Native Hawaiian Eric Enos grew up in Waiʻanae on Oʻahu’s west coast, less than an hour’s drive from the splashy tourist paradise of Honolulu’s Waikiki Beach. When he graduated college with a degree in art education in the 1970s, he returned home to teach at-risk youth in his community, kids whose lives were too often bounded by poverty and crime. Never did he expect his chosen path would lead him to create a farm that would help restore an integral part of Hawaiian life.
Enos took his art students on long hikes up nearby Mount Kaʻala, teaching them about Hawaiian history and culture along the way. They discovered row after row of ancient stone walls their Native Hawaiian ancestors built to enclose the freshwater terraces where they grew taro, the starchy tropical root vegetable that is the staple crop of Oceania. Enos and his students decided to restore these terraces, so they cleared roots and weeds from the dry soil and rechanneled fresh water to flood the ground and plant taro again.
Building on the knowledge of the “kūpuna” (the elders) for growing taro (“kalo” in Hawaiian), Enos formed his Kaʻala Farm, an early—but certainly not the only—agricultural manifestation of what some have termed the Hawaiian Renaissance. After a long suppression by American colonial rule, this rebirth of ancient Hawaiian culture began to blossom. Kaʻala Farm was joined during the ensuing five decades by similar organizations across the island chain, planting the dozens of food crops brought to Hawaii by the seafaring Polynesians who first populated the islands about 1,200 years ago.
Among those crops, kalo—pounded and fermented into “poi”—is an essential and revered dish in almost every traditional Hawaiian meal, explained Puni Jackson (Native Hawaiian), the director of Hoʻoulu ʻĀina, a nonprofit organization on Oʻahu that runs the island’s Kōkua Kalihi Valley Comprehensive Health Center. “Kalo is our genealogical elder brother,” said Jackson.
As befits one’s elders, even some language is considered inappropriate around kalo, said Jackson’s colleague Ka’iulani Odom (Native Hawaiian), the director of the health center’s Indigenous food system building program. “You don’t say anything negative when planting or preparing or eating food—especially poi—so that you don’t offend it. If you talk about business or illness during a meal, you must cover the poi so we don’t offend our ancestors.”
For Native Hawaiians, the acts of cultivating and consuming ancestral crops are deeply intertwined with their identity, history, spirituality and culture. Hawaiian food is as special as its location.
Situated in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the Hawaiian Islands were among the last places to be settled by humans. The mariners who sailed from Polynesia and first populated the islands around 800 A.D. cultivated ginger, taro, sugarcane, plantains, coconut, bamboo, yams and breadfruit among other plants used for food, medicines, flavoring, tools and construction. Along with fish and pigs, these crops sustainably supported hundreds of thousands of people for more than a thousand years.
“Hawaiians were able to live on one of the most remote places on earth for 1,200 years—not just getting by, but developing a hyperlocal system that melded ecological, human and economic needs in one space,” says Kamuela Enos, the son of Eric Enos and director of the University of Hawaii’s Office of Indigenous Innovation. “They had to make it work, to be self-sufficient on the island and in their own watershed.”
Hawaii’s first sustained European contact commenced with the documentation of the islands by British explorer Captain James Cook in 1778. During the next two centuries, Europeans and Americans appropriated most agricultural land for raising sugarcane or pineapple. That plantation economy left little opportunity for Indigenous approaches to growing food.
When Bernice Pauahi Bishop—the last descendant of the Kamehameha royal line—died in 1884, her estate was dedicated to establishing the Kamehameha Schools to improve the well-being of Native Hawaiians through education. Altogether, the Kamehameha Schools now own about 360,000 acres.
“The goal of the trust was to manage the land for maximum income, then use the money to help Hawaiians and support their culture,” according to Noa Kekuewa Lincoln (Native Hawaiian), an assistant professor of Indigenous Crops and Cropping Systems at the University of Hawaii. However, the focus on money often hurt the very people the system was supposed to help.
That has changed since 2000 as a Native Hawaiian worldview—balancing culture, environment, education, economics and community—and not simply focusing on financial return has guided the schools, said Natalie Kurashima (Native Hawaiian), the integrated resources manager at Kamehameha Schools. She said, “In the past, the schools were more of a passive land owner and saw ʻāina [land] more as a commodity to fund the schools and not as an elder, which we strive for today.”
When the sugar industry left in search of cheaper labor in India, South America and the Caribbean, much of the land owned or leased by the big companies reverted to empty grassland or was used for tourist or urban development. While some communities throughout Hawaii always cultivated food on their ancestral lands, the past 50 years have seen an upsurge in interest in traditional methods.
Regrowing the Past
“The 1970s saw a renewed evolution of awareness and pride in Hawaiian culture as Hawaiians began to break out of the mold imposed upon them by 200 years of colonization,” said Lincoln. What began with music and dance expanded to “aloha ʻāina” (“love for the land”) as an expression of core values and beliefs. Key among those values were kinship and reciprocity with the land.
“Agriculture is a fundamental way that humans anywhere interact with their land,” said Lincoln, who also grows breadfruit on the Big Island of Hawaii. “There was a renewed appreciation and emphasis on food production in Hawaii as a way of caring for the land and ourselves.”
Hawaii’s human history is built on one of the most diverse ecological systems on Earth, ranging from snow-capped mountains to the Pacific Ocean, from rainforests to near-deserts, and from 5-million-year-old lava flows to yesterday’s volcanic eruptions. Before contact with Europeans, Hawaiian agriculture was similarly varied. Chiefs distributed land in long strips called “ahupuaʻa,” which ran down the mountain slopes to the ocean.
The ahupuaʻa system ensured that farming units would have access to elements of several ecosystems. Agriculture was adapted to each ahupuaʻa’s individual characteristics, reflecting both elevation and the variation between the rainier, windward sides of each island and the drier, leeward sides. However, each typically had some combination of “loʻi”—intensive, flooded or irrigated agricultural terraces where kalo was grown; rain-watered land used for sweet potato (“ʻuala”), yam (“uhi”), dryland kalo and sugarcane (“kō”); and an upland forest zone that was dominated by breadfruit (“ulu”) and a wide range of other crops. Shaded by the taller breadfruit trees, plantings of low-growing medicinal and foods plants helped slow evaporation, suppress weeds and provide ground cover to allow slower-maturing “ʻōhiʻa” and “koa” trees to develop, eventually creating a multitiered canopy. Overall, the enormous variety of crops up and down the ahupuaʻa knit people and landscape together, providing a varied diet and serving as a hedge against the failure of any one crop.
Like kalo, breadfruit was a source of carbohydrates and produced large quantities of food. Breadfruit does not keep well, but surpluses could be fed to pigs as a way of “storing” calories. To market their crop today, breadfruit producers across the state have formed a cooperative to create pathways for traditional foods into the local commercial grocery system. The results have helped farmers, who plan to expand breadfruit production from 200 acres now to 2,000 acres in 10 years, said Lincoln.
Even as these crops have achieved some success, modern tree management practices have made restoring the coconut to its varied roles in Hawaiian culture more difficult. Coconut (“niu”) has many uses, starting with the sap from the flower, which can be fermented into an alcoholic drink, vinegar or sugar. At various stages of its development, this nut can provide water, coconut meat, milk, cream or oil. The tree’s trunk was used for digging sticks, musical instruments and lumber for building, and its fronds for basketry. The fibrous husk can be stripped from the nut, shredded to make rope or buried in the ground beneath newly planted crops to retain moisture.
However, decades ago, state and county governments began to render most of these trees merely decorative by cutting the coconuts off the trees, fearing liability from the nuts falling on people or property. “Rarely will you see a coconut tree with nuts hanging from the spiral of life, giving us water and food and shelter and medicine and art,” said Manulani Aluli Meyer (Native Hawaiian) of the University of Hawaii-West Oʻahu and the nonprofit Niu Now. “It’s not that they just cut the food off. It’s everything that it stands for. We can start by growing the niu for food again.”
Rebuilding the stock has proved to be a long slog. Meyer and her colleague Indrajit Gunasekara have led the effort, seeking out more of the 100 known varieties and growing them in nurseries to give away around Oʻahu. Regulations to control agricultural pests forbid them from sending coconut saplings to other islands, but the pair are helping others there to start their own niu nurseries.
Farming the Water
The stone-walled fishponds built in the tidal reaches of rivers provided another traditional source of cultivated food. Fish raised in ponds were a more dependable source than those obtained through ocean fishing: they were available even during marine storms for daily meals or for ceremonies. And the ponds were a way to supply fertilized female fish that could be released to spawn in the deeper ocean waters and help stock the surrounding reefs.
Fishponds were used for millennia, but when Walter Ritte (Native Hawaiian) began restoring the Keawanui fishpond on the south shore of Moloka‘i decades ago, he ran into a blizzard of state and federal opposition. Work was delayed again and again. First, the pond was declared a historic site, which could be seen but not altered. Then it was termed both a navigable waterway and a wetland. The local Board of Health complained that moving the rocks in the pond would release silt into the river and create pollution. The state initially said the “highest and best use” of fishponds meant turning them into marinas or filling them in and building houses on their sites, said Ritte, who is a long-time activist for Indigenous rights.
“We went to the legislature to protect the ponds and permit their traditional uses,” he said. The state eventually supported fishpond restoration. The wall of the fishpond was finally restored, and invasive mangrove trees were removed from the area by 2000. Today, the Keawanui pond is part of Molokaʻi’s Hawaiian Learning Center and provides essential food for Ritte’s extended family.
“The pond gives us protein, and the land gives us starches,” said Ritte. Even at the pond, there’s a reciprocal relationship between land and water. When kalo is processed, the peels are tossed into the ponds to feed the fish.
Ensuring Identity and Food Security
Persistence in restoring traditional farming has paid off elsewhere on Hawaii. The ahupua’a of Waipā on the north shore of Kauaʻi had been leased by the Kamehameha Schools for pasture and then was slated for development as a resort and golf course. In 1982, the community around Waipā argued that money could not take the place of real cultural practice. They proposed setting up a “learning center for the community to serve as a land base for the continued practice and perpetuation of Hawaiian culture.” Kamehameha Schools eventually leased the land to the Waipā Foundation and helped fund this community-based nonprofit organization that works to restore traditional land management practices, including an extensive lowland farm.
In fact, most of the organizations raising traditional crops are not commercial operations. Nearly all also have some component of social service, health services or cultural revival.
“We never sought to become kalo farmers,” said Dean Wilhelm, co-founder and executive director at Hoʻokuaʻāina on Oʻahu. The farm is one of the island’s largest growers of kalo, cultivating 3 acres of loʻi kalo patches with plans to expand onto another 100 acres in the next couple of years. Ho’okua’aina invites at-risk youth to plant, harvest and prepare kalo, believing that the opportunity helps them to connect with themselves, others, land and, ultimately, a greater spiritual power. Wilhelm said this gives rise to the concept of “Lokahi” (balance in life). “The cultivation of kalo is a means to a greater end—building individuals and community,” he said.
The resurgence of traditional Hawaiian foods offers other benefits. “Our food can bring back health,” said Odom. For instance, local researchers have shown that switching to the traditional Hawaiian diet improved the digestive system, reduced the likelihood of type 2 diabetes and saved $15,000 in medical costs per patient.
Increasing local production could also lessen Hawaii’s dependence on external food sources. Currently, 87 percent of its food is shipped in from elsewhere in the world. According to Kurashima, traditional crops and growing methods could produce two-thirds of the one million tons of food the islands likely produced annually prior to contact, even in the face of climate change. “We could use those fallow lands to produce foods sustainably, ” said Kurashima. About 71 percent of land that has the potential for restoration is already zoned for agriculture. “The potential is there because it has been done in the past.”
Ultimately, Hawaiians are deepening their connection to their ancestral foods and therefore to their native islands. “More than carbohydrates, proteins and fats, Hawaii’s indigenous foods nourish us physically, mentally and spiritually,” said Odom.
“Food activates an ancient, waiting knowledge,” continued Jackson. “We think that if a pregnant woman eats native foods, then her baby will crave those foods. If the practices of the family change, then all of the land becomes part of that transformation. Feeding the infant poi changes the person, the food, the land and the farmer.”
“Humans and the land are inextricable,” she says. “The breath of one is the life of the other.”