The struggle to return taro to ancestral fields is a part of a larger battle over questions of stewardship and sovereignty in the islands. Since July, activists have rallied at Mauna Kea, the great dormant volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii and the highest in the archipelago at nearly 14,000 feet. A sacred place, home to the gods in Hawaiian lore, it was part of the Hawaiian kingdom’s crown lands, transferred to the United States upon annexation. Since 1968, it has been leased to the University of Hawaii to serve as the site of astronomical observatories. Thirteen major telescopes stand on the peak, and another, the Thirty Meter Telescope — projected to be the largest visible-light telescope in the world, able to peer further into space and cosmic time than ever before — was set to begin construction this summer, until protesters said no more.
Thousands have blocked the access road to the summit, waving the native Hawaiian flag — a kahili (royal standard) and crossed paddles against stripes of yellow, red and green — and asking for an end to what they see as a half-century of mismanagement of the mountain. Some go further, saying that the government never had a right to lease the land because it was stolen in the first place; they fly the state flag upside down, an international signal of distress. “It’s not about the telescope,” says Dean Wilhelm, the executive director of Ho‘okua‘aina, a nonprofit on Oahu that uses taro cultivation as a means of empowering youth and building community. “It’s about a continuum of disregard for the Hawaiian voice, in the name of ‘progress.’”
Taro farmers across the islands have sent poi to feed the protesters, in solidarity. For a number of young farmers, growing taro has been part of learning — and earning — their Hawaiian inheritance, whether they are kanaka maoli or kama‘aina. Note that embedded in the word ‘aina, “land,” is ‘ai, which means “food” in general but is also specific to poi. Almost every ancient tradition around the world has its roots in honoring the ‘aina, the land that feeds us. Penny Levin, a taro farmer on Maui and the executive director of the nonprofit ‘E Kupaku Ka ‘Aina, which helps restore degraded lands to ecological health and abundance, says, “Behind the sacred is often the practical.”
ISLANDS, AND THE people who live on them, must be resilient, vulnerable as they are to the whims of nature, alone and far from help in an impartial sea. Today, there are around 600,000 Americans of Hawaiian heritage — a dramatic revival from fewer than 24,000 a century ago — nearly 300,000 of them living in the islands and making up more than a quarter of the population. While part of this may be because of a change in the census allowing respondents to choose more than one ethnic origin, it also speaks to newfound pride in identifying as kanaka maoli. (Wilhelm remembers his Hawaiian mother telling him that she tried to keep out of the sun as a child, worried that her skin was already too dark.)
The native language, banned from instruction in public schools until 1986, is now studied and spoken at home in nearly 20,000 households, according to the census’ most recent American Community Survey, and traditions long suppressed and then caricatured for tourists — like hula, criticized for its “immodesty” by missionaries and forbidden from public performance in the early 19th century by Queen Ka‘ahumanu, a Christian convert — are flourishing. Reppun says, “Hawaiian culture got buried, like Haloa” — the name of the Sky Father’s buried child, who gave life to taro. “Now it’s growing back.”
For a people who came close to extinction, poi is part of a stolen inheritance, finally reclaimed.
But according to researchers, only around 60 heirloom varieties of taro are left out of an estimated 300 to 400 precontact — farmers call them kupuna kalo, using the Hawaiian term for elders — and they’ve been largely replaced by photogenically purple Maui lehua, a sturdy hybrid of two Hawaiian strains, Lehua maoli and Moi. The ascendancy of a single variety brings risks. If the standby falls victim to an accidentally imported disease or fails as the climate shifts, you need backups. Attempts at genetic modification have been met with resistance, because for Hawaiians, taro is a member of the family — literally, not metaphorically, just as to Catholics the sacramental Communion wafer is not a symbol but in fact the body of Christ. Crossbreeding is accepted, but there was an outcry when the University of Hawaii at Manoa was granted patents in 2002 on three new hybrids, which would have required farmers to sign a licensing agreement and presented the shocking notion that taro could somehow be “owned”; the patents were later rescinded.
And with less diversity comes a dwindling in flavors and textures. Even color has been lost: Poi can be a wide range of hues, including blue, yellow and pink, a shade once reserved for the ali‘i (royalty), but an entire generation, raised on store-bought poi, has only ever known purple. Gone, too, are the names of the old taro, each with a story behind it, “some really rascally, some poetic,” says Levin. On a couple of acres in Waihe‘e, on Maui, Levin tends more than 50 heirloom varieties; she’s gained intimate knowledge of how to nurture each plant. “If you pay attention, they teach you,” she says.