UH Hilo anthropologist Peter Mills receives prestigious award for his archaeological work and public service

With its Public Archaeology Award, the Society for Hawaiian Archaeology recognizes Professor of Anthropology Peter Mills for his tireless preservation work.

Peter Mills stands in quarry.
Peter Mills

By Susan Enright.

An anthropology professor at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo has received a prestigious award from the Society for Hawaiian Archaeology for his tireless preservation work.

Peter Mills received the SHA’s second Public Archaeology Award during its convention held last week at the Bishop Museum on O‘ahu. The purpose of the award is to recognize individuals or groups who reach a broad audience in their local communities and seek to involve these communities in their archaeological efforts.

“What makes the award really special is that it reflects a central role for UH Hilo in sustained efforts to improve heritage management programs in the Pacific by reaching out to descendant communities,” Mills says. “I have greatly benefited from working with so many students with deep passions and connections to cultural stewardship.”


Research team at table filled with collection.
From left, student James Papa, Assistant Professor of Anthropology Tarisi Vunidilo, Professor of Anthropology Peter Mills, and student Shania Tamagyongfal in the anthropology lab at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, Oct. 11, 2019. The group is working on a project to identify Hawaiian artifacts housed at the anthropology department. (Raiatea Arcuri/UH Hilo Stories.)

In the awards statement by the SHA, it’s noted that the groups or individuals who receive the award exemplify the SHA’s ethical guidelines as adopted in their code of by-laws.

“By promoting understanding of Hawaiian cultural sites both for local people and visitors to the Hawaiian Islands, they encourage greater compassion and commitment to these significant places,” the statement reads. “Raising public awareness of the importance of these places can help to discourage commercialism and to eliminate collecting, buying, or selling archaeological materials.”

Through this award, SHA recognizes the importance of playing an active role in public education concerning Hawaiian archaeology and disseminating research.

Professor Mills has been a faculty member at UH Hilo since 1997, based at the Department of Anthropology, and has made profound positive impacts through his commitment to public-oriented scholarship. He has increased access to educational and professional training opportunities, particularly through the development of UH Hilo’s master of arts in heritage management program.


Peter Mills (left) confers the master of arts in heritage management to a student at UH Hilo’s Spring Commencement, May 11, 2019. (Raiatea Arcuri/UH Hilo Stories)

His leadership and service within and in collaboration with public, nonprofit, and professional organizations has been far-reaching; he has served as president and vice president of the Society for Hawaiian Archaeology, delivered public lectures through the Archaeological Institute of America and Historic Hawai‘i Foundation, and has served as a board member on the Hawai‘i Historic Places Review Board, the Paniolo Preservation Society, and works closely with the Honoka‘a Heritage Center.

Pā‘ula‘ula

While Mills’s archaeological work and public service are inextricably linked, this award recognizes in particular his work at Pā‘ula‘ula, a significant Hawaiian royal residence on Kaua‘i that was commonly known as the Russian Fort Elizabeth for the last century. Mills’s work at Pā‘ula‘ula extends as far back as his dissertation research in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. This later developed into the book, Hawai‘i’s Russian Adventure: A New Look at Old History (2002).

“A point of emphasis in the award is that my dissertation research from 29 years ago is still assisting the Kaua‘i community by reinforcing ‘ike kūpuna (ancestral knowledge) carried by direct descendants of King Kaumuali‘i, especially Aunty Aletha Kaohi of Waimea, Kaua‘i, and a small army of ‘West Side’ residents who have fought off organized Russian efforts to retain a colonial site name,” explains Mills in an email. He recommends reading a report by KITV4 for additional background on the project: Investigation into alleged secret Russian agent zeroed in on Kaua’i.


Computer generated photo of Russian Fort Elizabeth, Kauaʻi. Russian Fort Elizabeth, Kauaʻi.
Computer generated photo of the previously named Russian Fort Elizabeth, Kaua‘i. An award to UH Hilo Professor of Anthropology Peter Mills from the Society for Hawaiian Archaeology recognizes in particular his work at this historic place, Pā‘ula‘ula, a significant Hawaiian royal residence that was commonly known as the Russian Fort Elizabeth for the last century. Due in great measure to Prof. Mills’s work, the Hawai‘i Board of Land and Natural Resources this year voted unanimously to rename Russian Fort Elizabeth State Historical Park to Pā‘ula‘ula State Historic Site. This decision is an important commitment to recognizing Pā‘ula‘ula’s role in Native Hawaiian history.

The SHA notes in its award statement that Mills’s scholarship has consistently pushed back against conventional histories of this wahi kūpuna, which have minimized or obscured the significance of Pā‘ula‘ula as a Hawaiian ancestral site built by a largely Hawaiian workforce, and with significant meaning to Hawaiian history, particularly in connection with the reign of Kaumuali‘i on Kaua‘i.

More recently, Mills and collaborators combined archival documents, maps, photographs, and archaeological research to build three-dimensional models of the site and increase community engagement with Pā‘ula‘ula.

“His efforts in bringing this history forward has played a role in re-shaping public understanding of Pā‘ula‘ula,” notes the SHA in the award statement. “This year, the Hawai‘i Board of Land and Natural Resources voted unanimously to rename Russian Fort Elizabeth State Historical Park to Pā‘ula‘ula State Historic Site. This decision is an important commitment to recognizing Pā‘ula‘ula’s role in Native Hawaiian history.”

The statement concludes, “SHA would like to thank Prof. Peter R. Mills for his many years of public commitment, exemplary work, and for serving as a role model to many of us who aspire to make positive public impacts with our work here in Hawai‘i.”


By Susan Enright, a public information specialist for the Office of the Chancellor and editor of UH Hilo Stories.