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Nora Mertens

Significance - Indigenous values and approaches to life, education and environment, as found on Hawai’i Island, 2011.


Key words: Hawai'i, indigenous knowledge and consciousness, global benefit, nature exploitation, polynesian culture, environmental anthropology, true meaning of aloha, being pono



Today, in post-colonial, post-sugar plantation times, Hawai’i Island is a culturally very diverse place, consisting of, f.ex., Native Hawaiians/Polynesians, Americans from the mainland, Japanese, Filipinos, Puerto Ricans, Indonesians. Yet indigenous values (and the Hawaiian language) are more prevalent today than they have been for many years, despite Hawaii’s inquisition by the United States, and the introduction of a western/industrial lifestyle, as well as Christianity - not just among native Hawaiians (Polynesians whose ancestors have lived in Hawaii for many generations), but also among people of diverse cultural backgrounds, who have moved to Hawaii for various reasons, often attracted by the Hawaiian lifestyle, values, nature, climate, or having grown up there as children of plantation workers. While criminality, drug abuse and teenage pregnancy seem to be an issue, often explained by a loss of identity, efforts are being undertaken to teach children the Hawaiian language and cultural knowledge (e.g. Hula dance, boat building, or planting the sacred plant Taro), to reconnect them with their heritage and give them a sense of belonging and identity, which includes knowledge about true meaning of Aloha and the importance of being pono.

Learning about Hawaiian indigenous values and cultural knowledge through conversations, participant observation, and literature over the past three years, I discovered values and ways of giving meaning to one’s life, profession, family and environment, that I could relate to personally, beyond an academic interest. Over time I came to appreciate the unique opportunity I had to create a filmic representation of the region’s cultural/spiritual/social values and beliefs, as they are being lived and understood today on Hawai’i Island, 2011.


As I see it at this point, my research is a combination of different disciplines: Environmental Anthropology, Polynesian Culture, Native American Studies, even Religious and Spiritual Studies, and Visual Anthropology. So far, indigenous media and films on Native Americans represent, as I have experienced at e.g. the Native American Film Festival in NYC, mostly injustices done to Native Americans in the past up through the present, rather than finding something positive and beneficiary in what still remains.

Thus, in my research I intend to ask the question: How are indigenous knowledge and consciousness lived today? And in light of current crises (global warming, exploitation of nature, natural catastrophes, wars, societal issues as drug abuse or obesity, etc.), how might that consciousness benefit the planet and the humans inhabiting it? I have found people on Hawai’i Island who are aware of these issues (which are also prevalent on Hawai’i Island), who are living a more or less western, modern lifestyle, while consciously incorporating indigenous values into their professions (e.g. agriculture and education), and personal/family life. My interviewees/subjects are a small group of representatives especially of the community in and around the town Honoka’a and Waipi’o Valley. I found many similarities among them, especially in relation to indigenous values and approaches to life, education and environment on Hawai’i Island, in 2011. Most of them I have actively interviewed, some of them just appear in my film. They are of diverse cultural backgrounds – only one of them is Native Hawaiian/Polynesian. Open questions which I have asked in my interviews, to which I will give my subjects’ answers in my film and thesis are: - What does it mean to be Hawaiian, esp. today as Hawaii is so culturally diverse? - Cultural and personal understanding of and experience with the ‘goddess’ Pele. - How do you understand values like Aloha, Pono, intuition etc.? - How are you applying Hawaiian values in your life and profession? - Why do you think those indigenous values are still/again so present esp. in Hawaii, despite it being a western society (officially part of the US)? How could they be globally applied?

I don’t want my film to just consist of talking heads and stories/opinions/narrative information, but want to also give a visual insight into certain moments that don’t involve talking, and the environment/surrounding/nature - especially since it is such a big part of my research and my subjects’ reality. I have visual footage of landscape, other people, children, concerts, etc., which I will add in the editing process whenever it seems suitable. The final film will consists of about 7 different ‘chapters’: 1)      Introduction: Hawaii today/history/perception 2) Aloha and Ohana 3) Pono 4) Pele 5) Na’au (Intuition) 6) Power of Hawai’I (What is Real) 7) Western vs. Indigenous Hawaiian Education.