Sustainability panel at UH Hilo discusses indigenous ways of knowing and western empirical science

The discussion, part of an annual UH conference on sustainability, was led by Hawaiian cultural practitioners, a research scientist, and a land manager.

By Kainoa Lyman. Photos by Elijah Owens.

Panel, left to right: Kealaka‘i Kanaka‘ole, Christian Giardina, Ku‘ulei Kanahele, and Luka Mossman. The panel was part of the 6th Annual Hawai‘i Sustainability in Higher Education Summit held over the course of three days on Hawai‘i Island.

A panel discussion on incorporating Hawaiian cultural knowledge with modern western science to meet the sustainability challenges facing Hawai‘i today was held at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo earlier this month. The discussion was part of the 6th Annual Hawai‘i Sustainability in Higher Education Summit held over the course of three days on Hawai‘i Island, Feb 8-10. Delegations from all 10 UH campuses gather together each year to learn from local practitioners, national experts, and each other, and to set the action agenda for upcoming campus initiatives.

John Defries moderated the panel.
John DeFries

The topic of the panel discussion, “Exploring the meeting of wisdoms between indigenous ancestral knowledge systems and western empirical sciences,” was led by Hawaiian cultural practitioners, a research scientist, and a land manager. Panelists included Native Hawaiian culturalist Ku‘ulei Kanahele, Hawaiian aquaculturist Luka Mossman, research scientist Christian Giardina, and natural resource expert Kealaka‘i Kanaka‘ole. The panel was moderated by John DeFries, president and principal advisor at the Native Sun Business Group.

Marcia Sakai, interim chancellor at UH Hilo, opened the event with remarks, “We recognized that an important knowledge base resides in the indigenous people of Hawai‘i.” She says over the years, UH Hilo has strived for sustainability and has seeked Hawaiian cultural practitioners to learn about sustainable practices. “We’re committed to learning from the local cultural practitioners and sustainability experts.”

Sakai points out that UH Hilo is a leader in sustainability, incorporating energy efficient features into the design of many of its new buildings. There is a large number of solar panels that support a substantial amount of UH Hilo’s energy consumption during the day.

When she talked about the campus’s Local First program, and that once a month the dining rooms serve meals that are 100 percent locally sourced, she received a round of applause.

Marcia Sakai address the audience.
Marcia Sakai delivering opening remarks at the panel presentation.

Ryan Perroy, an associate professor in geography at UH Hilo, also spoke about campus sustainability projects in opening remarks. He says there are numerous sustainability projects currently taking place at UH Hilo, including composting projects and a plan to install a large battery system to harness solar electricity currently being generated on campus throughout the day. The goal of the battery system is to fulfill an unmet demand for renewable energy sources at night on campus.

How do we become engaged in sustainability?

Christian Giardina, a research ecologist with the Institute of Pacific Islands Forestry, Pacific Southwest Research Station of the USDA Forest Service, started the panel discussion with explaining how the scientific community and various fields of study related to conservation and sustainability can learn from Hawaiian cultural knowledge.

Giardina says that as an environmental scientist, there is one important question people should be asking themselves: “How do we reengage—knowing where your things come from—and even better, [how do we become] engaged in producing those things that sustain you and your family?”

Ancestral methods

Kuʻulei Kanahele (who spoke on the panel at the request of her mother-in-law Pualani Kanakaʻole Kanahele who was originally scheduled to speak but was ill on the day of the event), is a Hawaiian language and Hawaiian culture instructor at Hawaiʻi Community College. She is part of a team of researchers with the Edith Kanaka‘ole Foundation that investigates ancestral methods of environmental observations through three lenses: papahānaumoku (birthing cycle of flora, fauna, and humans), papahulihōnua (earth and ocean elements), and papahulilani (atmospheric elements).

Kanahele spoke about her role as the lead researcher for papahulilani, which includes interpreting traditional Hawaiian chants to understand how Hawaiians lived and thrived in an island environment. She also spoke about the importance of understanding traditional chants because the chants document centuries of environmental observations.

Sustainability, she says, is incorporated into all aspects of hula, from the gathering of plants and materials used in the practice of hula to the moʻolelo or stories being told within the hula. The indigenous people of Hawai‘i were known to have a deep connection with the land and their surrounding environment, they observed their environment and the effects their actions had on their surroundings.

Although there had been no written language to document historical events, the hula kahiko, or hula that was practiced before the arrival of westerners, can act as a snapshot back in time. The indigenous people of Hawai’i relied on oral traditions to pass important information from generation to generation. The hula kahiko is said to be a massive data bank of historical information, documenting sustainability practices and centuries of observations including weather patterns and detailed observations of the environment during specific periods of time.

Kanahele explains that observations within the hula kahiko can offer detailed insights on the environment of Hawai‘i in the past and other relevant subjects that were not documented in writing.

Land use

Kealakaʻi Kanaka‘ole, a natural resource land manager for Kamehameha Schools on the island of Hawai‘i, spoke about the use of Hawaiian culture as a basis for achieving sustainability. He says it’s the approach that Kamehameha Schools adopted to preserve the environment and natural resources in Hawai‘i.

Kanaka‘ole says the indigenous people of Hawai‘i practiced sustainability as a means of survival and was able to remain self-sufficient for hundreds of years. As the largest private landowner in the state of Hawai‘i, he says Kamehameha Schools has taken various measures to ensure sustainability in Hawai‘i.

Preserving what is left in Hawai‘i’s natural forests is a good start in building what was lost. Kamehameha Schools has started to limit access to certain locations once open to the public, limiting the effects humans have on those natural environments.

Lava flow from cliffs to sea.
The Mālama ʻĀina and Wahi Kūpuna programs care for natural and cultural resources on KS lands from the rocky shores of Waioahukini on Hawaiʻi island. Photo and article, “Caring for our ancestral lands,” Kamehameha Schools.

Kamehameha Schools has also started to take a broad approach toward sustainability. There has been a shift in focusing on the entire ecosystem as opposed to focusing on a single endangered species. Focusing on the entire ecosystem can allow for a support system to be developed, ensuring the survival of those endangered and vulnerable species.

“We need to recognize that we have a responsibility as island dwellers” says Kanaka‘ole, explaining that the indigenous people of Hawai‘i practiced sustainability through the kapu system. The kapu system was a system that limited the harvesting of certain species during certain periods of time, the practice allowed for the management of resources ensuring localized sustainability.

“The native peoples of Hawaii created a system that managed man’s activity around the growth cycles of our natural resources, not manage resources around man’s activity, which is what we are doing now,” he explains.

Kanaka‘ole adds that “we continue to see a decline of natural resources as our dependency grows,” and that the significance of sustainability within the Hawaiian culture can reflect a possible solution to help obtain sustenance.

“In order for sustainability to be a normal practice, we need to change the mindset,” he says.

Traditional Hawaiian fishpond aquaculture
A bio of Luka from the Obama White House.
Above, Luka Mossman was recognized by the Obama White House as a Champion of Change.

Luka Mossman, a Hawaiian cultural practitioner and fishpond expert explained the cultural significance of the loko i‘a or Hawaiian fishpond and the role it can serve in addressing many sustainability issues in Hawai‘i today.

Mossman explains that the construction and practice of maintaining Hawaiian loko iʻa is not the solution to bring about sustainability but can act as a model in creating a sustainable environment. He explains how the indigenous people of Hawai‘i developed and supported an entire ecosystem while farming fish within these loko i’a, where fish were harvested selectively only taking a limited number of fish allowing the remaining population of fish to reproduce efficiently.

Mossman believes people should “live a reciprocal relationship” similar to the indigenous people of Hawai‘i. Living a reciprocal relation requires a balance of contributing to the environment in which resources are harvested. The indigenous people of Hawai‘i understood the effects they had on their own environment.

“The key to the successful ability of our kūpuna [elders] to be successful is their relationship that they found with their surrounding environment,” he explains.

Sustainability is said to be a big part of the Hawaiian culture, Mossman says, and perpetuating the Hawaiian culture will ensure the practice of sustainability.


Special thanks was given at the event to “Aunty” Gail Makuakāne­-Lundin, excutive assistant to the chancellor, for her involvement in organizing the event and logistics here in Hilo.


Author: Kainoa Lyman is a transfer student majoring in business administration and marketing.  

Photographer: Elijah Owens is a sophomore majoring in geology.