Moanalua Gardens Foundation
Cultural and Environmental Education in Hawaii
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Hula and the Hawaiian View of the Natural World

by Samuel M. Ohukaniohia Gon III, Ph.D.
Senior Scientist and Cultural Advisor,
The Nature Conservancy of Hawaii and consultant to MGF

Those who attend hula events such as the annual Prince Lot Festival at Moanalua Gardens sometimes find themselves glimpsing, especially through the hula kahiko, the ancient dance, a hint of the intimate relationships between people and nature that was a fundamental part of existence in Hawaii before Western contact. Some of this is symbolized by magnificently crafted lei and other ornaments derived from the natural world, whether native flowers and foliage from upland forests, or ocean shells worked into kupee (bracelets and anklets). But beyond the material culture - the direct use of objects from the nature - the Hawaiian view of the world was (and to many, remains to be) quite distinct from that of Western civilization.

Here was a world in which human beings were considered siblings to plants, to Haloa, the taro, first-born of Papa and Wakea, Earth-mother and Sky-father, from whom all people ultimately were considered to have originated. Here also was a world in which things both animate and inanimate were considered to have consciousness and spiritual presence, or mana. It was a world in which one's spirit might cycle through other living things after human death, or where beings with great mana might at will, take on the form of other plants and animals around them. In such a world view one could talk directly to the winds and rains and expect response, or swim with sharks, and being among beloved relatives, know you were completely safe in the ocean.

It meant that the natural events around you were not random, but portents of conscious and active participation of all the natural objects and living things comprising your surroundings. It also meant that few natural events were to be construed as mere coincidence. Thus rain, wind, clouds, the appearance and behavior of plants and animals - all were to be paid attention to in daily life. It was no wonder that Hawaiians had among the highest degree of recognized distinction between different species and varieties of living things, corresponding surprisingly well with the classifications of western science.

But it is in the words of Hawaiian chant, the most important part of hula, that the integration of Hawaiians and the natural world is clearly shown. In the well-known hula chant Hole Waimea, the natural events and settings of the uplands of Waimea on the island of Hawaii are used to symbolize the prowess of the warriors of Kamehameha, and at the same time, express deep affection for both a place and an un-named lover. To one with biological training, the chant is also a surprisingly familiar checklist of some of the most prominent plants of the Waimea region, as you can see in this short excerpt:

...Ku akula oe i ka malanai  

a ke Kipuupuu 

Nolu ka maka o ka Ohawai a Uli. 

Niniau eha ka pua o koaie 

Eha i ke anu i ka nahele o Waika. 

Aloha Waika iau me he ipo la 

Me he ipo la ka makalena o ke koolau...

...Stand thou in the tradewinds  

and the Kipuupuu rain 

Yielding are the buds of the Ohawai of Uli 

Painfully bruised are the flowers of the koaie 

Injured by the cold in the forest of Waika 

I love Waika like an intimate lover 

Like a lover is the yellow face of the koolau...

Having stood in the forests of Waika, in the Kohala Mountains, I find it no surprise that this classical chant is incredibly accurate, for here the sweeping tradewinds bring the stinging cold Kipuupuu rains that raise bumps on the skin, and in the understory of Waika's Ohia forests grow the Clermontia, the Hawaiian name of which is Ohawai, a tube-flowered native lobeliad from which native honeycreepers drink nectar. Downslope of Waika, there are only remnants now of the forests of koaie trees (or to the biologist, Acacia koaia) that once covered the leeward flanks of Kohala. Its cream-colored fragile puff-ball flowers, like those of the closely-related and better known koa trees, would indeed be battered by hard rains such as the famed Kipuupuu. Finally, like the beautiful face of a loved one that stands out in a crowd, you can easily spot in the koaie forests below Waika the delicate, bright yellow flowers of the koolau or kookoolau (Bidens sp.), a native relative of the common garden weed called Spanish needle.

The author of Hole Waimea clearly knew both of war and of tender love, but moreover, wove via a common familiarity with the uplands of Kohala, a chant that would evoke clear images for anyone who knew the Kohala of that time. It is sad that in these times, even those who now most seriously pursue hula and chant may not have ever seen an ohawai about to burst into bloom in the forest of Waika. There is much for us to learn about the native plants and animals that still are with us in places like Waika. By the same token, for those who know the biology of the flora and fauna on a scientific basis, much more significance can be found by exploring the connections that exist between the natural world they study and the rich Hawaiian culture that derives from that world. For as the saying goes: He muhee ka ia hololua - A cuttlefish is a creature that moves two ways.

There is of course much more to be said about the Hawaiian view of the natural world than in this brief article, and the following small selection may provide some additional useful insights.



Feature Article

Festival Chant

Photo Gallery

Map to festival

Chinese Hall

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Hula Festival T-shirts

For Kids: The Festival at America's Story

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revised 25 June 2007
Hawaiian diacriticals have been intentionally omitted.