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Manawai, The Branching of Fresh Water
Pearl and Hermes Atoll
Posted by Scott Kikiloi, graduate researcher, Center for Hawaiian Studies, U.H.M.
September 20, 2002

SE Green Island at Pearl and Hermes Atoll.In the equation of life, the existence of an island ecosystem is dependent upon the ocean that surrounds it, and the fresh water it can retain. If these variables change over time, the island, and everything on it can become just a memory of the past. Nowhere is this more apparent than this region of the Hawaiian archipelago. As these islands age gracefully, they slowly dissolve into the sea, transforming into massive circular coral rings that have small, low laying islets that rest on the outer edge. Many of these islets are so low that they can become completely washed over with the smallest change in tide or currents through the various seasons of the year. Pearl and Hermes exemplifies this, as it is being slowly washed away into obscurity, trying its hardest to retain life. Seeping out of some of these sinking islets is ka wai ola, or the water that gives life. This water mixes in with the ocean and forms brackish estuaries in the middle of each islet. In Hawaiian, "Manawai" means "stream branch." It's my educated guess that these small islets of Pearl and Hermes may have ties to this ancestral root word that was recorded over a century ago. These different islets that make up the atoll are branches that channel the fresh water inward to lagoon lakes, like veins in a body. The names for this area mentioned in the ko`ihonua, or genealogical chant are Manawainui, Manawailani, and Manawaihiki (Bishop Museum Archives #HI.H.107, folder 2).

As I looked over this atoll I wondered how different this area of the archipelago might have looked a thousand years ago. The Hawaiian people come from a deep history with the ocean, as it makes up over two thirds of the Earth's surface in the Pacific region. In that context, land was something that was scarce, and sacred, as they appreciated even the most inhospitable and remote of places. We arrived at South Eastern Island at Pearl and Hermes in the morning. The waves were calm, and one could see the camouflage patterns of coral through the ocean's liquid surface. We maneuvered though this underwater garden, making our way to land. It was hard to ignore the fact that this island is barely ten feet above sea level at its highest point. Ocean debris is scattered across the beach shoreline. It's also abundant in the islands interior, as waves wash it all the way to the lagoon in the middle of this island. The types of native plant species that grow here are the `akulikuli, which covers the jagged coral surface like a soft carpet; the `alina, which is a low lying shrub that has beautiful small white flowers; and the nohu, which is a hearty indigenous shrub that seems to tolerate the most difficult of environments.

Chick in Nohu.My stay on this island was a pleasant one, as Pearl and Hermes seems to have a personality all its own… I can see it struggling to stay above the sea level, and to be remembered in our traditions. As native Hawaiians we need to respect places like these and acknowledge them. Manawainui, Manawailani, and Manawaihiki are places that persevere in the hardest of ocean conditions and still manage to retain life.

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