Step up and take control of the narrative

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A new generation of Hawaiian leaders are rising to the challenges facing our islands and our planet. E Hoʻokanaka features these important new voices.

Photo: Koa with two of his mentors
Koa with two of his mentors Keʻeaumoku Kapu and Kealiʻi
Reichel – Photo: Courtesy

Koa Hewahewa is a native son of Maui, born and raised in Wailuku. He is a small business owner of Kanu Ka ʻIke and currently the Director of Forestry at Hōkū Nui Maui LLC. Koa is passionate about watershed protection, education of youth, water rights for Native Hawaiians, and currently serves as the Vice President of Hui o Nā Wai ʻEhā.

How does culture play into your role as a leader?

“I wouldn’t consider myself a leader. I think the issue is with self-proclaimed leaders. I would consider myself more of a great follower. I had great people that I looked up to that I could follow in their paths and now I’m just trying to do as they did and do what I can to make a positive impact in our community.

“A really huge epiphany happened in my life almost a decade ago. My pops, Kaʻawa Hewahewa, came to me in a dream and he told me, “Eh. No lead. Guide.” Those words shook me to my bones and changed my life. I realized that there are leaders and there are guiders, and we need both. I had a mission. The difference is that the leaders may be more upfront and recognized, whereas the guiders operate like the makani. It has an effect, creates change, but we don’t know where it came from and where it goes. So I would consider myself more of a guider…someone who is in the mix, making things happen, trying to conform and control the narrative from behind the scenes.”

What does Aloha ʻāina leadership mean to you?

“Aloha ʻĀina leadership. It’s been watered down a lot recently. And I think to really get the true sense of what aloha ʻāina means is having true gratitude for all of those that fed you, not just with food, but with knowledge. To be an aloha ʻāina leader on the front lines is really difficult in the complex world that we live in…I think it’s shifting and changing.

Photo: Koa with his father David and brother Kepa
Farming and forestry is a way of life for the Hewahewa ‘ohana. (L-R) Koa
with his father David and brother Kepa. – Photo: Courtesy

“I like to say let’s not rely so much on our ancestors, because some of the problems and issues that we face today are things that our ancestors never faced. We have new pests, diseases and predators at the gate. But we must never forget the values and the foundation that they set for us. We’ve got to be able to sharpen our own spears now and be ready for the new things that are coming and just stay sharp, do our homework, and do our research. And it is hard because we do have full time kuleana. Jobs. We have ʻohana. And to really become an aloha ʻāina leader we need to take what little time we have left in the midnight hours and study to be scientists, lawyers, philosophers and professors. Because these are the types of people that are challenging us today. And they get all the book smarts. They get all this fancy palapala to back them up. But what makes their background and knowledge more valuable than ours?”

Photo: Koa Hewahewa and his ‘ohana on the banks of the Wailuku River
Koa Hewahewa and his ‘ohana on the banks of the Wailuku River in ‘Ïao Valley, Maui. (L-R) Mama Tiny Hewahewa, Koa, Ka‘iheokekoa (6), Makali‘ahu (10), and Kahaku holding Kaiwi‘ula (16 months). – Photo: Jason Lees

What is it that pushes you to work through feelings of discomfort?

“We’ve got to take control of the narrative again. We have so many other people telling us our story. So that’s kind of what pushes me to get out. I never ever said ‘yes’ to interviews or panels and I never wanted to be out there in the front. But I do have a story to tell. I do represent my ʻohana and my children. They drive me every day. So in times of discomfort I try to think of all those things and make sure that I have a mission. Recently, Uncle Walter Ritte told me that what gets him going is survival and I agree, because we’re in a state of survival over here. And in order to survive, we’ve got to be on the frontline taking control of the narrative, sharing exactly what we’re going through, and sharing the knowledge that’s been passed down to us from our ancestors.”