By Kealoha Pisciotta, OHA Interim Federal Public Policy Advocate

Creation Unfolds

There are two major wahi pana (legendary, living, pulsating place) where it is said, our Kumulipo, our chant of creation, come into being and where the process of creation continues.

These sacred places as entry ways into Pō (primordial darkness and/or the potential of all things yet created) frame nā kūkulu (pillars) of our cosmogenic origins and are where the physical world of both time and space continues to unfold.

These wahi pana are Mauna Kea and Papahānaumokuākea — reaching up into the highest heavens down into deepest part of the sea, forming the upper and lateral construction of our realms. The sun, moon, stars and constellations help to set the north, south, east and western kūkulu, thus completing the ancient models of our universe.

According to Native Hawaiian scholar Rubellite Kawena Johnson, in the first wā (epoch) of Kumulipo, emerging from the primordial Pō is born the ʻukukoʻakoʻa (coral polyp) and then the ʻakoʻakoʻa (coral colony). Like the tiny coral polyps that form the coral head and then the papa (reef), protection for the great Moananuiākea comes from our ancient origins and traditional ocean legacy.

Moananuiākea, our traditional ocean realm, is deep and expansive. A myriad of Indigenous peoples, including Native Hawaiians, are connected genealogically through our common voyaging heritage and a common cosmology via our oral histories and creation stories.

The ocean not only connects the Indigenous peoples of Moananuiākea to one another, but to all of humanity.

Protecting Our Oceans

For millennia, Native Hawaiians have been leaders in natural and cultural marine resource management. We are stewards of the ecosystem in which we live and custodians of traditional knowledge and practices for the protection of the marine environment, conservation, and for the sustainable uses of the ocean and its many life forms.

The more we protect the ocean, the more we become connected and together begin to heal ourselves and our planet. Wherever our traditional and customary practices take us, from ma uka (upland) to ma kai (seaward), as the late Pacific scholar Dr. ʻEpeli Hauʻofa wrote, “We are the Ocean.”

According to Dr. Christina Thompson, author of the award-winning nonfiction book, Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia, “If you were to look at the Pacific Ocean from space you would not be able to see both sides of it at the same time taken as a whole, it is so big that you could fit all of the landmass of earth inside it and there would still be room for another continent as large as North and South America combined. It is not simply the largest body of water on the planet – it is the largest single feature.”

The west dismissively refers to Pacific Islands as “tiny island nations,” but we are better defined as the big ocean nations of Moananuiākea.

Our moana (ocean) produces 50-70% of the atmosphere and air we breathe, helps regulate the temperature of the earth, and supports most of the biodiversity of our planet.

For centuries, colonial powers have attempted the carve up the Pacific Ocean to exploit its resources and supplant our peoples and cultures with their own.

But the people of Moananuiākea have survived and we remain connected, not divided, by the ocean or the artificial lines drawn on the colonizer’s maps. With common purpose, the Indigenous peoples of Moananuiākea continue to work to restore ʻāina momona (health and abundance of the land and oceans).

As the effects of climate change become increasingly apparent, the western world is pausing to rethink some of its old paradigms and unsustainable ways of living, as well as its treatment over the centuries of the world’s Indigenous peoples. Western science is working to acknowledge Indigenous approaches to resource management and stewardship. Today, many more people are striving to live more responsibly and to better mālama (nurture and care for) our oceans and planet.

United Nations’ Decade of the Ocean

The United Nations (UN) proclaimed 2021-2030 the “Decade of the Ocean, Science and Sustainable Development,” to support efforts to reverse the cycle of decline in ocean health. The UN General Assembly tasked the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and its subdivisions to organize and gather the global ocean community to plan for the next 10 years.

The Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) recognizes this as an opportunity for the lāhui to participate in these global conversations for greater protection of our entire ocean. OHAʻs vision for the Ocean Decade seeks to combine science and Indigenous Traditional Ecological Knowledge (ITEK) to determine the the best path forward for protecting our oceans.

OHA’s Kuleana and Mandate

Native Hawaiians never relinquished our right to self-determination despite the U.S.’s involvement in the illegal overthrow of Queen Liliʻuokalani in 1893 and the dismantling of our government. Many Hawaiians today are still adversely impacted by the trauma of this event and the subsequent erosion of our language, culture, identity, and loss of our land.

Created to “better the conditions of Native Hawaiians” through a Hawaiʻi State constitutional amendment in 1978, OHA is a quasi-autonomous state agency – an expression of the unique trust relationship established between Native Hawaiians, the United States, and the State of Hawaiʻi via the 1959 Admissions Act.

Guided by a board of nine publicly elected trustees, OHA fulfills its mandate through advocacy, research, community engagement, land management and by providing loans, grants and partnerships.

To meet the U.S.’s obligations to Native Hawaiians as articulated in the Admissions Act, and in acknowledgement of its special political and trust relationship with Hawaiʻi’s Indigenous people, Congress has enacted over 150 federal laws to promote education, health, housing, and a variety of other federal programs that support Native Hawaiian self-determination including the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act of 1920 as amended, the Native Hawaiian Education Act; the Native Hawaiian Health Care Improvement Act; and the Hawaiian Homelands Homeownership Act (codified in the Native American Housing Assistance and Self Determination Act).

Additionally, the State of Hawaiʻi recognizes OHA as the principal public agency responsible for the performance, development, and coordination of programs and activities affecting Native Hawaiians.

Developing OHA’s Ocean Policy

OHA also has a kuleana to advise and inform federal officials about Native Hawaiian programs and to coordinate activities impacting Native Hawaiians. Thus, OHA’s sphere of advocacy includes international, federal, state and county governments as it relates to protecting Native Hawaiians’ traditional and customary practices and associated rights from the near shore to the high seas.

This includes everything from protecting traditional aquaculture to advocating for protections against highly extractive activities such as the commercial aquarium fish trade, excessive tourism, industrial commercial fishing, and deep-sea mining.

To fulfill this mandate, OHA is developing an “ocean policy” that reflects Hawaiian and Oceanic cultural values and traditions to meet and/or exceed global standards of practice.

Last fall, OHA’s ocean team, comprised of staff from its advocacy, communications, community engagement, research, and public policy divisions, as well as administrators and trustees, invited the community to help inform the creation of OHA’s ocean policy via nine in-person ocean policy development meetings hosted across the pae ʻāina, as well as a virtual meeting option.

These gatherings brought together Native Hawaiian practitioners, fishers, divers and general ocean users, along with those members of our communities that have a long history of working to steward our marine ecosystems. In all, several hundred Kānaka attended the meetings.

Working together we uncovered opportunities and built upon our collective strength to understand and address the ongoing challenges by incorporating ʻike (knowledge and intelligence) of Kānaka ʻŌiwi using intergenerational knowledge to inform OHA’s Ocean Policy (still under development).

It was an honor to have the opportunity to connect with the long time kiaʻi (protectors) of our ocean realms who have been working for generations to protect our Moananuiākea.

Co-managing Papahānaumokuākea

More than two decades ago, Native Hawaiian commercial fishermen, Uncle Louis “Buzzy” Agard, Jr. and Uncle Isaac “Paka” Harp, Jr. made the original call for greater ocean protections.

They recognized that excessive commercial taking was causing the decline of fish species and other marine life including threatened honu (sea turtles) and endangered ʻīioholoikauaua (Hawaiian monk seals) in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI), now known as Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument (PMNM).

Agard and Harp helped to inspire the creation of a coalition of Native Hawaiian practitioners and activists, scientists, politicians, environmentalists, environmental lawyers, regulatory agencies, and the general public toward the unifying goal of protecting this most sacred and fragile ecosystem.

In addition to Agard and Harp, core members of the coalition included Victoria Holt-Takamine, Stephanie Fried, Cha Smith, and Dave Raney, collectively known as “The NWHI Hui.” See:

In 2000 and 2001, President Bill Clinton signed Executive Orders no. 13178 and 13196, respectively, establishing the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve. And in 2006, President George W. Bush established the PMNM via Proclamation no. 8031. The establishment of PMNM was no small feat. It required many hands working together toward the single goal of creating the 583,000 square mile marine protection area.

In 2016, another coalition was formed. It included the people who had worked on the year 2000 designation with the addition of more cultural practitioners. This, to assist President Obama in expanding protections of PMNM by issuing Proclamation no. 9478 which added another level of protection to the area by creating a buffer zone around PMNM that stretched out into the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

Proclamation no. 9478 also elevated OHA as a co-trustee of PMNM along with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), U.S. Fish and Wildlife (USFW) and the State of Hawai’i Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR). OHA works collaboratively with its co-managers and the Cultural Working Group (CWG) to combine the best scientific and cultural practices.

Comprised of Kānaka Maoli subject matter experts, the CWG was established to advise and assist in maintaining the history and historical context of Papahānaumokuākea’s origin and to seek maximum protections for its fragile and delicate ecosystems.

Sanctuary Designation

Despite attempts to maximize protections for our oceans, including Papahānaumokuākea, globally, only 3% to 5% of our oceans are protected. In fact, 95% of our oceans are subject to significant destructive extractive practices, from the near shore, the EEZ and into the high seas.

Such activities include, but are not limited to, commercial extraction of our local reef fish for the pet trade, Industrial Commercial Fishing, IUU (illegal, unreported and unregulated) fishing practices and deep-sea mining that could soon begin near Hawaiʻi (see related story on page 11).

Fortunately, President Joe Biden and his administration are endeavoring to protect 30% of the oceans by 2030. This aligns with the international goals of the United Nations. Part of this effort by the Biden administration is to elevate both Papahānaumokuākea and the Pacific Remote Islands (PRI) to move from monument status to sanctuary status (see related story on page 13).

While monument status provides some protections for Papahānaumokuākea, it remains vulnerable if a rogue president less sensitive to Indigenous and environmental concerns were to be elected, as they could overturn the current monument status of Papahānaumokuākea via executive order.

Sanctuary status, on the other hand, requires an act of Congress and cannot be overturned so easily.

OHA, along with our federal and state co-managers and the CWG, will continue to advocate for maximum protections for Papahānaumokuākea. NOAA and the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries (NOAA-ONMS) is responsible to oversee the sanctuary designation process.

More information will be forthcoming about the sanctuary designation process, Papahānaumokuākea’s sacredness, and Moananuiākea’s myriad delicate and fragile lifeforms and environs, and the work to protect them, in future issues of Ka Wai Ola.

The author wishes to mahalo her colleagues from OHA’s public policy, community engagement and compliance and enforcement paia (divisions): Shane “Akoni” Palacat-Nelson, Kamaile Puluole-Mitchell, Michele McCoy, and Kamakana Ferreira for their significant contributions to this article.