Transforming contemporary science with traditional Hawaiian knowledge

The 25th annual Hawai‘i Conservation Conference, held on July 25, 2018 at the Hawai‘i Convention Center, featured Aohe pau ka ike i ka hālau ho okahi: Advancing modern science with Hawaiian knowledge. This conference session was proposed and convened by ‘Ike Wai students and post-docs Ku‘i Keliipuleole, Brytne Okuhata, Diamond Tachera, and Dr. Sheree Watson, each affiliated with SOEST.

‘Ike Wai (meaning “knowledge” and “water”) is a National Science Foundation-funded project whose mission is the sustainability of Hawai‘i’s water future. Comprised of an interdisciplinary team of researchers, students and educators, ‘Ike Wai students and post-docs are especially passionate and driven to solve problems in culturally relevant ways that also inspire community engagement.

“We have students take an active role in their own personal and professional development, and we encourage them to take responsibility for creating and shaping their opportunities,” said Dr. Deborah Eason, ‘Ike Wai Professional Development Coordinator. “They often identify project or community needs, and organize meetings and activities to try to address those needs.”

Organizing this conference session is a perfect example of the positive outcomes that professional development has on student learning, collaboration, and self-actualization.

Session speakers, Dr. Kiana Frank, Jade Delevaux, Paige Miki Okamura, Kilika Bennett, U‘ilani Au and Katie Kamelamela, collectively emphasized the importance of traditional Hawaiian knowledge and place-based learning in informing contemporary science and public policy.

Frank, an assistant research professor in the SOEST Pacific Biosciences Research Center, shared the ways in which the mo‘olelo (story) of Meheanu informed science of the microbial nitrogen cycle of He‘eia fishpond. She also used dance videos to engage the public in science learning.

Au, Okamura and Bennett are graduate assistants working at the Institute of Hawaiian Language Research and Translation within the University of Hawai‘i Sea Grant College Program. Their talks emphasized that Hawaiian language newspapers hold valuable information which can be used to reconstruct historical weather events and climate patterns, and inform water science and sustainable stewardship.

Dr. Kimberly Burnett, an ‘Ike Wai economics researcher who attended the conference session, noted, “Okamura’s example of using Papakilo to reveal detailed information about the previously unknown [1871] hurricane, and how that evidence was then used to inform/redirect hurricane policy at the legislature” was particularly powerful.

The Papakilo Database is the largest indigenous language repository in the world with over 125,000 pages sourced from 100+ Hawaiian newspapers (1834-1948). However, 97% of this knowledge is yet untapped. Dr. Gregory Chun, an ‘Ike Wai social science researcher, pointed out, “We typically don’t view newspapers as a source of ‘knowledge’ per se but, rather, as a source of news and events. It was much different for our kupuna who, as we saw from the selected quotes by Paige [Okamura], Kilika [Bennett], and U‘i [Au], encouraged people to specifically use their writing [newspapers] to document and preserve traditional knowledge and customs because of their foresight of what change was going to mean for the culture.”

Hawaiian ‘ike in mo‘olelo, mele (songs), oli (chants), and newspaper articles are invaluable historical treasures that preserve indigenous Hawaiian knowledge of geological, ecological, and other natural phenomena, which the next generation of ‘Ike Wai scholars are using to transform our understanding of contemporary science.

‘Ike Wai is a National Science Foundation EPSCoR funded project.

Read on UH News and Education News.