“We Know the Way” : Culture-Nature Relationship and Kuleana in Disney’s Moana

By Colby Y. Miyose



On the Thanksgiving weekend of November 23, 2016, while families were celebrating one cultural tradition, another cultural cornerstone was making waves across the big screen. Moana (meaning wide expanse of water in Hawaiian) has splashed into the hearts of young children, as Disney’s latest princess adaptation. Though a sparse amount of recent literature has evaluated the portrayal of Moana’s tough-girl femininity, fewer have analyzed representations of Pacific culture. When evaluating cultural values within the movie, Moana encapsulates a nature-culture dualism that many Pacific Islanders (i.e., Hawai’i, Samoa, Tahiti) have adopted as their way of life. For many years, these islands have been favored destinations for vacationers and adventurers as well as colonizers and usurpers, who venture there because of their beautiful landscapes and strategic placement. However, there is another side of these islands that many do not see and even fewer understand. The following paper analyzes Moana’s portrayal of the connection between nature and culture, and the possible consequences of severing this relationship.



culture-nature relationship, Pacific Island culture, sustainability, textual analysis


On the Thanksgiving weekend of November 23, 2016, while families were celebrating one cultural tradition, another cultural cornerstone was making waves across the big screen. Moana (meaning wide expanse of water in Hawaiian) has splashed into the hearts of young children, as Disney’s latest princess adaptation, grossing $642 million to date (IMDB 2018). Set about 2000 years ago, the plot is modeled after the legend of the goddess of nature: Te Fiti’s, heart is stolen, blight has overcome the islands, devastating the vegetation and fish supply and endangering the livelihood of the people. Moana is called by the ocean to return Te Fiti’s heart and restore balance to the islands. As her journey proceeds, she encounters many who want Te Fiti’s heart for their own personal gain.

Though past literature pertaining to Pacific Islander media representations has focused on the many negative stereotypes perpetuated in mainstream media, such as the idea that Oceanic people are lazy and apathetic, few commentators explore the positive messages that can be garnered form these films and television shows (Konzett 5). Also, although an abundance of research has looked into the over sexualization and hyper-gendered portrayals of Disney princes and princesses, fewer have looked at portrayals of race and ethnicity, with exception to Pocahontas, Mulan, the Princess and the Frog, and a few others (Cheu 7). Nonetheless, when race and ethnicity is focused on, mostly negative portrayals and stereotypes are highlighted, with disregard for the potential of depictions. Furthermore, though a sparse amount of recent literature has evaluated the portrayal of Moana’s tough-girl femininity, few have analyzed representations of Pacific culture (Cheu 8). Those that have focused on how Pacific Islander culture is misrepresented, such as nitpicking the use of particular language in song lyrics, or pointing out the minute inaccuracies in the depiction of Maui the demigod (Leslie 18). However, when evaluating cultural values that are interconnected between Oceanic cultures on a “big picture” level within the movie, Moana encapsulates a culture-nature dualism that many Pacific Islanders (i.e., Hawaiian, Samoan, Tahitian) have adopted as their way of life. For many years, these islands have been favored destinations for vacationers and adventurers as well as colonizers and usurpers, who venture there because of the islands’ beautiful landscapes and strategic placement. However, there is another side of these islands that many do not see, and even fewer understand. When the sunscreen, ABC Stores, island tours, and lu’aus are left behind, when the tides recede, one might find that there is a part of Oceania that longs for the return of its independence, its identity, and its culture. These cultures no longer wish to see its people impoverished. They no longer wish to be forgotten in history books and remembered only when it is time to plan a family trip over the summer. Mainstream media depictions of the people of the Pacific pale in comparison to the truth, providing false depictions of wealth, lifestyle, physical characteristics, intelligence, and exaggerating Pacific Island culture as a commodity. This paper argues that the film Moana does the opposite. Using Hawaiian culture as an example, the following paper analyzes Moana’s portrayal of the connection between nature and culture, and the possible consequences of severing this relationship.

Media, Depictions, and Stereotypes

Take a moment to ponder what you know about Hawai’i,[1] maybe you’ve been there for vacation, or even watched a movie where the setting took place in Hawai’i. Think about what kinds of things come to mind when thinking about Hawai’i. Does a paradise escape with girls in hula skirts, people surfing, people wearing Aloha shirts, and untouched lands come to mind? If you have only watched a movie about Hawai’i, or visited for a short time, these kinds of things may be the first things to come to mind because of the way popular culture projects life in Hawai’i. As someone who was born and raised in Hawai’i, and identifies as being part Hawaiian, these depictions are humorous and flattering, and even blatantly degrading at times, but far from the truth.

Media institutions are powerful. Children between the ages of 2 and 17 watch an average of 25 hours of television each week; adults spend half of their leisure time in front of the screen or consuming other forms of media; 86 percent of homes in the United States subscribe to a cable TV company; and 61 percent of Americans have computers (Elliot 11). The U.S. has the highest Internet penetration rate in the world, with an estimated more than 72 percent of the population being users (Elliot 12). Gerbner and colleagues suggest that the level of media consumption is related to how people perceive their world (47). Seeing oneself in media can aid in constructing a view of the self and of the world around the self (Merskin 334). At the same time, not seeing oneself, or viewing a skewed portrayal of the self, could also impact one’s identity. Stereotypes can be used to legitimize hegemonic ideals of race and ethnicity.

Past literature has shown that media continue to underrepresent, misrepresent, and skew representation of particular minorities, such as Asian Americans, Blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, and Pacific Islanders (see Kopacz & Lawton, 2011; Larson, 2002; Merskin, 1998; Tan, Fujioka, & Lucht, 1997). When depictions are present, they often show native peoples through a narrow range of stereotypes that are considered to be subaltern (Poindexter et al. 531). Negative depictions can be harmful to minorities, as Enteman contends, “stereotypes impose a rigid mold on the subject and encourage repeat use without revision…Stereotypes are ultimately used to stigmatize” (20). Stereotyping converts real persons into artificial persons. Such stereotypes in media may contribute to discrimination of Native Hawaiians and other minorities (see Kopacz & Lawton, 2011; Parker, 2016; Tan, Fujioka, & Lucht, 1997). In typecasting groups, people treat others that are different from themselves with fixed proxies. In short, we deny them their humanity. Sniderman and Hagendoorn argue:

Prejudice’s power partly comes from its ability to propel people to action; partly from its capacity to coordinate an image of the “other.” Individuals who make up the “other” recede as individuals; what remains is an image of a group … Seeing another as the “other” minimizes awareness of difference among them and maximizes perceptions of difference between “them” and “us.” (44)

Prejudice and discrimination magnify the dangers of stereotyping, in that audiences tend to use these slanted generalizations of a group to form their knowledge of race, culture, and ethnicity.

Another consequence of negative portrayals of race in media is that people learn social, gender, race, and class roles from mass media portrayals that aid them in defining their own personal identity (Sniderman and Hagendoorn 81). By comparing themselves with characters in media content and modeling mediated behaviors and attitudes, individuals learn to become who they want to be, as well as what is deemed acceptable by society. The media culture has emerged to assist people in producing what constitutes their everyday lives. This shapes their political views and social behavior and provides them with the materials to forge their own identity (Strelitz 24). Hence, media creates a dialectical relationship between culture as a lived experience and culture as a representation (Strelitz 28). Those who own this conglomerate influence media in itself, and crucial historical events play a major role in deciding who owns what.

Misrepresentation of Hawaiians in Film and Television

In a BBC article titled, “Aloha to the US: Is Hawai’i an Occupied Nation?” Peter Apo, a Native Hawaiian, said “the only thing I knew about Hawaiians was what I saw in television and the tourism ads.” He also reflected on how he spent almost half of his seventy-five years not knowing who he was (Steriff and Dundes 84). This article brings up one major problem in Hawai’i—Native Hawaiians’ identity crisis as a product of the media emphasizing an oriental narrative for Native Hawaiians. As Said wrote in the opening of Orientalism, “the Orient was almost a European invention, and had been since antiquity a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences” (1). Taking this idea one step further, these Western constructed narratives of Hawai’i were without a doubt a Western invention.

In an orientalized version of Hawai’i, an extension of the benevolent Hawaiian is seen, as the spirit of aloha is about tourism rather than a spiritual belief grounded in centuries of theology (Antinora 30). Here, predominantly white American tourists are targeted as consumers while Native Hawaiians are largely consumed. Further, Native Hawaiians, while not entirely removed from some aspects of the tourism industry, are largely absent from any positions of power in the production of “Hawaiian” culture. Instead, “the orientalization of Hawaiiana (Hawaiian culture) silences or marginalizes contemporary Native Hawaiians, while simultaneously freezing them in a romanticized past” (Antinora 19). Trask equates the orientalization of Hawai’i in media and advertising to prostitution, as she asserts that media and tourism have represented Hawaiian culture as a prostitute (17). She contends that, “the prostitute is a woman who sells her sexual capacities … the pimp is the conduit of exchange, managing the commodity that is the prostitute while acting as the guard at the entry and exit gates, making sure that the prostitutes behave” (Trask 140). Corporations utilize aloha as a guise for selling “authentic” Hawaiiana. Today, like its historical account, aloha is far removed from its Hawaiian cultural context. As Wood contends, “the Hawaiian values of generosity and love such as aloha were misappropriated to make it seem as if they are particularly suited to the visitor industry” (49).

Most people who have never been to Hawai’i learn about it from movies and television (Wood 12). Media constitutes what Laura Mulvey calls “an advanced representational system” (7). Films produce multilayered representations that seem to mirror reality. Sparse literature on Native Hawaiian depictions can be assembled into four categories: (a) Shapely, sexy, uninhibited women ever-willing to sleep with a Westerner; (b) The pleasant and generous, but ignorant and passive native; (c) The savage cannibal who inevitably is overcome by superior Western power; and (d) self-inflated men who strut their primitive masculinity, who are easily fooled by superior Western intelligence (Parker 19).

Moana also has quite a few skewed portrayals. For example, Guam scholar Vicente Diaz, contends that, “the romanticization of the primitive that characterizes Disney movies like Moana, whitewashes how those same people were colonized and their cultures dismembered by the West” (32). Moana’s story, which draws heavily on Polynesian culture, is being told through the prism of “a Disney animated film.” Even though directors Clements and Musker put together the Oceanic Story Trust (a group of Pacific Island experts that guided this project), Moana is still an animated fantasy version of Polynesian life and customs steered by two non-Polynesian men. Furthermore, Taika Waititi, a screenwriter, director, and actor of Māori descent, offered Disney the first write up Moana, but was ultimately rejected for unknown reasons.

Their depiction of Maui, a demigod, depicts him as overweight and immature—as a person who does things for his pride, and to gain legitimacy from the Oceanic people (Diaz 36). Instead, Pacific Islanders see Maui as a legendary hero, who had help to bring sustenance to all of Polynesia, Micronesia, and Melanesia. World renowned Native Hawaiian singer Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, nicknamed Braddah Iz, whose passing at a young age has left many Pacific Islanders to mourn this cultural advocate, has equated Maui to preceding the legendary fame and supernatural might of Clark Kent, also known as Superman. Braddah Iz writes of the many deeds that Maui has done for the people of the islands in his song, “Maui (Hawaiian Supa Man)”:

He fished out the islands with his magic hook…
In blue morning sky, the sun he entwined
To slow down his flight, so kapa could dry
He found out the `Alae held the fire connection
But his plan of deception fell short of perfection
With no other choice he had to get mean
So he squeezed `Alae’s throat until she screamed the secret.


Maui, the legend, pulled out the Pacific Islands so that we may live on it; captured the sun so that we may have longer days, essentially creating the concept of time; brought us the tool of fire used for cooking and other daily tasks for our sustenance. As Braddah Iz illustrates in his chorus, “Mischievous, marvelous, magical Maui, hero of this land. The one, the only, the ultimate Hawaiian Suppa Man.” Maui is indeed a hero to the Oceanic people.

As an animated studio product, Moana also has to fit into the larger Disney business model, which demands profits be made from the film, from the soundtrack, and from the merchandising. What I do propose, however, is though distinct representations of culture are skewed, the Disney movie Moana, purposely or not, portrays significance in the relationship between nature and culture, and the consequences when either one of these two things are neglected.

Culture-Nature Relationship in the Pacific Islands

Due to colonial neglect and historical isolation, the Pacific Islands, home to the world’s most diverse range of indigenous cultures, continue but struggle to sustain many ancestral life-ways. Fewer than 6.5 million in all, the people of the pacific islands possess a vast ocean of cultural traditions (Lindstrom 3). For example, Papua New Guinea alone is home to one-third of the world’s languages—about over 800 distinct vernaculars (Lindstrom 4). Oceania thus has the most to lose, culturally speaking, from the pressures of global political and economic change and environmental erosion (Lindstrom 4).

Spread across a vast expanse of the Pacific, these people occupy an array of environments, from Papua New Guinea’s massive mountains to Auckland New Zealand’s urban jungles. About 85 percent of the population is rural and often nearly self-sufficient. Still, over one-fourth of the more than 2 million Micronesians, Melanesians, and Polynesians live in cities or move to metropolitan centers in Australia, New Zealand, and the United States (Lindstrom 5-6).

Despite diversity, all Pacific societies are small and vulnerable. A typical native group consists of only a few thousand people, and this has drastic consequences for cultural survival (Lindstrom 6). Before contact with the West in 1778, an estimated one million Native Hawaiians lived in the Hawaiian archipelago. By 1892 this number had diminished to 40,000 (Dudley and Agard 87). In 1990 there were a mere 8,244 full-blooded Native Hawaiians left, 992,000 less people than before Western contact, a decrease of more than 99 percent (Dudley and Agard 88). Declining numbers of the Native Hawaiian population threatens the legacy of Hawaiian identity, culture, and livelihood. Environmental forces also pose a major threat to island communities. In Fiji and Samoa, the damage from recent major storms to villages and national infrastructure will take years to rebuild (Lindstrom 6).

As observed, to Oceanic people, culture and nature play hand-in-hand with each other. It is a distinct relationship in which the suffering of one affects the other. This idea of the culture-nature relationship has been embedded at the inception of Pacific culture. For example, Hawaiians cherish a value called aloha aina (caring for the land). Aloha aina is spiritually recognized during the course of life and death. Hawaiian cultural historian and practitioner Rita Knipe states that, “the land is religion. It is alive, respected, treasured, praised, and even worshipped. The land is one Hawaiian, sands of our birth, and resting place for our bones. The land lives as do the spirits of our ancestors who nurtured both physical and spiritual relationships with the land” (33).

Haunani Trask, professor of Hawaiian Studies states, “we are children of Papa (earth mother), and Wakea (sky father) who created the sacred lands of Hawai’i Nei. From these lands come the taro, and from the taro came the Hawaiian people” (112). Trask educates and reminds the indigenous people of the commitment their ancestors made to the land, and that the land made to its ohana (family). Hawaiians consider the land to be an entity that works in harmony with life. Kanahele notes that, when reviewing the relationship of Mother Earth and aina (land), if the earth is considered to be a living entity, so must aina. He also states, “Hawaiians, therefore, did not regard land as a lifeless object to be used or discarded as one would treat any ordinary material thing. As part of the great earth, land is alive—it breathes, moves, reacts, behaves, adjusts, grows, sickens, dies” (Kanahele 187). Aloha aina is the spirit that connects the land to Native Hawaiians. The land is a part of the Hawaiian—a part of Hawaiian identity. As nature dissipates so does Oceanic culture, but also as Oceanic culture dissolves, the land is then neglected. This relationship is displayed in Moana.

Culture-Nature in Disney’s Moana

The people of Motunui, the place where Moana resides, live in harmony with their natural surroundings. “Consider the coconut,” they sing, celebrating the fruit that supplies food and liquid for their nutritional needs. It also provides the Islanders with fiber from the shell, which can be used to make netting and other useful tools. The coconut tree supplies shelter from the weather, and its palms can be used as a building material. Chief Tui strongly believes that the island supplies them with all they need to live a rich and fulfilling lifestyle. But there are signs that this form of living on the land might be in trouble. The villagers are catching fewer fish than they used to. And the coconuts on the island are starting to decay.

Later in the film, Moana has visions of her island becoming rotten and black, with her people hungry and struggling. Even though Moana is drawn to the ocean, and longs to find out about the world beyond the reef, her father is firm. The island is their home, and the reef is their safety barrier–no one goes sailing beyond it.

Later in a cave, a hidden secret is unveiled; we see depictions of Islanders sailing very large boats, much larger than the small fishing boats that the people of Motunui use inside the reef. Moana then has a vision of people who look like those who live on Motunui, but who are roaming the ocean, using stars as a navigational tool. She hears them sing: “We are explorers… We tell the stories of our elders in a never-ending chain.”

Moana learns that people stopped exploring the seas at the same time that Te Fiti’s heart went missing. They found a safe island and decided to stay there. Moana is to be the one who restores Te Fiti’s heart, and, when she does, the goddess then starts to rejuvenate the destroyed lands around her: green leaves start to emerge, and they quickly start to reinvigorate the blackened and dying islands. Where darkness was once spreading across the Pacific, now there are tropical plants and flowers.

As Motunui rediscovers a luscious version of itself, its inhabitants also rediscover something from their past: the desire to explore what lies beyond the ocean reef is reignited in them. As the Islanders celebrate Moana’s return and the re-greening of their island, they drag the large boats out of the secret cave. Finally, we see the Islanders sailing the large boats out beyond the reef. Te Fiti’s heart has been restored. The oceans are safe again. The islands are healing and the people of Motunui have embraced their ancestors’ natural penchant for exploration.

Moana justly represents the culture-nature relationship. As we see, the people of Motunui once were voyagers who used the stars to navigate and explore from one island to another, tending to these new lands, yet when they stop this practice their environment slowly dissipates; the land no longer provides for them because they no longer tend to the land. Thus, it was Moana’s calling to rebuild this severed relationship by returning the heart of Te Fiti. We see this struggle of sustaining culture and environments across the Pacific Islands. For example, in Hawai’i, recent attempts to build a telescope on top of the mountain Mauna Kea or Mauna O’Wakea have sparked Native Hawaiians to protest against construction on that sacred ground (Brown 151).


In addition to displaying a culture-nature relationship, Moana showcases the inherent role of kuleana, or responsibility, to continuing the beliefs, traditions, and legacy of Pacific Island culture. For Hawaiians, kuleana is extremely important (Wright 21). According to Pukui and Elbert, kuleana means “right, privilege, concern, responsibility” (179). In traditional society, kuleana referred to a plot of land an individual person or family was charged with maintaining and caring for (Kame’eleihiwa 34). So, this idea of responsibility is culturally grounded within Oceanic tradition. Moana displays different levels in which kuleana is classified: to the self, to family, and to community.

Understanding one’s own purpose helps to illuminate personal responsibilities toward the Polynesian culture. Understanding one’s own role, not just physically, but also spiritually, is kuleana to the self. In finding one’s self, understand and connection to the land and the people is realized, as well as one’s responsibility to them. It is the individual’s responsibility to learn and understand their Pacific Islander identity and the importance of preserving the culture and aina. At the outset, Moana questioned her own identity, and her purpose within her tribe. Her father keeps telling her that no one travels beyond the reef—that the island would provide all that is needed for her and her people. Her calling, according to Chief Tui, was to follow his footsteps and lead the people of Motuni. Nevertheless, an inner inkling tells Moana that she was meant to do more. She was to go beyond the reef to find her identity and her true calling. This tension between being the person her father wants her to be and trying to find out who she is meant to be is displayed in the song that she sings, “How Far I’ll Go:”

I’ve been staring at the edge of the water
Long as I can remember, never really knowing why

I wish I could be the perfect daughter
But I come back to the water, no matter how hard I try…

I know everybody on this island seems so happy, on this island
Everything is by design
I know everybody on this island has a role, on this island
So maybe I can roll with mine

I can lead with pride, I can make us strong
I’ll be satisfied if I play along
But the voice inside sings a different song
What is wrong with me?

See the light as it shines on the sea?
It’s blinding
But no one knows
How deep it goes

And it seems like it’s calling out to me

It is when Moana discovers that her ancestors were explorers that she finds her own purpose and responsibility to the people of Motuni and to the land. Through finding herself, she was able to pass on her legacy to her family and community.

Not only is kulena a value for the self, but it expands to the community. Once Pacific Islanders understand their own role within their culture, they have a responsibility to pass on that knowledge to the next generation in order to preserve their identity, culture, and land. This is apparent in Moana. After sailing pass the reef, finding Maui, and returning Te Fiti’s heart, not only does Moana literally rescue her people and the land, but she also saves them in terms of their lost identity. Not only is the heart of Te Fiti restored, but also the heart of the people of Motuni. Voyaging is restored and passed along to the next generation.


Since Westerners/Europeans first encounter with Pacific Islanders, they have consistently depicted them historically and contemporarily as benevolent, primitive, sexualized, unintelligent, savages. Western constructed narratives, which continue to be told about oceanic people, are prevalent in the eyes of global audiences. Representations of exotic indigenous cultures in media are usually used to promote tourism. These depictions have advanced from colonial times when ethnic images often reflected a submissive or deferential “other” (Parker 23). Hall explains that the representation of an “other” is established by a process in which the context of meaning is found not only in one image but also in how one image is read against or in connection with other images (17). The repetition of images gains textuality, accumulating meaning by playing off each other (Hall 240). Stereotyping is often fixed by those in a position of power as a way to differentiate between what the dominant group regards as normal according to their own views and what might be excluded as the other (Hall 234). Stereotypes may also be developed by what is ignored, trivialized, or left out of the mass media, a theoretical approach labeled symbolic annihilation (Tuchman et al. 13).

In “Tourism, Mass Media, and the Making of Visual Culture in the Greater Yucatan Peninsula,” Geddes Gonzales asks excellent questions about Western portrayals of indigenous cultures:

Could it be that representations of the non-Western other, coded as difference, continue to facilitate the reaffirmation of the modern constitution? Is this a form of “imperialist nostalgia” that mourns the subjugation of the other, yet simultaneously perpetuates the “primitive,” at times actually identifying with it? If so, what does this say about the influence of the margins in defining Western subjectivity and visual culture? What has been the Mayan (or Oceanic and other cultures’) response? (52)

The answer to these questions may lie in conducting critical ethnographies of the way indigenous people experience contemporary visual culture, taking into consideration the socially and historically contingent context of social interaction and signification. Indeed, one might say that given the extant asymmetrical social and symbolic media and film representations, Pacific Islanders are subject to an ongoing process of dispossession of their material and cultural resources, a process accentuated by a neoliberal order promoted by corporate and local elites. The resulting toll on the environment, society, and culture is the subject of much debate within state organizations, local media, and civic groups. However, much of this escapes the attention of the major national industries, which continue the long tradition of making local concerns invisible, thereby foreclosing global awareness and policy initiatives around these issues, in order to continue to profit from subjugating subaltern groups (Gonzales 57).

In response, some scholars have argued for a more ethical representation of Oceanic people. Trask, for example, makes a forceful argument to show that the tourism industry has oppressed kanaka maoli (Native Hawaiian) identity, culture, and land (156). Desmond traces the exploitative dynamics of tourism’s representation of “native” bodies (92). Ferguson and Turnbull have studied the signs and symbols of the U.S. military in the Pacific and show how these images dominate the historical meaning and everyday use of the islands’ landscape (53). Wood explored “how journalism, novels, diaries, advertisements, visual arts, museums, films, television shows, and various other types of cultural productions assist the more naked coercion associated with armies, revolutions, and the criminal justice system in the usurpation of Hawaiian lands and the displacement of indigenous Hawaiian culture” (9). These studies suggest the importance of adopting a critical perspective on how the political economy of the media represents the people of the Pacific.

Though Oceanic populations have seen a sharp decline since Western contact, there is some optimism. For example, since allowing participants to identify as more than one race in the 2000 Census, numbers of identified Hawaiians have increased. According to 2013 census estimates, the Native Hawaiian population in Hawai’i stands at 298,000. Also, there are more than 560,000 Americans, nationwide, who identify as being at least part Hawaiian (Goo 13). Research by Kamehameha Schools’ Native Hawaiian Educational Assessment suggests that the total Native Hawaiian population in Hawai’i is projected to be about 500,000 by 2045, and 675,000 by 2060 (Kahakalau 26). This increase in numbers heightens the urgency of preserving Hawaiian culture and land in order for this next generation of Hawaiians to have a tradition in which a part of their identity relies on.

As a result of globalization, learning about the authentic Pacific Islander identity is possible, but only after filtering through a plethora of Western constructed narratives as to see the Pacific through the eyes of natives. These groups are not exoticized others waiting to entertain tourists. They are strong, resilient, and increasingly taking charge of their own history and identities. As a sign of good faith to the people of the Pacific, Disney has translated Moana into Hawaiian, making it the first Disney movie to be translated into olelo (Hawaiian language).

Organizations that focus on conservation and sustainability can learn from traditional practices of Pacific Islanders. One applicable lesson that can be gained from an examination of Moana is the importance of the finely tuned relationship between natural resources and culture. Examining the loss of those connections in a rapidly changing world that followed Western contact and global warming can also display the importance of a tightly integrated relationship between resources and culture. The actions and forces that resulted in a breaking of that interrelationship contributed to our current conservation crises.

Consequently, the reestablishment of those relationships represents a reconnection for building a sustainable society that once again values and maintains its unique island legacy. To many Oceanic people, the natural world is in an ongoing reciprocal relationship with people that requires dedication and effort to maintain. Cultural identity, knowledge, and practice are rooted in this reciprocal relationship with the land–and the health of one depends upon the health of the other. As the Moana song, “Where You Are” states:

This tradition is our mission
And Moana, there’s so much to do (make way!)…

Consider the coconut (the what?)
Consider its tree
We use each part of the coconut
That’s all we need

We make our nets from the fibers (we make our nets from the fibers)
The water is sweet inside (the water is sweet inside)
We use the leaves to build fires (we use the leaves to build fires)
We cook up the meat inside (we cook up the meat inside)

Consider the coconuts
The trunks and the leaves
The island gives us what we need

But this only happens when we take care of the land as well. As the state of Hawai’i’s motto declares, “Ua Mau ke Ea o ka ʻĀina i ka Pono.” This can be translated as “the life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness.” Three words should be emphasized here: Ea, Aina, and Pono. Life, land, and righteousness—these three words succinctly display the heart of Pacific Island culture. One’s life is connected to the land, both life and land should be taken care of through righteousness, or kuleana.



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[1] Although it is considered to be grammatically correct to spell it either Hawaii or Hawai’i, in its native language the okina, or glottal stop, between the two i’s changes the pronunciation of the word. Recent efforts are being made to legally change the spelling to Hawai’i, so I will use this spelling to honor the traditional spelling.


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