Hawaiian Economics: From the Mountains to the Sea
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We are going to learn about an ancient economic system used in Hawaii a long time ago.
Hawaii (ha-why-ee) or (ha-vie-ee) is made up seven islands in the Pacific Ocean:
- Ni'ihau - (knee-ee-how)
- Kaua'i -(ka-why-ee)
- O'ahu -(o-wa-who)
- Molokai -(mo-lo-ka-ee)
- Lanai -(la-na-ee)
- Maui -(mow-ee)
- Hawaii -(often called the Big Island)
- Ahupua'a -(Ah-who-pu-ah-ah)
Click to see a map of the Hawaiian Islands
- Have you ever been to an island?
- Have you ever been to an island in Hawaii?
- What are the natural resources?
- What was it like to live on an island before there were stores and factories to provide food and clothing?
- What was it like to live on an island before there were airplanes, cargo boats, and trucks to bring goods from far away and deliver them to the Hawaiian people?
In this lesson, we will learn how Hawaiians shared their island resources long ago. The Hawaiian Ahupua'a was a special way Hawaiian chiefs divided the land into regions. Each region had high mountains, lush valleys and great sand beaches. Each of these regions contained unique resources that the Hawaiian people needed to survive.
From the Mountains to the Sea - Hawaii's Natural Resources
Hawaiians depended on the land and the ocean to provide them with food and shelter. Surrounded by the Pacific Ocean, Hawaii has many mountains and valleys as well as beaches. Long ago, Hawaiians used natural resources that came from each of these three regions: Mountains, valleys, and the shore.
Hawaiians needed resources from all three regions on the island.
Sharing Hawaii's Resources - The Hawaiian Ahupua'a (ah-who-pu-ah-ah)
How did the Hawaiians share these resources? There were no stores and no restaurants. People needed to catch fish, grow vegetables, and build houses and canoes for themselves.
How were these resources distributed? A system was created so Hawaiians could all have places to catch and grow food and could find other natural resources. Ancient Hawaii was ruled by chiefs. Chiefs were responsible for the well-being of their people and for managing resources. In old Hawaii, the chiefs developed a system for dividing the islands into land districts called Ahupua'a.
Imagine that an island is like a pie. The Ahupua'a is a slice of pie. The smallest, pointy part of the pie would be high in the mountains. The largest part of the pie would be the shore area. The sides of the wedge-shaped land were determined by natural boundaries such as cliffs or ridges. Just as Mom or Dad might cut a pie so that everyone can have a piece with crust and fruit, the chiefs divided the land so that Hawaiians could find natural resources in the mountain, valley, and shore regions. The Ahupua'a districts contained all the natural resources that Hawaiians needed. Hawaiians could fish, farm, and gather forest resources in their Ahupua'a.
Cost/Benefit Analysis - What Do You Think of the Ahupua'a System
By dividing the land into these pie slices, the chiefs provided each community with access to a sample of all the resources in all the regions. This helped ensure that all usable land would be used and areas would not be overcrowded. People would have access to the many resources found in Hawaii but would be limited to the resources found in their Ahupua'a. Hawaiians had to stay within their district to get these resources. They were not allowed to gather, farm, or fish in other Ahupua'a without special permission.
This system made sure all Hawaiians could use a beach, a valley, and a mountain range. This was a benefit to the Hawaiians as they needed to find resources in all these areas to live.
But in this system, Hawaiians could not choose where they wanted to fish, farm, or gather. Hawaiians were stuck using what they were given. This was a cost to the Hawaiian people.
Long ago, in old Hawaii, the Ahupua'a was one method used for getting Hawaii's resources to the people, but were the benefits worth the costs? Let's think about the Ahupua'a method.
- How did the method help the people of Hawaii? These are benefits.
- How did it help, or benefit, Hawaiians to have access to mountains, valleys, and shorelines?
- How do you think it may have hurt Hawaiians to be limited to certain areas of the island?
- What are some other costs of the Ahupua'a?
Click on the link below and let's think about the Ahupua'a method for sharing natural resources among Hawaiians. What are the costs & benefits for the Hawaiian people? Print up the Cost & Benefit Chart when you have finished. Ahupua 'a Costs & Benefits.
You Are A Hawaiian Chief
If you were a chief in Hawaii and you had to make sure that all of your people could find food and make shelter, what would you do? Read the questions below as you carefully think about the Ahupua'a method of land division and how Hawaiian's shared the natural resources found on their islands. With a partner go over the Ahupua'a Cost & Benefit sheet you just completed and answer the questions below. Can you think of any ideas to add to this chart? Brainstorm to come up with a different way to share the resources among the Hawaiian people. Write down your ideas on the back of your activity paper.
- List other Benefits of the Ahupua'a for the Hawaiian people.
- List other Costs of this system.
- Would you use the Ahupua'a system if you were the Chief? Why/why not?
Extra Challenge: As Chief, how would you distribute the natural resources to your people? Write a few sentences explaining how you would share the resources and why you think it would work.
Mahalo (thank you) for learning about ancient Hawaii and the Ahupua'a system. If you have more time and are interested in learning more about Hawaii, the natural resources, and the Ahupua'a system, visit these sites:
Learn more about the history of Hawaii .
Find out what Save Our Seas (SOS) has to say about Ahupua'a.
Learn about the Ethnobotany of Ahupua'a
You can follow up this lesson with Hawaiian Economics: Barter for Fish & Poi.