Photos by Dana Edmunds
Even more than that, Konanui is kalo’s advocate and ambassador—which makes him by extension an advocate and ambassador of Hawaiianness itself. The lives of the kanaka maoli (Native Hawaiians) have always been intimately tied to the plant that Hawaiians think of as their elder brother. Kalo, tradition holds, sprang from the grave of Haloa-naka, firstborn son of sky god Wakea and earth goddess Ho‘ohokukalani. Their second son, Haloa, was the father of humanity. Ever since, the families of the brothers have sustained each other.
“It’s a passion of love and care,” says Konanui of his work, “not only for the plant, but for the deep appreciation of my ancestors, for the traditional knowledge that they carried with them.” He is a big man with a mellow baritone voice that doesn’t need to be raised to get attention; he talks with the quiet assuredness of someone who knows exactly who he is and what he’s talking about.
"It's a passion of love and care," says kalo expert Jerry Konanui, "not only for the plant, but for the deep appreciation of my ancestors, for the traditional knowledge that they carried with them." Konanui has traveled all through Hawai'i learning about kalo and teaching others about the plant; here, he stands in a lo'i in Hanalei, Kaua'i.
Konanui’s family has cultivated mala kalo (dryland kalo patches) in Puna for at least 150 years. During his childhood, he recalls, the plant was far more than just the source of poi, the sticky, pudding-like purple starch that formed a mainstay of the Hawaiian diet. It was the source of family cohesiveness.
When his family pounded poi, Konanui reminisces, “It was a whole-day event. It was a social event. That was when the grandparents caught up with how their grandchildren were doing.” The whole family gathered to trim the kalo from the huli. The corms were steamed in brine: The largest pieces were put in first, then the smaller pieces, then the smallest, since the smallest cooked fastest and needed to be pulled out first. Then everyone— “grandpa, uncles, aunties, myself, nephews, cousins”—helped to pound the cooked roots into poi.
“The making of poi wasn’t only the process of cooking food. It was a time to pass knowledge down through the generations and to set foundations for how to act, how to grow up, how to take things into guidance, becoming kanaka makua [adults],” Konanui recalls. “We actually practiced the principles. We learned at the time about laulima [helping hands], malama [care], lokahi [be in peace], aloha aku, aloha mai [giving and receiving aloha], kokua [giving] …”
One day when he was young, Konanui had an epiphany. “I woke up one morning in a cold sweat,” he remembers. “I had the largest fear. I had the realization that my kuleana, or responsibility, was to teach my grandchildren. The cycle of knowledge is handed down from generation to generation. Ahi ‘ena‘ena: The burning fire was lit. I had to continue this, otherwise the traditional knowledge was severed.”
Changing times, though, posed a serious challenge. For generation upon generation, kanaka maoli families had been tied to specific places, where they’d developed and passed on their own varieties of kalo, their own cultivation methods and accumulated wisdom, all adapted specifically to the soil and water and weather of those places. That specialization had allowed Hawaiians to grow kalo nearly everywhere. In lo‘i kalo (wetland kalo patches), for example, “If your water was warm, you knew the variety to grow was piko ‘uli‘uli,” Konanui notes. In lo‘i with brackish water, farmers planted salt-resistant kalo pa‘akai. There was even a dryland variety of the plant called kalo paua, adapted specifically to grow in the Ka‘u desert.
But now many Hawaiian families have been uprooted or moved away from their ancestral lands. “Most people will learn at home what their grandparents did. But I come from Puna, which is dryland farming,” says Konanui. “Because I did not know where my children would end up, I had to seek knowledge throughout the state and learn different methods so I could teach my grandchildren.” And so began what he calls his “mission.”
“Anything that had to do with taro, off I’d go. Often I had no funding. I’d sleep on the beach to go to a taro festival,” he recalls. “When I went to people, they saw my mission; they saw my love, so it was easy for them to share with me because they saw my sincerity.”
Soon people started inviting him to share his accumulated knowledge. He began teaching workshops, making videos and working with the University of Hawai‘i College of Tropical Agriculture’s Extension Service to produce pamphlets and larger publications. “For me the process of teaching was like learning,” he says. “The more I shared, the more I learned.”
If a farmer complains that high water is floating his plants out of the ground in his lo‘i, Konanui might suggest pu‘e pu‘e (planting huli on dirt mounds to put them higher above the water) or even papa: planting on mounds atop floating rafts. Paradoxically, despite the years he has spent personally gathering kalo lore, Konanui maintains that for kanaka maoli it isn’t so much a matter of teaching as of helping people to remember.
“In my workshops I’m constantly being told, ‘Hey, Uncle, I know nothing about growing taro. Would you teach me?’” he says. “I ask them, ‘Did your grandparent grow taro? Then all that knowledge, that ‘ike, is in your genes.’ It may be just because they never tried it. As you work, there are all these little voices that guide you. These are the voices of your ancestors guiding you. You need to go out and work, you need to be holding the tools that they held before, and that knowledge will flow.”
Konanui isn’t above using some modern innovations. He teaches workshops on how to make stone poi pounders with modern power tools, and much of the information he’s gleaned over the years is available on the web at sites such as kupunakalo.com and on various YouTube videos. Often he finds modern science and ancient lore agree with each other. “What they teach in the university today—fallowing, intercropping, diversity, avoiding monocropping— those were ancient knowledge. The Hawaiians used the environment. They knew their environment very well.”
Konanui blames the misuse of agribusiness techniques for many of the ills of the commercial taro industry, which has been declining in recent years despite the increased demand for poi. “They were moving away from traditional growing, they were doing very little fallowing, they were letting the water get warmer and warmer, and they were forcing the plants,” he says of industrialized taro production. “A lot of commercial farmers were getting away from the healthy growth cycle of the taro. They were using the soil as a medium to hold the plant and almost shooting the chemical fertilizer into it intravenously.” He also opposes hybridizing, a technique agribusiness companies use to produce more vigorous crops. “All of our taro [varieties] have mo‘olelo, or stories, because each one was unique in itself,” he maintains. “That’s why I don’t like hybridizing, because that leads to monocropping and you lose the diversity of your taro.”
And then there is genetic modification. When the University of Hawai‘i, a leader in genetic modification technology, proposed to produce GM taro, many Hawaiians reacted with outrage, likening the idea to filing patents on their kin. Among them was Konanui. But true to his way, he went about making his opposition known by building bridges of knowledge.
“What Jerry did was that he organized all of the taro farmers,” says veteran Hawaiian activist Mililani Trask. “There were different groups here and there. He helped solidify the taro farmers. He helped to put together a legislative strategy. He also did a lot of work with the university so that they realized that when you begin to tamper with the food of indigenous peoples, you tamper with the health of indigenous peoples.”
Konanui and others gathered their facts and then began an intensive lobbying effort at the Legislature. They even held a mass poi pounding at the Capitol. The result was the passage of a bill to impose a moratorium on genetic modification of any Hawaiian taro varieties.
Konanui also helped to pass a bill that established the Office of Hawaiian Affairs’ Taro Task Force, which is charged with developing programs to protect traditional taro farmers and their crops from ills ranging from imported apple snails to competition for water rights. Another result of his work, in part, is a statewide network of taro farmers called ‘Onipa‘a na Hui Kalo. “We get to meet all the taro farmers throughout the state,” he says. “This group goes out and helps farmers open lo‘i, maintain the lo‘i.”
Konanui talks enthusiastically about the resurgence of traditional taro farming and of the results being achieved by farmers Charlie and Paul Reppun on O‘ahu (“so creative that we’ve tried to get some funding so we can get their methods documented”); Kawehi Ryder of Lana‘i, who’s used traditional methods to grow taro nearly eight feet tall; and Chris Kobayashi and Dimi Rivera on Kaua‘i (“Their farm has been into organic over twelve years, and their results have been phenomenal”).
Kobayashi talks with equal enthusiasm about Konanui, who introduced her and Rivera to many of the older kalo cultivars that they are now growing. “We really respect him. We’ve learned a lot from him,” she says. “Not too many people know how to identify all these old varieties, because they’re getting mixed up with all these hybrids these days.” She loves to listen to Konanui, she says, because he’s always learning new things and whatever he learns, he shares.
Ultimately Konanui is not so much out to preserve and promote the “kalo industry” as the mahi‘ai way of life. As a way of life, he maintains, it makes sense. It’s “economic gain through not needing to buy things. …
“If the world goes to pot, I know where to go,” he says. “I can survive in Puna.”