A few of us rose before dawn and loaded into Carlhey and Rebecca’s van, groggy but eager. Each Thursday, the Waipa Foundation hosts “Poi Day” – a community gathering on Hanalei where volunteers help process cooked taro root into poi. The previous day, guided by Waipa Foundation staff, we’d worked in lo`i (taro, or in native Hawaiian, kalo) fields to help harvest kalo and disturb invasive vegetation to assist in its management. This morning we’d come full circle by participating in the revered cultural practice of poi production.
Produced from kalo, poi is a traditional Hawaiian staple, but like so many other resources, access has become overly expensive for native Hawaiians on Kauai. As underscored by many locals our group encountered throughout the week, 90% of Hawaii’s food is imported. In addition, the tourism industry has hit native Hawaiians, and Kauaians in particular, quite hard. Part of Waipa’s mission is to provide affordable poi – and in particular, to “kupuna” and “‘ohana,” elders and other natives, on the island.
By the time Rebecca, Carlhey, Irene, Connor, Natalia and I arrived around 6:00 AM, a motley group of locals, tourists and others were already hard at work processing the cooked kalo that we’d seen steaming in barrels the day prior. The group welcomes all volunteers, and we nestled in with the crew. As instructed, we carefully washed our hands and kept our blunt knives cleaned throughout.
Boiled kalo roots, buried in a huge barrel of water, were put before us. We sorted through to find the kalo and scraped each plant clean of its remaining roots. They felt like sweet potatoes in our hands – ovular and heavy. Each time we cleaned our butter knives we felt the gluiness of the kalo starch slough off against the bucket.
We then quartered and tossed each viable piece into a separate vessel. As each group completed their share, the buckets of kalo were processed through a meat grinder, then a ricer. It came out resembling ground meat, then turned gelatinous. I stood and watched this progression, captivated, as I wondered how the native Hawaiians managed this intensive process without modern-day inventions.
As sunrise dawned, I separated from our labor to observe the grandeur of Hanalei Valley. Looking over one of the most breathtaking places on earth, I couldn’t help but reflect on the fact that the greatest beauties in life are often tinged by the sadness and pain that are associated with economic disparity.
The community-based efforts undertaken by Waipa and others offer an ideal path toward restoring cultural practices, and can only go so far as to fixing the insurmountable socio-economic and cultural restoration issues that native Hawaiians face. However, they also offer incredible hope as a model for this community and others going forward.