Indigenous archaeologist returns to UH Hilo to inspire students to study Pacific artifacts

Twenty-six years ago, Tarisi Vunidilo was an anthropology student at UH Hilo. She’s returned to UH Hilo as an assistant professor of anthropology with a passion to inspire students about the histories of places, artifacts, and indigenous people.

By Leah SherwoodPhotos by Raiatea Arcuri.

Tarisi Vunidilo
Tarisi Vunidilo. Photo by Raiatea Arcuri/UH Hilo Stories.

Tarisi Vunidilo, an expert in indigenous archaeology and new assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, remembers being a student at UH Hilo 26 years ago.

“I was an exchange student from the University of the South Pacific sponsored by the East-West Center,” recalls Vunidilo, who was born in Suva, Fiji. “It was my first time to come overseas and to hold a passport. I just loved every minute of it. I was a student in the same [anthropology] department. Coming back after 26 years, sometimes I close my eyes and try to remember the rooms as they were then. Some rooms have been changed, and some walls have moved.”

Vunidilo began her new position at UH Hilo last year and is now heading multiple research initiatives at UH Hilo in addition to numerous side projects in language revitalization and art intervention to raise environmental awareness. The common thread that runs through her work is a passion for connecting and sharing the histories of places, artifacts, and indigenous people.

“Being in the museum industry for so long time, I see every object as having a story,” she says. “When you see volumes and volumes of charcoal or candle nut, our role as anthropologists or archaeologists is to determine the why, and understanding it in terms of populations of people living in a certain area. Why are volumes of candle nut here and not there?”

Peter Mills
Peter Mills

Vunidilo is collaborating with UH Hilo colleague Peter Mills, a longtime professor of anthropology, to mentor a small group of anthropology students in a project to identify Hawaiian artifacts housed at the anthropology department. The artifacts were excavated in the 1970s by William Barrera, a private archaeological consultant who worked in Hawai‘i from the late 1960s until 1995. He wrote over 200 reports that were prepared in compliance with state and federal laws. After he died on the mainland, all his collections were shipped back to Hawai‘i from Arizona by the not-for-profit Society for Hawaiian Archaeology, and are now at least temporarily housed at UH Hilo. The collections contain many thousands of vials of volcanic glass, charcoal, candle nut shells, and other materials. 

“With dozens of such private consulting firms working in the state of Hawai‘i, the state is in need of a better and more permanent mechanism to malama these legacy collections,” says Mills. “UH Hilo is currently serving as a safety net for the state in the case of the Barrera collections, but similar situations will certainly arise in the future. We feel it is important that our research benefit the communities where these collections were gathered, and continue to be cared for in ways that benefit future generations.”

Self-discovery through academic research

Vunidilo says that during an interview for her current position, Mills took her on a tour of the storeroom. As she browsed the yet-to-be-organized boxes of vials, the stacks of hand-drawn and printed maps, and the Hawaiian genealogical charts housed in the collection, she immediately grasped their research potential for UH Hilo students.

When the new assistant professor returned to UH Hilo, she recruited anthropology seniors Shania Tamagyongfal and James Papa to help study the artifacts. Tamagyongfal is from Yap and Papa is of Hawaiian descent.

Vunidilo says the big picture is all about adding more information to Hawaiian archaeology. “As a professor, I really welcome the students volunteering to do this work and I know they are learning new skills like identifying the different artifact materials whether it is wooden or bone or ivory. For these students it is the beginning of an amazing journey.”

James Papa, Tarisi Vunidilo, Peter Mills, and Shania Tamagyongfa sit at table, a piece of kapa is on table, and many vial filled with materials.
From left, James Papa, Tarisi Vunidilo, Peter Mills, and Shania Tamagyongfal in anthropology lab at UH Hilo, Oct. 11, 2019. Photos by Raiatea Arcuri/UH Hilo Stories.

Papa, who was born on O‘ahu but came to UH Hilo because he wanted to learn more about his family history in Kohala, says it is the first research project for him and Tamagyongfal. “It is exciting to see the boxes labeled ‘Kohala sites’ holding different artifacts. I’m starting off learning small skills like identifying shards of shells and fish bones, and building on that to get that education. Then I’ll be able to start to look for the place where my ancestors used to live in Kohala.”

Tamagyongfal says she finds the project satisfying on several levels. “I enjoy learning about it and applying it to my own culture and sense of identity,” she says. “I found it interesting and satisfying to actually put the samples together based on their common sites.”

Vunidilo hopes Tamagyongfal will follow her mentor’s example and pursue a career in anthropology or archaeology. “Very few indigenous people from Yap do this kind of museum work,” says Vunidilo. “The work that we are doing in this humble lab at UH Hilo could be her gateway to a career.”

Indigenous voices

Tarisi Vunidilo
Tarisi Vunidilo

Vunidilo’s other project is at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, which she visits monthly to study Fijian artifacts. “The room I study in is small and can only accommodate 30 artifacts per visit,” explains Vunidilo. “My aim is to write a book about each of these artifacts. I brought two museum studies students from UH Mānoa to the Bishop Museum, and in the future, I hope to bring my students from UH Hilo.”

One motivation for Vunidilo’s students is the desire to learn more about their family histories. Papa, for example, is eager to start the next part of his project, which is to sort through the stored Hawaiian genealogies. Other students are motivated by the idea of curating a collection of indigenous artifacts from their own home islands.

“One of the students is Chamorro from Guam and she was also on a journey of understanding herself and her family,” explains Vunidilo. “She asked me, ‘Since you are doing this for Fiji, can I do it for the Chamorro people?’”

“The face of research is changing,” Vunidilo says. “The indigenous voices are now getting stronger and a lot of indigenous people want their voices included in the whole discussion not just to fill in the gaps. For me it is empowering to see these students give their time and energy to do this type of work.”

Correction: Nov. 4, 2019
Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story misstated the date that Tarisi Vunidilo returned to UH Hilo. It was in 2018, not this fall.


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. 

Photos by Raiatea Arcuri, a professional photographer majoring in business administration with a concentration in finance at UH Hilo.