A Land District, A Land Division

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Read this article in ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi

Photo: Kalani Akana

We have become accustomed to the concept of the ahupuaʻa, a division of land stretching from mountain to sea. It has been demonstrated by Hawaiians to be a land management model for sustaining the lives of people dependent on the caring and nurturing of the land. Therefore, the ahupuaʻa becomes a system to provide for the people.

Although that is true for the majority of ahupuaʻa, namely that it stretches from upland to the seashore, that is not true for all of them. For example, Makawao, Maui, is landlocked with no direct access to the sea. Then there are some ahupuaʻa in Lāhaina that have no direct access to the forest.

Because of these exceptions, the concept of the “ahupuaʻa system” has been rethought by some learned native scholars. They believe that it would be better to use the term, “moku system.”* According to those scholars, there are six aspects of the moku system:

  1. Our ancestors partitioned and set aside lands as a means to fully utilize the resources from the uplands and unto the sea. They divided it thusly: moku, kalana, ʻokana, ahupuaʻa, ʻili, moʻo, paukū, kïhāpai and cultivated plots called ka mahinaʻai and māla. Widely known were the places that grew thatch, mulberry, sweet potatoes, taro, and so forth.
  2. Various ecosystems were maintained within zones of the upland to the seaside. These zones extended across ahupuaʻa as from Hāʻena to Kalihiwai in the Moku of Halaleʻa, Kauaʻi. The steward-management of ecosystems within ahupuaʻa that stretched from mountain to sea differed from zones that stretched across ahupuaʻa. Ahupuaʻa are oriented vertically; moku are oriented horizontally.
  3. The management of resource populations within moku are easier to control than within single ahupuaʻa. The “running” mullet of Puʻuloa is an example. These mullet live in the whole of Puʻuloa in the District of ʻEwa and not in a single ahupuaʻa. Therefore, a land manager could impose a restriction at the appropriate times within a whole district instead of an individual ahupuaʻa.
  4. Placing restrictions is one tool for the protection of resources. For example, a kapu was placed on ʻōpelu fishing during the summer months because that is the spawning period.
  5. Conservation periods are rotated as in the example of mackerel scad season rotating with the bonito season. The issuance of restrictions differ according to the life stages of resources such as placing it only on little threadfish (5-8 centimeters) and not on other stages of the species. Restrictions were placed on resources if populations declined, as did lobster populations.
  6. An evaluation is utilized for planning and rectification of problems within various ecosystems of the moku. A council would decide on a system to conserve, restore, and increase production of resources of the land and sea. This is a traditional evaluation process from Molokaʻi.

These are the compelling and clear concepts of the moku system. Although they are explained by the group using western analytics, they relied on traditional knowledge of our ancestors. The article is readily accessible online.

*The Moku System: Managing Biocultural Resources for Abundance within Social-Ecological Regions in Hawaiʻi. (2018). Winter, K.B., Beamer, K., Vaughan, M.B., Friedlander, A.M., Kido, M., Whitehead, A. N., Akutagawa, M. K. H., Kurashima, N., Lucas, M. P., Nyberg, B.


Kalani Akana, Ph.D., is the culture specialist at OHA. He is a kumu of hula, oli and ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi. He has authored numerous articles on Indigenous ways of knowing and doing.