The Hawaiian Ahupua'a and
Importance of Sharks in Hawaiian Culture
by Marina Praet
Mālama i ke kai, a mālama ke kai iā ‘oe!
Take care of the ocean and the ocean will care for you!
Each island is divided into sections known as moku (large districts) that are further broken down into smaller divisions known as ahupua‘a. Each ahupua‘a has enough resources to be self-sustaining for all inhabitants within its boundaries. These ahupua‘a extend from mauka to makai (mountain to ocean) and it was the community's kuleana to mālama ʻāina (responsibility to care for the land) so everyone could benefit from its resources. There are many ahupua‘a on the island of Hawai‘i. The residents of this rugged lava-covered shoreline rely heavily on the brackish freshwater springs to provide a sufficient water supply and on the ocean for their resources. The most important features of the shoreline are the fishponds and biodiverse reefs that provided sufficient food for the entire ahupua‘a. Hawaiians see a correlation between the reef and the community of the ahupua‘a. They know that a healthy reef had a system of hierarchy just as the ahupua‘a and they see that the sharks were at the top of the chain. One of the most well-known proverbs according to the Olelo No’eau by Mary Kawena Pukui states, “He manō holo ‘āina ke ali’i.” (The Chief is a shark that travels on land.)
They know that sharks keep a balance in the marine ecosystem and are taught from a young age to enter the water with respect for this beautiful apex predator. This respect has been gradually lost over the years as this beautiful self-sustaining island was engulfed by western civilization and the teachings of native Hawaiians were washed away like a receding tide. While people from all over the world now visit the island the sharks that call it home are defying all odds and still flourish in spite of the lack of understanding and respect given to them and their home. Although the sharks may still inhabit the waters today, they might not tomorrow if there isn’t a shift in the way we treat their home.
Hawaiians have a deep spiritual connection to the oceans. They believe the first human life grew from coral polyps as described in the Kumulipo creation chant, "Hānau ka ‘uku ko‘ako‘a, hānau kāna, he ‘ako‘ako‘a, puka." (Born was the coral polyp, born was the coral, came forth). Within the ocean, sharks are greatly respected as fierce predators and known as the carriers of mana (spiritual power). With sharks holding so much spiritual importance in Hawaiian culture it is no surprise certain species are some families ‘aumakua. An ‘aumakua is a family's ancestor whose spirit has taken on a physical form such as a shark, other animals, or even an inanimate object. Those who have specific sharks as their ‘aumakua would feed and even pet the shark they believed to be their relative in return for protection. These sharks are so sacred to the Hawaiians an underwater heiau was built and dedicated to the shark gods. This heiau is called Hale ō Kapuni and is marked with a pohakū (stone). While this heiau hasn’t been visible since the 1950's, modern shark activity is still very present at the location which is about a mile south of Kawaihae Harbor. In addition to being a protective ‘aumakua and godlike figures, the sharks hold roles in the ahupua‘a as defenders of the reefs.