Connecting Ecosystems and Culture: The Role of Nature and Environmental Stewardship in Hawaiian Culture

Connecting Ecosystems and Culture: The Role of Nature and Environmental Stewardship in Hawaiian Culture

In old Hawai’i they said:  He Ali'i Ka 'Āina; He Kauwā ke Kanaka (The Land is Chief; Man is its Servant). 

The culture and values of Hawaii’s people have been shaped by the unique ecosystems of Hawai’i. As a chain of islands in the Pacific Ocean, environmental factors play an important role in making Hawaii unique. Today, many native Hawaiian cultural practices involving the land have been lost or almost forgotten. Re-connecting people with nature has become an essential part of reviving Hawaiian culture by integrating indigenous beliefs with modern society. To understand the connection between Hawaiian culture and its environment, it is helpful to explore different aspects of each. This article will examine how natural elements have played an important role in influencing Hawaiian culture and highlighting its significance to their identity as a community today.

Beliefs about nature in Hawaii culture

Native Hawaiians believe that humans are interconnected with nature. They see the world as a place to be cultivated, not dominated, and believe in the importance of living in harmony with the environment. Thus, concepts such as Mālama ʻĀina and Mālama Honua are closely related to the idea of pono, which means “to do things in a righteous, correct, or proper way”. The concept of pono applies to many aspects of life, and can be applied to environmental issues as well. For instance, pono is related to living sustainably, harmonizing with nature, and being in tune with the cycles of the environment.

In traditional Hawaiian society, the konohiki were a specialized class of chiefs appointed by the Aliʻi Nui (high chiefs) to steward their land, water and human resources. Their self-sustaining and holistic methods of land and resource stewardship became known as the Konohiki System. The System’s principles were governed by the ancient Hawaiian Kapu religion and based on cultural values of Mālama ʻĀina – the deep familial ties and reciprocal stewardship between the ʻĀina (land and environment), the Akua (deities) and kanaka (man). 

Environmental Factors that Shaped Hawaiian Culture

Hawaii is a chain of islands in the Pacific Ocean that are far away from continental land. This geographical isolation made Hawaii a vibrant ecosystem for endemic plants and animals. Hawaii’s location makes it especially sensitive to natural and climatic fluctuations, especially those caused by El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO). ENSO represents short-term fluctuations in climate patterns that occur every 2-7 years in the equatorial Pacific Ocean. These fluctuations have strong impacts on weather patterns globally, including precipitation and temperature, as well as ecology in Hawaii. The Hawaiian Islands are located in the Central Pacific Tropical Cyclones region, making them more susceptible to hurricanes and tropical storms. While the Hawaiian Islands are not in a direct path of the most intense storms, they still experience an average of 3 Category 3 or higher hurricanes per year. Climate change is a current environmental factor in Hawaii that is strongly linked to the cultural identity of those who live there. Tropical storms are expected to become more intense and more frequent in the future. Such storms are also expected to bring more rainfall, which would further increase the risk of flooding and landslides around the Hawaiian islands.

History of environmental stewardship in Hawaii traditions

The Kanaka Maoli people of Hawaii have managed the land and its resources since settling the islands. Even before the islands were settled, Polynesian voyagers managed their relationship with the environment on long voyages across the Pacific Ocean. To sustain their way of life, native Hawaiians developed sustainable practices to keep their land and resources healthy. The Native Hawaiian Ethnobotany Database is an online database that documents the traditional uses of plants in Hawaii. Ethnobotany is the scientific study of the relationship between people and plants. The database includes information on plant uses in Hawaiian culture, such as food, medicine, fiber, and construction. Because native Hawaiians had to be resourceful and cultivate self-sufficiency, they created a system where each family and community member had specific responsibilities for the land. These included taking care of the forests and harvesting resources to produce food and other materials, maintaining fish ponds, and constructing houses with materials like bamboo and sugar cane. Each island had a system of management that was unique to its environment, with each group sharing and benefiting from the collective knowledge of the whole Hawaiian community.

Hawaiians were hunter-gatherers who lived off the land. Their diet consisted mainly of fish, fruits, nuts, roots, and wild game. They used sustainable practices to ensure that the land would remain fertile and continue to provide resources. A key concept in Hawaiian traditions is the idea of Mālama ʻĀina, which means “to care for the land”. A healthy ecosystem enables the Hawaiian people to survive, so they are careful to take only what they need from the land. They also practice kuleana, which means “responsibility”. Each person is responsible for taking care of a piece of land and using it wisely. To ensure that the land is productive, Hawaiians rotate the types of crops they plant each year. They also use slash-and-burn techniques to create new farmland by burning down forests and growing crops in the ashes. After a few years, the Hawaiians will let the land rest again by not planting in that area again.

Importance of malama aina and malama honua in Hawaii culture

Mālama ʻĀina, or “to care for the land,” is an ongoing cultural practice centered on taking care of the land in Hawai'i. Malama Honua is an environmental stewardship movement that seeks to re-integrate indigenous Hawaiian values with modern society. The difference in meaning between these phrases lies in the distinction between “the land” and “the earth”. The term honua is a Hawaiian word meaning “earth” or “ground”, while aina is a Hawaiian word meaning “land”. The movement has inspired many people to take action to protect the environment by reconnecting with their local ecosystems and growing environmentally conscious. The success of the movement is evident in the increasing number of organizations and groups in Hawaii that are focused on protecting the environment, such as the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary and Malama Hawaiʻi.

The Hawaiian people have long recognized the value of a healthy and balanced local island ecosystem, and they have ensured that their practices do not endanger the land. For example, they do not use pesticides to protect their crops because they want to minimize the use of chemicals. Husbandry of endemic species has been an important part of Hawaiian culture. Native plants like the coconut and koa trees are essential for Hawaiian life, and these species have been carefully managed for generations. The Hawaiian people have been able to support themselves because they have carefully maintained a healthy and diverse ecosystem.The Hawaiian people believe that we are all connected to each other and to the earth. Therefore, in Hawai’i culture it is best to treat the environment with respect and care because we must all live in harmony for the island to continue to support our human existence. 

How Hawaiian culture is directly connected to the unique ecosystems of Hawaii

Hawaii’s ecosystems are unique, and they are home to a rich diversity of plants and animals. The Hawaiian Islands are home to more than 100,000 species, of which approximately 36% are endemic species with no close relatives elsewhere in the world. Because Hawaii is made up of a chain of islands in the Pacific Ocean, the islands’ ecosystems are strongly interconnected. Interactions between living organisms, their environment, and society are evident in Hawaiian culture and identity. For example, the indigenous people of Hawaii have long cultivated taro root, a staple food in the Pacific Islands. The taro plant is a rich source of nutrients and vitamins, and it grows well in Hawaii’s climate and rich volcanic soil. Taro is also used to make poi, a traditional Hawaiian dish that is both nutritious and delicious. Poi is made by mashing taro root and making it into a sticky paste. In a broader sense, the environment, culture, and society of Hawaii are connected by their dependence on the sea.

Importance of Ocean Life

Ancient Hawaiians believed that their connection to the land was so strong that it extended to the sea and the creatures that inhabited it. They worshiped the ocean and its inhabitants as deities and honored them as sources of food and resources. Honoring the ocean and its inhabitants through rituals and sacrifices was important to maintaining a healthy and stable ecosystem. Honoring the ocean has continued to be important to modern Hawaiians. They practice sustainable fishing methods to avoid overfishing the oceans, which would cause harm to the fish and the ecosystem. They also protect marine mammals like dolphins and whales by monitoring their populations and by restricting fishing methods that could endanger these mammals.

Importance of Land, Trees and Flora

Plants have an important role in Hawaiian traditions. The kukui tree is the symbol of the Hawaiian people, and it is used to make lei, which are a symbol of aloha (love and respect). A particular plant that is important to Hawaiian culture is the ʻōhiʻa lehua tree, a species that grows only in Hawaii. Hawaiian people used this tree to make the first Hawaiian outrigger canoes. They used its tough and durable wood to build canoes that helped them travel to other islands. They also used this tree as a source of medicine, dye, and food. Native trees are important to maintain a thriving Hawai’i ecosystem. 

Indigenous religious traditions of Hawaii centered on environmental stewardship

Hawaii’s unique environmental conditions encouraged the development of unique religious traditions, which are centered around environmental stewardship. The people of Hawaii worshiped the gods of nature like Pele, the goddess of volcanoes. They also believed that spirits could be found in all things, including stone, water, and fire. These religious traditions focused on cultivating a healthy ecosystem that provided resources to the Hawaiian people. Therefore, the people took special care to manage their environment in a sustainable way.


Hawaiian culture is shaped by its unique location as an island chain in the Pacific Ocean. Environmental factors like its isolation from other landmasses and its tropical climate are responsible for many cultural traditions that celebrate the beauty and importance of the Hawaiian environment. These cultural traditions place great value on cultivating and honoring the land, which is necessary to support sustainable ecosystems. This environmental connection is evident in Hawaiian religious traditions that honor the gods of nature and focus on cultivating a healthy ecosystem. The importance of Hawaiian culture and identity cannot be overstated, as it is the foundation of an entire society. As this article shows, Hawaiian culture has been strongly shaped by its environment, and vice versa.