UH Hilo’s Mālama Honua Conference will explore Indigenous perspectives on sustainability, July 19-21. SEE UPDATE ON JULY 19 SCHEDULE.

The “2023 Mālama Honua: Indigenous Perspectives on Sustainability Conference” will be held at UH Hilo’s College of Hawaiian Language. The public is invited to attend.

UPDATE: Due to the approach of Tropical Storm Calvin, all state buildings are closed Wednesday, July 19, including UH Hilo and the Mālama Honua Conference venue, Haleʻōlelo. The first day of the conference (07/19) will therefore be abbreviated and accessible ONLY online from 1:00-3:00 p.m. for a live Zoom meeting. Registered participants should check their email or the conference website for Zoom meeting link, ID and passcode.  Once state buildings reopen, the conference will resume in-person conference activities. Contact  Assistant Professor Angela Fa‘anunu or Assistant Professor Tarisi Vunidilo with any questions.

Angela Fa‘anunu pictured. In the background is aerial view of campus with College of Hawaiian Language in the lower left corner.
UH Hilo Assistant Professor of Sustainable Tourism Angela Fa‘anunu is lead organizer of the “2023 Mālama Honua: Indigenous Perspectives on Sustainability Conference,” to be held at Haleʻōlelo (bottom left in the above aerial photo of UH Hilo campus), July 19–21. (Courtesy photo)

By Susan Enright.

Free event. Registration required. University of Hawaii at Hilo. Hilo: Malama Honua 2023 Indigenous Perspectives on Sustainability Conference. July 19–21, 2023. UH Hilo Ka Haka ‘Ula O Ke‘elikōlani College of Hawaiian Language. Join us to explore Indigenous Hawaiian and Pacific Island systems. Honoring Indigenous voices from Hawaii and across the Pacific, with insights from kupuna, scholars, educators, and cultural perspectives. Featuring Nainoa Thompson, Walter Rittee, Larry Kimura, Konai Helu Thaman, Noa Lincoln, Roen Hufford, Kamuela Enos, Kekuhi Kanakaole, Chip Fletcher, Yolanda Jacob Mori, Tarisi Vundidilo, Lito Arkangel, Angela Faanunu, OK Farms, Onomea Farm Hub, and many more. Images of Nainoa Thompson navigating, a young girl in a taro patch, and children planting crops in a field.
Above, information about the “2023 Mālama Honua: Indigenous Perspectives on Sustainability Conference.” At bottom right is Nainoa Thompson, master navigator with the Polynesian Voyaging Society who will be speaking at the conference. (Click image to enlarge)

Angela Fa‘anunu, an assistant professor of sustainable tourism at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, says when she named the upcoming conference on sustainability, she thought about how the word “sustainability” is vague. She wanted to find a term from a Pacific language that captures more accurately the ideas of stewardship, something everyone could understand and relate to.

The “2023 Mālama Honua: Indigenous Perspectives on Sustainability Conference” will be held July 19–21 at Haleʻōlelo, the building that houses UH Hilo’s Ka Haka ‘Ula O Ke‘elikōlani College of Hawaiian Language. The public is invited to attend. (See update at top of this post for July 19 schedule change.)

“Mālama Honua is a concept that was made known by the Polynesian Voyaging Society in their vision for the Worldwide Voyage,” says Fa‘anunu in reference to the Mālama Honua Worldwide Voyage made by the Polynesian voyaging canoes Hōkūleʻa and Hikianalia that encompassed a series of voyages across the globe over the course of several years beginning in 2014. Fa‘anunu was on Hōkūleʻa for the expedition’s first deep sea training to Palmyra Atoll. The Worldwide Voyage carried the message of Mālama Honua (care for our island Earth) that Hōkūlea and Hikianalia continue to spread worldwide. Fa‘anunu says that time of her life was special and life changing.

Seeking an alternative, more regenerative model

Fa‘anunu was raised in Tu‘anekivale, on the island of Vava‘u in the Kingdom of Tonga in the South Pacific, and now together with her sister owns and runs a small farm in Pāhoehoe just north of Hilo. She received her doctorate from UH Mānoa, where her research focused on sustainable tourism development in Hawai‘i and the Pacific Islands. She arrived at UH Hilo in 2019 where she teaches tourism at the College of Business and Economics, challenging her students to reimagine the conventional mass tourism industry in favor of alternative, more regenerative models centered around agritourism and Indigenous tourism based on relationships of reciprocity between hosts and visitors.

So when Peter Matlock, a lecturer in bioeconomy at UH Hilo’s College of Agriculture, Forestry, and Natural Resource Management, invited Fa‘anunu to join a grant proposal with a team of experts focusing on developing a bioeconomy that moves away from the use of fossil fuels to reduce the carbon footprint, she readily accepted the challenge.

“My role (in the grant project) is to explore Indigenous perspectives on sustainability from a Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander perspective,” she explains.

Hōkūleʻa voyaging canoe, double hulled with sails wrapped around the masts.
Angela Fa‘anunu says her own experiences on Hōkūleʻa influenced her thinking about mālama honua, care for our island Earth. (Photo: Polynesian Voyaging Society)

After a small pilot run of a conference last year focused on the bioeconomy, Fa‘anunu realized that her Indigenous perspective about sustainability was an important one and that it needed its own stand-alone conference to focus on this important issue. While the idea to explore Indigenous perspectives in sustainability came from the original proposal, a conference on the topic was outside the scope of the original grant. So Fa‘anunu scrambled to find funding support and was assisted by local non-profit Resilient Pacific. Grant writing efforts resulted in the UH Center for Indigenous Innovation and Health Equity funding the majority of the conference.

“The idea of a three-day conference to explore Indigenous perspectives in sustainability initially focused on agriculture and tourism but evolved over the past year to focus on various cultural practices including voyaging, agriculture, Hawaiian language, and Indigenous education,” explains Fa‘anunu. “My own experiences as a voyager on Hōkūleʻa influenced my thinking. The renaissance of voyaging is an example of a cultural practice that was almost lost but through the efforts of Nainoa Thompson, the Polynesian Voyaging Society and Hōkūleʻa, the practice is alive and is growing. So much so, that they (are) a platform for change at a global scale.”

She says she asked herself: Could we learn from the experience of voyaging and apply it to agriculture?

“My time with Hōkūleʻa had changed my own life and the choices that I have made to be here as an educator so I’m very interested in trying to better understand how we can motivate people to make change, to be so inspired that they are willing to change their behavior and take care of what we have in our communities and with each other.”

Tapping into the community’s expertise

As the idea for the upcoming conference evolved, Fa‘anunu reached out to experts at UH Hilo who are themselves Indigenous academics. The group helped shape the content of the conference curricula, and each has a key role:

    • Larry Kimura, professor of Hawaiian Language and Hawaiian studies known worldwide for his tremendous contributions in the revitalization of ōlelo Hawai‘i (the Indigenous language), will speak on and facilitate a discussion on sustainability through the perspective of Hawaiian language.
    • Noa Lincoln, associate professor of Indigenous crops and cropping systems at UH Mānoa’s Department of Tropical Plants and Soil Sciences and an affiliate faculty at UH Hilo, will be a keynote speaker on the second day of the event and will facilitate the agriculture component of the conference.
    • Tarisi Vunidilo, an assistant professor of anthropology and Indigenous archaeologist (and UH Hilo alumna) who hails from Fiji, will facilitate the discussion on Indigenous education.
    • Lito Arkangel will share his ‘ike (knowledge) as a lecturer of Hawaiian studies and music and as an ethnobotanist who serves as a mea mālama kīhāpai ‘o Ululaumāhie (caretaker of the gardens named Ululaumāhie) at Hale‘ōlelo, home of UH Hilo’s Ka Haka ‘Ula O Ke‘elikōlani College of Hawaiian Language.
Above, Tarisi Vunidilo, an Indigenous archaeologist at UH Hilo (and UH Hilo alumna) who hails from Fiji, dances at the “2023 International Nights” annual event held on campus in February. This month, at the “2023 Mālama Honua: Indigenous Perspectives on Sustainability Conference,” Assistant Professor of Anthropology Vunidilo will be speaking on the topic of Indigenous sustainability and also showcasing her own Fijian meke (dance) that she has taught her students. (Photo: Wolphgang Wolphagen)

“Each faculty member comes with expertise and experience in diverse areas and will be taking on the task of facilitating the various panel or talk-story discussions at the conference,” says Fa‘anunu.

“At the university level, this project is important because it shows us how we can work together and implement interdisciplinary research which can be challenging and intimidating if we are siloed in our own departments and areas of expertise,” she explains about the collaborative spirit of the conference. “In researching faculty at our university for the conference, I was in awe of the expertise that we have at our campus, particularly in the College of Hawaiian Language.”

Fa‘anunu says that an important value that this conference brings is in convening both university faculty and community leaders who are deeply committed to their work not only in Hawai‘i but in the Pacific Islands. “Bringing people together in one place for a few days is an opportunity to network, develop relationships and form partnerships and friends,” she says.

Further, she says, “This is a Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander event and we wanted to bring our cultural practices into it because they represent who we are. We have incorporated the cultural practice of making kapa in Tonga and Hawai‘i into the event and we hope to provide cultural and meaningful experiences for speakers while they are here for this short time.” Assistant Professor Vunidilo will be showcasing her own Fijian meke (dance) that she has taught her students along with performances from the UH Hilo Samoan Club and representatives from Hawai‘i and Tonga.

Reframing what sustainability means to Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders

Fa‘anunu says ultimately, the conference is about reframing what sustainability means to Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders. “To create our own frameworks and goals as an alternative to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, which excludes indicators and measures of success that may be very important to Pacific people,” she says. “This is important, because climate change is and will continue to affect us and the future of our children. We here in the Pacific are the most vulnerable to the impacts. However, our people have lived on small islands for centuries and became experts at how to live with very little.”

Aerial of the red-roofed Ka Haka ʻUla O Keʻelikōlani College of Hawaiian Language, surrounded by forest and a stream.
The “2023 Mālama Honua: Indigenous Perspectives on Sustainability Conference” will be held on the UH Hilo campus July 19–21, at Haleʻōlelo, the building that houses Ka Haka ʻUla O Keʻelikōlani College of Hawaiian Language. (Photo: UH Hilo)

While Fa‘anunu sees much interest in understanding how Indigenous knowledge can inform solutions to address problems, she says a lot of this knowledge has been lost through processes of colonization, occupation, globalization, and development. The quest for understanding Indigenous knowledge is an important part of the transition into a new economy because it is a process of decolonization, of reframing mainstream ideas into frameworks and ways that can better represent multiple worldviews.

“I believe that what comes out of this conference can provide alternative ways to think about what it means to live a good life and how we relate to our environment and to each other,” she says. “I also hope that it would inspire other Indigenous communities and academics to expand on the discussions that we will have.”

The conference includes 25 speakers of which six come from and represent the Pacific Islands of Fiji, Aotearoa, Tonga, and the Federated States of Micronesia. Also on the schedule are speakers from throughout the Hawaiian islands—Hawai‘i Island, Maui, Molokai, and O‘ahu—who are representing diverse organizations.

More info

Learn more about the upcoming sustainability conferences.

Details and registration for both conferences are available online.

Walk-in registration (no conference food) is open until July 12, 2023.

Related story

UH Hilo to host two conferences on sustainability: economics featured in Kona; Indigenous perspectives featured in Hilo

Story by Susan Enright, a public information specialist for the Office of the Chancellor and editor of UH Hilo Stories. She received her bachelor of arts in English and certificate in women’s studies from UH Hilo.