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tribal man Revive & Restore

Dr. Samuel M. ‘Ohukani‘ōhi‘a Gon, III
Senior Scientist and Cultural Advisor
The Nature Conservancy of Hawai‘i

Sam began the September 3 Pavilion event — “Stamping Out Mosquitoes in Hawaii: Can new technology stop avian malaria from driving Hawaii’s native birds to extinction?” with a recitation of a portion of the creation chant of Hawaii, before sharing with the audience the role these native forest birds play in Hawaiian culture and imagination.

The following day, he opened the September 4 workshop — “Genetic Rescue: Can new genomic tools solve conservation problems such as exotic wildlife diseases and destructive invasive species?” — with an impassioned explanation of the importance of the ʻōhiʻa tree in Hawaii, both ecologically and culturally.

For the full text of Sam’s speeches, click here: Native Forest Birds | The ‘Ōhi‘a Tree

Prepared Remarks: September 3, 2016
Text by Sam Gon

Anuanu ke kiamanu i ka wao lipolipo,
hoʻopulu wale i ke kulukulu uhiwai;
ʻimi i ka ʻōʻō hulu melemele,
ka pā hane mai i ke ahe mālie,
a he leo, he mai e…
Aloha mai kākou!

In the Kumulipo, the long creation chant of Hawaiʻi, forest birds are mentioned very early, long before the major Hawaiian gods, and therefore epochs before people. Thus birds are elders of even the gods, and in Polynesian culture, and many ancient cultures of the world, elders are revered, respected, and cared for.

The association of Hawaiian forest birds with the gods extends to material culture, perhaps best known as expressed in the intricate and beautiful feather work of Hawaiʻi, provided by such birds as the ʻiʻiwi shown here, as well as the mamo, the ʻōʻō, and others. The association of our forest birds with the sacred also places them deeply into traditional knowledge; into stories in which birds are the kahu, or caretakers of goddesses, and alternately, where they serve as the aerial spies for forest gods. In traditional proverbs and wise sayings that teach important moral lessons, or make observations on the human condition, our Hawaiian forest birds remark on everything from the majesty of royal people, to admonitions against having a sour disposition.

So, whether as the kinolau, or physical manifestations of Hawaiian gods and ancestors, as the source of remarkable beauty in traditional Hawaiian feather work, or their role in Hawaiian knowledge and traditions, our forest birds represent a irreplaceable biocultural resource as well as a textbook example of island adaptive radiation. When such a legacy is threatened with obliteration, we must take steps to identify the solutions where we can, and apply them.

It has long been known that mosquitoes, introduced to Hawaiʻi less than two hundred years ago, carry foreign bird diseases, avian malaria and avian pox, which even today make the mosquito-ridden lowlands a death zone for our endemic forest birds. With human mosquito-borne diseases such as dengue, Zika, and chikun-gunya on the rise and threatening us directly, we can think on the fact that for our forest birds, such dreadful prospects have been at work for over a century, killing one of our invaluable cultural and natural assets, but because these diseases didn’t pose an immediate human health risk, and because we had no real tools for dealing with them, we could do nothing about it.

But today, that has changed…

Ohia Tree Revive & Restore
Ohia Tree and Native Forest Birds Revive & Restore
Ohia tree plant in forest Revive & Restore
Lehua fiery symbol of Pele Revive and Restore
Nectar rich flower Revive & Restore

Prepared Remarks: September 4, 2016
Text and Images by Sam Gon

E Kū i ka lana mai nu’u, E Kū i ka ‘ōhi‘a lele, E Kū i ka ‘ōhi‘a lehua
E Kū i ka ‘ōhi‘a hāuli, E Kū i ka ‘ōhi‘a moe wai, E Kū mai ka lani, Kū I ke ao
E Kū i ka honua, E Kū i ka ōhi‘a ‘ihi, E Kū i ka lani, ka ‘ōhi‘a, ka haku…

This chant to Kū, Hawaiian good of governance, is a direct and powerful testimony to the long-held and persistent bio cultural significance of ‘ōhi‘a lehua, the dominant tree of our native forest ecosystems. The tree is an adaptable and extremely variable species, in flower color, leaf shape, and stature. Its nectar-rich flowers provide the mainstay for Hawaiian honeycreepers, our endemic forest birds.

The tree itself is considered one of the kinolau, or physical manifestations, of Kū, one of the four principal Hawaiian deities. But other gods, and goddesses of Hawai’i also lay claim to ‘ōhi‘a. The wood of ‘ōhi‘a lehua is incorporated into some of the most sacred structures of the heiau (temples) of governance, called luakini. For example, the ki’i akua (god figures) of Kū, were sometimes carved from ‘ōhi‘a. They possessed such high mana that it required a human sacrifice to remove an ‘ōhi‘a from the forest if it was destined to become the likeness of Kū.

The red flowers of the ‘ōhi‘a tree are called lehua. The word lehua carries many significant meanings, beyond being the name of the blossom of the ‘ōhi‘a tree. The first warrior to fall in battle is called lehua. The red, orange, and yellow of lehua all serve as fiery symbols of Pele, goddess of volcanic fire. A paramount expert in the field of skill is called lehua, which is also a term that refers to abundance. The striking brilliant colors of lehua blossoms make the lei lehua among the most exalted of lei.

‘Ōhi‘a lehua is a prevalent and easily recognized presence in ecosystems from sea level to tree line, and numerous ‘ōlelo no’eau (wise and poetical sayings) refer to ‘ōhi‘a as a positive symbol of strength, sanctity, and beauty. The species is strongly dominant in wet forest, so the tree and the flower is strongly associated with rain. Numerous rains incorporate lehua into their names, such as the Ua-kani-lehua, Moaniani-lehua, and the Līlī-lehua. Montane wet ‘ōhi‘a forests have been called lā’au ’ohi wai, or forest that gathers water, linking in the minds of Hawaiians that the name ‘ōhi‘a alludes to the gathering ‘ohi of the water of life, high in the realm of the gods.

All of these primary cultural underpinnings make ‘ōhi‘a lehua perhaps the single most culturally significant tree in Hawai’i. This cannot be ignored when considering the value of ‘ōhi‘a as an element of essential conservation value wherever it grows.