A “Wisdom” from the Kūpuna

October 30, 2016


USFWS Pacific

The world’s oldest known bird is named “Wisdom,” the Laysan albatross. She has been coming back to the Midway Atoll to lay her egg every year since she was banded on her leg back in 1956. As the Laysan albatross doesn’t start breeding until they reach about 5 years old, this makes her at least a 65-plus years old kūpuna (elderly) and a mom of (an estimate) 40 chicks! Her youngest child has hatched successfully in February this year.

The Midway Atoll is an ancient atoll located on the northwestern end of the Hawaiian Archipelago. This is where the world’s largest albatross colony (more than 1.39 million Laysan and black-footed albatrosses!) nest each year, or nearly 3 million seabirds find a home. As the age of the islands of the Hawaiian Archipelago descend from the northwest as the oldest, to the southeast as the youngest, this remote coral island is literally one of the kūpuna islands from whom we can learn the wisdom of life.

In fact, the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands are called the Kūpuna Islands by many Hawaiians. This vast 1,200-mile stretch of island chain, is a lineage of ten ancient coral islands: from the almost 28-million-year-old Kure Atoll on the northwestern end to its youngest 7-million-year-old Nihoa Island on the eastern end.

Not just for their ages, but as the ancestors of the Hawaiian people, they are called kūpuna. In the Hawaiian mythology, this region is believed to be where all life began, and to which all spirits return after death. The path where the Tropic of Cancer runs through over the region, is believed to be the boarder where pō (darkness) and ao (light) meet; and where the creation of the Hawaiian Archipelago took place, and so as all the Hawaiian deities and life.

To this day, it serves as a symbol for burgeoning life and pristine nature on the planet despite the crouching impact of man-made harm. This is where the threatened honu (green turtle) and the endangered Hawaiian monk seal swim around and find a place to take an uninterrupted nap on a sandy beach; and where14 million seabirds take thousands of mile journeys up into the sky and onto the sea surface to bring food home to their chicks. This is also where a 4,000-year-old black coral, the world’s oldest living marine organism, was discovered recently, nestling more than a thousand feet deep quietly. It is an immense habitat for more than 7,000 marine species: a quarter of them endemic to Hawaii, many more that are yet-to-be-discovered and many extinct and lost.

To protect and continue to celebrate this important reserve of wild life, untouched nature and the cultural heritage of the Native Hawaiians, the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, which covers the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and surrounding seas, extended its protection range this summer. With a nearly 140,000 square-mile coverage, it is now the largest conservation area on the earth. The name Papahānaumokuākea represents the union of two Hawaiian deities—Papahānaumoku the earth mother and Wākea the sky father—, the ancestors of Native Hawaiians. It is also the first mixed UNESCO World Heritage Site in the U.S. for recognizing the unbreakable tie of nature and cultural history of the area.

Map of Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument and the main Hawaiian Islands.

The map of Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument and the main Hawaiian Islands.

In the islands of Nihoa and Mokumanamana (Necker Island) located on the northwest of Niihau Island, the sacred sites and archeological remains are most concentrated in Polynesia. Located on the latitude at which the sun reaches the highest on the summer solstice, the water around the islands deepens the hues of cobalt to its darkest indigo overlooking the ancient volcanic basalt cliffs. “The black shining road of the Hawaiian deity Kāne (the god of procreation)” is how the Native Hawaiians described the invisible line of the Tropic of Cancer in this sacred ocean.

As birds often played an important role in Hawaiian myths like many other cultures, the world’s oldest bird may have been in a mission to deliver an important message to us. Spending months in the sea, sailing and collecting food from the several thousand miles of water, she hears the breathing of every life and spirit within and delivers a pearl of new life in the atoll every year, the wisdom from the Kūpuna to all of us touched upon.

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