A Kamaʻāina of Molokaʻi, ELP Professor Malia Akutagawa ’97, Shares Her Story

Aloha kākou, I am a child of Molokaʻi. Aloha ʻāina rests deeply in my heart and in the bosom of all who call Molokaʻi home. Nestled in the center of the Hawaiian archipelago, Molokaʻi is the piko of Ka Pae ʻĀina. 

Because we are the piko, we are a people that speak from our nāʻau (gut), holding both ourselves and those who interact with us to a high standard of pono (righteousness) and kuleana (responsibility) to protect our Molokaʻi Nui A Hina (sacred child of Hina).  The birth chant of our island also speaks to Molokaʻi’s sacredness:

               ​​Loaʻa Molokai, he akua, he kahuna                         Born is Molokai, a god, a priest

               He pualena no Nuʻumea                                             The first morning light from Nu‘umea

Nu`umealani, the raised place in the heavens, is where our Molokaʻi was manifested in thought. It was then born of Hina into the physical realm.  Like other mokulana known throughout Hawaiʻi and Polynesia, Nu`umealani is a floating island of abundance where the akua and the people were known to each other and freely interacted, bringing heaven upon earth.  This imagery speaks to how Molokaʻi evolved throughout history and what it is today for us. There are several ancient names of Molokaʻi that reveal the character of this special island. 

Molokaʻi ʻĀina Momona (Molokaʻi, the fat land, the sweet land, the abundant land) is our historic legacy.  Known for the many fishponds that grace the shoreline and our fertile lands that produced so much food that other islands coveted our wealth and sent their armies to stock their canoes, Molokaʻi is still seen today as a place of abundance.  We continue to fish, hunt, and farm as mainstays of our traditional subsistence lifestyle and economy. 

Molokaʻi Pule Oʻo is a name bequeathed to us from a Maui chief. It was the pule oʻo (ripened and potent prayers) of Molokaʻi’s priests that vanquished an entire army of invaders from Maui, until only the enemy chief remained to tell the story of his epic defeat and to warn others of the power of our kahuna. Again, in 1819 when Kaʻahumanu sent her soldiers to Molokaʻi to enforce her edict to dismantle the kapu system, the kahuna stood atop Pakuʻi heiau in defiance and chanted a prophecy two-hundred years into the making that served to accomplish two things.  One, to surround Molokaʻi in a protective shield as the lāhui would suffer greatly under the might of imperial and colonial powers. It would be Molokaʻi, an island largely undeveloped to this day and a kīpuka to remind the rest of Hawaiʻi what it means to live in a state of ea (sovereignty), despite the many hardships that we continue to face. Secondly, the kahuna foretold the hulihia (the turning, the transformation) that we are experiencing today that would come to fruition by the leadership and efforts of the common people, those of the land to unite and restore pono to all of Hawaiʻi.

Law Students at Moʻomomi, Molokaʻi

As a kama of Molokaʻi, I was fortunate to learn and live these moʻolelo. They guide me in understanding my kuleana. At a young age, I was influenced by my mākua and kūpuna, staunch leaders in the early aloha ʻāina movement during the 1970s and ‘80s. They fought to re-open the traditional trails for Native access and they staved off resort development projects that would harm the ʻāina and threaten our customary practices.  Aloha ʻāina for us is fueled by a ferocious love for our island, reminiscent of our legacy of pule oʻo.  

I channel that ferocity flowing in my veins through the advocacy work I do as a Native Hawaiian rights and environmental law attorney. Early in my law career, I served as an attorney with the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation (NHLC). While at NHLC, I worked on Hawaiian access, gathering, burial, land use, and water rights cases. This experience helped me understand my role in preventing harm to wahi kapu (sacred places), iwi kupuna (ancestral bones), and relationships between law enforcement and our people on resource management issues and mālama ʻāina. It also solidified my part in advocating for Native access and traditional subsistence practices. My role is to serve as a bridge between Native communities and various governmental agencies, lawmakers, and decision-makers that would help us to foster a better relationship moving forward. This led me to serve on a number of boards, councils, and commissions such as the Molokaʻi Planning Commission, Molokaʻi Island Burial Council, the Molokaʻi Water Working Group, the State Environmental Council, and the Native Hawaiian Historic Preservation Council.

These experiences have also refined the expressions of my kuleana to the lāhui. The process of ea (self-determination and sovereignty) requires focusing on Native empowerment; restoring Indigenous governance processes; building capacity through education, training, economic development and entrepreneurship; and leading sustʻāinability initiatives that are grounded in culture.  I have done much of that work in my own backyard.  

I am poʻo (lead) of the ʻAha Kiole o Molokaʻi, a local and Indigenous governance system that works with government agencies and lawmakers at the county, state, and federal levels for the protection and care of the natural environment, cultural sites, and resources.  In both my leadership on the ʻAha Kiole and in my personal capacity, I have taken an active role in advancing the proposal by our community to establish a Community-Based Subsistence Fishing Area (CBSFA) at Moʻomomi/Northwest Molokaʻi coast in order to provide traditional, konohiki management of this important fishery. 

For nearly a decade, I served as Director to the Molokaʻi Rural Development Project. I led training and education initiatives through the University of Hawaiʻi Maui College – Molokaʻi Education Center and partnered with a number of community organizations to strengthen the capacity of the workforce and local economy. Over a hundred new small businesses were established through this work. We were able to seed new farm enterprises and help value-added food producers, crafters and artists. We enhanced healthcare delivery; created a new certificate program in the therapeutic fields (physical, occupational, and speech therapies); improved adult daycare, and provided dialysis services on-island. We partnered with the Molokaʻi Livestock Cooperative to successfully open and operate a new slaughterhouse to process organic, grass fed beef, pork, and venison for the local market. 

Birthed from this work was the idea for establishing Sustʻāinable Molokaʻi, a non-profit organization which I co-founded in 2010. Our non-profit is dedicated to maintaining Molokaʻi’s cultural legacy of ʻāina momona while embracing modern pathways to a sustainable future.  Sustʻāinable Molokaʻi has been instrumental in helping to organize COVID 19 response efforts on Molokaʻi through forming Hoʻokuʻikahi Aloha Molokaʻi, a network of partners working to secure island produce and meat from farmers, hunters, and fishermen and distributing locally-sourced food to needy families through the food bank and other volunteer organizations.  We are also part of larger community efforts to achieve energy sovereignty through the establishment of the Hōʻahu Energy Cooperative on Molokaʻi. And we have joined efforts to remove and utilize for fertilizer the invasive algal species called “Gorilla Ogo” in the hopes of restoring our native limu (seaweed) beds.  

I have been with the University of Hawaiʻi – Mānoa for nine years now. I am an Associate Professor of Law and Hawaiian Studies with the Hawaiʻinuiākea School of Hawaiian Knowledge – Kamakakūokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies and the William S. Richardson School of Law. At Kamakakūokalani, I teach in the mālama ʻāina (caring for the land) and kūkulu aupuni (envisioning the nation) areas of concentration. At the law school, I serve as faculty both with the Environmental Law Program and the Ka Huli Ao Center for Excellence in Native Hawaiian Law.  I am able to live my dual commitment to aloha ʻāina and to advance sustainability initiatives through a unique position with Hui ʻĀina Momona.  The hui is a consortium of scholars throughout the university community charged with addressing compelling issues of Indigenous Hawaiian knowledge and practices, including the legal regime and Native Hawaiian rights associated with mālama ‘āina, and with a focus on cross-disciplinary solutions to natural and cultural resource management, sustainability, and food security.  In this time, I have been able to cast a wider net to fulfill my kuleana to the lāhui and the honua, while still maintaining a strong piko to my home Molokaʻi.

ELP Faculty Having Some Fun!

My position at the university helps me to outreach into greater spheres of advocacy such as my service with the Pesticide Action Network (PAN), an organization maintaining an international presence in five regional centers around the globe, including North America.  PAN challenges the “proliferation of pesticides, defending basic rights to health and environmental quality, and working to ensure the transition to a just and viable food system.”  With climate change causing extreme weather events, flash flooding, mega-droughts, and forest fires, and as immigration policies continue to hurt migrant farmers, we will need to arrive at creative solutions that bring about systemic change. 

These issues are real for me and hit close to home. Since January, I have been focusing on an ongoing crisis with axis deer, an important subsistence food source for Molokaʻi residents.  We are working to solve problems arising from deer overpopulation and overgrazing that has caused crop loss, particularly for our Hawaiian homesteaders and other farmers on the west end.  Prolonged drought and famine raised a public health alarm and forced us to come up with solutions for safe disposal of rotting deer carcasses littering the land. We continue to deal also with the long-term effects of heavy erosion and siltation of our streams and marine environment brought on by these introduced ungulates.  We are working to create and implement a long-term management plan that will restore ahupuaʻa health at the ecosystem level. We are coming together as a community with many hunters joining the Molokaʻi Hunting Club and Molokaʻi Bowhunters Association to help with deer control and to ensure that no meat is wasted, but distributed equitably throughout the community.  

I have also had the opportunity to expand my thinking and influence around housing issues and helping low- and moderate-income families achieve home ownership and economic self-sufficiency through my former service on the board of Hawaiian Community Assets. This work has helped me to contemplate what housing priorities we need to adopt in Hawaiʻi, especially in the face of climate change.  We anticipate that sea level rise will destabilize housing and development in coastal areas.  While we still have time, we need to plan proactively to care for coastal communities. 

I have been thinking more seriously about these issues for Molokaʻi as my nonprofit has received a grant by the County of Maui to develop a climate change action plan for our island. I will be helping to facilitate meetings and synthesize community input to draft the plan. An important question we will need to address is how do we shift law, policy, political will, land use, housing, and our economy to meet the myriad of changes that come with this climate crisis? This will require tremendous brainpower, courage, and commitment to organize the retreat of homes and businesses located along the coastline to higher ground in order to avoid inundation from sea-level rise; to re-locate and re-construct our roads; to mitigate the impacts of saltwater intrusion into our aquifer; to repair forests, ahupuaʻa, streams, and erosion gullies through passive water harvesting and revegetation in order to secure our soils; to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and rebuild our energy infrastructure with sustainable technologies; to engage in adaptive konohiki-based management of our marine and terrestrial ecosystems for which we rely on for subsistence; to achieve food sovereignty and engage in sustainable, restorative agriculture; to retrofit our harbors and improve shipping as the coastline shifts from sea level rise; to adopt sustainable building practices in the development of new housing and commercial enterprises; to improve sewage and solid waste systems; and to adopt a circular economy.

Several of our students from the Environmental Law Program have assisted us on Molokaʻi and continue to do so as alumni, especially with respect to our renewable energy initiatives. I anticipate that there will be more opportunities for our ELP students to work with Molokaʻi as we develop and implement our climate action plan. 

Law Students from the Native Hawaiian Rights Clinic on Moloka’i

Students who also graduated with a Native Hawaiian Law Certificate have worked with me through our clinical program to assist Native communities throughout the islands who advocate for traditional, konohiki-based management of nearshore fisheries and loko iʻa (fishponds). We also defended cultural and religious practitioners of ocean deity Kanaloa who were wrongfully criminalized in their efforts to care for the remains of marine mammals. This work catalyzed the formation of Kiaʻi Kanaloa, an island-wide network of Native Hawaiians with a strong pilina (relationship) to Kanaloa.  They interface with government agencies; assist in response work associated with distressed, stranded, and injured marine species; and care for their remains as ancestral beings and kinolau (physical embodiments) of Kanaloa. This work also prompted me to serve as the Molokaʻi representative on the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council and to form and chair the Huhuli Native Hawaiian Cultural Sub-Committee. 

Another area that I have enlisted the help of law students is in training and advocacy work for the preservation of our wahi kapu (sacred places) and iwi kupuna (ancestral graves). Central to the well-being of Hawaiian ʻohana (families) and communities is preserving our piko (connection) to the kūpuna and to the ʻāina. Hawaiian rights emanate from this pilina. Currently, I am working with the families of Hakipuʻu, Koʻolaupoko, Oʻahu.  Many of the families have been dispossessed of their kuleana lands and have experienced the trauma of losing their iwi kupuna through targeted and deliberate destruction of their ancestral graves. Several of my former and current law students, as well as student volunteers from Stanford University have provided support to the Hakipuʻu families in the form of education; developing a strong social media platform for community outreach and activism; conducting legal research and advocacy work; organizing public forums to shed light on environmental contamination and land use permit violations by Kualoa Ranch, their defiance of native burial and historic preservation laws, and the denial of hoaʻāina (Native tenants) access rights along traditional trails.  The families of Hakipuʻu continue to struggle with Kualoa Ranch, but have at least been successful  for the time being in postponing the Ranch’s development plans. 

This May, I reached a personal milestone by crossing into my 50th year on this honua. It has given me pause to reflect upon the obstacles I have overcome and my mini-triumphs. I have used this opportunity to re-connect to my roots and the piko that centers me in this world. While my piko is Molokaʻi, I think of this piko as one with concentric circles expanding ever outward. Amidst all this hana can be found common threads and themes emanating from one center. I was born of Molokaʻi Nui A Hina, Molokaʻi Pule Oʻo, Molokaʻi ʻĀina Momona — a sacred island child of Hina, strong in prayer, and carrying the seeds of abundance.  The ripples of concentric circles expand into my teaching, research, and scholarship at the university. 

Malia Akutagawa ’97 and Law Students at Kahana, Oʻahu

I end now with a story, one that encapsulates what I believe to be my overarching purpose as an attorney and  professor.  Several years ago, the Kahana community asked me to resolve a conflict  between them and conservation officers in their disagreement on how to steward Kahana Bay and the traditional akule fishery.  My students and I approached both parties to secure their mutual commitment to resolve the conflict using principles of hoʻoponopono. Ultimately, we were able to break down the power dynamics that existed between them. Each side was able to acknowledge and accept responsibility for their own part in contributing to the hard feelings  that arose from the pilikia (trouble, problem).  They were able to come together he alo a he alo (face to face) to see each other first as human beings with a shared commitment to mālama ʻāina.  From that shoot, we were able to flourish in a true partnership that became the Kahana Kilo Kai initiative. This effort generated community pride. It resulted in improvements to the pier, education and outreach to users of the bay, the restoration of traditional hukilau, and the hosting of lawaiʻa camps where makua and kupuna fishers shared their fishing knowledge with the keiki.  

One of my students reflected on that experience and what it meant to her.  She said, “When I first started law school, we were told that law is a healing profession. I did not understand that until today.” 

As each new semester begins and I meet my students for the first time, I ask myself how can I ignite the spark within my haumana (students) and teach them to be healers? I know that when I am advocating for Kānaka Maoli for the protection of ʻāina and our Native rights, and when I am training legislators, decision-makers, and environmental court judges, I am always doing these things with a mind to achieve peace and to restore lōkahi (unity) and pono (right relationship). I am always seeking ways to grow in my understanding and to walk this walk as a peacemaker. I’ve been invited to join the Conflict Management Institute at the law school and I am part of a cohort with the Native Hawaiian Bar Association that is learning hoʻoponopono from hulu kupuna (esteemed elder) Lynette Paglinawan.  Aunty Lynette comes from the lineage of Tūtū Mary Kawena Pukui, author of Nana I Ke Kumu.  It is by looking to the sources of knowledge that have formed me — it is my ancestral foundation that guides me and helps me to express my kuleana in the myriad of forms I share with you. I consider it a tremendous privilege to also be a kumu, a teacher, and one that expresses what it means to use the law as an instrument of healing. 

ʻO wau iho nō me ke aloha,

Malia Akutagawa 

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