Crew Blog | Sam ʻOhu Gon III: Mālama Honua – Weaving Into Our Living World

Written by Sam ʻOhu Gon III 

Tāmaki Makaurau (Auckland), Aotearoa (New Zealand)
On the morning of March 11th, 2015, we found ourselves standing before one of the most massive kauri trees in the forests outside of Auckland. Its huge trunk spoke of centuries of presence in a forest that had not been cleared of its timber, and in its shade we called a chant of forest entrance. “Kuʻu moho kiʻekiʻe lā i uka” one of the lines of the chant says, “My beloved and magnificent champion of the uplands.” A more appropriate phrase you could not hope for in this situation. And after the chant was completed, in the waiting silence that followed came the call of birds, and the clicks and trilling sounds of the forest insects. “Hoʻāla ana ʻoe me he manu ke kani nei i ke kuahiwi, i ke kualono” (You awaken me as if with the songs of birds in the uplands, on the ridges).


In moments like these we realize most strongly our place in the natural world. To weave ourselves back into the tapestry of our living world is the pahuhope, the ultimate ending goal. Whether at home in Hawaiʻi or 4,500 miles away in the mountains of Aotearoa, that respectful and protective relationship of guarding the living world as family, as ancestors, is the essence of mālama honua.

How heartening then to realize that we are not alone in that stance, that it is shared by our Māori cousins in the Ngati Tūhoe, and wielded as the fundamental approach to their kaitiakitanga (sacred guardianship) of the resources of their lands and waters. We realized that shared approach even in the similarity of names of plants in the forest around us, the kiekie vines that we in Hawaiʻi call ʻieʻie, the pua rata (flower of Rata) that we call lehua, but in the next breath recognize as a sacred kino (physical presence) of Laka. The language similarities, that linguists call “shared cognates,” indicate a fundamental similarity in worldviews. Anyone who knows about Hawaiians and Māori agrees that despite huge distance, those similarities are strong indeed!


On the practical side of it, you can substitute a Māori “k” for a Hawaiian glottal stop, and turn the West coast place of Waikanae into our Waiʻanae (also west-side), or kiekie into ʻieʻie. After a short time you can also automatically switch the Māori “r” for the Hawaiian “l” and the Māori “t” into Hawaiian “k” and convert Rata into Laka, our goddess of hula. And even the major Māori atua (deities) are the same as our Hawaiian akua: Tū is fierce and hot-blooded Kū. Tāne is our Kāne imbuing life. Tangaroa and our Kanaloa embody the sea and the processes linking the sea to land.

But as an ecologist, the characterizations of the major akua speak far more about prevailing ecological process than they do about mythological character development. They speak of the seasonal heat of the summer season, and all the species that come to prominence during those times. They convert process into a reality that is comprehensible because of the association of an atua with a particular kind of plant or animal. To name a huge tree Tāne-mahuta is to describe the tree as a provider of life, a foundation for hundreds of species of epiphytic plants, birds nesting and foraging in its boughs, insects spending their entire lives under its bark.


When New Zealanders think of the kiwi as a national icon, even as a nickname for someone considered a New Zealander, how that contrasts with the Māori ceremonial name for the kiwi as te manu huna o Tāne, the hidden bird of Kāne, god of forest. The pilina, the connection, between kiwi and the tangata whenua (people of the land) then becomes something far greater than a cute national icon; it becomes the continued physical presence of gods who are ancestors of us all. And THAT is perhaps the most powerful motivation for natural resource conservation that one could conceive.

Such were the messages shared with us by Chaz Doherty artist, teacher, rangatira (tribal leader), and kaitiaki (conservation manager) for the Onukurangi biosphere in the Waikaremoana tribal authority in Te Urewera, who came up from the heart of Te Ika a Māui (the fish of Maui: North Island) where the Tūhoe people, Ngā Tamariki o te Kohu (The Children of the Mist) hold fast to their ancestral lands and waters. The forests of Te Urewera, until recently described as the largest National Park of New Zealand, has been conveyed by the Crown to the Tūhoe for their care. The Crown has relinquished ownership, and asked that the Tūhoe do the same, but for the Tūhoe it was never a matter of ownership. They say “We don’t own the land, but the land owns US!” “He aliʻi ka ʻāina, he kauwā wale ke kanaka,” Hawaiians say: The land is the chief, the people merely servants.


The shared relationship of servant guardianship of the land that Māori and Hawaiians hold reflects in the aloha they express for their places. The most persistent and intense kind of care is that which springs from aloha, and no argument of economies or ecologies supersedes that! Yet the role of science, or technology, as ways to better know our resources are not necessarily at odds with this. When Tūhoe managers use radio telemetry to track kiwi nests, or learn the age of their freshwater eels by counting the concentric rings of otoliths in their heads, they consider it additional useful knowledge about the kino of the ancestors they are caring for, and it detracts not at all from their relationship with them.

If that relationship can be shared between people separated by thousands of miles of ocean, a relationship that respects and cherishes the living elements of a place as the continuity of the presence of the ancestors in modern times, and not as commodities, it offers a message of hope. If everyone in the world viewed their places and their natural resources in this way, how much richer would our collective existence be, and how much lighter our footprint. This is the gift of Mālama Honua to the world.

Please help keep us sailing for future generations. All contributions make a difference for our voyage. Mahalo nui loa!

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