Where preserving the land means preserving the culture.
Of Hawai'i's 8.8 million visitors in 2016, fewer than 60,000 came to Molokai. The fifth largest and third oldest of the Hawaiian chain, "The Friendly Isle" has the highest percentage of residents of native Hawaiian heritage. It also remains the least commercially developed of the islands accessible to tourists, lacking stoplights and buildings taller than three stories. This absence of development is by design—Molokai also boasts such natural features as Hawai'i’s longest beach, more than 40,000 acres of protected land, and the most expansive continuous reef in the United States. But for the local community, it’s not just about conserving land, it’s about preserving culture.
To understand the community's efforts to invite visitors while still maintaining their way of life, we met with three locals: Greg Kawaimaka Solotario, 51st generation native Hawaiian and cultural practitioner of Hālawa Valley; Julie Bicoy, director of the Molokai Visitors Bureau; and Penny Rawlins Martin, education specialist and one of two women of the inaugural Hōkūle'a crew to voyage from Tahiti to Hawai'i using ancient navigation methods in 1976.
Hālawa Valley is the oldest known Hawaiian settlement, tracing its earliest artifacts to the year 650 AD. It's been inhabited since and functioned as a small village up until a 1946 tsunami. Today it has transformed into a rainforest, lush with plants growing over remnants of the village that once was. The only way to hike in and visit the famed Mo'oula Falls is through a culture tour with the Solotario family—50th and 51st generation native Hawaiians.
Although they've closed the valley to public access, the Solatorio family works with the other private land owners of Hālawa to create an experience that provides both an historic and a cultural introduction to the valley. "To learn culture is within our homes. Nobody gets the education now because everything is commercialized. I ask people if they're coming for the Hawai'i experience, or the Hawaiian experience," says Greg.
"Molokai is not for everyone. But if you're willing to learn, we have a lot to say." –Julie Bicoy
Molokai continues to welcome more and more visitors, but it's not for everyone—it prioritizes community over commercialization. In her work as the director of the Molokai tourism bureau, Julie partners with local businesses to plan experiences that immerse visitors in their setting. "Everything I do is a lot more spiritually driven. I don't look at things lightly; I look at all of the elements around me." Julie's process reflects Molokai's values and continued drive to educate others about the island. "Molokai choses everyone who comes here. If you're here, it's for a reason."
In 1976, Penny was part of the inaugural crew of the Hōkūle'a voyage, a performance accurate journey recreating the voyage between Tahiti and Hawai'i in a double-hulled canoe, navigated only with ancient Polynesian techniques. The voyage was intended to explore the theory that native Hawaiians are descendants of seafaring Polynesians. It took Penny's crew 21 days to return Hōkūle'a from Tahiti to Hawai'i, but she says her voyage has taken 42 years. "We were standing at in the feet of our ancestors and seeing [Hawai'i] from their eyes. It was like seeing it for the first time."
Today Penny works as an education specialist for Papahana Kuao, teaching the Molokai community about the land and Hawaiian culture through the mo'olelo (storytelling) tradition. She says her Hōkūle'a voyage inspired her to teach about cultural and land preservation. "'He wa'a he moku, he moku he wa'a' or, 'your canoe is like an island, your island is like a canoe.' The canoe is surrounded by water and you have limited resources. Everyone needs to work together. We use the canoe to share these stories so we can all be better."
"He wa'a he moku, he moku he wa'a" (your canoe is like an island, your island is like a canoe) –Penny Rawlins Martin