Ethics, morality, cultural values in Hawaii

The Maui News
Friday, April 07, 2006

By EDWIN TANJI, City Editor

Ethics, morality, cultural values: In all human societies, they are the rules of behavior established by religious beliefs.

For Native Hawaiians who have adopted the religion of another society, then, there is a question of whether their traditional values also have been replaced.

For most people living in Hawaii today, rock ahu (altars) and restored heiau are interesting artifacts of a time in the past, reflecting cultural values that are no longer valid.

But Hawaiians rediscovering their cultural roots also are rediscovering and validating their ancestral cultural values, which inevitably brings them into conflict with the dominant society.

In his analysis of the cultural impact of observatories on Haleakala ("E Mala Mau Ka La'a, Preserve the Sacredness"), Charles Kauluwehi Maxwell Sr. says that Hawaiian religious beliefs were displaced by European explorers who defied Hawaiian kapu and weren't struck down. Kanaka maoli were forced to give up their own religious ethic to accept the religion of the technologically superior Western society, he suggests.

Another view has an alii woman recognizing the advantages of the European ethic. In traditional Hawaiian warrior-based society, women were relegated to a lesser role, prohibited by religion-based kapu from sitting with men, barred from eating foods reserved for men, and declared untouchable during their menstrual cycle.

Queen Ka'ahumanu was converted to Christianity and persuaded Liholiho/Kamehameha II to break the kapu that kept women on a lower circle of society. But in displacing the religion on which the governance of the islands had been based, the new society also displaced the governmental system, weakening and eventually dissolving the authority of the alii.

The revival of Hawaiian cultural values is reviving the conflict between Western technological superiority and Hawaiian tradition in multiple arenas.

In a cultural evaluation of observatories on Haleakala, Maxwell suggests there can be a reluctant coexistence, if the technological intrusions on a "wao akua" recognize that the Hawaiian traditions were there first and provide a place for those traditions to be exercised.

Hawaiians also have a tradition of studying the cosmos, although without the array of expensive apparatus that in some minds create a visual blight. Still, if Hawaiians are included in the acquisition of knowledge from the facilities on Hawaiian sacred land, Maxwell says the developments can be acceptable.

In another arena, there is no room for compromise because the technological experimentation is insulting the core of Hawaiian traditional belief. Then the issue is the status of traditional Hawaiian religion, whether it still has a place in 21st century Hawaii, 190 years after the kapu were broken.

Walter Ritte Jr., the Molokai-based Hawaiian cultural rights advocate, is protesting genetic modification of Hawaiian kalo, the taro varieties that have been grown by Hawaiians since time immemorial.

His objections are based on the status of kalo in Hawaiian tradition, as the first-born child of Papa and Wakea – the goddess of earth and the god of the cosmos.

A Christian convert, David Malo treated the tradition as pure mythology, but recounted briefly that Haloa-naka was born prematurely of a mating between Papa and Wakea and died. But from the body sprouted the first kalo plant. Then Wakea fathered another child and that child "is the progenitor of all the peoples of the earth" ("Hawaiian Antiquities," Chapter 60).

In tampering with the genetics of Hawaiian kalo, Ritte says, "They are tampering with our genealogy. . . . They want to change the very essence of the plant in an unnatural way."

Based on traditional Hawaiian cultural values, tampering with the genes of kalo is like genetically modifying a brother, he says. It is tampering with accepted tradition, not unlike the suggestions that Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene had a child or the Gnostic argument that Mary, not Peter, should have been head of the church.

Ritte has been the most vocal among Hawaiian traditionalists demanding that the University of Hawaii researchers give up their genetically modified Hawaiian kalo. The genetic modifications were aimed at establishing the commercial viability and value of the modified variety.

"They're taking Hawaiian kalo, our staple, our family, and making it a commodity and saying they own it. What is the rights of Hawaiians to say you cannot do that," Ritte said. "I'm a Hawaiian and that is my ancestor. That is the ancestor of all Hawaiians, and we can prove that with our genealogy."

But the linkage is based on a religious belief in Hawaiian gods. Then the issue is whether Hawaiian religious beliefs are still viable.

Edwin Tanji, city editor of The Maui News, can be reached at "Haku Mo'olelo," referring to a story writer, appears every Friday.

Copyright © 2005 The Maui News.

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