Vince Kanaʻi Dodge is known for a lot of things: poi pounding, activism, concern for the environment. But the first thing most people notice about him is his apparent disdain for shoes.
“It was the most embarrassing thing ever growing up,” Dodge’s son Daniel Anthony said with a laugh.
Although Anthony is now proud that local kids know his dad as “no more slippers Vince,” he finds it ironic his father chooses to work with kiawe trees, which are known for their painful thorns.
“Oh yeah, these thorns can be bad for a barefoot guy like me,” said Dodge, while examining a towering kiawe tree at Pokai Bay Beach Park in late June.
He’s learned to tread lightly and can pinpoint which trees drop more thorns than others from a distance. And if he does get pricked, his beloved kiawe tree provides the solution.
“There’s medicine in the leaves,” he said, explaining how he creates a poultice by chewing kiawe leaves.
Kiawe trees are a fixture of life in West Oahu. Many consider them a nuisance because in addition to the thorns, the trees drop thousands of crunchy bean pods each summer.
“You’ll see people raking up beans and burning them or throwing them in the green trash bin like it’s rubbish,”Dodge said. “It’s not rubbish. You are sitting on a health gold mine.”
Dodge has spent more than a decade learning everything he can about kiawe because he sees the tree not as an invasive species, but as a gift to the Westside. By leading bean pod-gathering parties and teaching people how to cook with kiawe, he hopes families will slow down, eat local and take the time to recognize what’s special about West Oahu. And community leaders say Dodge’s work has already inspired the next generation to be proud to call the Westside home.
Dodge sells kiawe-based energy bars and kiawe flour to farmer’s markets on the Westside, using flour that he mills from those pods. Dodge named his company Waiʻanae Gold — not just because kiawe flour has a deep yellow hue, but because he wants people to be inspired and look for “golden” opportunities around Waianae.
“There’s a lot of love when you know you’re eating from your home aina,” he said.
Kiawe trees have always been a part of Dodge’s life. He spent his childhood lounging in their shade at Makua Beach. He knew farmers who would collect the pods for animal feed. And he knew that the tree — a cousin of the mesquite tree — wasn’t native to Hawaii.
But it wasn’t until 2006 that he started thinking of them as a potential food source. That’s the year he learned that Indigenous communities in the Sonoran Desert pound mesquite bean pods into flour to create a diabetic-friendly endurance food.
At the time he was working at Waianae Intermediate and knew seventh-graders with Type 2 diabetes.
“I went home thinking: could it be that the most plentiful tree in our parks produces not only a diabetic-friendly food but a naturally sweet, diabetic-friendly food?
“That would be incredible,” he said. “And thus the journey began.”
Dodge traveled to Tucson, Arizona in 2009 with a 60-pound bag of kiawe beans to meet with a group called The Desert Harvesters. They taught him how to spot which beans are best for flour, how to work a flour mill, and how to make traditional flatbread recipes. Then the group milled its first-ever batch of Hawaiian kiawe flour.
“The people there were like ‘Oh these Hawaiian beans are so much sweeter,’ and they were super delighted,” he said.
For the next couple of years, Dodge experimented with kiawe flour. Some dishes were a success, others were a failure. He started to worry that he didn’t understand enough about the tree to make kiawe flour popular in Hawaii.
So Dodge decided to dig deeper. In 2012 he visited the Wichí tribe, an Indigenous community in northern Argentina that uses mesquite bean pods for every meal.
“When we got home we were like ‘how do we incorporate that tradition, that practice into something that people will want to eat here?’” he said. “Ultimately that’s how we came up with the recipe for our ʻAina Bars, our energy bars.”
“His energy was inspiring,” said Dodge’s longtime friend Terri Langley. Langley, who has diabetes, was running a health food store in Maili at the time.
“I thought ‘Oh this could be incredible because it’s local, it’s accessible and maybe this could be the answer to a lot of our health issues,’” she said.
Langley started using kiawe flour in her lemon shortbread cups and banana bread recipes. In the meantime, Dodge commissioned a study on the flour so diabetics like Langley would know its specific nutritional value.
Dodge sees the pre-packaged flour and energy bars as an introduction to kiawe. What he really wants is for families in Hawaii to mill their own flour.
In late summer and early fall, when parks and beaches across the Westside are thick with bean pods, Dodge leads his “Kiawe Gathering Ohana” through all the necessary steps to create flour. He says anyone can join the group to learn how to spot the best bean pods, which trees produce sweeter beans and which ones have especially nasty thorns.
“Gathering can connect you back to your aina, to the sources of your food, to your community,” he said. “For kiawe to grow as a food source, we need an army to get out there and learn how to gather.”
He says he’s trained at least 200 people, including 20 of his daughter-in-law’s coworkers. As more people have expressed interest, Dodge started setting up partnerships with local landowners: if you offer to host a gathering session he can guarantee those “nuisance bean pods” will be cleared away and put to good use.
Kiawe is technically an invasive species in Hawaii, and its presence can harm native plants. But kiawe is also a drought-resistant plant and its strong roots can help protect coastlines from storms. Dodge believes, in the face of climate change kiawe could be a gift to the Westside.
“Any time a new plant arrived back in the day people were like, ‘Let’s get to know you’ and just building a relationship with it,” he said. “If you start the relationship off with ‘Oh, you’re an invasive,’ you’ve already kind of cornered yourself.”
The pandemic has provided more opportunities for Dodge to teach people how to build that relationship with the land, and more people than ever are trying their hand at making kiawe flour in their home blender.
“Once we realized it was safe to be outside, learning to gather beans with a group became a super enjoyable practice for people,” he said.
Dodge hopes one of the lasting changes from the pandemic will be fewer commuters. He saw first-hand how local families benefited from spending more time exploring the Westside’s parks, beaches and plants.
“If you don’t have to spend half your day driving back and forth from town you can think more about your food, where it comes from and how to be involved,” he said.
If adults aren’t interested, Dodge hopes his work with West Oahu’s next generation will move the needle.
“It is magical to see how he connects with the students,” said Carla Kahiapo, a fourth-grade teacher at Ka Waihona o Ka Naʻauao Charter School in Waianae.
When Dodge led her class on a field trip to collect saltwater and taught them the traditional way to make paʻakai, or salt, Kahiapo was struck by how well Dodge understood the landscape.
“He knew each reef, each tide pool and could tell the students all about every place we visited,” she said.
Kalehua Krug, the school’s principal, said it’s vital that his students learn the ways West Oahu is special and that they shouldn’t be ashamed to call the Westside home.
“There’s still this negative narrative and bad stereotypes about Waianae but people like Vince can change that,” he said.
Dodge not only teaches Native Hawaiian stories, traditions and wisdom, but how his community can learn from other cultures. When talking about kiawe, Dodge always makes sure to mention how the Tohono O’odham people of the Sonoran Desert call mesquite the “Mother Tree of the Desert” and how Wichí people still revere the tree to this day.
“This tree has been here for 200 years,” said Dodge. “It’s time to get to know it. So let’s gather as a community, welcome it to our home, and build a relationship together.”
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