Dr. Sam Ohu Gon III is a scientist, a Hawaiian cultural practitioner, a paleobiologist and a teacher. His professional life has been dedicated to conservation of native biological diversity, and to the connections between the natural world and indigenous culture of Hawaii. Both skills have a role in his career with The Nature Conservancy, and have led to his placement on the State of Hawaii Board of Land and Natural Resources, the Board of Trustees of the Native Hawaiian Culture and Arts Program, the Advisory Council of the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum Association, and Affiliate Faculty for The Department of Urban and Regional Planning, University of Hawai’i at Manoa. His goal is to further integrate the current expansion of Hawaiian cultural regrowth into the movement for conservation and sustainable human ecology for Hawaii.
I’ve seen Sam present at several events now, most recently at The Hawaii Island Festival of Birds in Kona in September and at The Hawaii Conservation Conference in Honolulu in July. The pictures above are from his presentation at the birding festival. Here I attempt to explain a little of the cultural significance of birds to the Hawaiian people by describing the powerful women and the naughty elepaio shown in the photo above. We are all truly blessed to have Sam Ohu Son III as a part of our Hawaii conservation and cultural community. Not only does he continue to help preserve our natural environment for our endemic and endangered wildlife but he continues share and sustain the sacred Hawaiian traditions, teachings, and beliefs.
“We find in native traditions and beliefs, that Hawaiians shared spiritual and familial relationships with the natural resources around them. Each aspect of nature from the stars in the heavens, to the winds, clouds, rains, growth of the forests and life therein, and everything on the land and in the ocean, was believed to be alive. Indeed, every form of nature was a body-form of some god or lesser deity.
In the Hawaiian mind, care for each aspect of nature, the kino lau (myriad body-forms) of the elder life forms, was a way of life. This concept is still expressed by Hawaiian kūpuna (elders) through the present day, and passed on in many native families. Also, in this cultural context, anything which damages the native nature of the land, forests, ocean, and kino lau therein, damages the integrity of the whole. Thus caring for, and protecting the land and ocean resources, is a way of life.” –Kepā Maly & Onaona Maly
Laʻieikawai (depicted above) and her twin sister Laʻielohelohe were princesses, and were born in Lāʻie, Oʻahu. They were separated and hidden away from their father who had all his daughters killed at birth because he wanted a first born son. Laʻieikawai was hidden in a cave which was only accessed by diving in pool of water named Waiapuka. Soon it was well known that someone of royalty resided nearby because of the rainbow that graced the sky above her cave dwelling. Her grandmother Waka secretly tried to smuggle her to Paliuli, Puna, Hawai’i Island. On the way there others heard of her beauty and the rumors travelled all throughout the islands. Aiwohikupua, a chief from the island of Kaua’i decided he would pursue her. At her home in Paliuli, Laieikawai was attended by supernatural birds such as the ‘i’iwi polena. It is said she could float on the wings of the birds. While other royalty in Hawai’i had mere feather capes and cloaks, Laʻieikawai had a house made of the sacred feathers.
Hiʻiaka (depicted above), or the youngest Hiiaka, was the patron goddess of Hawai’i. Owls were her messengers and were sacred to her. Her common and family name means “carried egg” – “hiʻi”, to hold or carry in the arms (as a child), and “aka”, meaning embryo – referring to the story of how she was brought to Hawaiʻi by her sister Pele. Her family line is called Hiʻiaka, and they take on the task of bearing the clouds, providing rain, thunder and lightning variously, those of storms and those produced by Pele’s volcanoes. Hiʻiaka lived in a grove of Lehua trees which are sacred to her where she spent her days dancing with the forest spirits. Hiʻiaka was conceived in Tahiti, but carried in the form of an egg to Hawaiʻi by Pele, who kept the egg with her at all times to incubate it. From this, she earned her full name, Hiʻiaka-i-ka-poli-o-Pele: “Hiʻiaka in the bosom of Pele”. Hiʻiaka is Pele’s favorite and most loyal sister, although they have also had their differences. Hiʻiaka was the first God of this pantheon (the Pele family) born in Hawaii.
No ka ‘Elepaio Kolohe, (The Naughty ‘Elepaio), In this story the ‘Elepaio pecks a hole in Kanaka’s water gourd, provoking the man to throw a rock at him. ‘Elepaio flits about the forest trying to get sympathy from the other birds. In the end, ‘Elepaio learns that when you do bad things to others, bad things come back to you.