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Traditional Knowledge Helps Understand Nature in Every Sense

Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park Cultural Anthropologist, Keola Awong, discusses the importance of approaching this week’s BioBlitz in the protected space using every sense, as well as a deep understanding and appreciation of the ancient sanctity of the place. The 24-hour species inventory is the ninth in a series of similar events in the run-up to next year’s centennial celebration of the founding of the U.S. National Park Service.

David Braun: What does the Cultural Anthropologist for the Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park do?

Keola Awong: I started in Cultural Resources in 1998, as a curatorial assistant in the park. I was also the liaison person for consultation between the local Hawaiian community and the Park Service. I am Hawaiian, born and raised in Hawaii, so the customs and practices of Hawaiians are very familiar to me.

When I started in the park I would get a lot of questions from staff, including management, about Hawaiian traditions and culture. I was a little uncomfortable interpreting Hawaiian culture because I didn’t want to speak for all Hawaiians. The culture here depends upon where you grew up, the unique local environment that nurtured you. So someone who grew up on, say Oahu, may well have a different perspective from that of someone like me, who grew up on this island, where it is more rural.

I was very uncomfortable acting as the voice of all Hawaiians, so I proposed to the Park that they put together a consultation group, including elders from the adjacent Hawaiian communities, to help the Park understand our traditional connections to this place as well as explain Hawaiian ceremonies and practices.

“The elements are our elders, and it is their responsibility to care for us humans, the younger relatives.”

This park is very important because of the lava. The word pele, even if people think of the goddess Pele, actually means lava. Many of the Hawaiian gods are elemental forms. Deities can be lava, the sun, moon, clouds, wind. The world view from the Hawaiian perspective is that we are all related with the sun, the moon, the elements. The elements are our elders, and it is their responsibility to care for us humans, the younger relatives. Everything is connected as in one family, whether it is the trees, forest, crater, clouds, people.

DB: It’s one fabric…

KA: It’s all part of a big web of life, and one thing cannot live without the other. We are all part of the same family, the family of the environment. From the Western perspective, a lot of the time people take themselves out of the equation, seeing ourselves as being apart from the environment. But we are part of the environment and we must not forget it. Humans as a whole can go into a space and totally change the environment, for better or worse. Knowing that we can do that makes it very important for us to know our place in, and responsibilities toward, the environment.

Hawaiians by tradition divided the land into spaces for people and spaces for the gods, or the elements, if you like. There can be shared space also, but only for those people who have special knowledge of places like the deep forest, or where the clouds gather and the elements meet. It’s a place we call the wao akua, or the realm of the gods. Just before that realm is the wao kanaka, the realm for ordinary people to live their lives. In the old days, there was a clear delineation between where people were allowed to go and where it was forbidden for them to go. Only people who had been trained and who possessed special knowledge of the forest were allowed into the realm of the gods, and then only for specific purposes, such as to take a minimal quantity of resources for things such as bark for a canoe. The effect of that was to leave very little impact.

People who entered the sacred realm, such as, for example, to collect a large tree to carve a figure of a god, were required to perform a lot of ceremony. The old Hawaiians did this because they knew that the forest line needs to be free from human impact so that the forest can continue to grow and thrive without disturbance. The seed bank within that protected forest was in this way preserved as a viable and uncontaminated place, free of non-native species. That was essentially how natural resources were managed before contact with the West. The protected forest was a renewable seed bank that constantly supplied healthy plants even down the slopes into the realm of people, the wao kanaka.

The old people had a way of managing their resources so that they didn’t over-exploit them, including in the ocean, where they took only what was needed to feed the family. That meant there was always fresh catch available. And of course, because they had no refrigeration, they needed a daily catch. That’s why whatever they caught was shared and very little was wasted. Farmers traded with fishermen, produce for fish.

DB: It was a sustainable economy.

KA: Yes, not only in this way but also in the way the forest was conserved and protected.

DB: How do Hawaiians see conservation today, in the face of climate change and invasive species, tourists flooding the old sacred places —problems not known to their ancestors?

KA: My role here is to help people realize how special this place is, and that we are in the realm known by traditional Hawaiians as the wao akua, and treat this place with special care, even though it has a lot of people coming through. At least they should know the history of this place, and in teaching them I am trying to help them understand the importance and relevance of the type of stewardship from the old days in Hawaii, especially now with all the problems you mentioned. The Park is a big help in explaining that to visitors, which is why I love working for the Park. They do try to balance the impact of visitors with the kind of stewardship that will enable the forest to again be sustainable. It’s also about teaching people to be sensitive and more careful about what they do in this place.

This BioBlitz is a big opportunity for Hawaiian culture to share our way of seeing and caring for the world. We teach the children how to chant for permission to enter this special place that’s not our home. It’s the home of these birds, insects and plants, some of them very rare species. It’s their home and we’re just visitors, so we must realize we need to be very careful in their home, or we may affect their living space negatively.

So before we start the species inventory, we try to get the kids to focus, pay attention to where they’re stepping, what they’re standing on. Even before they come to the park, we have been reaching out to the schools to ask the kids to make sure their sneakers are free of seeds of grasses we don’t have here, to help try to prevent bringing in invasive plants. It’s a little bit of education before the BioBlitz, and every little bit helps. The kids do get it; they’re very aware of the impact we can have on a place like this.

Awareness of this should carry across all spaces everywhere, not just here. When I go to the mainland, I am mindful of what I do there, not wanting to affect anything negatively.

DB: How would you encourage people taking part in the BioBlitz to understand what they are actually looking at, beyond trying to find species and keep a score of how many can be found?

KA: There’s much more to it than counting and recording species. It’s really about looking at everything holistically, seeing the connections between the birds and the plants, and the plants and the earth. It’s about understanding why plants grow in a place. You should, for example, ask yourself if you can smell the sulfur from the volcano, and what the effect the sulfur has on the plants. When we close the inventory with the kids we do a little debrief. We say we know they learned about individual plants and birds, but what kinds of connections are there between the plants and birds?  Why does that bird fly to that tree, for example. It’s not only about seeing things, it’s also about understanding how everything fits together. Do the students see that there’s a relationship between everything?

DB: You’ve got to “see” with all your senses, hearing, feeling, smelling too?

KA: Yes. You definitely have to also be smelling. I take people to the edge of the crater in the early morning mist. I do a short chant to address the elements in that space, asking for permission to be there, and for help to understand what we are looking at. We have to learn to see this space for what it is to really understand and learn from it. People feel that when they stand on the edge of the crater. They understand that the space is alive and responsive if given the proper protocol and respect. They sense it.

DB: It seems that we have forgotten that we came from the living Earth, that the environment is the mother of us all.

KA: It’s easy to get caught up in the modern world and forget about this. If people would learn from the BioBlitz, so that in future when they enter a space they take a short moment to think and listen to what it is communicating to them, they will understand what they are really looking at, and it will make a lot more sense. If you let that space reveal itself to you like that, it’s really profound, and you will not see it like you did before.

Painting of Hawaii’s biodiversity by John Dawson/National Geographic Creative.

12418031_10153900711084116_8462971761216697621_nDavid Braun is director of outreach with the digital and social media team illuminating the National Geographic Society’s explorer, science, and education programs.

He edits National Geographic Voices, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society’s mission and major initiatives. Contributors include grantees and Society partners, as well as universities, foundations, interest groups, and individuals dedicated to a sustainable world. More than 50,000 readers have participated in 10,000 conversations.

Braun also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship

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