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.

Honoring Kālepa Baybayan

Pwo Navigator Kālepa Baybayan sits in the navigator’s seat aboard Hikianalia, docked at Sand Island, 2014.

For those honored to ride one, the voyaging canoe is a powerful teacher.  And for those who have ridden them the longest, they have in turn become teachers.  In 2007, Kālepa Baybayan and four other Hōkūleʻa navigators were initiated into the order of Pwo, the two-thousand-year-old society of deep-sea navigators in Micronesia, by their teacher Mau Piailug on the island of Satawal in Micronesia.

Born and raised in Lahaina, Maui, Kālepa first sailed on Hōkūleʻa in 1975 at the age of 19, and he went on to sail on all major Hōkūleʻa voyages since then.

“When I first saw Hokule’a in 1975,” he recounted, “it just grabbed my heart. I knew that if there was anything in my life that I wanted to do it was sail on her.”

In the forty-plus years since, Kalepa served as captain on Hōkūleʻa as well as on voyaging canoes Hawai‘iloa and Hōkūalaka‘i. He was the Site Director of Honuakai, the Exploration Sciences Division of the ‘Aha Pūnana Leo, which teaches the Hawaiian Language to participants that crew aboard the Hōkūalaka‘i.

Until his passing, Kalepa served as the Navigator in Residence at the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawai‘i, developing wayfinding activities, curriculum materials, and conducting outreach.

In a 2011 interview, I asked Kalepa how being on the canoe had changed his life. 

“It forced me to get really focused on wanting to climb the ladder and become a navigator, but it also had me take a look at that avenue through education, going back to college and finishing my B.A. and then I went on and got my Masters in Education right after that.”

During his BA studies he took Hawaiian language classes and became fluent in Hawaiian.

Why education? I asked him.

“Being on the canoe, I think it forces you to be a communicator—like educators are communicators. They have big ideas and they want to inspire other people. They want to work with their community, so I just thought that education was probably a skill set I naturally had, and then I wanted to work towards my strengths.”

Kalepa with the author, aboard Hōkūle‘a upon its arrival in Washington, D.C. 2016

In 2016 I had the privilege of learning as crewmember under Kalepa, as Hōkūleʻa came up the Chesapeake Bay.  He was consistently kind, patient, and humble as I tackled the learning curve.  More than that,  Kalepa was one of the first people to show me that the canoe teaches much larger lessons for us all.

“It’s not about my ability to navigate the canoe,” he told me, “but about navigating the community, hosting conversations—as a collective group on board whatever canoe we’re on—towards some kind of common landfall….Navigation…is really just one small component of a wayfinding skill set, which is about making sure that you not just navigate to a land fall, but you take your whole community with you in a holistic way. Everybody arrives there and they’re happy, they’re satisfied in a collective experience with the group.”

I am honored to count this man among my teachers, and wish him well on his journey to that final shore.

Thinking of visiting Hawai‘i right now? The reasons not to have epidemic proportions

RDK Herman
RDK Herman

Executive director, Pacific Worlds Institute

Spread Aloha not COVID

“Where is your aloha spirit?” ask many recent visitors to the Hawaiian Islands whose arrivals, since the Coronavirus outbreak, have been received with less than friendliness by local people.  The tourism industry has for decades billed these islands as the Land of Aloha, where smiling brown people will serve your expensive meal, clean your hotel room, and make you feel more than welcome. It is a theme that has played directly into the mainstream American sense of entitlement: it’s a free country, I have a right to go anywhere I please, and you should thank me for the dollars I am putting into your economy.

For many of Hawai‘i’s residents—descended either from Native Hawaiians or from Asians who came to work the sugar and pineapple plantations—those days are over for now, and maybe forever.  While some people in the continental U.S. accuse mask mandates of violating their rights and wave the banner of individual freedom, the majority of Hawai‘i’s residents have taken a very different approach: protect each other, protect the elders. At all costs.

While the arrival of vaccines for the coronavirus shines a light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, we are still far from there.  Hospitals are overwhelmed as lax practices have let the virus flourish, yet despite warnings against travel, airlines are experiencing a peak and people with coronavirus are still getting on planes.

Mo‘o hihia is the Hawaiian term for intergenerational trauma.  From when Captain James Cook first stepped ashore in 1778 until now, these islands have been washed over by waves of epidemics—and not just diseases that affect humans directly.  As I wrote in this previous article, introduced diseases wreaked havoc from that first documented visit of a Westerner to these shores.  But to truly understand how local people here feel, it is important for visitors to know that there have been at least four types of epidemics that have transformed these islands from the paradise that once was, to the make-believe paradise that visitors experience.

These islands were home to perhaps 700,000 Native peoples when Westerners arrived.  Over 2000 miles of ocean from the next nearest land, these people were healthy and completely self-sufficient, with agricultural systems that were highly praised by early Western explorers.  One who visited with captains Portlock and Dixon in the late 1780s, wrote under the initials CL that Hawai‘i island “has a beautiful appearance, seeming to be formed in distinct plantations, and all in the highest state of cultivation.  Trees of everlasting verdure decorate the higher grounds, and limpid streams meander through the soil, increasing its fertility, and adding to the beauty of the enchanting scene.”

But already at that point, infectious diseases introduced by visiting Westerners had begun a cataclysmic transformation of the islands that would destroy every aspect of the paradise that CL saw.  And not just of the human population.  The destruction wrought had truly “epidemic proportions.”  Waves of epidemics—diseases, pests, new plants and crops, and new people—destroyed the carefully balanced paradise that once was, and in the end has replaced much of it with a phony paradise for visitors, and a brutal reality for Native Hawaiians and the descendants of plantation workers.  The coronavirus pandemic has brought this situation into stark relief.  There is a circle of epidemics—not just of diseases—that have brought the islands to this state.  All who come here should know this.


Non-Hawaiian visitors to the islands have brought deadly epidemics here since Captain Cook.  His men passed on “the venereals” (the actual disease has not been definitively identified) on their first visit, and when they returned six months later, the disease had spread throughout the archipelago.  When French explorer La Pérouse arrived in the 1786, he said of Hawaiian women that “their dress permitted us to observe, in most of them, traces of the ravages occasioned by the venereal disease.” Not an outright killer for the most part, the disease could render the people infertile, and triggered the steep downward decline of the Hawaiian population.

Arriving here more than a thousand years ago after millennia of migration out of Southeast Asia, the Hawaiian people lived in isolation from other people, and—like the native peoples of the Americas—never experienced the diseases that had affected the Old World. This made them “virgin populations” who had not, through exposure, developed resilience or immunities.  They died by the droves.  New England missionary Levi Chamberlain from Dover, Vermont, wrote in 1829 that:

There have been two seasons of destructive sickness, both within the period of thirty years, by which, according to the account of the natives, more than one half of the population of the island was swept away. The united testimony of all of whom I have ever made any inquiry respecting the sickness, has been that, ‘Greater was the number of the dead, than of the living.’

As I wrote in this article, the missionaries and their white cohort blamed the Hawaiians themselves, saying such things as “The lower classes are a mass of corruption. Words cannot express the depths of vice and degradation to which they have been sunk from time immemorial. Their very blood is corrupted and the springs of life tainted with disease, by which a premature old age and untimely death ensues.”

The germs kept coming, and the epidemics kept raging: cholera (1804), influenza (1820s), mumps (1839), measles and whooping cough (1848-9) and smallpox (1853). These led King Kamehameha V, in 1869, to establish a quarantine station on a small island off Honolulu.  Leprosy came in the late 1800s. 

Don’t like quarantine?  How about quarantine for life?  Native Hawaiians and other non-whites who contracted the disease were isolated on the remote Makanalua peninsula, walled off by cliffs on the back side of Moloka‘i.  A guard was posted atop the cliff with orders to shoot on sight anyone trying to escape. But infected whites were allowed to travel back to their families on the continent. 

The good news: Kalawao county, which includes that peninsula plus neighboring valleys, is right now the only county in the entire United States that has no COVID-19 cases.

Now travelers risk bringing COVID-19 here so they can have a vacation.


The islands truly were a paradise: no mosquitos, no stinging insects, and few to no poisonous or thorny plants.  Mosquitos arrived in 1826, and when the avian pox and avian malaria arrived in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the mosquitos spread these diseases to the endemic native bird populations.  Now most native birds are extinct below 2000 feet elevation.  As more and more alien insects arrived, the native insect life was devastated.  The Rosy Wolf Snail, introduced in 1955 to attack the 1936-introduced Giant African snails, devastated the wide array of endemic Hawaiian land snails.  And the list goes on and on and on and on.  As the state’s Department of Land and Natural Resources points out, while comprising less than 1% of the USA’s land mass, Hawai‘i accounts for 44% of the entire U.S. endangered and threatened species list.

Continental plant species, introduced for various reasons, aggressively wiped out much of the native fauna.  In some cases, seeds have come to the islands on the clothing and boots of visitors.  Today, native vegetation—like native birds—has been virtually extinguished in the lower elevations of the islands.  What you—the tourist—see today is almost nothing like what CL saw from his ship.  Sure, it can look beautiful, but what you see is—as with the people—mostly replacements of what was native.

Hawaiians were deeply connected, both culturally and materially, with the plants and birds that are now extinct.  The environment they knew and depended upon is now mostly gone, replaced by these invaders.


These too came in waves: rice, coffee, pineapple, and so on.   Sugar cane is actually a Polynesian introduction, but transforming the land into plantations to produce it factory-style is—like the capitalist economy that drove it—a white introduction.  As the Hawaiian government privatized land starting in 1848 (previously, all land had been held in stewardship by the chiefs), plantations took off.  And soon took over much of the land, like plagues.

What was destroyed here was not only the system by which the Native population had sustained themselves from the land, but entire cultural landscapes.  Hawaiians might rent lands to a large plantation, only to have those lands “disappear”: where all the familiar landmarks had been, an expanse of rice or sugar cane would stretch out. As historian John H. Wise wrote, “Ditches had been filled in, dikes had been leveled off, hedges had been cut down.”.

Today, land under taro—the staple food for Hawaiians—is so small that there is not enough produced to meet demand, making prices high.  This is a food that people from the continent don’t eat, for the most part, but Hawaiians and others who grew up here do.  But local food production is not profitable.  Even the plantations have closed because—thanks to control of much of the land by the former plantation companies—rents are high, meaning labor is expensive.  As a 2012 Hawai‘i State government document reports, “Between 85-90% of Hawaii’s food is imported which makes it particularly vulnerable to natural disasters and global events [like a pandemic] that might disrupt shipping and the food supply.”

And with this imported food and the loss of traditional diet has come yet more epidemics that particularly affect Native Hawaiians.  As a 2016 study points out,

“Native Hawaiians have the shortest life expectancy and exhibit higher mortality rates than the total population due to heart disease, cancer, stroke, and diabetes. Poor health is inextricably linked to socioeconomic factors, and Native Hawaiians are more likely to live below the poverty level, experience higher rates of unemployment, live in crowded and impoverished conditions, and experience imprisonment (Naya, 2007; OHA, 2010). Noteworthy and disturbing are the high percentage of Native Hawaiians who are homeless in their own island homeland.”


Plantations needed labor, and with Hawaiians dying out, white planters turned to other sources in the Asia-Pacific region.  This led to waves of new populations: Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Okinawans, Portuguese and Filipinos, as well as smaller percentages of other groups.  This created a semi-feudal society divided into plantation owners and plantation laborers.  But the latter mingled together—culturally, then also physically—bonded by a new language, Hawaiian Creole English (locally known as Pidgin).  This collective has emerged as “local” culture, which can include almost any ethnicity except white people. 

“Together with the Native Hawaiian culture, this mix of nationalities worked together as one community in order to survive the challenges of life,” says Moises Madayag, curator of Grove Farm Museum in Līhu‘e, Kaua‘i.  “This paved the way to how we do things, hear each other, come to each other’s aide when others are in need, and treat others with respect when we speak to one another.  This resulted in a beautiful co-existence and mutual respect of the way of life for others.”

Then another wave came, and keeps coming.  Until the mid 1960s, travel to the islands from the continental USA was prohibitive.  Then the airfares went down.  The result: by 1970, one quarter of the entire state’s population had moved there in the previous five years, mostly white people.  Such “transplants” continue to arrive, driving up housing costs and all too often never giving up the American culture of individuality and private property.  They come with far more money than most local people, bringing their white privilege and decorating their properties with non-native plants to create the paradise they envision. 

And local people are literally paying the cost of this epidemic: Kauai’s median sale price for houses hit close to $1 million in November, driven largely by the sale of luxury homes in resort areas.  Not only are rents high, but wages are low, giving Hawai‘i the distinction of  having the country’s largest gap between what the average renter makes, and what they need to occupy a two-bedroom unit at fair-market rent.  This leaves local people working multiple jobs to make ends meet.  And many of those jobs involve serving tourists.  In 2019, over ten million visitors came.  That’s almost ten tourists for every one resident.  And they come expecting the paradise that they have been sold.  This brings us full circle to today’s pandemic.

Keep your distance poster
A poster in Kea‘au, Hawai‘i Island, represents the cultural diversity of the population.


Now many continental people want to come here to ride out the pandemic, and the state government is encouraging it, offering free flights to remote workers who want to live here temporarily.  Understandably, the local people recoil in horror. During the summer and early fall months, when travel was limited, not only were some islands virtually COVD-free, but the natural environment started to recover from the 10.5 million visitors who came here last year (the state’s population is about one tenth of that).  Locals are able to enjoy beaches that were previously too crowded with tourists.

And yet we are wearing masks.  Why? Again, because it is inherent in local culture to be responsible to each other.  Even with few to no cases here on the island of Kaua‘i—thanks to the stringent measures of our mayor—the ethos of looking after each other prevails.  Local culture is the opposite of American individuality. These are small islands, and what goes around comes around rather quickly.  Most local people are part of extended families consolidated here.  Elders are respected and cared for.  This is the village of “It takes a village….”

But our visitors mostly are not like that at all.  Why else would they choose to vacation in the midst of a pandemic?  As one local resident, Kaile Wilson, reported “We’ve had a surge in our building alone and every night I’ve seen about 15 to 20 people in the hot tub…At the coffee shop, there has been plenty [about] 40 people I would say outside like [not] spacing and there are probably 90% of them not wearing masks.”

The Honolulu Star-Advertiser reports, “Hawaii residents are largely hesitant to reopen the state to tourism. Nearly two-thirds of Hawaii residents strongly or somewhat agree that people from outside the state should not be visiting Hawaii at this time. Meanwhile, 62% disagreed that the state and county governments can safely reopen tourism and that the 14-day mandatory quarantine is being effectively enforced.”

The same survey showed that visitors are meanwhile complaining that “the destination isn’t back to its pre-pandemic level of activities and services.”  Media pieces are complaining that local people are not showing tourists the aloha that is expected of them.  Some restaurants have banned tourists from eating thereOne article argued that “What is being masked as COVID-19 concern by some Hawaii residents is, in my opinion, more endemic of the local view of outsiders than it is a matter of safety.”  A more sympathetic Los Angeles Times piece asks, “Is Hawaii ready for visitors?”

Meanwhile, Hawai‘i resident Angela Keen organized a Facebook group, Hawaii Quarantine Kapu [taboo] Breakers.  With around 6,500 members, the group helps law enforcement catch those who refuse to follow the rules and break quarantine.  And Derek Kawakami, the mayor of Kaua‘i, has chosen to opt out of the recently instigated pre-travel testing program after travel-related COVID-19 cases more than quadrupled statewide since nonessential travel was opened back up in October.

“But the economy!” you say.  True, in 2019, visitor spending and state visitor taxes netted nearly $20 billion, and account for  23% of local economic activity.  But recent travel-testing restrictions have left us vulnerable: a few days ago a traveler from the continent tested positive for COVID-19 even though she had tested negative both before and after she arrived.  And our resources are scarce: we have nine ICU beds on the island.  If those are taken up by visitors, what is left for the local people?  We’re on an island.  We can’t drive them by ambulance to another location.

Until vaccines put the pandemic to rest, now is time for us all to stay home and take care of each other.  For the Hawaiian Islands, and for Native Hawaiian people in particular, it is like PTSD.  As I‘ini Kahakalau says in this smack-your-face video, “Don’t come with the whole ‘But I LOVE Hawai‘i!’ Let’s be very clear: you do not love Hawai‘i, you enjoy it.  If you loved Hawai‘i, you would have stayed home.”

Trauma has been suffered here so many times and in so many ways.  The islands have been devastated and reshaped to serve outside interests. 

Please, not one more time.  Please stay home, and keep us all safe, until this is over.  Then if and when you do come, please come with respect.