Concluding Paper for Independent Study

Hawaiian Studies

Preserving Tradition Rooted in Food, Health, and Culture

Final Paper Assignment

The word “culture” can be assigned a variety of definitions, from the social to the biological. The term stems from the Latin cultura, which is based on Latin colere, ‘to cultivate’ (“Definition of culture in English,” n.d.). Its ancient origin is derived from the Indo-European root kwel meaning, “to revolve”, which points to the cyclical aspect of the word. By this definition it is a process rather than an isolated act, one that is transferred from generation to generation. Over the years, this word has not only manifested itself in various ways through language, but our interpretation of what it is we are able to “cultivate” has also changed. Our traditions and practices around the cultivation of the land, as well as its creatures and resources, is what defines culture. Although culture is constantly recreating itself in revolutionary ways, culture is consistent in that it is always rooted (Katz, 2012).

So, what exactly are we cultivating in America? And I mean that in every essence of the word. We are a nation of centralization rather than diversity. Our agriculture is centralized through the cultivation of a single crop in large areas (monoculture). Our food system is centralized in that the main monoculture crops (corn, soy and wheat) make up the majority of the “food” products that line our grocery stores. Our government is centralized in the sense that the political power rests in the hands of very few individuals who, through a revolving door, hold influential positions in politics as well as private companies. Our economy is centralized through a capitalist approach, where a small number of people control large amounts of money and are responsible for making the most crucial economic decisions. Every facet of the American way of life is centralized and privatized, the concentration of power in the hands of the few and the wealthy, whose only aim is to maximize profit. This transfer of control from the public to the private is a reflection of our nation’s ideals and in turn, its culture.

When you consider the fact that we are relentlessly destroying huge areas of the globe for industrial agriculture and exploiting fossil fuels from every inch of the earth, creating vast monocultures from genetically modified crops, lining our grocery stores with highly processed, cancer-causing substances, importing thousands of products from under-developed countries that rely on cheap labor, and continue to expand multi-national corporations in the name of consumerism, globalization and economic gain, it cannot be denied that our values are significantly unfamiliar to those of our ancestors. In contrast, what do indigenous traditions know about cultivation and how have they preserved that knowledge over the years? Specifically, Hawaiian tradition, a viable example of a people whose traditions are still very much alive and rooted in the land. A culture, where extended families remain in close connection with one another, resulting in the continued passing of valuable knowledge and wisdom from parents to children (Shanahan, 2009).

The food we put into our mouths directly links us to the energy of the sun and fertility of the earth. The simple act of eating turns nature into culture (Pollan, 2006). This is what defines traditional food culture, an intimate relationship between people, the land, their animals, and the plants that make up their diets. The beauty and vitality of inhabited land is expressed through the bodies of those people whose diets consist of food they take from it (Shanahan, 2009). This crucial relationship is revealing itself more and more as our lives become less and less in balance with natural cycles and we continue to lose appreciation for traditional knowledge. Unfortunately, in the West we have experienced an exodus from nature and an industrial take-over that has de-valued and disregarded the potent wisdom of ancient and indigenous traditions. Wisdom that proved successful for thousands of years. This disappearance of a variety of perspectives and knowledge bases has inevitably created an intellectual and emotional decline, and consequently a culture that is far less resilient. Western society not only lacks the valuable wisdom of the indigenous, it has also pushed aside the knowledge of women, the elderly, and now farmers. Experiencing, studying, and appreciating the approach of native Hawaiian culture for example, is one way of restoring the resiliency that has been lost, through the preservation of customs that ensured the survival of our human ancestors and therefore, of us. This tradition, like others throughout the world, greatly valued these four perspectives and embodied them in a way that placed them at the heart of society and their way of life.

For the majority of human history, the question of what to eat has been answered without any “expert” advice from nutrition scientists, journalists, or food processors. This can be attributed to the guidance of culture, “which, at least when it comes to food, is really just a fancy word for your mother”, as Michael Pollan describes it in his book In Defense of Food. Nutritional information, when passed down from parents to children, was done so without controversy. For humans, eating is not merely an act of biological necessity; food is a matter of community, pleasure, family, identity, spirituality and our relationship to the natural world. It has become abundantly clear that we have far more to learn about food and eating from history, tradition, and culture, than nutrition science has led us to believe (Pollan, 2008). In his book Pollan writes:

‘How a people eats is one of the most powerful ways they have to express, and preserve, their cultural identity, which is exactly what you don’t want in a society dedicated to the ideal of “Americanization.” To make food choices more scientific is to empty them of their ethnic content and history; in theory, at least, nutritionism proposes a neutral, modernist, forward-looking, and potentially unifying answer to the question of what it might mean to eat like an American.’ (p. 58)

This shift from food culture to food science is currently threatening the survival of traditional food cultures around the world. Eating remains to be the manifestation of humans’ relationship to nature, a relationship that culture moderates, and we are now seriously lacking the cultural tools to guide us through this deceptive and unreliable Western food environment. Throughout history, gathering and preparing food was not merely a necessary task, but rather an occupation at the center of daily life. It was customary for people to assign far more of their income to food, as well as spend much more time and energy devoted to not only the collecting and processing of ingredients, but also the enjoyment of those cuisines. The mindless consumption of food, a consequence of the madness that is the American fast-paced lifestyle, is vastly different from the rituals our ancestors practiced surrounding food. Traditional cultures provide clear models for what it means to eat deliberately rather than carelessly, knowledgably rather than ignorantly, and gratefully rather than indifferently (Pollan, 2008).

Just as we use the word “culture” to describe a community of bacteria that transforms a substance like milk into yogurt, culture also encompasses all that human beings strive to preserve, the practice of subsistence itself (Katz, 2012). An integral element of traditional Hawaiian culture was the subsistence plant taro, referred to as kalo, as well as the land that supplied this subsistence and the fresh water that ensured life for these food plants. Basic patterns of their culture were greatly influenced by methods of growth and cultivation of taro. Even language that was used to describe the human family possessed reference to the development of the taro plant; ‘oha, meaning the taro sprout, turned into ‘ohana, the human extended family. Both metaphorically and literally the ‘ohana identified with their homeland, the ‘aina that sustained them, and the soil that nourished their bones (Handy E. & Handy E., 1972).

‘Aina as the term for homeland, had reference to subsistence and identified Hawaiian countrymen as food producers. The word is composed of the verb ‘ai, meaning “to eat” or “to feed”, pertaining specifically to vegetable foods, with a suffix na, making it a noun. Therefore, the word actually means, “that which feeds” and those who lived or subsisted on the land were known as the ma-ka-‘ai-na-na, which translates to “upon-the-landers.” Similarly, mahi means “to farm” or “to cultivate” and mahi’ai, the cultivation of food, means a farmer as well as to cultivate produce (Native Planters). For the Hawaiians, the basis of their diet (‘ai) or staff of life was taro and consequently, the fundamental component of the political economy was the land (‘aina) used to grow this staple crop. An organic relationship existed between the Hawaiians, by their chiefs and commoners (maka’ainana) and their homeland (‘aina):

“To use Ka’u as a prime example of an organic relationship between the people and their land – one might say biological as well as psychological – is to recognize first the difficulty of life in its rugged environs, the exceptionally hard work involved in earning one’s sustenance from it, and the resulting awareness of the preciousness of living against such offs, which in turn renders precious the very features and forces of nature against which or in league with which one struggles for survival.” (Handy E. & Handy E., 1972, p. 43)

Because land provided the food that sustained the people, it was ultimately the key to wealth and power. Still today, Hawaiians possess a loyalty to locality, a spiritual identification of people with family and with the physical land on which the family lives and draws their sustenance. Older Hawaiians who have relocated to urban areas often never lose this sense of identification with their ‘aina, an attitude that is ingrained in their traditional culture (Handy E. & Handy E., 1972).

One characteristic of Western, contemporary society is the seemingly increasing attitude of entitlement and superiority amongst the younger generations. In America, young people are brought up in a culture that encourages and rewards those who are confident and outspoken rather than those who are humble and good listeners. This sets us apart in many ways from other cultures, especially traditional cultures where elders were highly respected and sought out by the younger, less experienced members of the community for the vast knowledge and wisdom they could impart. For native Hawaiians, living members of a family experienced unity with their ancestors through their elders. The word kupuna, which stems from the verb kupu meaning, “to grow”, was used to refer to grandparents and great-grandparents as well as ancestors. One saying which illustrates the connectedness of ancestors and descendents to that of the reproduction of taro: ‘Make no ke kalo, a ‘ola i ka palili; “The taro may die, but it lives on in its descendents”’ (Handy E. & Handy E., 1972, p. 289). Palili refers to the immature shoots on the corm of the taro, which develop into corms that can be transplanted. The term also means “descendants”. This is the notion that once forebears die, their offspring will continue to grow and preserve the ancestry. Elders of both sexes within the traditional homestead performed a most valuable role in caring for the small children and were actually closer to the children than the parents, who were frequently busy working away from the home. The makuahine (mother) of the family possessed a great deal of wisdom surrounding diet and adequate nutrition for her family, as well as the necessary preparation and knowledge to care for herself during both pregnancy and childbirth. She knew the appropriate chants, restorative herbs, baths and tonics, ritual for planting the placenta properly, method of guaranteeing an abundance of milk for the infant, and foods the ancestors had deemed kapu or “forbidden.” The makuahine applied this traditional wisdom in order to preserve the well-being of the family (Handy E. & Handy E., 1972).

Celebratory or ritual festivities often involved the umu, an earth oven where packages of food were wrapped in leaves, placed into a deep pit to steam over hot stones, and then covered with more leaves and dirt. These community gatherings incorporated a variety of delicacies which the scattered ‘ohana brought along with them, and were primary occasions for the keiki (little ones) to listen quietly to stories and acquire the most knowledge of their elders’ ways. In fact, the children learned more from this informal story telling than they did in the schools of the haole (whites), and without these occasions, traditions and old lore, ancient methods and knowledge of fishing and planting, as well as home trades and livelihood would not have been kept alive (Handy E. & Handy E., 1972).

Breeding and feeding are the two basic activities that control the lives of all people, mutually and independently, in regards to establishing the customs, which fabricate culture. With breeding comes families, communities, tribes, etc. and as a consequence, status. Status is then continued through selective breeding, and in the case of Hawaii, an aristocracy was intended to perpetuate hereditary distinctions, both physically and culturally. The lower-class members of society were those who devoted their lives to farming, and these maka ‘ainana (common people) who cultivated plants rooted in the soil, were also provided permanence in relationship to the land. The aristocrat or proprietor however, experienced no such permanence based on the fact that they were reliant on the favor of the ruling chief and therefore always subject to change. The families that cultivated the lands they have lived on for generations were naturally stable and secure because the practices involved in soil cultivation stayed the same even during times of war or shifting leadership. To the Hawaiian planter, taro signified wealth and was the main product to be bartered and exchanged. Abundance indicated plenty of taro, and plenty of taro indicated adequate water supply. Hence, the Hawaiian word for wealth, waiwai, is simply a reproduction of the word for water, wai. Clearly, a distinct perspective emerges when native culture is defined in terms of agriculture as opposed to proprietorship or status (Handy E. & Handy E., 1972).

Culture, being both the establishment and preservation of values within a people, as well as the cultivation of soil and earth, is therefore the cultivation of values. No matter where we are in the world, the manner in which we go about our lives is a direct representation of the values, which we have cultivated. Just as industrial agriculture persistently creates monocultures within the soil, so too are we creating monocultures within the minds of humans across the world. When cultivation is defined by one set of variables, those being profit, income, and monetary wealth, our culture becomes blind and weak. Without a diversity of perspectives, we are highly vulnerable to the breakdown of this single, narrow-minded view of success and progress. Just as the genetic diversity of a given farm protects against the devastating effects of a major crop failure, so too does intellectual and emotional diversity provide the resiliency we will need to recover from the inevitable collapse of our globalized economy, centralized world bank, dependence on fossil fuels, and industrial food system.

Works Cited

Definition of culture in English:. (n.d.). Retrieved September 5, 2015, from

Handy, E., & Handy, E. (1972). Native planters in old Hawaii: Their life, lore, and environment. Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press.

Katz, S. (2012). The art of fermentation: An in-depth exploration of essential concepts and processes from around the world. Chelsea Green Publishing.

Pollan, M. (2006). The omnivore’s dilemma: A natural history of four meals. New York: Penguin Press.

Pollan, M. (2008). In defense of food: An eater’s manifesto. New York: Penguin Press.

Shanahan, C., & Shanahan, L. (2009). Deep nutrition: Why your genes need traditional food. Lawai, HI: Big Box Books.


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