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Economic Recovery, Hawaiian Style

What indigenous economies can teach us about abundance.

Kalo field in Hanalei, photo by Robert Hutchinson

Kalo plants in Kaua'i's Hanalei Valley. Many consider the ancient crop kalo (taro, a staple in Native Hawaiian diets) to be a central part of restoring food security to the Hawaiian islands.

There was once enough for everyone. That was before Captain Cook “discovered” our Hawaiian islands on his way to find a  northwest passage, before the missionaries came to save our heathen ancestors and before the American businessmen called in  the U.S. Navy to protect their land investments. For centuries before western contact, the Hawaiian people flourished. There was no disease, no hunger, no homelessness, no economic recession. That was then. Today, we who call Hawai‘i home are mostly mainstream Americans, often holding two or more jobs just to survive, and we are dependent on the outside world for virtually everything, even bottled water.

When Captain Cook arrived on our shores in 1778, the population was somewhere between 400,000 and a million. Complex agricultural systems, sophisticated fishing laws and a deep spirituality that was at the heart of government and community life were all evidence of a highly advanced people who had been living throughout the islands for many hundreds of years. Hawaiians knew when to fish and when to plant according to seasons and the phases of the moon; they knew what herbs and prayers to use to cure illnesses and broken bones; they had names for everything. Our ancestors had highly developed arts and leisure time. They spoke in poetry and metaphor and had great oratorical skills. They could trace their genealogies back to a time when gods and humans lived freely among each other.

In the Hawaiians’ worldview, everything was connected, including the trees, the stones, the birds, the stars. As humans, their role, or kuleana, was to be the guardians, to maintain the balance and harmony of all things. To help carry out these responsibilities, Hawaiians were born with spiritual powers, or mana. Any abuse or misuse of these powers would result in a loss of one’s mana, as in leaders who showed greed or who did not act in the best interests of the people. Mana could also grow in those who demonstrated exceptional skills, whether it was in fishing, healing, canoe making, and so on. Great warriors and leaders were revered as having very powerful mana.

The cultural practices of the people assured that food would always be abundant and that the earth, in its bounty, would provide for everyone. These practices were based on taking only what one needed and only when those things were plentiful. When fishermen had successful catches they fed their families, then the community. They would trade with farmers for taro and other staples. Nothing was wasted.

After over two hundred years of western influence and immigration to our islands, our sovereign government is long gone, mana has no correlation to leadership and the global market now dictates the success of our tourism-based economy. In the mainstream, we are like most other Americans, bombarded by slick ads and peer pressure to buy large screen televisions, bigger cars to protect ourselves from everyone else’s big cars, and more food on our plates than we can—or should—eat.

We are encouraged to buy things we can’t afford and don’t need. Natural resources are being depleted faster than they can be renewed to keep up with this compulsory demand, a trend that is making our land and water toxic and has contributed to our islands’ loss of sustainability.

Rebecca AdamsonAge-Old Wisdom for the New Economy

Indigenous peoples have learned a few things about making it through hard times. Rebecca Adamson discusses what traditional economies did to foster abundance, sharing, and harmony with Mother Earth.

High fuel costs and the downturn in the national economy have taken an enormous toll on our state. Fewer visitors to our islands have caused businesses to close and new construction to be delayed, which in turn has increased unemployment and is draining the state treasury. Our government leaders’ response to this economic crisis has been to raise local taxes, decide which government programs to cut, and whether to furlough or lay off state employees. These quick-fix choices do not present courageous or visionary solutions to this or future recessions, instead they only serve to reinforce how dependent we have become on the outside world for survival and what little control we as individuals have over our own lives.

While analysts predict that recovery is around the corner, they caution that the economy will not likely return to the high growth rates of the past few years, at least not anytime soon. This contention is supported by the ongoing instability of foreign governments, the aging of our own American population, now increasingly concerned about having money for retirement, and in the longer term, the effects of global warming on the environment. Although we are gaining confidence that it is safe to spend again, we would be well served to take the experts’ warnings as an opportunity to rethink the economic philosophies that guide our country, our state, and most importantly, our own ways of thinking.

Although much in Hawai‘i has changed, the values of our culture have been passed down to us, and by looking both backward and forward, we can forge real solutions that will improve our sustainability now and in the future. Growth in our Western economic system is based on increased consumption. This is a contradiction to the most basic precept that our ancestors passed down to us: take only what you need. If this idea can be at the heart of decisions that leaders, corporate executives and even consumers make, then economic crises will become obsolete.

We do not have to stop consuming or abandon our western lifestyles to achieve sustainability, nor does the gross national product need to grow at high rates every year to maintain a stable economy. If we consume only what we need, even when we are not in a recession, the economy will eventually adjust downwards and stabilize. This would decrease the power of the multinational corporations and the volatility and impact of global economics on our local communities. To think, this could all happen because we stopped buying things we don’t need, or at the very least, started buying less of what we don’t need!

The Earth and the economy are inextricably tied together. As we deplete our natural resources we can expect that there will be increasingly less of everything in the future unless we think in terms of using less and replenishing what we take. This idea is consistent with the Hawaiian concept of kuleana, that is, taking personal responsibility to be sure that what we take is not more than we need and that we replace or compensate for what we take so as not disturb the balance of all things. We adopted the ways of the colonizers in order to survive. In spite of the decimation of our populations, we are still here, and we still carry the DNA of our ancestors who understood the rhythms of nature and lived in harmony with the earth.

Americans are starting to lose confidence that past solutions to our economic problems will continue to be effective. Our system may eventually collapse if we do not fix what’s really wrong. As Native people we are in a position to help shift the paradigm of western economic thinking by leading through example—consuming less and taking only what we need. The more we take responsibility for our own actions and support leaders whose policies are in our best interests, the sooner the changes can start to be made that will assure the survival of our grandchildren, their descendants, and, most importantly, our beloved Earth.


Lurline Wailana McGregorLurline Wailana McGregor grew up in Honolulu, Hawai‘i in the 1950s and 1960s in a community that reflected her own multicultural background. She has served as staff to U.S. Senator Dan Inouye in Washington, D.C., on the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs; headed up a national public broadcasting consortium for indigenous Pacific Islanders; and produced several award-winning documentary films. Most of the trophies on her shelf, though, are for canoe paddling.

Editor's note: Lurline Wailana McGregor 's essay was one of seven winning entries in Native Insight: Thoughts on Recession, Recovery & Opportunity, an essay contest sponsored by the Alaska Federation of Natives that asked competitors to offer their perspectives on the current economic and political landscape, as well as thoughts and ideas related to economic renewal.

Interested?

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Wall Street is bankrupt. Instead of trying to save it, we can build a new economy that puts money and business in the service of people and the planet—not the other way around.

The Good Food Revolution
The lush landscape of Hawai‘i once offered abundant food. What can these islands teach us about food and sufficiency?

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