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Opinion

A kiaʻi kai movement

Ocean guardianship, cultural seascape protection and the expansion of Papahānaumokuākea

in Sustainability in Indigenous issues

“An identity that is grounded in something as vast as the sea should exercise our minds and rekindle in us the spirit that sent our ancestors to explore the oceanic unknown and make it their home, our home.” — Epeli Hauʻofa, “The Ocean In Us”


The proposal for the expansion of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument (i.e. the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands) is part of a vision for a new Hawaiʻi. The proposal would extend the boundaries of the monument from 362,125 square kilometers to almost 1.7 million square kilometers (with limits on the southern boundary as to not impact local fishing), increasing its area nearly five fold and helping to create the largest marine protected area in the world. This scale of protection is urgently needed in the eyes of our generation. We share a deep concern for Oceania and the growing need to return to a traditional understanding of our ocean waters as a key part of our distinctive identity and heritage.

The push towards greater global marine protection is a movement that seeks to address the vanishing biological and cultural diversity in our world and the cumulative anthropogenic impacts that are altering and affecting our ocean waters. Hawaiʻi and its indigenous people have a key role to play helping to reverse these trends through the adoption of important customary values and the application of generational knowledge passed down from our ancestors to address the complex challenges of restoring eco-cultural health to our islands. These solutions are to the benefit of all of our collective interests, as they will protect the ocean for the general good and ensure a degree of marine integrity in the face of an uncertain global future.

Continuing down the current, predominant path will push the ocean toward a point at which it will no longer provide life sustaining services. Currently, only about 2 percent of the planet’s oceans are protected, and we must increase the level and scale to meet the global coverage target of at least 30 percent if we are to ensure that the ocean will survive past this century. As Native Hawaiians, we see the expansion of the monument as a critical contribution Hawaiʻi can make to this goal, however we also need to recognize that both natural and social dimensions need to be addressed. In a Hawaiian worldview man and nature are not separate entities but rather related parts of a unified whole. The health of one is intrinsically related to the health of the other. For us to achieve this holistic relationship again, the entire region must be protected and Native Hawaiians, as the indigenous people of this land, must be allowed to take on our rightful role as kiaʻi kai, or ocean guardians once again.

From the research that has been completed over the past decade, no one can dispute that Native Hawaiians have historical connections to all parts of our homeland, including the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, encompassing all the islands, atolls, shoals, coral reefs and submerged sea mounts, as well as the ocean waters that surround them. This region is rooted in creation and origin, as a cosmological place where all life began, and returns to after death.

While the islands themselves were focal points for landfalls and destinations for travel, the ocean and open waters were equally important and must be acknowledged as carrying a multitude of values that are sometimes not as obvious. A traditional understanding of the ocean as a cultural seascape is essential to understanding the need for the expansion of the Papahānaumokuākea boundaries. The ocean was not perceived as an unknown empty space, a meaningless void, or obstacle on a map that kept our island communities isolated and marginalized but, rather, it was conceived as a viable pathway of movement; an access point of mobility; and one that minimized risk in the most uncertain of environments that exist on the planet. The ocean, therefore, will always be an integral part of our identity, our being, and an essential dimension to our cognitive understanding of the world.

It is indeed not an empty space, but a living entity—a godly deity imbued with cultural meaning—and a home for a host of marine and avian life that continue to be connected to us in a genealogical web of ecological kinship. It is our duty to protect these bio-cultural resources and all the places which they inhabit and call home, including adjacent unprotected sea mounts and open ocean areas. The ocean must be understood in the context of its boundless nature; one that must be managed and protected in its totality and not limited by the current narrow management boundaries and delineations. It is in this context that we must champion Hawaiian values and become kiaʻi kai, or guardians of the ocean. The ocean is a metaphor for our glorious ancestral past and holds the key to understanding the depths of our potential as a people.

The push towards stronger ocean protection in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands was, in part, spurred on through the Hawaiian movement—a social-political movement in Hawaiʻi towards social justice for Native Hawaiians, the protection of their resources, and the return of their national lands and sovereignty. Over the past 15 years, the Hawaiian community has been one of the key voices fighting for marine protection, and this call to action has been met with unprecedented success: from the establishment of the Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve in 2000, to the State Marine Refuge in 2005, the Marine National Monument in 2006 and, finally, the inscription of this region as World Heritage Site in 2010.

The traditional double-hulled voyaging canoe Hōkūleʻa has played a significant role in this movement as it has transitioned from the period of the Hawaiian Renaissance to one of modern cultural resurgence. From voyaging around the Pacific to reconnect with regional pathways and related communities, Hōkūleʻa’s voyages took an introspective turn in the early 2000s with key trips extending to the far ends of our homeland: the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (2003, 2004, 2005). Under the slogan “Navigating Change,” the voyaging canoe became an ambassador for ocean protection, advocating for the people of Hawaiʻi to “navigate change” and using the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands as beacon of hope of what our home ocean waters in the main Hawaiian Islands could be if we were to take care of them. Hōkūleʻa continues to be critical in the establishment of all these layers of protection for Papahānaumokuākea. The message that is being spread by this remarkable canoe as it travels around the world is one of “Mālama Honua,” or “caring for the Earth.”

Today, on World Oceans Day, our canoe Hōkūleʻa is in New York City; its crew is addressing the United Nations and sending a powerful, global messages in regards to ocean advocacy, providing world leaders with a list of countries that have affirmed their commitment to increase their scale of ocean protection in these uncertain times. The proposed expansion of Papahānaumokuākea works in tandem with the message of Hōkūleʻa because such an expansion stands out as a model for large scale marine protected areas around the world, helping to spread the message of protection to another 15–20 countries, many in Oceania, that have now established similar provisions over vast areas of previously unmanaged ocean territories.

Native Hawaiians have used the term “He Puʻuhonua no Hawaiʻi” as the banner term for this expansion movement (lit. “a sanctuary for our ocean protection”). This term is used in honor of the late Uncle Buzzy Agard who always used this phrase when talking about the importance of this region. Uncle Buzzy was a Hawaiian fisherman who later dedicated his life to ocean protection, and he was one of the primary founders of the movement to protect the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. While Hōkūleʻa has done its part in solidifying global commitments for the ocean, what better way to demonstrate Hawaiʻi’s continued commitment to this vision than by expanding this region and making it the largest protected area anywhere on the face on the earth, both on land and at sea?

Long distance voyaging and wayfinding is one of the most unique and valuable traditional practices we have, as indigenous peoples, to offer the world. It is an ancient way of interacting with the ocean that can inspire and create social change. Seen in this context, the increased protection of Papahānaumokuākea is even more critical, because it is the only intact cultural voyaging seascape left in our islands. This expansive ocean environment was the setting for ancient Hawaiian chiefs to voyage back and forth between the main Hawaiian Islands and the Northwestern Islands over the course of a 400-year period in traditional times. In addition, smaller communities from Niʻihau, Kauaʻi, and Oʻahu in the post-contact period have been documented making continued voyages into this region, well into the 20th century. Today, with the rebirth of traditional Hawaiian voyaging, this region is a critical training ground for the ongoing survival of Hawaiian voyaging and wayfinding.

Hawaiian voyaging and wayfinding evolved from a system of non-instrument navigation used by our Polynesian predecessors to make long distant voyages across thousands of miles of open-ocean. This traditional science relied upon observations of the natural environment, often missed by modern sailors, including the position of the sun and the stars, rising and setting along known pathways, the movement of cloud clusters, wind direction, ocean swells or wave pilots, biological indicators of island targets such as migratory seabirds, and sea marks—distinctive natural occurrences at predictable places along sea routes, like regions where certain fish species leap above the waters surface, or a zone of innumerable marine or avian life. There is no other place in Hawaiʻi where islands are remote enough to simulate these target conditions for young navigating apprentices. This practice requires protection of the entire marine environment, not just the target islands, because only then will the full use of biological signs and natural phenomenon that help train navigators be available to them.

In addition to the proposed expansion of Papahānaumokuākea, advocates for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) want the organization to be elevated to the level of Co-Trustee for the Monument. As a recognized institution responsible for improving the well-being of Native Hawaiians, OHA is the most appropriate organization to take on this role because of its continued involvement as a co-manager for the region since 2008; because it has a strong track record for supporting Native Hawaiian initiatives in the region, spending a significant portion of its budget in supporting cultural access up there; and because it has the ability to engage and connect the Hawaiian community, its constituents, in management decisions. It is the only institution that is currently both a manager of the monument and mandated to represent Native Hawaiian interests. Elevating the status of OHA would finally acknowledge that the indigenous peoples of Hawaiʻi are not just stakeholders but, rather, are a people with unique social and political status in our islands. It would allow Native Hawaiians to take up their rightful ancestral role as ocean guardians again.

The proposed expansion of Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument is one of the most important cultural and conservation initiatives of our generation and, for the first time, we have the unique opportunity to protect and actively steward a very large part of Hawaiʻi. Viewing this vast ocean region as a living cultural seascape acknowledges the importance of places like this, for both natural and cultural dimensions, and helps to maintain a core aspect of our identity as ocean people.

The ocean is our beginning and our end and, in the chaos of today’s world, the ocean helps to quiet our minds, center our perceptions and intuitively understand what we need to do to live in a healthy world again. To save our ocean we must acknowledge its power, its boundless nature and its importance as a driving force that shapes all aspects of our natural world and, in turn, our well being. Today, we must reaffirm our commitment to the protection our oceans by creating large scale protected areas for future generations. It is a global movement that must be amplified now. We must take up the ancestral role of kiaʻi kai once again.

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