Cliff Kapono is a Native Hawaiian, a published chemist, a filmmaker, and a cultural practitioner. He’s also an amazing surfer with a smooth and fluid style that is so pleasing to watch. He grew up on Hawai‘i Island, living at the coast and in the forest for a time. Cliff is driven by a deep respect for nature informed by his cultural heritage. “I am very honored to be a part of the Hawaiian community. There are so many people doing amazing things for our community—farming, reforestation, medicine, geology, sailing, hula, surfing, arts, language perpetuation—I want to jump in and be a part of that.” We caught up with Cliff in a native forest on the leeward side of Hawai‘i Island to talk story about koa, place, culture, and, of course, surfing.
OluKai: What is the cultural significance of koa in Hawai‘i?
Cliff Kapono: We’re taught from a very early age to respect koa, not just the tree, but what it means—to be a warrior, protector. Within our community, and our identity, it represents something really strong, but also compassionate and caring. It embodies exactly what the koa tree is, a protector and warrior for the forest. It’s also the face of the forest. When people see a Hawaiian forest, it’s the koa they really identify with. The wood itself is one of the most prized and expensive woods in the world. Koa is so valued, not just by the Hawaiian people, but by the world. It’s an amazing part of the culture.
We are in a time when the elder trees have fallen, but we have this new generation that is ready to replace. There will be koa that are big enough to build canoes, but it’s going to take time. Right now we’re sad because we don’t have the huge trees anymore, but that’s only in our lifetime. Seven generations down the road, they’re going to be back. We’re not just planting koa to get some 100-foot tree. We’re planting koa in the earth and we’re planting this perspective in our own minds. It’s not just set it and forget it. We have to go back and nurture, and maintain, and move forward. In that diligence, we’ll see the results. It’s really on us. The koa can grow as big as it can grow. We decide if it’s going to be here.”
Your sister calls you the koa of your siblings.
Yeah, I don’t know (Cliff shrugs with a little chuckle). I’m fortunate to have a family that sticks together. We spent a lot of time during our upbringing in the forest, which was really hard for us because we grew up in the ocean. Due to circumstances, we had to leave the coastline and move up to the forest. It was a time that helped us to understand what goes up in the mountains. Traditionally, the forest is a sacred place. When you go to the forest there’s a level of respect that you have to have, not just for the koa, but also for the ‘ōhi‘a, māmane, māmaki, the parts of the family that make everything work. It’s cool to have a big family that can identify with different parts of the forest in relationship to our responsibilities among each other and with the community.
Hawaiians practiced a sustainable system of land management. Can you break down what an ahupua‘a is?
A lot of people explain it as a land division from the mountain to the sea. Another perspective, that I was taught, is the ahupua‘a signifies what your resources are, which often revolves around water. The ahupua‘a also tells you where you come from. When you have that relationship with the place you come from, you have a level of accountability and stewardship that needs to be maintained, or you can’t say you come from that place.
All these words and expressions describing place, it centers the individual into the surrounding area. That’s why there are so many different ways to describe who you are, or the rain, the waves, the fog, the sunlight, the water—it all revolves around where I am in my space. To have that relationship might not be unique to Hawaiian culture, but it's a real important part, whether I’m mauka or makai, what ahupua‘a I’m in, where I am in relation to the person next to me—it adds accountability to the surrounding environment and we don’t want to disrupt the flow. We want to be in harmony with the surrounding environment.
When you surf on alaia, the traditional wooden Hawaiian surfboard, do you feel that same harmony?
That same perspective goes into surfing, or paddling, or fishing. When you’re in the ocean, you’re a part of something bigger and you have to find your place in that flow. I don’t want to go against the flow of the wave. I want to use the wave to move on that same frequency. If I can do that, I can become a part of the ocean. That same energy in the ocean is moving us forward, and I’m putting in energy too, so we’re both doing our part to come together and make this new feeling. That’s what surfing does for me. It’s part individual and selfish, because it makes me feel so good, but it’s also a way to honor my ancestors and the way they did it, because they were sliding on waves thousands of years before me, and they’re going to be sliding thousands of years after me. I want to do my part to make sure that happens.
For more on the design of traditional alaia boards learn here!
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