Na Maka O Ka ‘Aina

Nā Maka O Ka ‘Āina—

Couple Seeks to Broadcast Hawaii’s Reality

…By Marya Mann…

To carry on traditions, some people sharpen their tongues or sharpen their pens. Others sharpen their spears. Joan Lander and Puhipau of Nā Maka o ka ‘Āina — “The Eyes of the Land” — sharpen their focus, creating no ordinary picture show.

With unflinching devotion since 1982, the couple’s award-winning Na‘alehu video production company has produced more than 90 documentaries that focus on the land and people of Hawai`i and the Pacific.

Ranging from “Contemporary Hawaiian Artists and Islands at Risk: Genetic Engineering in Hawai’i”  to “E Ola Ka ‘Olelo Hawai’i  (May the Hawaiian Language Live)”, their films have screened at festivals from Berlin to Japan, Canada to New Zealand and won recognition from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Hawai`i International Film Festival, National Geographic’s All Roads Film Festival, Earthvision (Santa Cruz), ImagineNATIVE (Toronto), the Aotearoa Film Festival and the Berkeley Video & Film Festival.

While most of their films have aired on broadcast television in Hawai`i, several have been broadcast throughout the U.S. on PBS stations.

Perhaps their bravest and most controversial film is “Act of War – The Overthrow of the Hawaiian Nation,” a documentary first broadcast in 1993 on Hawai’i Public Television during the centennial year of the overthrow of Queen Lili’uokalani—a landmark year in the Hawaiian movement for sovereignty and independence.

Puhipau, born in Hilo in 1937 to a pure Hawaiian—kānaka maoli—mother from Keālia, Kona, and a Palestinian father, lived with 100 other Hawaiian families on Sand Island in Honolulu. In 1980, the State of Hawai‘i charged the Hawaiians with squatting on public land and evicted them, tearing down and burning their homes. Armed police arrested those who chose to resist. Puhipau was among those charged with “obstructing government operations.”

The experience led him to study “the true history of Hawai‘i,” which included the fact that Sand Island was actually ceded government lands belonging to the Hawaiian Kingdom. He became involved with the production of “The Sand Island Story,“ a documentary produced by Victoria Keith and Jeremy Rochford of Windward Video, and edited by Joan Lander.

Born in 1947 in Cumberland, Maryland, Joan was working at the time with a Honolulu video company called Videololo. Helping to edit the Sand Island documentary, she met Puhipau, and after “The Sand Island Story” aired in 1982 on PBS stations throughout the U.S., they  joined forces to form the independent documentary team Nā Maka o ka ‘Āina. Together, they are realizing the power of video to educate and spread awareness of the plight of Hawai‘i’s first people, the kānaka maoli.

After requesting an interview, I wrote to Joan and Puhipau with a few questions to begin our conversation. Their provocative responses were so clear, concise and personal that we at Ke Olamagazine chose to print their responses verbatim, to preserve the edge and clarity of the filmmakers’ perspectives.

Marya: What one incident led each of you respectively to focus so purely on being the filmic eyes of Hawai’i Island?

Joan and Puhipau: Actually, we do not focus just on Hawai‘i Island. Oftentimes our subject will be something broad like “native birds” or “ahupua‘a” or “Hawaiian language” or “Hawaiian sovereignty,” and we will explore those subjects on several of the islands. We have also done production in Australia, Vanuatu and Rapa Nui (Easter Island).

However, we have a special aloha for Hawai‘i island. Puhipau’s ‘ohana is from Keālia, Kona. He was born in Hilo and spent his younger years in Keaukaha. When Joan first moved to Hawai‘i in 1970, it was to this island. We met in 1982 while both of us were living in Honolulu and, after having a home base there for many years, we moved back to Hawai‘i Island in 1995.

Marya: What is most significant in your worldview right now? What has the most passion and meaning for you?

Joan and Puhipau: Actually, the effort to regain recognition of the continued existence and sovereignty of the Hawaiian Kingdom forms the basic premise of everything we produce. A wrong was committed that needs to be righted. When the world once again acknowledges the independence of these islands, we feel that many modern-day problems will begin to be resolved. An island nation needs to “think island” and not be governed by the continental ideas of some distant seat of power.

When the people of this land once again control the natural resources of the archipelago and surrounding seas, using management techniques that have been passed down for centuries, we feel Hawai‘i can once again become a place of abundance and prosperity for its people. Our videos have touched on this theme time and time again.

Marya: How do social and cultural myths affect media justice—the equal access of indigenous and multi-cultural people to
mass media?

Joan and Puhipau: So many kānaka maoli traditions are viewed by the dominant western culture as quaint, regional folklore, whereas in actuality they are blueprints for survival. The phrase, “your myth, my science,” comes to mind. Hawaiian creation stories and legends come from centuries of scientific observation.

One of our favorite documentary subjects, Sam Ka‘ai, was fond of telling malihini: “We’re not better than you; we’re just longer at it.” By which he meant that kānaka maoli and Pacific peoples have been here longer and are more experienced at living on the limited resources of islands. Why would we not want to learn from them?

We try in our videos to capture the wisdom and traditions of a centuries-old culture and present them as “survival guides” to the world.

Marya: Is the expanding visual intelligence having an impact on our planet’s nuts-and-bolts, gardens-to-grade-schools transformation? How? What impact do your films have on our daily lives in Hawai’i?

Joan and Puhipau: It’s hard to see the results of consciousness-raising.

Did our programming about Kaho‘olawe help bring about an end to the bombing and the effort to clean up and revitalize that island?

Did our documentaries on streams, such as “Stolen Waters,” help give credibility and legitimacy to those who were fighting in the courts and before the Water Commission to restore Hawai‘i’s streams?

Did our history docs, such as “Act of War – The Overthrow of the Hawaiian Nation,” that aired on PBS stations throughout the U.S. in the 1990s and have been distributed to hundreds of educational institutions worldwide, have any impact on the way people talk about Hawaiian sovereignty today?

Did “Malama Haloa – Protecting the Taro,” our piece on Jerry Konanui’s efforts to protect kalo from genetic engineering, influence lawmakers to pass anti-GMO legislation? Did it encourage more people to plant their own kalo?

Did “Mauna Kea – Temple Under Siege” contribute to a new understanding of the effects of telescope development on the summit?

Did “Ahupua‘a, Fishponds and Lo‘i”  result in the resurgence of an island way of thinking?

We can only hope that our programs contributed in some small way towards those end results.

When our programs first started appearing on television in the 1980s, we heard from many people that the sound of Hawaiian voices coming from the TV set drew people into the living rooms from their kitchens; the sight of local faces made people stop their channel surfing and become glued to the tube.

We know that we have educated a lot of people in the space of 30 years. Those who first saw our programs as young children in the classroom are now teachers, and they show those same programs to their students. We recognize there is still a long way to go. For instance, when will it be taught in the schools that Hawaiian nationals never gave their country away, that there never was a treaty of annexation between Hawai‘i and the United States?

Marya: Good question. There is a growing consciousness of peace, justice and environmental sanity in Hawai’i and beyond. How are films and stories like yours making a difference?

Joan and Puhipau: Our programs have been used quite a bit by teachers and professors in educational institutions both here in Hawai‘i and throughout the world. Some have been translated into Japanese and Spanish. They have been shown at eco-summits, United Nations gatherings and international film festivals. We feel that our programs have contributed, along with the work of hundreds of others, to planting seeds in people’s minds.

Marya: What else would you like to share with Ke Ola readers?

Joan and Puhipau: Our most important effort in the time we have left on this earth is to preserve and archive our extensive collection of over 7,000 videotapes. These tapes contain the voices, faces and stories of hundreds of people, who collectively can contribute an encyclopedia’s worth of knowledge to future generations. Their knowledge is currently stored on fast-deteriorating videotape that depends on equipment that is becoming obsolete.

The archiving work involves countless hours of digitizing, cataloging and storing many gigabytes worth of footage on redundant drives. But once completed, our library can then be easily made available to educational institutions and the public via online sites and permanently archived at the new Henry Kuualoha Guigni Digital Archive. We welcome any support people wish to give to this monumental effort. Please contact us about tax-deductible donations.


Images courtesy of Nā Maka O Ka ‘Āina.

All programs are available on DVD at

Additional resource:

Besides showing in theaters and at festivals, Nā Maka’s high-quality docudramas and inspiring media also help fill a tremendous need for Hawaiian Studies curricula in schools, libraries and universities. Check out Nā Maka o ka ‘Āina DVDs at your local library. If they don’t have titles you want, request inter-library loan and speak to your librarian about purchasing copies.

Contact writer Marya Mann at



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