Hawaiian Culture

Caring for People and Place

A deep reverence and strong sense of responsibility for the natural world was connected to ancient Hawaiian life. Hawaiians saw themselves as part of, not separate from, nature, and were the direct kin of the plants and animals that shared their world. Both the animate and inanimate possessed spiritual power, or “mana.” In such a world, you could talk directly to the winds and rains and expect a response, or have the “io” (Hawaiian hawk), as your “aumakua” (ancestral guardian), watching over you from his perch among the trees.

As the youngest descendants among living family, humans had the role of caretakers, while the plants and animals, as the older siblings of the “aina” (land), provided guidance. Hawaiian chant, song, and dance celebrate elements of the natural world that provided many gifts for the spiritual and material needs of the people.

Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park in Kona on Hawaii Island. Credit: Cameron Brooks / Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA)

Malama kekahi i kekahi. Take care of each other. – Hawaiian Proverb

Ohia forest with understory of hapuu ferns, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

Alii Fishpond at Makukapaia on the island of Molokai. Credit: Dana Edmunds / Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA)

The Ahupuaa

Life in Ancient Hawaii relied on the “ahupuaa” system of land management. A typical ahupuaa, or land division, was wedge-shaped and extended from the mountain to the sea. Water from the forested mountains fed the “loi” (taro fields) in the lowlands that filtered water as it entered the fishponds along the coast.

Ahupuaa, from mountain to sea. Credit: Illustration courtesy of The Nature Conservancy.

The Hawaiian population was concentrated in the lowlands but utilized every section of the ahupuaa. Woods from forest were used to make homes, canoes, weapons, and tools. Plants and herbs were gathered for healing and medicinal purposes, and the feathers of birds fashioned into brilliantly colored capes, helmets, and “lei” (garland). And sophisticated systems of aquaculture were developed near coastal areas that provided a sustainable supply of food from the ocean.

The most important aspect of the ahupuaa was “wai” (water). As wai flowed from the upland forest, down through the ahupuaa, it passed from the “wao akua,” the realm of the gods, to the “wao kanaka,” the realm of man, where it sustained agriculture, aquaculture, and other human uses. Water was a gift from the gods, and all Hawaiians took an active part in its use and conservation.

“Each time we lose another Hawaiian plant or bird or forest, we lose a living part of our ancient culture.” – Nainoa Thompson, Master Navigator, Polynesian Voyaging Society
Under Kapu

“Kapu” was a communal system of religious restrictions that maintained “lokahi” (balance) between human needs and the natural environment. Placing a resource under kapu (proclaiming the taking of it as taboo) at certain times of the year acknowledged that the elements that sustained humans were gifts from the gods. Kapu were placed or lifted according to an understanding of natural cycles (seasonal and lunar cycles, and the corresponding reproductive cycles of plant and animal life), and close observation of local conditions. For example, by closely observing the peak spawning cycles of fish or when sea urchins produced eggs or seaweed produced spores, Hawaiians would avoid harvesting at times that disturbed these natural cycles.


In early 1990s, when the double-hulled Hawaiian voyaging canoe, Hawaiiloa, journeyed to Tahiti, it was the first modern canoe of its kind created as much as possible from native materials. During its conception, however, the Hawaiiloa hit a significant snag: a year long search through the native forests of Hawaii Island identified only two living Koa trees large enough for her hulls. For master navigator Nainoa Thompson, the discovery came as a shock, and he found that he could not, in good conscience, remove the trees from the forest. Instead, he traveled to the Pacific Northwest where he asked two tribes of native Americans for a gift of two large spruce trees. The experience instilled in Nainoa a strong conviction that preservation of the native forest is fundamental to Hawaiian cultural revival.

Hawaiiloa under sail on the first day returning to the water Credit: Justyn Ah Chong

A school of Manini, or convict tang, grazing among shoreline reef. Credit: Darla White

The Reef

“Apapa,” or coral reefs, and the inshore ocean world were of enormous importance to Ancient Hawaiians. The major source of protein in the Hawaiian diet was seafood, so careful management of ocean resources was essential.

Hawaiians affectionately referred to inshore areas as the “meat bowl” and fished or foraged in the shallows or in the reefs daily. Yet even with a pre-contact population estimated as high as 1 million people–comparable in size to Hawaii’s population today–the Hawaiians harvested from the sea in a manner that sustained healthy and resilient fish populations and reef life. Their approach to caring for resources was both spiritual and highly practical, and based on a simple conservation ethic: Ina malama oe i ke kai, malama no ke kai ia oe. If you care for the ocean, the ocean will care for you.

Hula and the Forest

Laka, the goddess of hula, is a forest deity, and so are the various plants that are sacred to the dance, including Ohia Lehua, Maile, and Palapalai ferns. When the ancients went to the forest to gather the materials with which they made their lei and costumes, they were mindful of a conservation ethic that is deeply rooted in old Hawaiian ways: Take from the forest only what you need, chant and give thanks.

Traditional hula dancer wearing a haku lei, flower headdress, and kupee lima,bracelet made of sea shells, in Hilo on Hawaii Island. Credit: Lehua Waipa AhNee / Big Island Visitors Bureau (BIVB)

“Hula is the art of Hawaiian dance, which expresses all we see, smell, taste, touch, feel, and experience. It is joy, sorrow, courage, and fear.” – Robert Cazimero Singer, Songwriter and Kumu Hula

Diacritical Markings

The Hawaiian language uses two diacritical markings. The “okina” is a glottal stop, similar to the sound between the syllables of “oh-oh.” In print, the correct mark for an okina is the single open quote mark [‘]. The “kahako” is a macron [–], a line over selected vowels, which lengthens and adds stress to the marked vowel. The Host Committee recognizes the use of diacritical markings of the Hawaiian language, however, as not all computers and fonts are able to reproduce these markings in normal text these diacritical markings have been omitted throughout the website to ensure the best online experience for visitors. Use of these markings is important to preserve the language and culture of Hawaii, and the Host Committee respectfully uses them in all non-digital communications.


The Host Committee gives special thanks to the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources for source material and The Nature Conservancy for the generous use of portions of their brochures, “The Last Stand: The Vanishing Hawaiian Forest” and “The Living Reef” in important sections of the website. Both of The Nature Conservancy brochures may be found on the Hawaii chapter’s website at nature.org.