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Waipi‘o: Mano Wai (Source of Life)

Taro patch with mountains and waterfall in background
Taro patch in Waipi‘o Valley, 1978. In pre-Captain Cook times, taro played a vital role in Hawaiian culture. It was not only the Hawaiians’ staple food but also the source of many myths. (COH photo.)

Since ancient times, Waipi‘o Valley has been blessed with abundant water to cultivate wetland taro, the Hawaiian peoples’ staff of life. Taro cultivation was the core of Hawaiian civilization. The ‘ohana (family) cooperated in the spirit of ho‘olaulima (working together).

“You need a lot of hands. And a family unit working together is about the strongest bond that you can find.” —Ellaham Toko

In the last 200 years, Waipi‘o has experienced many changes: new ownership of the land, assimilation of other ethnic groups into the indigenous Hawaiian population, and the shift from subsistence taro farming to market production.

A community of 300 people thrived in the early 1900s. But economic factors, floods and a tidal wave caused an exodus from the valley in the 1940s. Families moved up the pali (cliff) to Kukuihaele and farmed taro part-time.

“I think a farmer has to rely on nature. . . . Nature not with you, you just out of luck. One disease can sweep you clean, one flood can sweep you clean.” —Nelson Chun

At the time of the interviews in 1978, although not more than 125 acres were in taro—a fraction of what was cultivated in ancient times—Waipi‘o was the second largest taro producer in the state. It faced with many problems: taro rot, a declining labor force, and the need for more cooperation in the agricultural community.

“We could be a family as a whole, in Waipi‘o Valley, if everyone cooperated together. We could get better prices, we wouldn’t have the problems we have right now. We have to get quantity to get some action from any agency, federal government, state. This way we have only one or two people, we don’t get nothing.” —Merrill Toledo

Still, the natural beauty of the valley continued to inspire.

“I don’t know how long I live, but if God willing that I be able to go into Waipi‘o at, say, age 80 or 85, still able to see, I really would like to see taro leaves still shaking in the wind.” —Roy Toko


Link to audioAlbert Kalani describes the generosity of Waipi‘o people (.au sound file, 182K).





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