A Living Treasure

"Hawaiian culture and Hawaiian ecology are inseparable in my viewpoint."

Dr. Sam 'Ohu Gon
The Conservancy’s Hawai'i Senior Scientist and Cultural Advisor

By Grady Timmons

One morning last September when he arrived for work at The Nature Conservancy’s Nuʻuanu office, Dr. Sam ʻOhu Gon found a voicemail message awaiting him from Reverend Eric Matsumoto, head bishop of Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaiʻi.

“It was a soft-spoken congratulatory message asking if I would accept the honor of being designated a ‘Living Treasure of Hawaiʻi’,” says Gon, who admits that he was stunned by the call and at first thought it might be a joke.

It wasn’t. This past February, before a gathering of 500 in Waikīkī, the Conservancy’s senior scientist and cultural advisor joined five other island kūpuna in being named a “Living Treasure”—one of the highest honors the Hawaiʻi community can bestow upon an individual.

In accepting the designation, Gon joined a select fraternity of people—artists, educators, business leaders, clergy and community volunteers—who embody the spirit, traditions and values of Hawaiʻi. At 57, he was the youngest of this year’s recipients and among the youngest ever honored since the Honpa Hongwanji Mission began the tradition in 1976.

Building Bridges of Understanding

Reverend Yoshiaki Fujitani, who introduced Gon, noted that as a highly-respected conservation ecologist and Hawaiian cultural practitioner, Sam had significantly enhanced the appreciation and preservation of Hawaii’s unique environment and the revival and understanding of its host culture. More importantly, he had built bridges of understanding between the two disciplines and made the connection accessible to a wide public audience.

As Gon himself says, “Hawaiian culture and Hawaiian ecology are inseparable in my viewpoint. You cannot talk about protection of Hawaiian ecological systems without knowing what the consequences are for Hawaiian culture. The main idea, the driving thing for me, is that protecting these species and ecosystems is protecting Hawaiian culture.”

Since joining the Conservancy in 1986, Gon has served the organization in a number of different capacities, including its Hawaiʻi director of science. But it is his current position, as senior scientist and cultural advisor, that best reflects the instrumental role he has had in leading the Conservancy—and indeed the entire Hawaiʻi conservation community—to integrate cultural values with its stewardship efforts.

“Part of Sam’s genius is his ability to share his unique blended perspective with others,” says Suzanne Case, the Conservancy’s Hawaiʻi executive director. “Everyone who has experienced a hike into the forest with him gains an immediate insight through the lens through which he sees the world. He embodies a connection to nature, one where the natural, the cultural and the spiritual become one--and so in the experience we too are connected." 

An Ecologist and Cultural Practitioner

In and of itself, Gon’s career as an ecologist would warrant his recognition as a living treasure. When he started with the Conservancy, one of his first projects was to compile a comprehensive biological inventory of the state’s natural area reserves—an unprecedented two-year undertaking that took him and fellow agency scientists into remote rainforests, cinder cone deserts, lava tubes, streams and anchialine pools to gather baseline data on their diverse natural communities.

Today, he holds more than 30 years of experience in conducting biological inventories and research, field ecology, entomology, arachnology, ethnology, natural community classification, ecological modeling and biological database management.

His knowledge of Hawaiian culture, history and language is equally extensive. For more than 12 years, he studied hula and traditional Hawaiian chant, or oli, with the late Kumu John Keolamaka‘āinana Lake, a master of Hawaiian religion and cultural protocol and himself a recipient of the Living Treasure honor. In 2003, that training culminated in his uniki (traditional rite of passage) as a kahuna kakalaleo, or practitioner of Hawaiian chant and protocol. He is now Kahuna Pule, or prayer master, for the Puʻuoholā Heiau at Kawaihae on Hawaiʻi Island, and Kumu Oli, teacher of chant, in the hālau that Lake established and passed to Gon as a sacred responsibility to continue.

In the wider community, Gon serves on the board of trustees for the native Hawaiian Arts and Culture Program, on the advisory committee for the ‘Ōhi‘a Project (Hawaiian natural history curriculum development) and as a Hawaiian natural history and culture consultant for the Moanalua Gardens Foundation. He also sits on the steering committee of the ‘Ahahui Mālama i ka Lōkahi (Hawaiians for the preservation of native ecosystems), and on the restoration advisory group for the Kaho‘olawe Island Reserve Commission.

Sharing his Knowledge

Additionally, he is an at-large member on the State Board of Land and Natural Resources, where he is now serving a second term. In 2006, when the Governor appointed him, it marked the first time a formally trained conservation biologist and traditionally trained Hawaiian cultural practitioner brought the insights of both fields to bear on the state’s land and natural resource issues. Haunani Apoliona, then chairperson of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, praised the selection by saying, "Rarely, if ever, has there been the nomination of a board member who is so well qualified for the myriad kuleana (responsibilities) this job entails…his nomination sets a new standard." (In the current legislature, there is a bill that proposes such expertise be mandatory for at least one BLNR member.)

These days, Gon is increasingly called on to share his cultural and conservation expertise abroad. He has assisted in cooperative projects and workshops in the Galapagos Islands, the Philippines, Pohnpei, Palau, Jamaica, Okinawa, Amazonia and Rapanui (Easter Island). A sought-after public speaker, he has delivered talks at such prestigious venues as The Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, the Dahlem Ethnological Museum in Berlin and the Museum Nationale d’ Historic Naturelle in Paris.

When he is not attending conferences, giving public lectures or leading hikes, Gon maintains the world’s most acclaimed website on trilobites, a well-known fossil group of extinct marine arthropods that existed hundreds of millions of years ago. He also has a large following on social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter, where his friends and followers number in the thousands.

Says Case, “Sam is profoundly loved and respected by a wide spectrum of people for who he is and what he brings to life. He truly is one of Hawaii’s living treasures. ”



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