were doomed to die. They had nowhere else to go.”

To survive, Hawaiians had to be highly attentive to the natural world, passing down to each generation what they learned through observation and proven techniques. Hawaiians were also extremely concerned with moral and spiritual concepts of how things were interconnected holistically in the natural world—how doing one thing might affect something else for better or worse.

Says Holt-Padilla, “The ancient Hawaiians incorporated politics, religion, economics, and the social aspect when living in a place. It wasn’t just plant and take, use and don’t use.”

From the Hawaiian perspective, worship of the gods was essential to survival. “One would think that in a universe in which the gods occupied the land, the winds, rains, and rocks,” writes Gon, “to be fully in line with your gods, you would have to have access to all of them. This leads to the ahupua‘a [land division] that extends up through all the wao [zones], so that one can be in contact with all of the kinolau [physical manifestations] of the akua [gods].”

In old Hawai‘i, kingdoms were divided into moku, or districts, that were further parceled into ahupua‘a, or minor chiefdoms. An ahupua‘a was a wedge of land that started in the mountains and grew wider as it descended into the ocean. Within a single ahupua‘a, people could farm and fish without crossing borders. Within each ahupua‘a were smaller holdings called ‘ili, most often worked by one extended ‘ohana, or family.

“The ahupua‘a reflected true sustainability,” continues Gon. “Very rich ahupua‘a were smaller—meaning that no more was needed to support the people of the place—while drier, poorer-quality lands were much larger, to compensate and to diffuse the impacts of people.”

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