Culture

Our Fresh Well Water

Fresh water or wai played an integral role in ancient Hawaiian culture and lifestyle. Wai was believed to be sacred and the earthly manifestation of the great spirit of Kane, the most highly revered of the four ancient Hawaiian gods. Ancient Hawaiians believed that water, along with land, belonged only to the gods and therefore could not be owned – not even by the highest ranking ali'i (chief). Water was upheld as an essential source of life and key contributor to the prosperity of the Hawaiian people. The natural resource was so highly revered that the word waiwai was used to indicate abundance or great amounts of wealth.

From the earliest days, kahawai (streams) were among the most important natural resources sought after by native Hawaiians. The streams often dictated the ahupua'a or land subdivisions in which communities of Hawaiians resided.

A single ahupua'a stretched from mauka (the mountains) to makai (the ocean) and followed the natural boundaries of the watershed. The presence of kahawai in each ahupua'a allowed Hawaiians to develop irrigation systems to help cultivate the land, which in turn provided sustenance to the people in the area.

Among the most prominent of plants grown by Hawaiians was kalo (taro), which required continuously flowing water to flourish. The 'auwai (ditches) in which the kalo grew were called lo'i kalo. The loi kalo were designed so that the stream water would flow through the beds then return back to the stream’s natural path. This simple engineering allowed the water to continue to flow downstream for irrigating other crops such as banana, breadfruit, sugar cane and yams, and eventually make its way out to the ocean.

Often at the shoreline and close to the mouth of streams, Hawaiians built fishponds called loko 'ia. In these fishponds certain kinds of fish, crabs, shrimps, and seaweeds thrived in the mixture of fresh and ocean water. At one time there were some 300 loko 'ia in Hawai'i. These played an important role in lives and culture of native Hawaiians. Migrating from the ocean directly into streams were certain kinds of animals. Unique species of fishes, shrimps, and shellfishes moved upstream into the plains and mountains to become the 'o'opu, opae, and hihiwai. These freshwater animals were used as food items by Hawaiians and were an important component in the Hawaiian diet.

Understanding that water directly contributed to a thriving community, people using wai from streams took only what was absolutely necessary. They were expected to share the wai with others. Such practices gave Hawaiians their word for law which is kanawai, or the "equal sharing of water."

The equal sharing of clean, flowing water provided the foundation from which native Hawaiians were able to maintain flourishing and prosperous communities.

Source: From the Mountains to the Sea - Early Hawaiian Life by Julie S. Williams, 1997, p.177 Published by Kamehameha Schools Press, Honolulu, HI.

William Puleloa, Division of Aquatic Resources