Vanessa Lee-Miller - Wai, a ubiquitous word in the Hawaiian islands, it’s well nigh impossible to travel for more than a few miles without seeing “wai” printed on a street sign. It’s a word sung repeatedly in many a Hawaiian song and chant. Wai is the Hawaiian word for fresh water. Prior to the introduction of the written word by the American missionaries, post-contact Hawai’i's earliest wave of immigrants ,Hawaiians passed on their wealth of knowledge orally. As a result, place names including wai helped newcomers to a specific area locate or describe the nature of a local water source. The cultural associations between land and water are virtually indivisible, and the Hawaiian concept of both water and land use defies as well as contradicts the western definition introduced by the new ruling class of spiritual healers from the west. Today, a “David and Goliath” struggle continues as Native Hawaiians and their supporters engage in a legal tug of war to regain ancestral rights to land and water sources by attempting to place cultural values into the context of legal ownership.
Exactly what is the battle about, how did it begin? The break neck pace of industrial progress in post-contact Hawaiian history defies the expressions of “Hawaiian time”, slow-paced, no pressure, “palm trees swaying in the balmy breeze”. Kō, the Hawaiian sugar cane, initially arrived as a humble canoe plant carefully packed in the seafaring canoes of Hawai’i's Polynesian ancestors. Within a few decades after the arrival of the American missionaries, the humble kō plant morphed into a lucrative monoculture crop. The succeeding generations of pioneer missionary families returned to the continent to receive a higher education in Industrial Revolution America. They returned to Hawai’i with steamer trunks full of the stuff of which “American Dreams” are made. Some of their dreams took shape in the form of sugar cane plantations, lots of them. Masses of stalks of green sugar cane swaying in the balmy breeze, as far as the eye could see and mammoths of agricultural machinery lumbering up and down the steep slopes of volcanic-rich soil, began to dominate the land. Before long, the sugar-cane monoculture was dubbed “King Cane”. This rapacious, thirsty king continued to grow and thrive, as he rapidly encroached on land and water sources.
The loss of land and diversion of water sources needed to cultivate kalo, a starch staple of the Hawaiian diet from which poi is made, further impeded independent farm cultivation and availability of this humble canoe plant in local markets. The role of the mahiʻai kalo, the kalo farmer, and his family unit as providers and role models for future generations progressively lost its meaning. “Fry it in a pan” canned meats like Spam and Vienna sausage accompanied by steamed white rice, introduced by Asian immigrant laborers,began to work their way on to the Native Hawaiian meal table. The communal poi bowl, an essential component in the traditional Polynesian diet, tragically began to vanish, along with time to fish and enjoy the sea with the “entire family” on the weekend. Inter-generational contact and the exchange of traditional knowledge and values, began to decline.
The myriad of unanswered questions unleashed by the Vietnam War, as well as the civil rights movement, produced a resounding ripple effect which travelled to Hawaiian shores. A quest to regain a more traditional lifestyle, accompanied by the acute awareness of lost or disappearing traditions served as a catalyst in the revival of arts and crafts, such as kapa (Hawaiian barkcloth) making, pre-contact hula, seafaring, and most importantly, the language, the core of a culture’s soul. This revival, dubbed the Hawaiian Renaissance, continues to regain momentum in 21st century Hawai’i, as Native Hawaiians and their supporters, launch a battle to gain both political as well as food sovereignty.
On April 26, Native Hawaiian kalo farmers and their supporters staged a peaceful protest in downtown Honolulu, at the headquarters of Alexander and Baldwin, one of the top five largest landowners in the state of Hawaii and one of the oldest sugar companies, the company’s two founders were the children of pioneer missionaries. The protesters are appealing for rights to access the water supply from streams in east Maui, a fertile kalo growing district, that were diverted by the Alexander and Baldwin Company for over a century. The last jewel in the crown of King Cane, a sugar plantation in the town of Puʻunēnē,Maui, owned by Alexander and Baldwin, is officially set to close at the end of this year. A State of Hawaii judge ruled that permits to continue diversion of the water streams were invalid, Alexander and Baldwin would like to retain that right.
Closing this story with a cultural note, the word waiʻapo means water caught in a taro leaf, it was often used in ceremonies, as it was regarded as pure in not having touched the ground. In a figurative sense it means, a beloved mate. An understanding of the myriad of values and meanings attributed to the word “wai” might shed a brighter light on resolving current issues over water rights in Hawaii.
Further reading: Timothy Guzman’s article of January 14, 2013, Hawai’i: 120 years of US Occupation, provides a brief history of post-contact Hawaii. The blog, nupepa.org , is a treasure trove of late 18th through 20th century Hawaiian history as told by contemporary Hawaiian journalists and wehewehe.org for further translations of Hawaiian words appearing in this post.
Vanessa Lee-Miller is a Freelance Journalist based in Hawaii
*The Views Expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Silent Crow News editorial policy.