As a student at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa I am constantly surrounded by breathtaking natural beauty, yet with all the stress and distraction that comes with graduate school, one can easily start to take nature’s gifts for granted. With this in mind, I was delighted to be given the opportunity recently to join an interdepartmental seminar entitled Mānoa as a Model for Kuleana. In ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi, the Hawaiian language, kuleana means both privilege and responsibility, and in its complexity this term very aptly describes how all people, but especially scientists, should view their relationship with the earth.
One of the first readings for the course was He Lei Aloha ʻĀina by Dr. Mehana Vaughn. In it she discusses her “ʻāina-based” approach to research that considers “ʻāina as a source, the place itself; ʻāina as people, those connected to that place; and ʻāina as ongoing connection and care.” With this outlook, to consider the land without the people or conversely the people without the land would be incomplete, yet in our modern world people so often do operate with a myopic mindset that overlooks the undeniable link between humans and the earth. Before a task as seemingly benign as sampling water, Dr. Vaughn and her students take the time to say an oli, or chant, to ask for “permission of this place, of the wai, the water itself.” Similarly, as part of an ʻāina-based practice she engages the communities where her work is conducted in the patient, humble way.
We also read Ua Noho Au A Kupa I Ke Alo by Dr. R. Keawe Lopes Jr., a piece in which he discusses the importance of “building relationships with mentors” in the communities in which we work. A vital component of this is noho, which Dr. Lopes describes as being “reflective of one who has made a commitment to establish a relationship with a place or person.” Dr. Lopes describes this process in the context of his mele (a Hawaiian song or chant) and hulu mentor, and he encourages us to think of our mentors as aliʻi, or chiefs. Of course mentors can be teachers and advisors as traditionally envisioned, but for scientists studying the natural world they can also be kupa, described by Dr. Lopes as “a longtime resident, possessing personal and lasting relationships with the people and moʻolelo (stories) of that place, both ancient and modern.” In Hawaiian culture the land itself is thought of as an ancestor as well, so the lineage and ties to the earth can be considered both literally and metaphorically.
In keeping with an ʻāina-based approach to research, it is important for researchers to seek out the wealth of knowledge possessed by people who have had lifelong relationships with their study systems. While humility and patience are vital to human partnerships and mentoring, the same approach should be applied to the ecosystems and non-human communities that scientists study as well. For example, I was once told by a local fisherman that one of the most important steps in fishing was letting the fish get to know you. If they — the inhabitants of the community that you wished to enter — were not comfortable with you, they would never come near you. Approaching kupa, fish, or the earth itself with the respect that mentors deserve then becomes a vital part of the research process.
Yet, it can be hard to reconcile the desire to patiently learn from, fully appreciate, and eventually become part of a human or ecological community with the realistic constraints of many research projects. There is often a limited amount of time and money that can be spent on a study, so how can scientists try to bridge this gap? Dr. Vaughn notes that her work does not mirror the growing trend to work with huge, global datasets; however, it may be that through the development of collaborative partnerships, an ʻāina-based approach can become a more integral component of common research practices. While working directly with individuals in a community may not be feasible for all scientific projects, researchers can certainly strive to take their kuleana seriously. Stopping to give thanks before sampling or making a concerted effort to give back to the source and people that you take from are critical ways of honoring the ʻāina that we all rely upon.
Both cited pieces were in the following text:
Oliveira, Katrina-Ann R. K. N, and Erin K. Wright. Kanaka ʻōiwi Methodologies: Moʻolelo and Metaphor. , 2016. Print.
For Hawaiian word translations check out http://wehewehe.org