He aliʻi ka ʻāina; he kauā ke kanaka.
The land is a chief; man is its servant.
Land has no need for man, but man needs the land and works it for a livelihood.
— ‘Ōlelo No‘eau #531

Naturally resourceful

ʻĀina is the land, the earth, that which sustains us.

[Kalo and farmers hand] Photo by Ruben Carillo

Before Longs Drugs, Foodland, Home Depot, and WalMart, our kūpuna got their life essentials directly from the ʻāina. No paying a middle man, no wasting plastic on pretty packaging, no using up gas and causing pollution to ship toilet paper a thousand miles over the ocean. Everything they needed was right before them, on the ʻāina.

Our kūpuna worked the land to grow food. They cultivated plants for medicine and dyes. Plant fibers were stripped and braided into cordage and sewn into fishing nets. Koa trees were carved into sailing canoes. The ʻāina fed, clothed, healed, and inspired them. And they gave back to the ʻāina, through respect, prayers, offerings, and good stewardship.

Staying grounded

The ʻāina is alive, and it is our kupuna.

The islands of Hawaiʻi are born from the mating of Papa and Wākea. Papa is a goddess of earth and mother of gods. One of her names is Papahānaumoku—Papa who gives birth to land. Humans also descend from Papa and Wākea, and so Papa is our kupuna, and these islands are our relatives.

As Papa is a goddess and has mana (spiritual power), the ʻāina has mana. We help to preserve that mana through mālama ʻāina, or caring for the ʻāina. When the ʻāina flourishes, everything on it flourishes. And we want to thrive and live well, just like our kūpuna have before us.

Different area, different resources

[Koa leaves] Photo by Ruben Carillo.If you went from uka (the uplands) to kai (the sea) on the land of our kūpuna, you’d have a complete, healthy plate of food, some good medicine, and clothing material.

Up above the wao akua, koa trees grow. From those trees came the canoes our kūpuna used to travel.

Further down the mountain, the ʻieʻie plant grows. Our kūpuna harvested the roots and made them into baskets. Pōpolo berries, pāʻūohiʻiaka, and hau flowers were made into a potion our kūpuna would drink to stay healthy. Some of our traditional medicines come from the wao kanaka (human realm), the region below the wao akua (spirit realm).

[Niu] Photo by Ruben Carillo.In the kula or plains, our kūpuna built agricultural plots. They cultivated plants like kalo (taro), ipu (gourd), and ʻuala (sweet potato). Green waste was used as compost.

Along the kahakai, or seashore, salt collects in rock crevices. Coconut trees grow. The trees have many uses: coconut water for drinking, nutmeat for food, shells made into cups, fiber for cordage, tree trunks for drums, fronds for baskets, and midribs to make brooms.

Where did our kūpuna live?

Our kūpuna lived mostly near the shore or on the upper slopes of the ʻāina. They lived in areas where resources were available. People could use the many resources in the ahupuaʻa, or land division. But sometimes families living ma uka would find it difficult to harvest fish. Those living near the ocean would find it inefficient to gather resources ma uka.

[Loi kalo at Wailua, Maui] Photo by Keoni Kelekolio.     [Loko ia at Kaloko, Hawaii] Photo by Ruben Carillo.


So an informal system of sharing took place. ʻOhana that lived ma uka would share or exchange resources with those who lived ma kai. This gave ʻohana the food and other resources they needed to live comfortably.

You kama‘āina?

Being a kamaʻāina comes with its perks. You can get great discounts on Hawaiʻi hotel accommodations and admission to the Honolulu Zoo and Bishop Museum. But what does it mean to be a kamaʻāina? The way it gets used now is different than how it was used before. Now, to qualify for those discounts, you just have to be a resident. But in the past, being kamaʻāina meant something much deeper.

“Kamaʻāina” includes the word “ʻāina,” and literally means “child of the land.” A kamaʻāina is a person who has intimate knowledge of the land, and who knows its stories and histories. When we talk about “kamaʻāina families,” we are talking about families that have been here in Hawaiʻi for many generations.

So traditionally, if you were a kamaʻāina, you were familiar with the land you grew up on. You knew the best time to plant and fish. You followed the moon phases and life cycles in nature that were particular to your area. You knew where to get limu, salt, and drinking water. You knew that when the sugarcane tassels blossomed, the heʻe (octopus) was in season. A flock of ʻaʻo birds circling over the ocean surface meant that a school of aku was nearby. The ripening of the hala fruit meant that the sea urchin was ready to be harvested.

[Kō with tassels] Photo by Forest & Kim Starr.

Pua ke kō, kū mai ka heʻe.
When the sugar cane tassels grow, the octopus is in season.


As a kamaʻāina, you would host malihini, or visitors to your land, by inviting them into your home and giving them food and drink. If they asked you how the hill nearby got its name, or where the best place to surf was, or the characteristics of the local wind, you would know the answer.

Another term that incorporates the word “ʻāina” is makaʻāinana—the people who worked on the ʻāina to produce food and other goods for the nation. “Kuaʻāina” is a term for both rural land and the people who live there.

All of these ʻāina-based terms reflect our physical, emotional, spiritual, and familial closeness to the ʻāina. Having deep knowledge of the ʻāina helped our kūpuna be successful in all aspects of their lives. By caring for the ʻāina, they were caring for their ʻohana, the aliʻi, and the gods. Proper care of the ʻāina helped to keep the world in balance, in a state of pono. Pono is what is good, righteous, and proper.

[Mahina] Photo by Ruben Carillo.We still strive for pono in our lives. That’s why we still follow the moon to determine the proper work for the next day, the next week, and the next month. We still look to the clouds for signs. We still know the winds and rains of our ʻāina. And we still mālama ʻāina.

Check out an online moon calendar at

When I think of ‘āina, I think of . . .

The ʻāina we live on today is the same ʻāina our kūpuna lived on. So why are we so dependent on Safeway and WalMart to provide our necessities? Does the ʻāina no longer provide for all our needs?

Different ʻohana may have different answers to those questions. What is certain is that today we have lots of choices: paper, plastic, or reusable bags at supermarket checkout? Food grown with or without the use of man-made chemicals and pesticides? Shop at kamaʻāina stores or at cheaper national chains? Walk, bicycle, bus, carpool, or drive to school?

All of these choices have consequences for us and the ʻāina. The less we work on the ʻāina, the weaker our connections are to it and each other. Conversely, the more we work on the ʻāina, the better we are for it. We will know where the food we feed our ʻohana comes from. We will know it is healthy and good for us. The mana from the ʻāina will flow through us as we work and care for it. And our mana will go into the ʻāina and the food we grow on it. A healthy ʻāina means a healthy people. Ola ka ʻāina, ola kānaka.