There’s been a lot of discussion about Hawaiian innovation and Hawaiian cultural values, but more importantly there’s been a lot of misinterpretation about how Hawaiians would utilize science and technology today. I’d like to clarify some of this misinformation.

I have a favorite quote from Marion Kelly:

“The dedication of Hawaiian society to the concept of malama (caring) is basically a conservation value. Sometimes it is explained as a belief that the land and sea in the last analysis ‘belonged’ to the gods. Permission for the use of the gods’ domain was continually asked of them through religious ceremonies, large and small. Works of Hawaiians, both on land and in the sea, were so carefully planned, engineered and executed that they enhanced productively without massive environmental degradation following as a result.”

Ancient Hawaiian fish pond on Molokai

Ancient Hawaiian fish ponds, like this one on Molokai, demonstrate Hawaiians need to combine innovative technology with caring for the aina.

As far as I have been taught and according to research, aloha ‘āina, mālama ‘āina, Hawaiian sustainability, Hawaiian innovation, whatever you call it — exists in two parts, the first being innovation. Hawaiians are brilliant innovators, from the first navigators who brought the flora and fauna that helped to establish the rich biodiversity that helped Hawai‘i become the ‘āina momona it was at foreign contact to La‘amaomao to Kalākaua. Hawaiians were always curious about the world around them and constantly innovating within it, but it had boundaries.

The second, and contemporaneously, oft forgotten part is that this innovation cannot cause environmental destruction or degradation. If it does, under Hawaiian tradition, it is not allowed to proceed.

Hawaiians understood that the long-term health of the environment and the ability of the environment to provide water, food, and ecosystem services to all living beings was always paramount. Any other interpretation of Hawaiian traditional living or cultural values is just false.

I have no problem with people writing about Hawaiians or our culture, but please write from a place of knowing and knowledge. Marion Kelly was not Hawaiian, but she spent her life studying the environment and Hawaiian culture. Bishop Museum has an extraordinary collection of her work. It is not impossible for non-Hawaiians to become learned allies of Hawaiians and our environment.

The responsibility of being Hawaiian is kaumaha; it is a heavy burden to bear. I think this is what I find a little frustrating about some “allies,” is that they can tend to luxuriously pick the parts about our culture they like without having the carry the rest. Most of us are not so lucky. So the kuleana of aloha ‘āina is a full package. We never forget that our greatest responsibility is to prevent environmental destruction, because we know that we and future generations depend on the life of this ‘āina. We know we have no other home to go to.

So we’re not anti-science. I’m Hawaiian. I’m a scientist. I’m super pro-science and pro-technology. I’m also pro-‘āina and pro-future generations and pro-healthy environment.

What I am completely opposed to is rhetoric that grossly misappropriates my culture. What I am opposed to is short-term economic gains at the expenses of long term environmental losses.

I am for a sustainable future. I am for peaceful conflict resolution. I am for low-impact development and renewable energy. I am for food security and healthy ecosystems. I am for perpetuating our traditional knowledges and culture. I am for our children, and their children’s children.

I am for Hawai‘i. He Hawai‘i au.

WATCH: Trisha Kehaulani Watson produced this video on ancient Hawaiian fish ponds.


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About the Author

  • Trisha Kehaulani Watson
    Trisha Kehaulani Watson is a Kaimuki resident, small business owner, and bibliophile. She holds a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Hawaii and J.D. from the William S. Richardson School of Law. She writes about environmental issues, cultural resource management, and the intersection between culture and politics. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views. You can follow or contact her on Twitter at @hehawaiiau.