Exploring Indigenous Values from a Hawaiian Lens

Reviewing: Island Wisdom by Kainoa Danes & Annie Daly

To be perfectly honest I probably wouldn’t have picked up this book in a store, with its bright, friendly cover and the title Island Wisdom. And I think that’s a good thing! I suspect that the cover will appeal to folks who are looking for a more sanitized, tourism-focused, or even whitewashed view of Hawai’i, and thus those who are going to have the most to learn from what is actually inside—an account of Native Hawaiian worldviews, centering indigenous people and sharing their traditions, philosophies, and practices.

Folks who are already familiar with indigenous worldviews will learn how those of Hawaiians connect and differ from other cultures, and all readers will have a chance to think about how they can apply Hawaiian teachings to their own context, particularly in a time where re-connection to land and lineage are so crucial for our collective survival.

This is not a book that exoticizes Hawai’i or encourages the non-Hawaiian spiritual traveler to “find themselves” on the islands. Instead, the reader is encouraged to consider how to apply this wisdom without travel, in their own local context. Indigenous Hawaiian Kainoa Danes actually struggled with whether to embark on this project, given the Hawaiian tradition of passing on stories orally and experientially, and the risk of misunderstanding or misuse by a larger audience. But he ultimately decided to participate given the potential for this wisdom to inspire folks globally to live according to Hawaiian principles, which would significantly reduce harm to and ultimately heal our planet.

Danes and journalist Annie Daly kept the project as Hawaiian as possible given its written format by engaging a broad swathe of local community and including multiple perspectives on every concept in the book. Elders and other locals share stories, practices, and ideas and are also featured in photographs throughout the pages. This book thus serves as a piece of collective storytelling, as well as a teaching tool. Some of those interviewed are experts in a particular craft, while others simply share their perspectives, stories, and understandings from day-to-day life on the islands.

Four key concepts form the skeleton of the book: aloha, ‘āina, mo’olelo, and ‘ohana. Within each section, the authors explain other related terms and concepts in context, blending Danes’ direct understanding with perspectives from other locals. Though these foundational Hawaiian concepts aren’t possible to simply translate, in the aloha section the authors talk about practicing deep, compassionate love and balance between the logical mind and inner knowing, in the ‘āina section about the importance of land stewardship and relationship and what it means to belong to the land, in the mo’olelo section about storytelling practices and language as well as the importance of mystery or hidden wisdom, and in the ‘ohana section about expansive understandings of family and ancestry as well as how Hawaiians view personal responsibility and life purpose.

The authors blend together modern stories, Hawaiian history, and the tales of Hawaiian deities alongside more direct explications of local concepts. They also include plenty of sections on key traditional practices such as lei-making and hula—often with instruction for readers who want to try a practice out themselves, but adapted to a form that’s appropriate for practice in non-Hawaiian context. This can be as simple as making poke with local ingredients, or as long-term and evolving as finding your kuleana (roughly, your contribution to society).

Other guidance is more philosophical or spiritual, less “to do” and more “principles to meditate on and live by.” I found the specifics of language and the way different Hawaiians contextualized key terms particularly interesting, and I enjoyed learning about the specificity of how these Hawaiian concepts ground fairly universal indigenous values into the metaphors of the local environment. Readers familiar with other indigenous cultures and ancient wisdom traditions will find plenty of familiar ideas here, but you’ll also learn how the specifics of Hawaiian geographic isolation, unique land stewardship practices, and of course encounters with and resistance to colonialism inform the Hawaiian perspective. It’s an easy read, but full of depth and important teachings.

ARC provided through Edelweiss. Purchases using the above link support me, as well as local bookstores!

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