Crew Blog | Shawn Kanaʻiaupuni: Learning the “Language” of Nature

Educating for Mālama Honua: Learning the “Language” of Nature
A reflective blog from Leg 27 aboard Hōkūleʻa in Las Islas del Galapagos

Shawn Kanaiaupuni

By Shawn Mālia Kanaʻiaupuni

What is the education our children experience in todayʻs schools? What kind of education do they deserve, that best prepares them for the future? These are the kinds of big questions our crewmembers pondered aboard Hōkūleʻa as we sailed from Panamá to the Galapagos Islands on Leg 27.

When most people talk about education in the United States, the conversation often turns to a long list of negative descriptors – outdated instructional models, overly focused on test scores, driven by textbook companies, lacking relevance to real problems and real life, not engaging our students or attracting our best teachers and leaders. Behind the naysaying, though, is a deep-seated belief that education is a singularly critical process in bettering ourselves as individuals, as a society, as humanity, everywhere around the world. Itʻs sometimes easy to forget that for many people around the world, education is a privilege not equally accessible to all. The U.S. is no exception. In Hawaiʻi, Native Hawaiians, like other culturally and linguistically unique peoples, have fought and continue to work toward greater equity in educational opportunities and outcomes for our keiki. Equally important and also likely to be forgotten is the need to educate for equity with the natural world living alongside us on this special island called planet earth. In this call to action, indigenous science and perspectives provide a wealth of knowledge, approaches, and tools.

The Mālama Honua Worldwide Voyage is a commitment to learning and caring for our larger “island earth.” It combines indigenous and contemporary science and technology to solve complex issues informed by ancestral values-based knowledge and practices developed through keen observation about island living. It calls us to learn about the relationships between people, our oceans, our lands and everything in or on them.


Relationships are natural; completely captivated by this playful adolescent sea lion in the Galapagos!

Throughout the many ports that our treasured Hōkūleʻa has visited, we have discovered different educational issues

Le Jardin del Mar Preschool in the Galapagos.

Le Jardin del Mar Preschool in the Galapagos.

and solutions. In the Galapagos, our crew was blessed to meet some amazing people committed to educating children to embrace our human interconnectedness with nature. On February 2, a few members of our crew visited the Jardin del Mar (Garden of the Ocean), a beautiful little school with about 15 children ranging from 2 to 4 years old. We built them a little canoe from the blocks in their playroom and taught them how to navigate using the sun and the four cardinal points, east, west, north, south. At one point, when we did our imaginary hike up to the “highlands”, the mountainous area, to find a tree big enough to cut down and carve, the students became quite agitated that the birds would no longer have their homes. Their teacher reassured them that we were only cutting one tree, and the “pajaritos” would have many others to play in.

"Where will the "pajaritos" (birds) live if we cut down their trees?"

“Where will the “pajaritos” (birds) live if we cut down their trees?”

As she explained the treeʻs purpose, I thought about the line between felling just one tree and many. Consider the many different species of birds (and trees) displaced and extinguished in the process of serving human needs requiring not just one tree but entire forests, in nation after nation around the world. How will our children learn to balance human consumption in ways that permit nature to “self-correct” and accommodate our cumbersome footprint?

Engaging young minds, inspiring young hearts, teaching empathy with the natural world

Engaging young minds, inspiring young hearts, teaching empathy with the natural world

Key to the mission of Mālama Honua Worldwide Voyage is the idea that people will fight to protect what they care about. But we (kākou, all of us) cannot care for what we do not understand. Going around the world to discover and share stories of hope helps build understanding, unleashing greater possibilities to innovate and protect by connecting a caring community, by weaving a lei of hope one person at a time across the globe.

Also central to the Worldwide Voyage is the Promise to Children and its commitment to inspire children to explore, discover, and learn about Island Earth so that they are better prepared and empowered to navigate toward a better future. Fueling this change is possible, even if it starts out small. It happens classroom by classroom, school by school, and district by district.

Le Jardin del Mar - Children learning about voyaging, stars, sun, ocean.

Le Jardin del Mar – Children learning about voyaging, stars, sun, ocean.

Our Leg 27 and Leg 28 crews reflected on at least three differences that the majority of children grow up understanding in the Galapagos as sense of place, in contrast to the seemingly disconnected experiences that many children in Hawaiʻi and/or the United States encounter:

  • Relationship, with nature, cultivated from interacting daily with the native, natural environment and adults modeling respectful relationships.
  • Interdependence, based on the connection between human actions and the environment. Itʻs observable, the economy, their parentsʻ jobs, industry – all rely heavily on that understanding.
  • Coexistence, experiential knowledge about how human activity can be managed and regulated to privilege nature as part of everyday life. Galapagueño community members vigilantly guard efforts to achieve greater equity with nature, including limits on the number of tourists or others in any area, respect for wild and plant life, restricted population size, and sanctioned activities.
What? Preschool children amidst trees and rocks? Go figure...

What? Preschool children amidst trees and rocks? Go figure…

The “keys to cracking the code” of how we best care for the earth is in our own ʻike, argues our Captain Nainoa. Examples like the Kumulipo are evidence. A genealogical chant of “rememberance from the lipo of our deep past to the lipo of our unknown future,” the Kumulipo conveys the carefully cultivated Hawaiian scientific mindset and keen observation skills developed through the lens of interdependence and kinship between kānaka and our honua, ʻāina, and kai (quote from Pua Kanahele, also see the two blog references by Sam Gon and Russell Amimoto at the end of this article). This approach stands in stark contrast to more individualistic, technical teaching conventions of Western science. Why is it that our children donʻt benefit from both knowledge systems?

The big question is how can we as educators − whether at home, in our communities, or at work, find ways to transform education for children in Hawaiʻi? The Promise to Children signers and supporters have identified seven objectives:

  • Actualize our Promise to Children with culturally rich, deeper learning experiences for students to mālama honua
  • Provide teachers with tools to engage students more effectively in learning the language of nature
  • Support families to come together as communities to mālama honua
  • Discover and develop proof points, models of success, to share and disseminate
  • Institutionalize our efforts through systems change
  • Share Hawaiʻiʻs story as a learning example of island living and sustainability
  • Increase awareness of environmental justice issues through education


Check these out for more insights!


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