by Eric McLamb
Ecology Prime Features

“Anytime you see the Shaka, think about what it means about ecology around the planet and what the ancient Hawaiians had to contribute…
the world needs this message today.”

~ Steve Sue ~
 Executive Producer – Shaka, The Power of Aloha

If all human goodwill, collaboration, wisdom in sustainability and spiritual oneness were infused into one simple sign, it would be the Shaka.  It is the unmistakable pinky and thumb greeting of pure Hawaiian origin that extends the culture’s universal force of genuine embrace and goodwill to its recipients.

But its very beacon communicates a pure, largely unknown connection with the deep-rooted ancient Hawaiian values of – and the patent link between – the people and the land… collaboration, respect, sustainability, wisdom and compassion.  

Dawn of the Aloha Spirit

Today’s greater global population is transfixed on the exotic beauty and welcoming culture of Hawaii’s seven inhabited islands that has made it the most iconic tourist destination in the world.  Over 10 million international Hawaiian tourists each year (Source: Hawaii Tourism Authority – 1/29/2020) are met with the affectionate welcome of Aloha, commonly used in greetings as well as compassionate farewells. The term Aloha today also is universally used as a reception of warmness and friendliness in all walks of life.

The Hawaiian Islands were colonized by the Polynesian people and culture about 800 years ago according to most anthropologists who based their findings on radio carbon dating from selected samples of the region. The islands are in the middle of the Pacific Ocean nearly 2,000 miles to the closest continent, North America. (Graphic by Ecology Prime Visual Resources, Map Image Courtesy USGS)

But its roots are forever seeded in ancient Native Hawaiian understanding of how all things are bound together and exist interdependently. It was the native Polynesian people who brought their culture and values to the group of Hawaiian Islands some 800 years ago, forming the heart of Hawaiian consciousness.

Aloha ʻāina, which precisely translates as “Love of the Land,” is the central tenet of the Hawaiian concept of all creation and ecology… and that involves social cooperation, spiritual beliefs and application of science. It is on this firmly grounded foundation that the Hawaiian culture developed and prospered without which it would likely have perished. Instead, this ideology cultivated the Hawaiian embrace of cooperative goodwill expressed by Aloha.

Today, this ideology has been personified by the distinct Shaka gesture.

A Culture Built on “Literally Just Rock…”

“When the Hawaiians first came here there was literally just rock… most of the islands are desert,” said Hawaii resident Steve Sue, executive producer of the film Shaka, The Power of Aloha scheduled to premiere in 2022. 

“So, for them to be able to grow enough to eat and survive and to be able to manage fisheries was a very delicate business that required a lot of engineering, smarts and calculation,” Sue explained.

Sustainable, collaborative farming from the mountains to the fisheries are at the heart of the Native Hawaiian culture, the root of today’s Shaka gesture. (Images from Shaka, The Power of Aloha, Courtesy of Bizgenics Foundation)

“They built an ecosystem that works from the mountains where they would get rain that would go to various crops down the mountainside, working its way from the higher elevations down to sea level through the micro-climates which are better served for different kinds of plants.”

This ingenuity that gave rise to today’s Hawaiian civilization is the ancient Polynesian land-division system called ahuapua’a, Sue explains.  Basically, it is a collaborative division of land where every person has a distinct role and responsibility in working the entire locality as a self-sustaining ecosystem, underscoring the relationship between people and their environment as part of their spirituality and system of living.

“That whole business of how to do farming, in theory, and how to go all the way to the ocean and take care of the fisheries is how we survive and prosper as a culture,” Sue shared from the lore of the Native Hawaiian elders.

“This is the root of Hawaiian values,” Sue said.  “This gave rise to defining what are Hawaiian values.”

Rise of the Shaka

“As it happens, the Aloha spirit and the Shaka spirit all kind of congealed into this Shaka gesture,” Sue explained. “If you look at the historical understanding of this gesture, it goes even beyond the Hawaiian experience.”

For the sake of clarity, the Shaka gesture unassumingly came into existence in the early 1900s and only began to trend in the 1960s as a sign of unity and fortitude in the surfing community.  This was also during the time of the Second Hawaiian Renaissance bringing cultural awareness to Hawaii’s traditional roots and values.

Although the gesture itself is purely Hawaiian, the name is derived from the Japanese reference to Buddha (a.k.a., Prince Siddhartha) as Shaka or Shakyamuni, which means “Sage of the Shaka Clan,” the Prince’s birth clan.  When Buddhism arrived in Japan in 552 CE, nearly 1,470 years ago, the message of Buddha was “Fear not, I will protect you.”

To the surfer, “Fear not, I will protect you,” gave rise to their use of the Shaka gesture in the 1960s. (Image from Shaka, The Power of Aloha, courtesy of Bizgenics Foundation).

“To a surfer that kind of makes a lot of sense,” Sue explained. “They live to be at one with the universe.”  

As such, in a significant way, the surfing community of the 1960s propelled the global popularity of the pinky-and-thumb gesture of what Hawaiians are all about: living in harmony with and within their world.    

Birth of the Global Shaka

Although the essence of the Shaka rose out of ancient Hawaiian ideology, the gesture sprouted from a freak accident of a Native Hawaiian fisherman around 1910 that severed the three middle fingers of his right hand, leaving only his thumb and pinky finger intact.  According to La’ie, Oahu elders, it was an accident at the Kahlui Sugar Mill where this misfortune happened that directly gave birth to the Shaka gesture.

Hamana Kilili performs as King Kamehameha in the annual Laie, Hawaii, community festival in the 1940-1950s. His maligned right hand (circled) is the origin of the Shaka. Hamana died peacefully in his sleep in 1958 at age 76. (From the Joseph F. Smith Library Archives and Special Collections, Brigham Young University Hawaii.)

Hamana Kalili of La’ie, Oahu, is this serendipitous Shaka creator. He eventually became a local folk hero and revered community elder because of his continued work as a local fisherman and work with the resident church.  But it was his distinctive wave of his disfigured right hand, instead of the customary handshake, that people began to widely mimic for a variety of reasons that would quickly come to personify the root of Hawaiian values and principles.

So, when surfers from around the world visited the surfing mecca of Oahu during the 1960s and 1970s Hawaiian Renaissance, they would return with many souvenirs and keepsakes of their visit, including the venerable Shaka gesture which was already well-established on the island.

The Shaka Around the World Today

Hawaii’s inimitable beacon leapt beyond the symbol of the 1960s’ surfing culture to become a universal moniker embraced by millions of people as their own ethic. The symbol has myriad meanings globally, as Sue describes, but the values remain the same.

“It’s more actively about connecting with the universe,” Sue explains. “The Earth connection is very huge because as you connect with the things you can do or put on the planet, you can connect with your community… that idea of connection is very huge.”

“Why anybody would want to be part of the Shaka culture is because the Shaka stands for things like cooperation, connection, giving and generosity,” Sue imparted.  “Sharing is a good word.”

“And Aloha… you always talk about sharing with Aloha.” • EP

There are 136 islands of Hawaii extending about 1,500 miles (2,414 km) north and south in the middle of the Pacific Ocean; however, only seven of them are inhabited.  

The Hawaiian archipelago, or group of islands, comprises 10,931 square miles (28,311 km2) of land surface.

Hawaii is home to approximately 1.4 million people, and it became the 50th state of the United States on August 21, 1959.

Each island was formed by volcanic activity resulting in rock terrain that rose above the ocean’s surface about 4.5 million years ago. 

Hawaii is about 1,900 miles from the closest continent, North America. It is the only state of the United States that is not part of North America. In fact, it is not geologically part of any continent although it is in the region of Oceania.

About Steve Sue
Steve Sue, a resident of Oahu, Hawaii, is a social venturer, primarily as a partner at SaaS Ventures, a software development firm, and as the Chairman of Bizgenics Foundation, a Hawaii-based non-profit firm that specializes in creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship programs. His career includes 25 years as a story expert, conceptualist and startup guy in entertainment, hospitality, food service, retail, product and software development. Steve holds a Bachelor’s degree (B.A.) in design from UCLA and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) degree from UC Berkeley. He is executive producer of a new documentary film about the Shaka titled, Shaka, The Power of Aloha, scheduled to premiere in 2022.

The story behind the Shaka has been kept secret by the Kapuna – or elders – of La’ie, Hawaii… until now!
The Kapuna who knew The Shaka Man, Hamana Kilili, reveal publicly for the first time how he became the embodiment of wisdom, heroism and living aloha.
See the Trailer Below…

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SOURCEEcology Prime Inc.
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Eric McLamb is the Founder of Ecology Prime Inc. and a 40-year veteran of educational, environmental and entertainment media. He has extensive experience in environmental journalism, multimedia and public relations – including myriad articles published online and in textbooks. He has served as a senior executive for the television empires of Turner Broadcasting System and Discovery Inc. and has closely worked with such pioneers as The Cousteau Society, National Geographic Television, World Wildlife Fund, National Audubon Society and National Wildlife Federation, among numerous others. He credits his "lived in the city, raised in the country" roots to his unique perspective on human ecology.