One of the best things about our homegrown festivals is the opportunity to learn more about the local history. This week is Peace Week and the Honoka‘a People’s Theatre will be presenting Traditions and Family Values, a film with snippets of 15 oral histories of folks living just down the Hāmākua Coast from Honoka‘a, in Pa‘auilo Mauka Kalōpā. The film organizers loaned me a preview copy, though I can’t wait to see it on the big screen.
The documentary starts with Hawai‘i as a land of immigrants, beginning with the first Polynesians. To thrive, the Hawaiians organized along a mountaintop-to-sea land system called Ahupua‘a. People who lived at the shore traded fish for lowland crops, hunters from the valleys traded pigs for wood from the upland forests. This exchange across different land types was a model for sustainability.
When the next wave of immigrants came, small sugar plantations began to dot the Hāmākua coast. These grew to large plantations which could not sustain themselves: they had to bring in indentured laborers to work the fields. The workers came in waves, living in plantation camps: Chinese (1850s), Japanese (1860’s), Portuguese (1870’s) Filipinos (early 1900s), and later, others. When the sugar plantations closed, hundreds of people lost their jobs which rippled through the local economy.
Some of the folk featured in the film are descendants of people who worked the sugar cane plantations, perhaps several generations back. When freed from their service, they bought land and turned it into macadamia nut or avocado orchards, or pastures for ranching. These are some of their stories:
Antone De Luz: “My dad finished cattle; supplied to small markets…He really knew his animals and grasses…(To be a rancher) you have to be a farmer. I still plant grass.”
A tiny woman, Dolores Ramos, reminisced about her early days ranching. They had to fix fences, brand the cattle, give them inoculations, and create ponds for water. “Branding was new to me at the time. I ended up helping with castrating bulls too. You just did the work.” Today she helps her grandson with the 172 acre ranch.
Adelaide Rapozo remembered, “We were never idle at the house. My father always had a job for us. We had to wash the coffee and carry it in bags…Oh, yes, cut the wood and stack the wood…climb the ladders to pick the fruit – a hard life.”
Several of the people interviewed talked about self-sufficiency. Everyone had their own pigs, chickens and gardens. Locals made and still make their own sausage, smoking hand-stuffed casings and pork pieces in smokehouses.
Antone De Luz: “Today everything is in the store. The kids don’t know where stuff comes from.”
Mike Crosson: “They say that if the barges stopped coming, we’d have a two week food supply. But it was only 50-100 years ago that people fed themselves.”
Jolette Rapozo said that to survive then and now, “you cannot just have one job. You have to have a series of things lined up…especially in tough economic times…We learned that from our parents…We have our avocado orchard, we have our ranch with 20 head of cattle, he has his business, I’m a substitute teacher…So we have various ways of making income.”
My favorite section of the film described hunting pigs. Sho Fukaura planted a mac nut orchard. He said, ”The pigs ate all my mac nuts that fell and just about wiped out one tree overnight; about 10 of them came through. We had to get rid of them. (One) year I shot 45.” But hunting didn’t just get rid of a nuisance; it put meat on the table.
Waltham Johansen described three major organized hunts each year: Easter, summer and Christmas. At the end of the hunt, the slaughterhouse yard would be filled with 40 – 50 pigs. The hunters did not get their own pig back. Instead, slaughtered pigs would be given to the Catholic Church and the Japanese Buddhist Temple in Pa‘auilo, and from there the pigs were distributed to people in need, maybe a half or quarter pig. The remaining sections were distributed to the hunters and to those people who didn’t hunt but played their part in the community. Everybody’s share was just as good as everybody else’s.
I don’t know much about pigs but I thought I knew a bit about fish. However, when fisherman Mike Crosson listed his favorite eating fish available off the Hāmākua Coast, I didn’t recognize any of them. Clearly I have some tasting work to do.
He explained that ancient Hawaiians and modern locals alike fished from the Hāmākua cliffs, and some of the old trails to get there still follow the Ahupua‘a borders. Where you see a likely spot, he said to look for iron stakes for ropes and rope trails leading down. The plantations continued the access traditions of the Hawaiians and allowed fishing. People in the camps fed themselves by fishing, especially during strikes.
Debbie Chang and Hugh Montgomery also talked about the old Ahupua‘a border trails. Today these trails are being blocked by private land-holders who do not understand the traditions. We are in danger of losing that access completely, despite the Highways Act of 1892, signed into law by Queen Lili‘uokalani, after she noticed how her people were increasingly having difficulties accessing the shores and the mountains to do their traditional hunting, fishing and gathering.
Kaulana Montgomery talked about the Hawaiian culture: “I love the diversity and the Aloha…(In other places) there’s not the same culture, that love of music, that love of place. There’s love of family but it’s not the same as the extended family here – being accepted for who you are…I was a young haole girl and felt like a stranger…But then in 1981 I got involved in hula. I was just accepted into the community. Everyone was color-blind; nobody cared that I was haole.”
Finally, the participants shared words of wisdom so befitting of Peace Week:
- “Community matters.”
- “Be present and appreciate where you are and the gifts that are given to you.”
- “Family is important. You gotta be there for each other.”
- “Strive hard and go for it, in good times and bad.”
- “Think how our actions affect others. What’s it doing to your neighbor, or to your community?”
There is world peace and then there is community and personal peace that can come from learning from and respecting your elders, accepting and relishing differences, and understanding traditions and history. This is a film about that kind of peace.
Peace to you, this week and all weeks.
This film was a project of the Pa‘auilo Mauka Kalōpā Community Association.
For other essays on Honoka‘a’s celebration of Peace Day, see:
- The ones left behind
- Our little town invites world peace, and
- Honoka‘a Peace Parade page 209 in Chapter 11 of my book, Manifesting Paradise.
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