E ola mau ʻo Papahānaumokuākea


Papahānaumokuākea Will Thrive for Many Generations to Come

By Malia K. Evans and Kanoe Morishige

O ke au i kahuli wela ka honua.
O ke au i kahuli lole ka lani.

Painting with Papahānaumoku and Wākea
Papahānaumokuākea, was a name gifted by Dr. Pualani Kanakaʻole Kanahele, honoring the union of Papahānaumoku (motherly figure personified by earth and all living things) and Wākea (the expanse, space, sky) that embodies the creation, or birthing, of Hawaiʻi Pae ʻĀina (the Hawaiian archipelago). – Artist: Solomon Enos

In the beginning, when the sky was turning and the earth was hot, the Hawaiian universe was born. For millions of years, combined processes of magma formation, volcanic eruption, and the gradual movement of the tectonic plate over a geologic hotspot birthed the Hawaiian Archipelago.

Spanning 28 million years, our island homeland represents the longest, clearest, and oldest example of island formation and atoll evolution in the world. Extending over 1,500 miles from hikina (east) to komohana (west), Hawaiʻi Nei comprises high islands, islets, atolls, shallow coral reefs, deepwater slopes, banks, seamounts, and abyssal and pelagic oceanic environments. Hawaiʻi continues to emerge in the east where islands are volcanically birthed from the oceanic womb.

Map of Papahānaumokuākea

Kānaka ʻŌiwi knowledge embedded in rich oral narratives documents the genealogy and life cycle of these islands. These oral histories recognize that with the passage of time, the islands eventually succumb to the pervasive and unrelenting forces that transform magnificent mountains into small, low-lying islands, atolls, shoals, and reefs.

Herein lie the Kūpuna Islands, the ancestral islands, extending northwest of Niʻihau, known today as Papahānaumokuākea, returning to the ocean in which they were born.

Kui ʻia ka lei moku e Kanaloa.
The islands are strung together as lei by Kanaloa, god of the sea.

Papahānaumokuākea ranges from the emergent rock islands of Nīhoa and Mokumanamana in the southeast, to sandy atolls such as Manawai and Hōlanikū at the northwestern extent of Hawaiʻi Pae ʻĀina.

As one of the world’s largest protected biocultural seascapes, Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument (PMNM) encompasses 582,578 square miles of land and ocean at the northwestern extent of Hawaiʻi Pae ʻĀina, the Hawaiian Archipelago.

These Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI) are known as ʻĀina Akua, or the realm of the gods, a sacred place, from which Kānaka ʻŌiwi believe life evolved, and to which souls return after death. There are numerous wahi pana (places of great cultural significance and practice), which, like a lei, are strung together throughout the expanse of the 1,350 mile long stretch of islands and atolls.

Papahānaumokuākea is also a place for Kānaka ʻŌiwi of today to reconnect with Kanaloa and all the biocultural life forms that represent our kūpuna and gods, who are manifested in natural phenomena.

ʻĀina Momona.
Place of Abundance.

Papahānaumokuākea is a place of exceptional biocultural integrity, supporting a diversity of life, and providing a puʻuhonua, a refuge and haven for hundreds of native species, including the honu (green turtle), ʻīlioholoikauaua (Hawaiian monk seal), palihoa (Nīhoa finch), and koloa pōhaka (Laysan duck).

With the largest extent of coral reefs in the Hawaiian archipelago, Papahānaumokuākea is one of the last predator-dominated coral reef ecosystems on the planet. Manō (sharks), ulua (jacks), and other predators prevail; a powerful reminder of the hierarchy of akua and kino lau of Kanaloa’s realm.

On land, these small island habitats host a variety of native plants, birds, and insects, many of which are rare, threatened, endangered, or have special legal protection status. Papahānaumokuākea also provides critical nesting and foraging grounds for 14 million seabirds, making it the largest tropical seabird rookery in the world.

Representing ʻāina momona (fertile land), Papahānaumokuākea sustains healthy and thriving pilina (relationships) between people and place. Although relatively uninhabited today, the reciprocal pilina (relationship) continues through co-management and collaborative processes inclusive of the ʻŌiwi community.

Manomano ka ʻike liʻu o ka houpo o Kanaloa.
The deep knowledge of our kūpuna lies in the depths.

In Hawaiian tradition, the NWHI are considered a sacred place that is significant to Hawaiian history and cultural origins. Early Kānaka ʻŌiwi travels within Papa- hānaumokuākea are documented in genealogical chants and centuries-old narratives. These include the migration of the Pele clan through the island chain to their current home on Hawaiʻi Island, and other stories of travel found in the Keaomelemele and ʻAukelenuiaʻīkū moʻolelo.

The Kumulipo, renowned genealogical and creation chant, describes the evolution of the Hawaiian universe from the beginning of time, with the birth of the coral polyp – the building block for all life and eldest ancestor of Kānaka.

The Kumulipo also describes the Hawaiian universe as being composed of two realms: Pō, the primordial darkness, a place reserved for akua, the gods and ancestral spirit; and Ao, the realm of light and consciousness, the place where humans and other living organisms reside. Ke Alanui Polohiwa a Kāne, also known as the “Tropic of Cancer,” is considered the border between Pō and Ao.

The island of Mokumanamana is located on this border at the center of the archipelago, and functions as the convergence between the two realms. According to Hawaiian tradition, the world of the living is bound by the area within which the sun travels and that one’s soul will travel westward on its journey into the afterlife.

Dr. Kekuewa Kikiloi’s research demonstrates the cosmological significance of the NWHI tied to the early stories of the creation of gods and humans, effectively shaping the socio-political development of Hawaiʻi. The ability of aliʻi to gain mana and maintain power was dependent on their understanding of how the worlds of Pō and Ao intersected and interacted.

Mokumanamana was the central location for transformation and reproduction whereby chiefs performed ceremonies to memorialize these ancient accounts and establish mana. Over the centuries, Kānaka ʻŌiwi expanded their ability to access these islands to construct heiau (places of worship) that aligned with heavenly bodies at specific times of the year, such as the equinoxes, winter solstice, and summer solstice.

Some believe that the many heiau found along the entire ridge of Mokumanamana represent a physical manifestation of this island’s role in obtaining mana and as previously noted, as a portal between the world of the living and the afterlife.

In recent times, ongoing research by Dr. Pualani Kanakaʻole Kanahele, Dr. Kalei Nuʻuhiwa, and the research team of the Edith Kanakaʻole Foundation reveals the significant celestial alignments of the heiau for navigational purposes and other assertions of the island’s cultural significance.

Nīhoa and Mokumanamana collectively contain more than 140 archaeological sites. Nīhoa is the only island of all the emergent land areas in Papahānaumokuākea that has evidence of permanent, year-round habitation by Kānaka ʻŌiwi. Archaeologists have uncovered agricultural terraces, habitation sites, heiau, and numerous artifacts that indicate the existence of permanent communities living on the island from A.D. 1000 till the 1700s.

After that time, ancestral Hawaiians from Niʻihau and Kauaʻi continued to access the island seasonally, sometimes staying for weeks or even months, fishing and gathering resources. The isolation of these islands has allowed for remnant artifacts to remain relatively undisturbed, and the information gathered from them has proven uniquely useful in studying access and settlement of the island.

I ka wā ma mua, ka wā ma hope.
Look to the past to guide the future.

Kānaka ʻŌiwi perpetuate the weaving of knowledge systems, cultural practices, and reciprocal pilina that guide the protection of this ʻāina akua today. These living pilina continue to grow and inspire ʻŌiwi to reconnect, learn from this sacred place, perpetuate cultural practices, and bring the experiences and lessons to the aloha ʻāina work they do within their communities back home.

They are part of a growing lāhui active in protecting the lands, oceans, freshwater resources, and cultural practices and sites that are linked to the health of Kānaka ʻŌiwi communities. The care of Papahānaumokuākea, a place of abundance but also a unique and fragile ecosystem, depends on understanding healthy relationships between Kānaka and the environment.

As the only intact cultural voyaging seascape in Hawaiʻi, Papahānaumokuākea was the setting for ancient Hawaiian chiefs to voyage back and forth between the main Hawaiian Islands and the NWHI over the course of a 400-500 year period in traditional times. In addition, smaller communities from Niʻihau, Kauaʻi, and Oʻahu have been documented in the post-contact period of continuing access and voyaging into this region well into the 20th century.

Recently, practitioners have significantly renewed and expanded the use of Papahānaumokuākea for traditional and customary purposes. The voyage from Niʻihau to Nīhoa is regarded as an ultimate test of the expertise and skills of apprentice navigators. The navigator must use all of their training and experience to find the unlit, small, relatively low-lying landmass in the vast ocean.

Connections between the NWHI and the inhabited Hawaiian Islands are being revived and strengthened through continued access and research by a new generation of ʻŌiwi scientists and practitioners.

Historical materials with deeply embedded traditional knowledge such as mele (songs), oli (chants) and kaʻao (stories), as well as print publications like Hawaiian language newspapers, are woven into multidisciplinary research to better understand the function and significance of this place within ʻŌiwi intellect, traditions, values, and practices to guide the way this place is cared for through adaptive and diverse co-management efforts today.

E ola mau ʻo Papahānaumokuākea.
Papahānaumokuākea will thrive for many generations to come.

From the beginning, Kānaka ʻŌiwi leadership, guidance, and engagement through the Papahānaumokuākea Native Hawaiian Cultural Working Group (CWG) facilitated by co-manager, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, have raised the standard of cultural integrity respected by all co-management agencies who work hard to tend to and care for Papahānaumokuākea.

As a result, Kānaka ʻŌiwi are fulfilling an inherent kuleana to guide the responsible management of this ʻāina akua. Papahānaumokuākea is a place where dualities and knowledge systems – the spiritual and scientific, Indigenous and Western can learn to coexist and find mutual understanding to benefit current and future generations.

Over the next 12 months [in Ka Wai Ola] we’ll focus on the issues impacting this sacred place and the vital contributions of Kānaka ʻŌiwi who continue to engage and guide the co-management of Papahānaumokuākea. Weʻll highlight managers, researchers, and cultural practitioners from the Monument Management Board, CWG and other Kānaka ʻŌiwi committed to tending pilina to Papahānaumokuākea, expanding upon our collective understanding of the ʻike kūpuna (ancestral knowledge) associated with these kūpuna islands that shape the adaptive practices of our lāhui and biocultural management of Papahānaumokuākea.

These efforts perpetuate a treasured legacy of ʻŌiwi leaders and communities who fought hard to protect this place for many generations to come. E ola mau ʻo Papahānaumokuākea.

Kanoe Morishige is the Native Hawaiian program specialist and Malia K. Evans is the Oʻahu outreach and education coordinator on behalf of Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument and UNESCO Mixed Natural and Cultural World Heritage Site.

Sanctuary Designation

Papahānaumokuākea has a long history of protection, including consideration of this area for national marine sanctuary designation. In December of 2020, the Senate Appropriations Committee directed NOAA to initiate the process to designate the marine areas of Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument as a national marine sanctuary under the National Marine Sanctuaries Act.This process does not change the monument designation. The national marine sanctuary designation would add the conservation benefits of a national marine sanctuary to the marine areas of Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument by providing a stable framework and additional protections that safeguard resources.

The co-management structure that is a hallmark of the monument will continue, including representation from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. Native Hawaiian culture is a foundational element of the management of Papahānaumokuākea. We will continue to honor and perpetuate spiritual and cultural pilina (relationships) with this special place.

To learn more go to: https://sanctuaries.noaa.gov/papahanaumokuakea/