Aloha Aina

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  • Hosted by Julia Steele

Waimanu Valley, Hawaiʻi island.
Credit Photo credit: Nate Yuen.

The 13-week “Aloha ʻĀina” series explores the roots and historical endurance of the values of aloha ʻāina, commonly translated as “love of the land.” The 65 episodes ask, what does it really mean to engage, to connect, to develop an intimate kinship with the environments and ancestral knowledge that have nourished and sustained these islands for centuries?

Commentary is provided by noted Hawaiian scholars and leaders, such as PuananiBurgess, Sam ʻOhu Gon, Davianna McGregor, Jonathan Osorio, and Walter Ritte. Through these voices and many others, the series invites listeners to deepen their understanding of aloha ‘āina and hopes to inspire them to incorporate these values into their everyday lives.

The 90-second Aloha ʻĀina vignettes air each weekday after Fresh Air (HPR-2) at 3:57 p.m.

The series is researched, written, and narrated by Julia Steele. Steele is currently an editor at Hawai‘i’s largest magazine, Hana Hou!, where she has written and edited numerous award-winning articles about Hawai‘i. She was the founding editor of Honolulu Weekly. She holds a BA in Pacific history and journalism from the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa and a JD from Stanford Law School.

The theme music for the Aloha ‘Äina series is Project Kuleana’s recording of Liko Martin’s “All Hawai‘i Stand Together.” You can see and hear the song in its entirety here. Mahalo nui loa to all involved for their graciousness in allowing us to use the music for the series.

The series is a collaboration with The Kohala Center.

On January 18th 1778, Captain James Cook and his crew made landfall on Kaua‘i—the first known Westerners in Hawai‘i. Cook was on his third expedition in the Pacific, charged with finding the Northwest Passage. He knew some of his sailors were infected with disease—gonorrhea and syphilis—and when he arrived on Kaua‘i he forbade all connection between Hawaiian women and those in his crew who had, as he put it,  “the venereal upon them.” But try as he did to keep the disease from entering Hawai‘i, Cook did not succeed.

It was not just the people who saw their lives disrupted by the introductions of early Western explorers—the land was affected too. On his 1794 visit to the Islands Captain George Vancouver brought cattle as a gift for Kamehameha, the ali‘i who united the Islands. Kamehameha placed a kapu on the cattle and had them set free; before long their numbers had multiplied and they were wreaking havoc on a landscape unaccustomed to a mammalian presence. Here is Dr. Sam Gon.

With the arrival of foreigners in Hawai‘i came new goods; with those goods came debt; with debt came the need for money; and from that need came the first commodification of a creature in the Hawaiian ecosystem: ‘iliahi or sandalwood. Sandalwood trees grew in lowland mesic forests across the Islands and their fragrant heartwood was much prized in China. Ali‘i trading for weapons or other goods would sign promissory notes with visiting ships’ captains, committing to deliver a certain amount of sandalwood.

The profound changes that began at the end of the 1700s—the coming of new diseases, new species, and capitalism—did not let up as the new century dawned; if anything, they accelerated. In the early 1800s, two major events transformed Hawai‘i further—one that came from within the culture, one that came from foreign shores. In 1819, the ‘Ai Noa occurred: Kamehameha’s son and heir, Liholiho, sat down to eat with Queen Ka‘ahumanu and by so doing officially broke the kapu system that for centuries had so powerfully codified Hawaiian life.

In 1794, King Kamehameha and Captain George Vancouver discussed a political alliance between Hawai‘i and England; in 1810, Kamehameha sent a letter to England, seeking its protection in exchange for supplying its ships. After he died in 1819, power passed to his son Liholiho. Imperialism had taken hold across the globe and more and more foreign ships were arriving, among them gunboats. Liholiho decided to follow up on his father’s ideas and, in 1823, sailed for another island kingdom halfway around the world on a highly atypical and ambitious journey, says geographer Dr. Kamana Beamer.

After Liholiho’s death in England, his brother Kauikeaouli became king. He was Hawai‘i’s longest-reigning monarch, and one of his greatest feats was gaining formal recognition of Hawai‘i’s independence from the world powers. In 1839, a French ship had challenged the nation’s sovereignty, and the king was determined to protect against such occurrences in the future. In 1842, he sent envoys Timoteo Ha‘alilio and William Richards to the United States, England, and France on a mission to get recognition.

In 1848 Kauikeaouli’s government set out to organize, in paper form, all four million of Hawai‘i’s acres. The king continued to see imperial aggression as a threat, and he was determined to privatize land to protect it from foreign governments and safeguard it for the people. The undertaking that accomplished this was the Māhele, and it created, says geographer Dr. Kamana Beamer, a hybrid system of private property unlike any other.

In 1848 an American naval frigate arrived in Hilo carrying a virus that would spell death for thousands of Hawaiians: measles. Hawaiian immune systems had never seen the diseases arriving with foreign ships, and they were unable to handle the onslaught. Smallpox, influenza, and tuberculosis were some of the introduced diseases that caused plague after plague in the kingdom. Historian Samuel Kamakau estimated that the single epidemic that began in 1848 with the measles killed one third of the population. He wrote, “The dead fell like dried kukui twigs tossed down by the wind.”

The brothers who succeeded Kauikeaouli as sovereigns—Alexander Liholiho and Lota Kapuāiwa—were the first of Hawai‘i’s kings to be fully educated in the Western tradition—they attended the Chief’s Children’s School, which was established in 1840 to teach the children of the ali‘i. Kauikeaouli was determined that the two would gain a sophisticated understanding of the world in which they’d rule so when Alexander was 15 and Lota was 18, he sent them to Europe and the United States as part of a diplomatic mission. Europe embraced the brothers.

For millennia, Hawai‘i had an oral society: The people themselves were the keepers of knowledge—mo‘ōlelo that was passed down from generation to generation. But when the tool of literacy arrived with the missionaries in the 1820s, Hawaiians embraced it, says historian Kau‘i Sai-Dudoit.

“When Kauikeaouli became king in 1824 he proclaimed to his people, ‘He aupuni palapala ko‘u,’ ‘Mine shall be a kingdom of literacy.’ The teachers were sent out into every village, into every home.”

The Hawaiian nation continued to evolve at a rapid pace and as it did so, it established itself at the forefront of the world’s progressive nations. While slavery was still legal in the United States, Hawaiʻi’s constitution of 1852 gave all qualified male citizens of the Kingdom the vote, regardless of race. In 1859 Queen’s Hospital opened to treat all in need, independent of their ability to pay. In 1883, after years of watching world powers claim Pacific nations, Hawai‘i issued a formal protest against European colonialism in the Pacific, sent to twenty-six nations across the world.

Kalākaua came to power backed by men who would later become his foes—the sugar planters. One of his first acts as king was negotiating the Treaty of Reciprocity with the U.S. to allow Hawai‘i’s sugar into America without tariffs. The treaty was opposed by Hawaiians like Joseph Nāwahī and Joseph Poepoe, who decried the dangers of the planters’ increasing power and Hawai‘i’s growing ties to the United States. As time passed, Kalākaua too became wary and embraced the cause of defending the nation. Here is UH Mānoa faculty member Ron Williams, Jr.

In 1891 Lili‘uokalani inherited a monarchy that was, says historian Kau‘i Sai-Dudoit, fraught with troubles and situations beyond her control.

“Her first act is she goes out to hear the voice of her people and her people want a return to the Constitution of 1864.”

The overthrow of the monarchy in 1893 launched another profoundly challenging period in Hawai‘i’s history, says historian Kau‘i Sai-Dudoit.

“It’s a very scary time to be a Hawaiian subject, hearing your queen has been dethroned, then hearing that she’s been imprisoned. Where does your confidence go, and who are these new people and what are they going to do? Times were really unsure.”

The leaders of the overthrow, having failed to convince the United States to immediately annex Hawai‘i, declared it a republic in 1894. They took control of all Government Lands and Crown Lands, a total of approximately two million acres, about half of the landmass of the Islands. The Crown Lands constituted 900,000 acres of some of Hawai‘i’s finest lands; they were the property of the monarchy, and in 1865 the Legislature had barred them from sale, decreeing they could only be leased—which they were, largely by sugar planters.

In 1897, William McKinley became president of the United States. Unlike Cleveland, he was willing to acquire Hawai‘i on the back of the overthrow. In 1898, Congress passed a joint resolution to annex Hawai‘i. The Republic dissolved, the US claimed the Islands as a territory and land claimed by the Republic passed to the American federal government. In the ensuing years differing groups sought control of that land.

In the years between annexation and statehood, plantations proliferated, military bases sprang up, urbanization increased and more hotels were built. On the fringes of all the change were the kua ‘āina, Hawaiians who stayed in the country and continued to live from the ideals of aloha ‘āina. UH Mānoa professor Davianna Pōmaika‘i McGregor wrote a book on the kua ‘āina; here she talks about their lives.

In March of 1959 huge headlines across the Islands carried the news: Statehood! Five months later, on August 21, the United States declared Hawai‘i its fiftieth state. The Cold War was raging and the US was trumpeting capitalism across the globe. In Hawai‘i that added even more currency to the idea that land was simply one more commodity to be bought and sold. Walter Ritte of Moloka‘i, who fifteen years after statehood would help lead a David-and-Goliath fight against the U.S. military’s bombing of Kaho‘olawe, remembers being a boy in those days.

In the 1970s a small group of intensely committed activists from Moloka‘i set out to stop the U.S. military from bombing the island of Kaho‘olawe. Walter Ritte was among them.

Walter Ritte of Moloka‘i has spent a lifetime advocating for the land, and he talks here of what aloha ‘āina means to him.

“Aloha ‘āina describes your deep relationship with the land where there’s no difference between you and the land and anything on the land. It’s an unconditional love, the same kind of unconditional love that you would have for your child.”

Ritte remains as ardent and forceful an activist today as he was forty years ago and he has no interest in sentimentalizing aloha ‘āina.

Ku Kahakalau is a celebrated Hawaiian educator and a firm believer in the power of the land to teach. Driven by that conviction, in the 1990s she began leading month-long immersion camps in Waipiʻo Valley to link students to the ʻāina in a very real way.

“The model that we have developed is a model where the youth are directly put in contact with the land because one of the awesome things about the ʻāina is that it does not discriminate. It functions according to the reciprocal law of aloha—so if you love the land, the land will love you back.”

In the early 1990s, Ku Kahakalau began taking students into Waipiʻo Valley to learn from the land. Students would harvest kalo in the valley’s loʻi, tend gardens, spend hours each day with their hands in the valley’s rich soil, tending to the new shoots they’d planted. Over the years Kahakalau has taught thousands of students through the innovative ʻāina -based educational programs she’s created. Always her goal has been to get young people to learn to love the land, to take care of it and to understand its importance.

For acclaimed Hawaiian educator Ku Kahakalau, to have aloha ʻāina is to recognize the land as our older sibling and to care for it as a family member: to love it and do all we can to make sure that it is protected. Through the educational programs she’s created Kahakalau has helped thousands of young people to experience aloha ʻāina and she’s witnessed amazing results in her students, particularly, she says, in Hawaiian boys, who blossom into confident secure young men when they forge a relationship with the ʻāina.

In the 1980s the north shore of Kaua‘i witnessed a battle over land development in the Waipā ahupua‘a. On one side was a proposal to build a resort and a golf course. On the other was a local community that wanted to see the land preserved and restored to become a living learning center and Hawaiian cultural center. The community won the fight—and three decades on, the Waipā ahupua‘a has become the thriving center that the community knew it could be.

The Waipā ahupuaʻa sits on the north shore of Kauaʻi, a bountiful valley at the entrance to the Nā Pali coast. Three decades ago the valley was threatened by commercial development but for now that threat is gone and today Waipā is a thriving center dedicated to the principles of aloha ʻāina. Stacy Sproat-Beck, the executive director of the Waipā Foundation, says the organization is first and foremost the steward of the valley.

“We are taking care of the land and resources here, we are taking care of our community and welcoming school groups and all kinds of cultural groups.”

Stacy Sproat-Beck grew up on the north shore of Kauaʻi in a family that farmed and fished—she was literally raised by the land and sea around her and that childhood gave her a very personal understanding that the earth cared for her and made her survival possible. It taught her, she says, that we need to take great care of the earth so that it can take care of us. It also taught her to be attuned to the health of the resources around her—an awareness that has only grown over the last two decades in her work as executive director of the Waipā Foundation.

Today there is a movement to restore many of the Hawaiian loko iʻa or fishponds that could once be found across the Islands, says Hiʻilei Kawelo, executive director of Paepae o Heʻeia, an organization dedicated to restoring Oʻahu’s Heʻeia fishpond.

“Our fishpond is part of a network of fishponds called the Hui Mālama Loko ‘Ia. Our hui was formed in 2004 and we’ve grown to represent about forty fishponds. It would be nice to grow that number and the hope is that all of these fishponds will be in production mode.”

When Hi‘ilei Kawelo thinks about Hawaiian loko i‘a or fishponds, she marvels at the innovation that her kūpuna brought to their relationship with the sea. The executive director of Paepae o He‘eia says she sees Hawaiian fishponds as perfect examples of aloha ‘āina.

In 2008 Malia Akutagawa was thinking about creating an organization dedicated to changing the narrative about her home island of Moloka‘i. She heard the island referred to as anti-jobs, anti-progress, the poverty island. What she saw was that Moloka‘i was actually the greenest of all the Hawaiian Islands, the most rural, where people still fished and hunted and grew food to feed their families.

Malia Akutagawa was born into the aloha ‘āina movement: As a child in the 1970s, she watched her uncles and aunties advocating for the ‘āina—fighting to take down “No Trespassing” signs and reopen trails, fighting to stop the bombing of Kaho‘olawe—and their actions left a great impression on her. Her home island of Moloka‘i was, she says, the least colonized of all the Hawaiian Islands and that led to an independence other islands struggled with.