Native Hawai'ian world view as a model for sustainability.
Two of us met in the freezing rain outside Reception at 5:20 a.m. that first morning. Others joined us in the darkness soon thereafter, rubbing the sleep from their eyes, zipping up windbreakers, attempting to stay warm.
When about twenty-five of us had assembled, we formed a long straggling line, determined to walk in meditative silence to the crater’s edge. Most of us had just met one another the night before when we arrived here in the Kiluaea Military Camp close to the caldera of one of the largest active volcanoes on earth.
Our sixty-four members had come from all the corners of North America and some from the South Seas, joining together to form the Beyond Sustainability Initiative, a serious endeavor to find the means to move beyond the stumbling blocks that confront the global sustainability movement. After our introductory session, we had been invited by our native Hawai’ian hosts to join them the next morning for sunrise prayers overlooking the smoke of Pele’s fires.
Following a short night’s jetlagged sleep, only the diehards made it, others choosing to rest up for the intense discussions ahead. Most of us were woefully unprepared for the cold, wet, windy weather at this camp four thousand feet above sea level. After all, we had thought, we were going to spend a week in Hawai’i! How cold could it be? In the overcast dusk, we each stopped briefly to warm our hands and faces in the blowing hot sulfuric vapors rising from one of the many volcanic steam pits in the area. Shortly afterwards we reached the edge. Bundled up as best as we could, some in deplorably thin wraps, we shivered and stared out to the horizon, waiting for the sun to appear above the nearby mountains. Slowly beneath us the huge expanse of the crater, three miles across, began to lighten. Although from where we stood, about three hundred yards from the cone, we could not see its internal red glow of lava, its billowing smoke is ever present there.
We began our morning meditation in quiet, each individual present to his or her own spirituality. But soon Luana Palapala Busby-Neff, one of our hosts, pulled an enormous conch from her bag. She briefly explained that this shell had been passed down through her family on Lanai for generations. She handed it to Dr. Avegalio Failautusi Tusi, a Samoan spiritual leader and Executive Director of the Pacific Asian Management Institute, who passed it on to his son, Talavu, a tall, tattooed, nineteen-year-old. As Talavu blew the conch, Luana led the rest of us in singing invocations to the Volcanic Fire Goddess, Pele, to the spirits of the four directions and to the rising sun. Through the beating rain and howling wind, Luana’s strong voice intoned:
E ala e kahiki ku
(Awaken you lands beyond the eastern horizons!)
E ala e kahiki moe
(Awaken you lands beyond the western horizons!)
E ala eke ‘apapa nu ‘u
(Awaken you Leaders!)
E ala e ke ‘apapa lani
(Awaken you of Noble births!)
Eia ka ho ‘ala nou e ka lani la e
(This is a wake up call to you!)
O na ‘ala ‘apapae e ku lalani ala I luna
(For the long clouds signal a momentous occasion!)
E ala ‘oe
There was no visible sunrise that morning. Luana commented that, according to Hawai’ian tradition, we need to be conscious of signs. Everything has meaning. We should consider the portent of this wet, cloudy morning. We finished our prayers and chants, and cold, soaked, yet deeply moved by the majesty of the ceremony, we began our fifteen-minute hike back to breakfast. Our first day had begun.
Those of us at Kiluaea that morning had been invited from our many different regions and professions to congregate there. We were businessmen, financiers, educators, philanthropists, activists, environmentalists, NGO representatives, artists, filmmakers, dancers and musicians. Among us were a number of internationally recognized leaders of organizations dedicated to global sustainability. All of us were invited for our devotion to this subject. The crater had been thoughtfully chosen. It is protected ground, part of the 330,000-acre Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park that was established in 1916, and yet its land is forever being renewed. It is truly our earth in constant rebirth. As was carefully explained to us during our first meeting, the park staff works in conscious symbiosis with indigenous Hawai’ians, honoring the sacredness of this land and the native rituals conducted to preserve it.
Ten days before we arrived, a convocation of Hawai’ian elders had met to discuss how they would conduct our meetings and what native truths they would be allowed to share with us. We were their guests. Led by Luana, a professional in cross-cultural dialogue, eight remarkable Hawai’ian wise women calling themselves the Hi’iaka Wahine had volunteered for the next several days to guide us into a deeper understanding of the rich complexity of the Hawai’ian worldview and its applicability to our urgent questions. These women were native healers, educators, NGO leaders, artists and dancers, each chosen for the depth of her knowledge and consummate skills in teaching. They were joined by two intentionally unconventional facilitators, Chris Corrigan and Tim Merry. Together they all worked to break through our privileged western linear mindsets and to open us to a world of deep inter-relativity. We were being taught malama, the Hawai’ian concept of interdependence in which every aspect of existence, matter and spirit, thought, action and reaction, is directly connected to one another. In malama, nothing is isolated. We are each integral and responsible members of the whole family of creation.
It was not an easy process. We had been told before we arrived that we were there to help “create a community of leadership on a platform of reverence”. But what did this mean? We had been asked to contemplate the concern that, in order to be truly effective, the sustainability movement needs an entirely new language — a profoundly innovative way of re-envisioning and expressing itself.
One of the preparatory statements said: “All of those participating in the Beyond Sustainability Initiative are deeply embedded in powerful systems, and many have channels and connections to the underlying architecture of power in its many forms. Now is the time to put those resources to work, to help hospice the old systems so that they may die gracefully, midwife the new and steward the nascent so that we can accelerate the emergence of a set of values that restores right relationship to the earth and each other.” All profound concepts, but how could we, in a few days, make the changes to ourselves necessary to engender this revolution in thought and action? Each of us began our meetings with a profound sense of urgency held within the recognition of our very human limitations.
That first full day was intense. Beginning with a history of our gathering’s genesis and then moving through exercises intended to break through our habitual mindsets, we were led through a deep explanation of the power of language. “In defining native peoples as ‘indigenous’, we already create a sense of a ‘them’ and an ‘us’… We are all indigenous to some place. Let’s reconnect in the womb of the Mother.”
Hawai’ian educators Ramsey Taum and Gregory Chun, each an acclaimed teacher of the overreaching Hawai’ian worldview, opened for us the world of kaona, the multiple meanings of Hawai’ian words. For example: “As Hawai’ians, we are all connected in the breath, the ‘Ha’ — the vapor of the whale, the mist of the mountains, the exhalation of Pele herself. And we are ‘Aina’: our islands, our rocks, our mountains, our taro, our sand, the wings of our birds and the laughter of our children. And within it all is the letter ‘i’: the creative force that propels everything.” Each vowel is itself an element: ‘A’ is fire, ‘E' is wind and air, ‘I’ is water, ‘O’ is earth, and ‘U’ is spirit, the source. From these initial building blocks of insights into the alchemy of the Hawai’ian language, we were taught that traditional Hawai’ians acknowledge sacred relationships in their most elemental form. Over the next few days we were then taken deeper and deeper into recognition of the interconnection of everything.
Hawai’i is a unique model for sustainability. As a group of islands right in the center of our globe’s largest ocean, it was for centuries isolated from other civilizations. All of its resources were held within its boundaries and its peoples were conscious of the need to protect and share them appropriately. The concept of Malama—by caring for you, I care for me—was the foundation of their culture. One’s mana, personal power, was derived solely from one’s relationship with others. In a society based upon this primary care, the key question in every situation is: “Has everyone been fed? Did you have enough?” Not excess, but enough. If we as a planet could learn to always ask those questions and be truly sensitive to the answers, many of our problems would be solved.
Similar to the way in which Pele created the islands by bursting Her flaming power up from the ocean’s floor, so we were being impelled into a new understanding. Not one of many isolated elements, each governing its own direction, but rather the recognition that our entire earth is an island. In order to continue to exist, we must accept at the deepest level the perfect symbiosis of everything within it. Nothing is without its purpose or value. Every aspect of our globe/island must be honored and cared for. Just as a small island must carefully monitor its resources if it is going to continue to exist, our entire earth must similarly recognize that all are fully dependent upon the health and welfare of even the smallest of our constituents.
We were encouraged to contemplate just how we might be able to spread this awareness. One of our leaders commented: “Studies show that one does not need to convince a majority of people before a shift happens in a society. If a powerful idea becomes imbedded into 5 percent of the population, early adopters, and is then accepted by 20 percent of the population, that idea will spread throughout the entire society.” We were shown that Malama, as practiced by the ancient Hawai’ians, is the key.
Luana challenged us that evening, using the richness of the language to help us to engage further in the Hawai’ian worldview. She drew on the belief in Kanaloa, the Octopus Deity of the ocean, who represents unconscious depths, each of her legs symbolizing one of the eight directions. This He’e (octopus) encompasses the islands in their entirety: the completion of the whole world as it was known to the ancient Hawai’ians. Within this system, Kanaloa is viewed as that power that demands awareness and responsibility to the whole, as opposed to the attitude that one can choose to act solely for ones own purpose. In guiding us to understand what we were doing there in Hawai’i, Luana asked us “Owai o’e?—Who are you?” And she helped us to comprehend the Hawai’ian belief that even our presence there had been spiritually ordained. She encouraged us to listen to our Kahea, our call and ended by stating: “We all have the power of our gifts, Ho’okupa. In order to truly absorb what we Hawai’ians are offering you, while you are here you must let go of time and constraints…Allow yourself to just be present and absorb what you experience” Most of us tumbled into our beds that night saturated with information and insights.
My prayers for clear weather the following morning were not answered. Again, rain tore into us as we walked in the predawn dark to the crater’s edge. The day before, many of us had bought disposable slickers and hats at the camp store, but, as the wind whipped the light fabric off our bodies, this new clothing rapidly proved to be more distraction than help. We assembled again in a large circle just above the thousand-foot drop into the caldera. Our voices of morning invocation were joined again by the pure strong song of the conch. But while on the day before we had grumbled to one another about our cold, wet misery, on this day we were far more attentive to the dance of the wind, Pele’s smoke, as it blended with the swirling clouds, the preciousness of the water in this dry, rocky climate and the subtle gradations of changing color as the filtered light filled the enormous cradle of newborn earth before us. Pele herself, the womb of our earth in constant labor, so nearby but just beyond our reach, was beginning to show us Her nature. Or rather, those of us not previously attuned to Her potent character were now opening to receive Her. We returned humbled to our camp.
The day continued as it had begun. It was not a day of meeting and discussion. It was one of movement and action. First, after breakfast, we were each sent outdoors alone. We were asked to contemplate just who we were and what was our relationship to our environment. For two hours we were not to meet or talk to anyone—a sort of short spirit walk. Some found isolated places along the rim to sit quietly, practice yoga or meditate. Others walked the rim trail or one of the interior paths by the steam vents. I chose a trail down into the caldera through a remarkably beautiful rainforest filled with flowering trees. Since childhood I have had a long and personal relationship with trees and my discovery of these magnificent Hawai‘ian ones nourished a deep longing within me. During this walk the sun finally broke through the clouds, dappling the forest with its bright light.
Upon our return we were divided into two equal groups and Park Service ecologists and anthropologists took us deep into the National Park, each group in a different direction. We were being given a hands-on lesson in indigenous ecology. One of the groups spent a few hours in the forest weeding out ginger plants, kahili, originally imported from Asia. These invasive non-native plants were strangling and replacing native plant species. The rest of us were bussed several miles up the hot, sunny mountain above the caldera to a dry scrub-brush-covered hillside. There we were instructed to gather seedpods from the thorny mamane bushes and trees that grew in abundance in this protected land. Mamane wood has a practical use in traditional building and tool making and a ritual use to ward off evil. Its yellow flowers produce an astringent medicine and its seeds are the only source of food for the Palila bird—a species of Hawai’ian honeycreeper that is seriously endangered because of the deforestation of the mamame in other island regions.
Part of our instruction, essential to the gathering, was to acknowledge and thank each plant prior to picking its seeds. At the end of an hour or two we had filled several gunny sacks with mamane seedpods. Later they would be taken to one of the park’s greenhouses to be carefully sprouted, after which they would be planted to replace the kahili and other invasive plants. We were being shown the value of actively taking part in helping to rebalance the ecosystem. For many of us whose professions keep us locked into our heads, the physicality of these actions helped to retrain our habitual thought processes and simultaneously taught us to honor our personal relationship with the gifts that nature constantly provides us.
Back down at the camp, the Hi’iaka Wahine taught each of us to make our own leis of large flat tea leaves. They then gave each of us a traditional Hawai’ian sarong to wrap around our waists or torsos and, with our newly fashioned leis adorning our necks, we were driven out to a flat promontory above the caldera. There we picked our way gingerly across the rough lava rocks in order to avoid slicing open our shoes. We were told that we were soon to witness a ceremony rarely seen by outsiders. Halau o Kekuhi, a troupe of eleven dancers and three musicians, all dressed in traditional clothing composed of tapa cloth and bedecked with leis made from od lehua (Pele’s favorite fire flower) gathered from the forest, soon joined us. Barefoot on the lava, accompanied by drums and voice, these artists danced, their feet, arms and bodies expressing powerful, raw, almost violent energy, all devoted invocations and prayers to the Goddess Pele! Their movements had nothing in common with the homogenized hulas usually performed for tourists. These were directly aligned to Pele’s own chthonic fire, that seminal strength that had thrust up an entire land from the sea to provide the nourishment for all that lives there.
It was a riveting experience. I felt grabbed by my heart, my head pounding with the challenge it represented. And, as if in answer to the continuing dances, a large, perfect rainbow grew up from Pele’s volcanic cone and arched directly over the dancers and us. Remembering that first dawn when Luana had instructed us to notice nature’s signs, we could not disregard this clear message of hope.
When the music and the reverential dances stopped, each member of the troupe went singly to kneel right on the cliff’s edge. In an inspiring gesture, each removed her or his lei and offered it into the wind to be carried off towards the volcano. One by one, the leis blew out over the caldera. The rainbow continued its vibrant arch.
In silence, Luana and the Hi’iaka Wahine led us a hundred or so yards along the edge, requested that each of us climb over the guard rails that separated the path from the caldera and similarly offer our own leis to Pele. As our group contained sixty-four members, the process took almost two hours. Each of us approached the volcano alone, knelt, took off his or her lei, and made a conscious connection with the Divine. Our experience was profound. And throughout it all, the rainbow remained — only fading into the mists when the last of us had finished. How could any of us speak after that? That evening, instead of the usual chatter of dinnertime conversations, most of us were quiet, deeply affected by the insights we had been given.
The skies were clear the next morning. Our quiet walk to the caldera’s edge was soberly upbeat. While we sang to the rising sun as it brightly crested the horizon, Pele’s power was vibrantly palpable. During our ceremony, with no prior warning, we heard Dr. Tusi quietly tell Talavu, his son: “Now is your chance. Everything is aligned for your initiation. It is your choice, but it may never align like this again.” Talavu nodded and, behind our backs, stripped off all of his clothes in the cold morning air. Totally naked, his tall, strong body tattooed in native Samaon designs, he ran off across the sharp lava stones and yelled an invocation to the Gods. Reversing his direction, he ran past us, his yell piercing the iridescent sky. His ritual was not explained to us. It was enough to witness it.
Discussing it afterwards, several us spoke about how we each felt that we had simultaneously undergone our own initiations. Talavu’s unselfconscious willingness to strip himself bare and rush out bravely with a shriek to meet the Divine was as powerful an experience as I have ever had. How can I hide behind my own pretensions when faced with this bold declaration of manhood?
And this was all before breakfast on our third day. That day was pure magic. In the morning we each had time alone again in the forest or on the crater’s edge. Later we were taken to a forested hillside on the other side of the caldera. Sitting in a ring in thick grass on the sunlit forest floor, we were joined by a teacher and his Unukupukupu dance troupe. Dr. Taupouri Tangoro is an assistant professor and department chair of Hawai’ian life styles and humanities at Hawai‘i Community College. He is a Kumu Hula (Hula Master). He placed his mat upon the ground and his ancient drum in front of him. The rhythm of Dr. Tangoro’s drum began: a solid, ancient heartbeat. We joined in a chant to the Mother and, as the dance began, we were called to enter into the dream of all ancestors. The troupe danced a series of energetic sacred ceremonies dedicated to Pele and other deities that engender and protect these islands. I hesitate to use the term ‘performance’ because the dancers were so obviously more focused on the sanctity of their rituals than on any desire to entertain us. The dancers were agile, acrobatic and precise, filling the air around us with the crackling energy of their devotion.
When these rituals were finished, Dr. Tangoro began telling us their meaning. We were captivated by his words. He explained that as the dancers enter into the world of Hula, they are released into their own dreams. Their dancing brings them into a communal space where the wind is the spirit force that animates the land and the currents of the ocean. They are Haku, in spirit possession. Their dances, Aiha’a, and their chanting take them far beyond earthly limits. Hula has no gender. For the dancers, the body from the navel down is female energy, the Mother, while from the navel up it stirs this energy into the atmosphere. Only by rare invitation is anyone allowed to participate in this private inner place of Hula knowledge … and we were humbled and changed by witnessing these sacred journeys. Not only were the dances unlike any I have ever seen, but Dr. Tangoro was one of the two or three finest speakers I have ever heard. He wove stories, emotions, wisdoms and insights together with consummate skill and we were spellbound.
Upon our return from the forest, we were joined by one of the great Hawai’ian elders, Pualani Kanaka’ole Kanahele, lovingly referred to by the others as ‘Auntie Pua’. Her eyes contain the fiery strength of Pele tempered by her obvious love and pride for the Hawai’ian people. Dr. Kanahele heads a team of cultural researchers who are reestablishing an archaic system of knowledge that includes Papahulilani (those of the heaven, sky), Papahulihonua (those of the earth), and Papahänaumoku (those who are born). She is is also Director of Hawai’ian Traditional Knowledge Research with the Hawai’i Community College and, as a Kumu Hula, one of her primary students was Taupouri Tangoro, who later married her daughter Kekuhi. Auntie Pua helped guide us further into understanding malama. Like our other Hawai’ian hosts, the Hi’iaka Wahine, Auntie Pua was clearly there to challenge our privileged complacency. In that afternoon’s conversations she helped root out our continuing hesitancies and re-sculpt our insights. Building upon our previous days’ experiences, Auntie Pua brought us deeper into the practicable sustainability of the Hawai’ian worldview.
Our last evening was a traditional Hawai’ian luau, where we all shed our roles as teacher/students and revealed our playful sides. Sunrise on our final morning was again clear and vibrant. Although now our links to Pele were open, our emotions were dampened. We were only too aware that our communion was coming to a close. In our morning-long wrap-up session, we evaluated our days together and the insights we had gained. We non-Hawai’ians had been introduced to a profound and effective worldview that, if broadly disseminated, could change the entire way in which the sustainability movement is manifest. Those of us who work with tribal peoples in other regions remarked on the universality of the Hawai’ian model: the traditions of native cultures around the earth are based upon similar worldviews and values. Auntie Pua stated emphatically that we would miss the point if we simply echo the realities of Hawai’ian tradition or canonize what we had experienced there. We need to bring these insights home. Growth and change happens first in the community.
In this final session we were each charged to carry these stories to our own communities and organizations and to spread the awareness by finding common threads within our own cultures. We were empowered by a new, deep realization that this native paradigm, if embedded broadly within the consciousness of mankind, could truly change the future of our planet. We recognized the need to find ways to share our experience and to create the means for others who are looking for the answer to similarly experience this profound worldview. For centuries and millennia, these native wisdoms have been effective in pockets of indigenous cultures throughout the world. We understood far more deeply the importance of fully involving native leaders to find solutions. And in order to access them, we realized that those of us who represent the dominant privileged position need to find ways to rebuild trust with those many native cultures our ancestors and we have exploited.
So how could we reinterpret these messages to begin to change the global scene? We had learned that it all comes back to the simple message of reverence. The answer begins in immediate action. As in malama, each of us must try to be conscious of our daily interactions with all that is around us. If we train our minds to acknowledge our interrelationship to everything in our lives, animate and inanimate, natural and manufactured, we will be sustainable. I need to keep reminding myself that everything I come in contact with has identity, meaning and spirit: my dwelling, my furnishings, each member of my family and indeed each person I meet, every animal, bird, fish and insect, the sky, the wind, the clouds, and the rain, and the tools that make my trade, that furnish me with livelihood. It must begin here and now. I can start right here by being grateful to my desk and the computer and keyboard upon which I write these words.
The Beyond Sustainability Gathering was the third in a series of gatherings around the world since 2004 entitled “Quest for Global Healing." For more information visit www.BeyondSustainability.org.
© Stephen P. Huyler; this article first appeared in Sacred Fire