A Native View

On the Indigenous Perspective

photo of a catamaran at seaphoto Reuters / Hugh GentryThe mother canoe sailed across the Pacific in the Old Way – no compass, sextant, watch or GPS device. We used only the moon and the sun and the swells and the stars as our map.

Mai Kauaʻi hemolele i ka mālie a i Hawaiʻi nui kuauli,
Mai ka piko o Mauna a Wākea a i ka papakū o ka moana nui ākea,
Mai ka lani kua kaʻa a i nā puʻu kaʻa o ka honua nei,
Aloha nui mai e ke hoa heluhelu.

From Kauaʻi, famous in the calm, to Hawaiʻi of the dark backed mountains,
From the center of Mt. Mauna Kea to the seafloor of the great expansive ocean,
From the highest of heavens above, to the rolling hills below,
Fond greetings to you who have chosen to read this.

From the moment that I was asked to write this story, countless ideas entered my brain vying for the best story to be told. With so many possibilities before me, I wrote several versions of what I thought would be most interesting. But in the last hour, in the stillness of the pre-dawn hours before the deadline for this article, the appropriate topic finally came to me. It landed not in my mind, but in my heart. And from what I have learned from those who have gone before, when the heart pulls, all that is left is to answer its call, for it is not yours to ignore.

I have been privileged to meet many Indigenous peoples from various corners of Earth – people from each continent, from atolls in the ocean to the sweeping sands of the deserts. These people have constantly reminded me of the urgency of retaining one’s Indigenous perspective in this era of hyper-fast technology and homogeneity of culture, lest the essence of a Native people be forever lost. The first thing that identified these people as Indigenous was not the clothes they wore, nor their accents, nor a big sign that said “authentic Native here.” What identified them to me as Indigenous were their perspectives.

But what is an “Indigenous perspective”? It is created in the way a Native person relates to his people and his environment. It is how he thinks about the world and everything on it – and his place in it. It is transferred from generation to generation. It is a way of thinking that is different from those raised in the consumer-driven, modern world. In Hawaiian, the root word of perspective (kuanaʻike) is “ʻike,” meaning knowledge, and knowledge is what Indigenous people hold dear. But what is the value of the Indigenous perspective? Its value depends on the person observing it, and how he weighs it against his own standards of worth. For that reason, Indigenous perspectives have no worth for many people. It’s a backwoods way of thinking. It’s an archaic way of doing things. It’s a simplistic perspective – not one of progress.

In turn, I then ask: What is a backwoods way of thinking, and why does it have value? It is an interdependent way of coexisting with one’s environment, a connection with one’s surroundings that is neither destructive nor invasive. The backwoods ethic recognizes that we humans are not superior beings that have been given authority over all things on this Earth to do with as we please. What is an archaic way of doing things, and why does it have value? In my mind, I see the archaic as any method that has been tested and refined over centuries to arrive in a tried and true state of efficiency of effort. For those who say that an Indigenous perspective is archaic, and therefore outdated, I say that it’s proven. After all, what is progress and advancement? When looking at civilization’s touted technological advancements in comparison to the state of our planet, I have to wonder: Is this really progress? We are consuming our resources faster than they can be replenished, and at a rate that is not sustainable for future generations. Finally, what is a simplistic perspective? To me it is an uncomplicated yet sure state of mind. It is beauty in diversity. Indigenous perspectives will provide the remedy to this sickness that is eating our planet.

These lessons about the essence of the Indigenous perspective were reinforced when I was blessed with another opportunity to sail upon our mother canoe, Hōkūleʻa, as she travels around Earth on a worldwide voyage. We sailed across the oceans in the Old Way – no compass, sextant, watch, or GPS device, using only the moon and the sun and the swells and the stars as our map. This past year, we sailed through French Polynesia, the Cook Islands, and Samoa, and my responsibilities included navigation, education, and protocol. These responsibilities afforded me the chance to interact and learn from our brothers and sisters of the Southern Sea, and I humbly share with you some of their great works, which show the Indigenous perspective in action.

photo of a full sail as seen from a boat on the sea at sunset

In the community of Haapu on the island of Huahine in the nation of Tahiti, the people again practice the old Native laws of gathering. Because their resources were exploited to detrimental levels, and because the government afforded them little reprieve and assistance in combating poaching, the people of Haapu instituted the traditional system called Rāhui, their laws of conservation. Outsiders are not allowed to come and take the village’s resources without permission, and if they are caught poaching, their equipment – including boats and vehicles – is confiscated for the benefit of the village. The Rāhui bans gathering during traditional seasons of replenishment, and the ban is not lifted until the leaders and elders see that the resources are ready to be harvested once more. When gathering is once again allowed, only traditional methods of gathering are approved, and the Rāhui limits the amounts that can be gathered. Haapu’s clams and mud crabs are prized throughout Tahiti, and in just a few short years these resources have rebounded and Haapu is once again being hailed as having the best clams and crabs in all of the Tahitian islands. I was able to swim the outer breakers and the near shore reefs, and trudge through the mud banks, and it was inspiring to see the amazing abundance of resources the community now has. What is the perspective that led them to choose this route? It was the Indigenous perspective that the answers lie in the knowledge of their ancestors.

Another amazing lesson was found in Rarotonga, the most populous of the Cook Islands. While there, I was able to interview Henry Puna, the Prime Minister of the Cook Islands, in his office. He is a humble yet visionary leader who has instituted two huge initiatives that are prime examples of Mālama Honua, which means “caring for the earth.”

The first is a pledging to transition to 100 percent renewable energy by the 2020. There are about 15,000 people residing in the Cook Islands, and their energy usage is one-fifth the amount of a town of the same size in the United States. It is already a great benefit for Earth to use so little, but the people of the Cook Islands know they can do much better. It is for that reason that they are championing the cause of clean and renewable energy. They have been negatively affected by the actions of others around the world: Ocean levels have risen, shorelines are eroding, coral are dying, and the weather is changing. But they have faith that, through their actions, they may become a positive example for change, and influence others to take similar steps for the health of our planet.

Read this story in its native Hawaiian

The second amazing initiative is that the Cook Islands has set aside 1.1 million square kilometers as a marine preserve area in which fishing activities will be limited to only that those that are sustainable. Fishing and other resource extraction may be allowed in the future, but only if it is done through sustainable means that will not bring harm or the possibility of harm to the ocean. It’s a costly endeavor to patrol and police such a large expanse of ocean, but the people there believe it needs to be done to protect the islands. This commitment to sustainable fishing is motivated by the Indigenous perspective that we need to maintain our island Earth.

There is an abundance of such stories from the southern seas, and as I returned home, I again saw my beloved Hawaiian islands through an invigorated perspective – a perspective strengthened by my visits to distant shores that share a similar viewpoint. As I returned home, I saw the military bombing our sacred lands for target practice. I saw water being diverted from the natural flow of the rivers and streams for use in commercial ventures. I saw a huge telescopes being built on a sacred mountaintops. With this emboldened perspective, I know what I, as an individual, need to do. And I know what we, as a collective, must do. But first I look to the words of those who have gone before and left us their legacy of knowledge. I hear them say, He aliʻi ka ʻāina, he kauā ke kanaka (“The land is the chief, and man is but its servant”), so I need to put the needs of the land before my own. I also hear them say, E ola ka ʻāina, e ola kākou ē (“If the land lives, so shall we). And I hear the phrase, He moku he waʻa, He waʻa he moku (“The island is our canoe, Our canoe is the island”), which reminds me of the interdependent nature we all have as crew members on the canoe we share together. The canoe is our island, and we are all crew members on island Earth.

These words ring true and deep within. I know the work ahead is great, but it is also righteous. My perspective is right for me. How is yours?

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