21st Century Ahupua‘a: An Introduction

Lepeuli Ahupua‘a, Ko‘olau moku, Kaua‘i

On March 19th  2021, Lepeuli ahupua‘a was sold by the non-profit Waioli Corporation to Mark Zuckerberg.  As Lepeuli was the last “intact” ahupua‘a on the island—meaning, having a single owner and not subdivided—this deal raised a lot of eyebrows, with people on one side feeling that the land should have been kept in public trust by Waioli, and others who felt that at least Mr. Zuckerberg will keep the land undeveloped (though inaccessible to the community).  Now that Zuckerberg has bought yet more land—another 110 acres—and another billionaire, Frank VanderSloot, the founder and CEO of Melaleuca Inc., has purchased 1075 acres in the same part of the island—we are seeing these same two arguments again.  There is a third option, however.

Kaua‘i ahupua‘a and the location of Lepeuli.  With this purchase, Mark Zuckerberg added another 700 or so acres to his private estate. He now owns over 1400 acres. Map courtesy of the Ho‘okipa Network.

I served as the third Executive Director of the Waioli Corporation from September 2019 to July 2020, having given up my position as Senior Geographer at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian.  I wanted to do good work on the ground for Hawai‘i’s people.  I was happy to take on the role of shepherding Waioli’s historical properties, but my real excitement was with Lepeuli ahupua‘a. Imagine: an entire, intact ahupua‘a, not developed, with a pristine beach and reef, held in public trust! 

As a Hawaiian-language speaker with a PhD in Geography and a Certificate in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, and a career of promoting the importance of indigenous knowledge in coping with climate change and sustainability, I posed the question, “What would the 21st century ahupua‘a look like?” 

Here we are on a remote island that once fed its substantial population, and now imports almost all of its food, while water remains mostly redirected from the plantation days, and land is largely used for purposes other than food production.  With climate change coming, we need to focus on resilience and sustainability, and the pandemic has provided a test-run on how fragile and dependent we are on the outside world.  At Lepeuli, the possibilities could have unfolded for how to really do things right, drawing on the best of traditional Hawaiian culture and knowledge combined with the best modern science and technology to engage appropriately with the ‘āina.

The traditional moku-ahupua‘a system of land management is well documented, and already there are initiatives that attempt to bring back aspects of this system on a small scale, operating within the structures of today’s laws and policies.  I have already written and lectured about how Hā‘ena, Kaua‘i and He‘eia, O‘ahu are reinventing the ahupua‘a  in the contemporary setting.  Lepeuli provided a more or less blank slate—covered in invasive species, yes, but otherwise almost entirely undeveloped.

My thinking was to get a grant and convene a diverse group of experts from Hawai‘i and elsewhere—cultural, scientific, academic and every combination thereof, including archaeologists, botanists, architects, engineers, planters, and Hawaiian-studies experts from all fields who have intimately studied the land and the traditional culture—to see what we could come up with. The idea is to be as sustainable and resilient as possible in terms of food, water and energy, while adhering to the principles of ahupua‘a management and Hawaiian culture and design.  There are an increasing number of Native Hawaiians and allies with cultural training and advanced degrees for whom this would be a perfect project.

I envisioned a “Lepeuli Institute” that would have provided an actual living experiment for working out new approaches and technologies for greater community resilience, and thereby serve as a model that could be applied state-wide. The Institute would have been a training place for those arts and for modern technical skills, combining job training with cultural restoration, and setting a new standard for affordable sustainability and community resilience.  And in the process, put some highly committed Native Hawaiians back on the land, much the way Bumpy Kanahele folks are doing in Waimānalo.

I am no longer Waioli Corporation’s director, and Lepeuli is no longer available to perform this experiment (unless Mr. Zuckerberg reads this blog and thinks these are good ideas). I’m now trying to manifest as much of this vision as possible here at the Pacific Worlds Institute in Mountain View, Puna.  We have only four acres, but there are things each of us can do to help restore the ‘āina.  Meanwhile, as I will discuss later, there are still plenty of “intact” ahupua‘a controlled by the large landholders in this state.  So let us move forward and develop strategies, principles and solid ideas for the 21st Century Ahupua‘a. 

Map of the major landholders on Kaua‘i.
Mark Zuckerberg is now probably close to the top ten.

It is absolutely clear is that the situation in these islands—and on Kaua‘i in particular—is not sustainable.  Already local people are finding that working 2-3 jobs still doesn’t pay the bills, and are moving to more affordable locations.  This brings the question that the most expensive cities in the country are already facing: when housing costs get so high, where are the workers going to live?  Is Kaua‘i going to turn into a new version of the plantation, with workers housed in camps filled with small cottages—or dormitories—while the rich live in their mansions on their enormous parcels?

We need solutions, and those solutions need to be rooted in the culture that thrived on these islands for 1000 years or more—rooted in the wisdom and knowledge developed on the islands of Oceania over millennia—and combined with the best modern technology to produce an equitable and sustainable template for our future.

Please join with me on this voyage of exploration and, if you can, engage with these ideas constructively to help envision the 21st century ahupua‘a.

3 thoughts on “21st Century Ahupua‘a: An Introduction

  1. RDKHerman, the author, should know that Native/native Hawaiian are confusing fictional terms created by the occupiers- the USA. The preferred and more accurate terms are kanaka maoli/kanaka ʻōiwi.

  2. Aloha Ken,

    Mahalo for your input. As someone who worked at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), I am well aware that terminology for native peoples is always fraught. “Indian” is the term Christopher Columbus coined. And yet, in process of holding community consultations all over Indian country, it came out that that was the preferred term nonetheless.

    “Kanaka maoli” has gained currency in the past few decades, thanks to leaders such as Kekuni Blaisdell and Jon Osorio, and has become fashionable within sovereignty circles. But this is not its traditional meaning or usage. In the Hawaiian dictionary, “kanaka maoli” is defined as “pure-blooded Hawaiian,” so is not really accurate for most. “Kanaka ‘Ōiwi” is an even more recent expression, not found in the dictionary. ‘Ōiwi means “native son,” so is basically just the word “native” in ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i. I have seen usage of both these terms growing, but they are no more accurate than the far more widely used (and equally inaccurate) “Native Hawaiian.”

    Of course, we can’t really say “‘ōlelo Hawai‘i” because, as you rightly point out, the term “Hawaiian” is a post-Kamehameha, post-contact term. (Keanu Sai notes that had Kahekili conquered and united the islands, the term would be “Mauians” instead of “Hawaiians.”) There is no traditional name for this archipelago as a whole, so “Hawai‘i” is what we are stuck with: Ka Pae ‘Āina o Hawai‘i. It was [is] the Kingdom of Hawaii. The citizens were [are] Hawaiians. The kings and queens of this country established that in law. In the 150 or so interviews I have held with kūpuna and culture-keepers across the islands, very few have used either “kanaka maoli” or “kanaka ‘ōiwi.” I follow the kūpuna.

    So again, the terminology is always fraught, and there are no right answers. Your preference is duly noted. I suggest that we focus our attention on the much more important issues at hand. If you would like to participate in the discussion regarding the 21st-century ahupua‘a concept, I would be grateful your input.

    ‘O ‘au iho nō me ka ha‘aha‘a,


  3. Doug, your article and additional information have been written in excellent fashion and with grace and profound cultural sensitivity. This is the first time in my many years that the “owners” of Kauai has been illustrated so well in a map format. Mahalo nui loa.

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