Cultivating an Ancient Wisdom

Growing, gathering and teaching, these Hawaiians are sustaining a culture.


Story by Kyle Ellison

If humanity has a common denominator, it’s the fact that we all need food to survive. Yet food is also central to cultural identity. How food is grown, prepared, and used is arguably as important in defining a culture as lineage, language and lore. That’s a lesson three Maui County residents have worked to impart—keeping traditional knowledge alive to sustain the body while feeding cultural soul.

Hokuao Pellegrino
Hōkūao Pellegrino stands tall in a taro field—one of five lo‘i that have been restored at his family’s Noho‘ana Farm to date. An educator as well as a farmer, Pellegrino has taught hundreds of youngsters how to grow this staple of the Hawaiian diet. Along the way, he’s seen an interest in sustainable agriculture flourish and grow from the mud.

Following in the Footsteps

They say that even the longest journey begins with a single step. Hōkūao Pellegrino took that step in 2003, when he found wild kalo growing in Waikapū Valley.

To Hawaiians, kalo is more than a staple food; it’s a sacred crop, considered the elder sibling of mankind. Hawaiian legend tells of Hāloa, a stillborn child conceived by Ho‘ohokukalani and the Sky Father, Wākea. From Hāloa’s grave a kalo plant grew, nourishing a second child to whom all Hawaiians trace their roots.

Hawaiian taroGrowing up here along Waikapū Stream, Pellegrino would often explore the land behind his house, and pass by walls of lo‘i kalo (taro fields) that had been abandoned and forgotten. On one of those trips he found two varieties growing wild up in the valley, and brought them home to see if they’d grow.

Fast forward nearly thirteen years. Forty-five different varieties now thrive at Noho‘ana Farm, a two-and-a-half-acre, stream-front property his family has owned since 1848. Kalo was grown here until the 1940s, but when the family moved away for a time, the fields succumbed to weeds. Today Pellegrino is restoring those lo‘i, using the same pōhaku (stones) the walls were built with 400 to 500 hundred years ago.

Though his land is in cultivation again, Pellegrino believes his responsibility extends beyond providing the community with poi. It is also e ola ka mahi ‘ai ku‘una—“keeping the culture alive in agriculture.”

Each year he hosts more than 1,000 young people, from preschoolers to graduate students. “At the beginning,” he says, “my purpose was to reengage students in agriculture. Now it’s getting them to appreciate the land, whether they become farmers or not.”

Farming can be hard work, but Pellegrino believes that establishing a deep sense of culture and connection is the key to keeping the next generation engaged—so that weeding the lo‘i isn’t seen as punishment, but as reward.

“We don’t just share the mo‘olelo [stories] of our ancestors regarding Hāloa,” he says. “We take them [into] the lo‘i, work with the kalo, and prepare the food that has sustained us. It’s then that students can really understand the reasoning that Hāloanakalaukapalili, our elder brother, gave up his life to provide us with one of the world’s healthiest crops.

“I can think of no other plant as spiritually significant and culturally timeless to Hawaiians. Without Hawaiians there would be no Hawai‘i, and without kalo, there would be no Hawaiians.”


Napua Barrows holding limu (seaweed)

Limu (seaweed) is an important part of the traditional Hawaiian diet. Used to add flavor and variety to meals, it’s also a source of vitamins and minerals. Since noticing native species in decline, Napua Barrows has been replanting the reef, and teaching youth how to identify different types of limu and harvest it sustainably.

Replanting the Reef

When I find Alyson Napua Barrows on the sands of Waihe‘e Beach Park, she’s down on one knee, holding her phone, and photographing the end of a log.

As the founder of Waihe‘e Limu Restoration Group, it’s the type of thing Barrows does whenever she finds a species of limu (seaweed) like the one clinging to the seaward edge of this log. Though she grew up gathering limu with her grandparents on O‘ahu, most of Barrows’s knowledge is the result of diligent study in the classroom at the University of Hawai‘i–Mānoa, and out on Maui’s shores. She can tell you that limu kohu is prized for its taste and medicinal qualities; and that limu kala is for ho‘oponopono—cultural gatherings of forgiveness, where the limu is eaten at a conflict’s resolution, as a traditional symbol of release. She knows which type is best for poke (a Hawaiian dish of raw fish), or brewing up in a stew, and the seasons, conditions, and island locations that are best for finding it.

Ancient Hawaiians were familiar with up to seventy species of limu. Today only trace amounts of that knowledge remain. It’s something Barrows is out to fix, combining what she finds on the reef with historical texts and accounts to piece together what her ancestors knew.

When she moved to Waihe‘e in the 1980s, native species like manauea flourished along the shore, but by the 1990s she and other limu gatherers began to notice a change.

“You just didn’t see as much limu on the reef anymore, and the fish population was decreasing. Invasive seaweeds were starting to crowd out the natives, and freshwater springs that helped them to thrive were starting to all dry up.”

Barrows knew she had to do something before the native species disappeared. She took to gathering limu from Kanahā, carefully inspecting it for invasives, and then transplanting it by the reef in Waihe‘e by tying it onto rocks.

The process, she admits, is trial and error. “Every section of shoreline has its own specialty of limu,” she explains. You see what works, what doesn’t work, and then try to figure out why. You monitor the currents, the fish, and the shoreline, and it gradually starts to make sense. Through lectures and beach days with student groups, she’s working to pass that knowledge along.

Though Barrows is humble about whether her efforts are making a difference, as if on cue a voice chimes up from a snorkeler strolling the shore.

“Are you planting today?” asks her friend Christina, who’s been swimming here since 1973. “We used to gather ogo here,” she tells me, “and then it just got wiped out. But since Auntie’s been restoring, we have limu again; it’s really coming back.”

Info: Waihe‘e Limu Restoration, 808-264-4135

volunteers helping Maui
Mervin Dudoit’s chainsaw isn’t traditional—but neither were the invasive mangroves that were taking over the pond before he starting felling them. Volunteers help restore Moloka‘i’s Ali‘i fishpond, dry stacking the rocks as their ancestors did.

Restacking the Stones

“You know what you do with the young kids?” asks Mervin Dudoit. “You play one game of ‘Pull and Slap.’ You pull out the mangroves and slap ‘em in da bucket. It keeps the kids entertained.”

It’s one of the activities “Uncle Merv” uses with school groups and volunteers who come to restore and learn about Moloka‘i’s ancient system of fishponds. Since 2003, he and the nonprofit Ka Honua Momona (“the bountiful Earth”) have been repairing Ali‘i and Kaloko‘eli fishponds. Built by hand, the pond walls arc out from shore, punctuated by a mākāhā, or sluice gate, that allows small fish to enter and feed, but traps them inside once they grow. Whatever tempests happened at sea, fishponds provided Hawaiians with a secure and sustainable food source. It’s a process Dudoit wants the next generation to learn and work to bring back.

A lifelong ocean fisherman, Dudoit has had to learn the skills of successfully managing a pond, but if you “look and pay attention,” he says, “the Hawaiians will show you what they did.”

For example, when Hawaiians built the fishpond walls over 600 years ago, they stacked the rocks without mortar. Dry stacking leaves spaces between the rocks, allowing water to flow through to aerate the ponds, though over time some rocks have toppled from waves, currents, and tides. Dudoit has volunteers wade into the warm, waist-deep waters, and retrieve the original rocks from the bottom to dry stack the walls once again. He and his volunteers have restored over 500 feet of wall, or kuapā, at Ali‘i fishpond alone. As long as the ponds receive regular maintenance, those walls will stand.

The work is back straining, but the sense of connecting with early Hawaiians, and learning traditional methods, has sparked an interest among Moloka‘i’s youth. “When the kids come to help out,” says Dudoit, “we put ‘em in the pond and we make them work hard.” He can tell they’re interested, because “They ask a lot of questions, like ‘Why this?’ and ‘Why that?’”

One of those “whys”: Why do they walk barefoot out through the mucky pond bottom? The reason, Dudoit explains, is to dredge the pond as their ancestors did, by breaking up sediment with their feet and allowing the current and outgoing tide to carry it out to sea. Because that sediment is evidence of runoff from shore, it’s also a reminder to care for the land: What happens mauka (inland) affects the life of the ocean. “I tell ‘em do it for the kūpuna,” Dudoit adds, “because important to take care of dem.”

Those kūpuna (island elders) love receiving ‘anae (mullet), and Dudoit teaches youth when to harvest, and when to leave fish alone. The season for mullet begins April 1, but Dudoit cautions, “If you throw net and see some still have eggs, then you gotta wait little bit longer.”

In front of the office at Ali‘i fishpond, kalo and papayas grow, but it’s the ponds where Mervin has set his hopes. “We do this ‘cuz we want to see the culture come back—teach the right way fo’ do it. Most the fishponds on the island are broken. [If] you bring ‘em back you can feed Hawai‘i, pretty much guaranteed.”

Info: 808-553-8353 or



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