ʻŌiwi Resources: Meeting the Challenges of These Times

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By Keoni Kuoha

In this month’s election, Maui County voters will be asked whether or not to approve the charter amendment to establish a Department of ʻŌiwi Resources. To inform civic discussion, here are some final questions and responses on the topic for the readers of Ka Wai Ola.

Is ʻŌiwi knowledge relevant to our lives today?

All too often, public discussion around Hawaiian culture and knowledge has a bias toward thinking that is focused on the past – that Hawaiian culture is traditional, unchanging, and outdated. Many of us Hawaiians often share these same biases and reinforce these views by overly romanticizing our past and leaning on rhetorical phrases like “my kūpuna would have…” to introduce our contemporary views.

However, when we truly carry the knowledge, skills, and worldviews of our kūpuna into our present circumstances, and apply them to the challenges that we face here and now, what we have are powerful instruments for problem-solving and decision-making. These precious instruments were honed through millennia of trial and error. They are instruments that we continue to hone to the purposes of our modern lives. The fact that, within our application of ʻŌiwi knowledge today, there is a throughline from past to present is a testament to the continued relevance and strength of this knowledge set.

How could a county department of ʻŌiwi resources address our greatest challenges?

Applying ʻŌiwi knowledge to our contemporary circumstances is innovative. This is especially true in a world that has largely lost touch with both the natural systems that govern this planet and the human nature that governs our relationships and interactions. In contrast to the prevailing forces of these times, the lessons of ʻŌiwi knowledge require that we work with nature, not in spite of it. Nowhere will these lessons be more important that in our society’s responses to climate change.

Our counties must lead with both policy and action to address our quickly changing environment, and ʻŌiwi knowledge is critical to this leadership. To meet the challenges of climate change, a department of ʻŌiwi resources could be a conduit for real-time climate change observations from the cultural practitioners who are closest to the ocean, waterways, forests, and gardens that sustain them. Scientists around the world are now realizing the immense value of the generational knowledge held by these practitioners, as it is critical to understanding the scale and trajectory of the change that’s happening around us.

Hula Alter
Hula altar erected for the 2022 Kupukalālā Convention, primarily held online, to ensure continued guidance of akua over the discussions and decisions of kumu hula. – Photo: Pueo Pata

Innovation is sorely needed in how we govern, and a department of ʻŌiwi resources could provide leadership in this arena. Widespread distrust in our government and each other is tearing at the fabric of our communities. County governments have an opportunity to counter this trend through increased transparency and better engagement of residents in the decisions that affect our daily lives.

A department of ʻŌiwi resources could employ persons with the knowledge and skillsets that would create deeper community engagement opportunities. Many of those qualified to work in a department of ʻŌiwi resources would come from Hawaiian communities wherein relationship-building and community organizing are part of the culture. Many could also come from nonprofit and education sectors in which community engagement is highly valued and practiced to great effect. Importantly, such a department could turn community engagement into a process for genuine sustained conversation with, and within, community – countering the disinformation and conflict ever present online.

Among the greatest challenges that face Hawaiians is our ability to call Hawaiʻi home. So many of our people have relocated to the U.S. continent, and we have experienced an accelerated exodus in the past few years because Hawaiians simply cannot afford to live here. There are multiple solutions to this problem. A department of ʻŌiwi resources could lend significantly to at least one of them: improving our housing development process.

Genuine community engagement is essential to improving our housing development process. Conversations with communities need to occur early in the development process and be facilitated toward mutually beneficial outcomes. Just as important – maybe more so – our counties need to facilitate solution-finding and implement processes that resolve the predictable tension points in our housing development process. A department of ʻŌiwi resources is well-positioned to facilitate deep community engagement around cultural landscapes, iwi kūpuna, environmental protection, and freshwater. We must stop pitting our cultural and environmental values against our need to make housing attainable to Hawaiians at every income level. County departments of ʻŌiwi resources could be the key to doing just that.


Keoni Kuoha serves as vice-chair of the Maui County Charter Commission. The manaʻo shared in this article are his own.