The ancient Hawaiians had some of the most difficult and harsh living conditions of any of their time. Though the islands are beautiful, they were far less hospitable without the conveniences of room service and kayak rentals. Undeterred by the conditions, Hawaiians developed a system that sustained close to a million natives. That is about the same number of people that live on the islands today, where enormous amounts of food and supplies must be imported.
Hawaiian islands like O’ahu were divided into tribal land portions called ahupua’a. Ahupua’a ran from the mountains to the sea, and were often shaped like narrow wedges. Each was run by a chief called an ali’i.
Contained within each ahupua’a was everything needed for humans to survive, from fish to salt, to fertile land for farming taro, to koa and other trees.
Within each ahupua’a there were a number of kuleana. Kuleana is a Hawaiian word meaning “right” or “responsibility”. An individual or family was given a kuleana as their share of work in the ahupua’a. Those living nearer to the mountains may have harvested koa wood for canoes, those on the shore may have harvested fish, and those in the plains may have grown taro. They would meet in the middle once a week and trade, ensuring that the needs of all were met.
Fulfilling the responsibility of your kuleana was vital to the community. If the farmers did not grow taro, not only would they be without taro, but the entire ahupua’a would be without taro. If those in charge of making fishing supplies failed to make strong nets, the fishers would not catch fish, and the entire ahupua’a would be without them. If one failed in their responsibility, everyone felt it. If one failed in their responsibility, someone died.
This was Zion, where people lived with one heart and one mind, seeking the greater good of the community (Moses 7:18). The early Latter-day Saints tried it, but they couldn’t do it. They were too selfish. It has been tried in other times as well, but usually fails.
The Hawaiians had it figured out.
Modern Day Ahupua’a
How does this apply to us?
We often meet as brothers and sisters in Christ, to strengthen and build up one another. This happens at our weekly services, or at scripture study groups during the week, or at activities that we do together as friends. We come together to “trade” – each of us having specialized in one thing or another, each of us having something we’ve gleaned from our labor, and each of us with something that we can offer to the community. Sometimes the “kuleana” we have are very real, like callings and positions where people depend on us. Other kuleana are less obvious, like talents or skills we can offer.
If someone hasn’t fulfilled their kuleana, everyone hurts. If we’re not leading righteously or teaching effectively, someone is “starving”. If we don’t greet others happily or lend a kind word to someone in need, someone doesn’t get “fish” or a “home”. It can be tempting to think of our best interests. “I’ve worked hard for this fish, and it’s mine. I’m not trading for anything less than what I deserve.” “I’m tired today, and I’ve worked so hard. I really need to relax for a while.” But if we do, someone goes without something that they so desperately need.
More than anything else, this has helped me to see that there are things I need to do to reach out to those in need. There are things that I specialize in, things that I can offer to build up those in my ahupua’a. If I keep to myself and hide those talents that I’ve been given (Matthew 25:14-30), someone will be hurt. Someone might even loose their life, spiritually. If there is something that I can trade to prevent that, I want to do all that I can.
While I know that even my best efforts will be nowhere near perfect, I also know that there is a Chief, an Ali’i, greater than us all, who is looking after the ahupua’a and governing over all within. He will consecrate our efforts for our good and for the good of those in our community (2 Nephi 32:9).