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Aloha ‘Āina: Embracing the Hawaiian Spirit of Stewardship

From The
Blog

Updated: April 1, 2024

Aloha ʻāina means “love of land” but is more than that. Fundamentally, it is the Hawaiian practice of stewardship: Take care of the land and the land will take care of you.

The Meaning of Aloha ‘Āina

As the world grapples with climate change, fragile island environments are in peril. Finding sustainable approaches to the environment is an urgent matter for all of us.

Ancient Hawaiians understood how to create balance and harmony between people and the earth—wisdom passed down through the concept of aloha ʻāina.

Aloha ‘Āina: Native Hawaiians Respect for Land

For ancient and modern Hawaiians, the land has never been viewed as a resource to exploit. Since the first outrigger canoe touched island soil, Hawaiians have held a deep respect for ʻāina, even elevating it to the role of elder.

Aloha ‘Āina: A Sacred Practice of Stewardship

The Story of Hoʻohōkūkalani

To understand the depth of the Hawaiian connection to the land and sea, we need to go back to the beginning—the very beginning.

According to ancient legend, humans and plants descended from Papahānaumoku, or Papa, (Mother Earth) and Wākea (Father Sky).

A beautiful goddess Hoʻohōkūkalani was born from the union of Papa, and Wākea and that is where the story of the Hawaiian people (kanaka) and taro (kalo), our most important food source, starts.

The First Kalo and Kanaka

Hoʻohōkūkalaniʻs first child was stillborn. Wrapped in kapa, the child was buried in the ʻāina. Hoʻohōkūkalaniʻs tears moistened the soil where her child lay until one day a plant sprouted. That plant was the first kalo.

Eventually, Hoʻohōkūkalani became pregnant again. This time, she bore the first kanaka (human) called Hāloa.

Sibling Relationship and Responsibility

The story explains native Hawaiianʻs deep connection to the natural world and is the foundation for aloha ʻāina that is in practice today.

The sibling relationship between kanaka and kalo reinforces the notion of responsibility between people and the land: In Hawaii today, the duty to ohana (family) is highly valued.

Aloha ‘Āina: The Native Hawaiian Perspective on Land Stewardship

Indigenous people not only prioritized a profound sense of duty towards their ohana but also towards nature. To mālama (care for) the natural resources around us is an essential part of what it means to be Hawaiian.

Another way to understand this relationship is to understand how our Hawaiian ancestors formed communities—communities contoured by the very land that sustained them.

Native Hawaiian Communities: Form and Function

Before European contact, land in Hawaii was subdivided into strips that spanned from ocean to mountain. These strips, forming the foundation of native Hawaiian communities, were called ahupuaʻa and contained all the resources needed to live.

The ahupuaʻa system created balance (pono) and self-sufficiency for native Hawaiians: fish from the sea; wood and game from the forest; and taro and sweet potato from the midlands could move up and down through a network of reciprocity.

Hawaiian Values and Land Use

Sharing resources was essential to survival. For example, the group near the ocean shared fish with inland groups. In return, upland groups shared the timber necessary to build fishing canoes, ensuring everyone had what they needed.

This distribution of land and resources contributed to the significance of laulima (cooperation) and mālama (stewardship)—important values in modern Hawaiian culture.

A Network of Reciprocity

Each section feeds the other.

If the health of one section of the ahupuaʻa was in peril, the health of the entire community could be at risk. Being good stewards of your piece of the pie was the only way to protect the system and ensure you had what you needed.

Aloha ‘Āina: Restoring Forest on Maui

If you visit Maui and drive past Kahikinui, look into the hills and you may see rock formations—remnants of the ancient enclosures that formed the foundations for a community living there as far back as the early 15th century.

Contact with Europeans began a process that attempted to strip indigenous people of their language and culture, putting the concept of aloha ʻāina in danger. People left the land and pre-contact cattle ranching decimated the life-giving forests of Kahikinui.

Reclaiming Aloha ‘Āina and Hawaiian Values

Ancestral knowledge of land use is being reclaimed in Kahikinui.

Today, in addition to the reminders of the past, you will also see homesteads—modern descendants who made a commitment to aloha ʻāina—a commitment to restore the forests and reclaim their right to mālama the ʻāina.

The Patriotism of Aloha ‘Āina

It is not just on Maui that islanders embrace the lessons of their ancestors.

Aloha ʻāina education is part of Hawaiian studies at the university level. In primary school, keiki (children) are learning respect for the land, and native Hawaiian outreach programs are growing.

Passing the ancient wisdom on to the next generation is important to modern Hawaiians. Today, aloha ʻāina is more than love of the land—it is the patriotic love of Hawaiian people and Hawaiian values.

Three Ways You Can Embrace Aloha ‘Āina

Here are 3 ways you can make aloha ʻāina part of your vacation.

  1. Respect the land and sea: Avoid damaging or removing natural resources when you visit island sites. Mālama the coral reefs by using reef-safe sunscreen.
  2. Embrace sustainable practices: Reduce waste with reusable containers. Use eco-friendly transportation options when available.
  3. Educate yourself: Engage in cultural experiences and learn about Hawaiian traditions and their importance to the people of Hawaii.

By living aloha ʻāina, you become a guardian of the land, committed to its well-being for generations to come. As you tread lightly upon its sacred soil, you will find yourself walking a path of respect and reciprocity, recognizing that the land takes care of us when we take care of it.