Hawaiian cultural perspectives are woven into environmental science graduate program at UH Hilo

There is a movement in Hawaiʻi to increase cultural content in the way science is taught—it honors the place, the host culture, and the people who have lived here for centuries.

By Leah Sherwood.

Collage of photos: individual photos of three students collecting data, one photo of a moth larvae, one photo of a lab tube.
Graduate students in the field collecting data. Photo courtesy of the Tropical Conservation Biology and Environmental Science program, UH Hilo.

Traditional Hawaiian cultural perspectives are part of the curriculum in an innovative graduate program at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo. Students in the Tropical Conservation Biology and Environmental Science (TCBES) program study Hawai‘i’s unique natural resources using the Western system of knowledge, but there was a realization a few years ago among faculty about the need to infuse Native Hawaiian cultural awareness into the scientific inquiry done by students.

“There’s a big movement in the sciences in Hawaiʻi to increase the cultural content in the way that we teach science,” says Rebecca Ostertag, professor of biology and chair of the graduate program.

Huihui Kanahele-Mossman
Huihui Kanahele-Mossman

As part of this shift in program curriculum, Huihui Kanahele-Mossman, a Native Hawaiian cultural practitioner also knowledgeable in Western science and educational issues, now advises the students on Hawaiian culture and traditional knowledge as part of their studies. She is involved in the program’s core classes, helping students to integrate cultural components into their studies and research projects.

“My cultural concepts and ideologies come from the practice of hula,” says Kanahele-Mossman, granddaughter of the cultural icon Edith Kanaka‘ole. “As a dancer and teacher, you need in-depth knowledge about your environment. The dancer is a reflection of nature. In the dance, we mimic nature. We do that to the accompaniment of the text or blueprint of the dance, which also talks about nature.”

Kanahele-Mossman is comfortable in both Hawaiian and European scientific traditions. She received degrees in physics and science education from the University of Hawaiʻi, and, continuing in the Native Hawaiian traditions of her grandmother, beloved expert and instructor in the art forms of hula (dancing) and oli (poetic chanting), has become an expert practitioner herself.

“I became involved with the TCBES graduate students because it’s about our environment and the ecological outlook of our island,” says Kanahele-Mossman. “It’s not easy because I don’t always have answers for them to their questions. But there’s a smooth transition and relationship between what they’re studying and their projects and what our ancestors wrote about this island.”

Ostertag agrees that there is a natural overlap. “Hawaiians have always been scientists and observers,” she says. “Over the centuries they made observations about their environment, they practiced science. And they did incredible engineering, building canoes, navigation, using astronomy. In their agriculture and aquaculture systems, and their entire way of life, they used science and observation and testing.”

Kanahele-Mossman notes that the ancestral chants can be surprisingly prescient about natural events on the island.

“For example, there are texts called hulihias, which are about large changes,” she explains. “Huli means to turn, and hia means tumultuous. These hulihia chants are usually about volcanoes, big storms, earthquakes, the movement of earth, and how it turns itself over. Even though they were written hundreds of years ago, we can interpret what we see today in these chants.

“For instance, the characteristics of the eruption that just happened at the Halemaʻumaʻu Crater at the summit of Kīlauea, the dropping and expanding of the caldera, is described in the hulihia chants. We can look at the lines of the chant and say ‘yeah, that’s exactly what’s happening today,’ because they’ve seen it before.”

Ostertag believes the initiative greatly benefits the graduate program’s curriculum.

“Our program is unique because we have these incredible environments and these incredible biological and cultural resources across the Hawaiian islands,” she says. Adding a Native Hawaiian perspective to the curriculum “helps students better connect with the content [of their work] and is a vital way of doing science in the 21st century. I am sure for students from the mainland it is a different way of looking at things, but it is an acknowledgement of the place we live, the host culture, and the people that have lived here for centuries.”


Story by Leah Sherwood, a graduate student in the tropical conservation biology and environmental science program at UH Hilo. She received her bachelor of science in biology and bachelor of arts in English from Boise State University. 

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