Forested Watersheds and Cultural Resources

In Hawaiian culture, natural and cultural resources are one and the same. Native Hawaiians share spiritual and familial relationships with the natural resources around them.  Animate and inanimate objects possess spiritual power or mana. Every form of nature is a body-form of some god or lesser deity and one’s spirit might cycle through other living things after human death.  Care for each aspect of nature, the kino lau of the elder forms of life, is a way of life. Anything which damages the native nature of the land, forests, ocean, and kino lau therein, damages the integrity of the whole.

Importance of Forests

Hahai nō ka ua i ka ulu lā’au – Rain always follows the forest

Many Native Hawaiian mo’olelo  (stories/legends), mele/’oli (songs/chants), and proverbs depict native forests, celebrate its important role, and describe the native plants and animals that reside there. The upland forest was wao akua, the realm of the gods. Forested mountains, by attracting clouds, were the source of water to feed lo’i (fields).Entry into the forest was limited to a few and involved strict protocol such as offerings and statement of identity and purpose.

The upland forest was sacred to Kū, the god of war, governance, and leadership. ‘Ōhi’a lehua was the physical manifestation of Kū and its blossom associated with the goddess Pele. The taking of a large ‘ōhi’a was regarded as a sacred act and required a human sacrifice. Laka, the goddess of hula, is a forest dweller and many of the plants used in hula such as ‘Ōhi’a lehua, maile, and palapalai fern are important components of native forests. Koa, another important tree in native forests, was used to create voyaging canoes. Lama and kauila were used for weaponry as well as household instruments.  Scales from the hāpu’u pulu were used like band-aids where they were soaked in traditional antiseptic made from plants such as ‘ōlena and pōpolo and applied to the wound. A’ali’i is used for lei making. The forest also provided adornment, food sources, housing, dyes, clothing, games and other useful things.

Unfortunately, such plants such as kauila (used for hula sticks) and hanapepe (the embodiment of Laka) are becoming rarer and rarer according to a talk given by noted ethnobotanist Dr. Isabella Aiona Abbott at Bishop Museum.  Many endemic plants are endangered, with hundreds of species listed as only having less than 50 individuals left in the wild.  Though more common, plants such as hāpu’u, which are like giant sponges absorbing forest water and grow only about one centimeter a year (a 3-foot tall hāpu’u may be over 100 years old) are knocked down and eaten by feral ungulates or overtaken by non-native invasive weeds.

“Each time we lose another Hawaiian plant or bird or forest, we lose a living part of our ancient culture.”
— Nainoa Thompson, Polynesian Voyaging Society (taken from the Last Stand: The Vanishing Hawaiian Forest)

“The health and diversity of our native forest is essential to native practitioners who depend on it for cultural resources. The diverse forests that make up the core of the watershed on Kaua’i is considered Wao Akua, a place inhabited by the spirits.  Many of the plants and animals found in Wao Akua are considered by Hawaiian practitioners to be kinolau, physical embodiments of spirits.  As such, the protection of the diverse native forest in the core of our watershed is considered critical to Hawaiian practitioners.”
— Chipper Wichman, Director of the National Tropical Botanical Garden

Manifestations of the Forest in Hawaiian Culture

Below are some examples of how interwoven native forests (and its plants and animals) are within Hawaiian culture, from stories to chants to proverbs.


He Mele No Kāne (from the Kumulipo: A Hawaiian Creation Chant):

E u-i aku ana au ia oe
Aia i-hea ka Wai a kane?
Aia ai ke kua-hiwi,
I ke kua-lono,
I ke awawa,
I ke kaha-wai
Aia i-laila ka Wai a Kane
One question I put to you:
Where is the water of Kāne?
Yonder on mountain peak,
On the ridges steep,
In the valleys deep,
Where the rivers sweep;
There is the water of Kāne


E ola koa – Live like a koa tree (live a long time, like a koa tree in the forest)

Hau wawa ka nahele – A din in the forest (rumors and gossip abroad)

He la’au maka no ka nahelehele – A green wood of the forest (an inexperienced person)

‘A’ole i ‘ena ‘ena ka imu i ka mamane me ka ‘ulei, i ’ema’ema i ka la’ola’o – The imu is not heated by mamane and ‘ulei wood alone, but also by the kindling (to be powerful, a ruler must have the loyalty of the common people as well as the chief)

Haiamu ka manu i ka pua o ka mamane – The birds gather about the mamane blossom (said of one who is very popular with the opposite sex)

Mai hahaki i ka ‘ōhelo o punia i ka ua noe – Don’t pluck the ‘ōhelo berries or you will be surrounded in rain and fog (‘ōhelo was considered sacred to Pele and if they were picked on the way to Kīlauea crater, rain and fog would cause the traveler to lose their way)


Canoe makers of old watched the ‘elepaio before a koa tree was felled to make a canoe.  If the bird pecked at the wood looking for insects and other food, the tree was not selected because it would not have proven seaworthy

The ‘i’iwi is often mentioned in Hawaiian chants and its feathers were used in ki’i (images), ‘ahu ‘ula (feather capes), and other featherwork

When the palila’s whistle-like call was heard repeatedly throughout the forest, the Native Hawaiians believed it was a sign of the coming rain


Published in 1854 by S. N Haleole, the story of Lā’ieikawai provides the reader with a pathway into the Hawaiian forest.  Another story, Moolelo o Pakaa a me Kuapakaa, published in 1902 by Moses K. Nakuina also uses the Hawaiian forest as a backdrop and character in its story.  They also provide a glimpse into the status and health of native Hawaiian forests in the past.

How Watershed Partnerships are Helping to Preserve Natural and Cultural Resources

By working collaboratively with leading Native Hawaiian organizations such as Kamehameha Schools, Office of Hawaiian Affairs, and the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, the Watershed Partnerships (WPs) are working to protect critical forested watersheds that house many of these sacred places and species (click here to see how WPs make a difference or click on the media and interactive resources section to see a series of short videos about the work being done and places protected).

Examples include restoring the koa forest on Leeward Haleakalā so koa is available for canoe building, ensuring forests are healthy so they continue to capture water that feeds streams and groundwater aquifers which support agriculture as well as protect near shore marine areas used for fishing, and restoring/conserving many of the forest plants and animals celebrated in mo’olelo and mele/’oli.

In addition to on-the-ground management, WPs actively encourage Native Hawaiians to get involved in natural resource management by hiring them on as staff, working with programs like Kamehameha Schools’ ‘Aina Ulu program and the Hawai’i Youth Conservation Corp, and taking out hula halau into the native forest.

Resources to Learn More

Information presented on this page was taken from the following sources:

  • ‘Olelo No’eau, by Mary Kawena Pukui published by Bishop Museum Press 1983
  • Wao Akua, published by the State Division of Forestry and Wildlife, Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources
  • February 8, 2008 Star Bulletin article “Hula Plants’ Steward” by Jacquelyn Carberry
  • Spring 2008 edition of the Journal of Bishop Museum Ka’Elele The Messenger article “Hāpu’u: the Hawaiian Tree Fern”
  • He Mo’olelo ‘Āina: A Cultural Study of the Pu’u O ‘Umi Natural Area Reserve and Kohala-Hāmākua Mountain Lands, Districts of Kohala and Hāmākua, Island of Hawai’i by Kumu Pono Associates LLC 2004
  • Last Stand: The Vanishing Hawaiian Forest published by the Nature Conservancy of Hawaii
  • Conservation Council for Hawaii

Additional related resources are also listed: