Kūʻula: The Next Generation of ʻŌiwi Research

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Photo: Kanoe Morishige

Photo: Moani Pai

By Kanoe Morishige and Moani Pai

Papahānaumokuākea inspires many Kānaka ʻŌiwi to weave Hawaiian knowledge with Western knowledge systems to enhance our understanding of our oceans. Like other Pacific Indigenous communities, Kānaka ʻŌiwi are underrepresented in STEM and resource management fields.

The concept of integrating ʻŌiwi knowledge systems with Western science began to gain momentum 16 years ago. Students needed opportunities to explore these concepts as practitioners, rooted in their identity as ʻŌiwi scholars, scientists, educators, and community members.

Since 2006, the Kīpuka Native Hawaiian Student Center at UH Hilo, led by Gail Makuakāne-Lundin, has been providing a faculty development program, Uluākea, which incorporates Hawaiian epistemologies into professional development and teaching.

In 2008, Dr. Misaki Takabayashi, then a professor in the Marine Science Department, collaborated with Moani Pai, a seasoned ʻŌiwi employee of NOAA for Papahānaumokuākea, to create the Kū‘ula course for undergraduate and graduate students. Kūʻula was offered biennially, resulting in five different cohorts from 2008-2016.

ʻAulani Wilhelm, the founding superintendent of Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument (PMNM), provided further support and resources for student research trips to Kuaihelani (Midway Atoll) or to Kauaʻi when Kuaihelani was closed. The later cohorts were co-taught by Pelika Andrade and Makani Gregg.

The objectives of Kū‘ula included identifying the similarities and differences of sciences grounded in ʻŌiwi and Western world views by exploring their context and methodologies; integrating these knowledge systems to advance knowledge of natural systems of Hawai‘i today; and learning how traditional knowledge is applied in contemporary conservation by participating in service-learning projects.

Students learned how to work alongside communities by immersing themselves in service, connecting with landscapes and oceans, and delving into Hawaiian oral histories and traditions like oli, mele, moʻolelo, and kaʻao. They learned how to conduct research that serves and supports our communities, instead of solely pursuing academic and career advancement.

Kūʻula provided the students with a sense of community and demonstrated that “science” should not be separate from our practices as Kānaka ʻŌiwi. Within Western educational institutions, ʻŌiwi students often feel pressured to put aside Hawaiian self-identity, beliefs, and culture when learning about science. Kūʻula afforded these students the opportunity to experience firsthand the beauty and power of Papahānaumokuākea and begin building their pilina with this special place that has been protected through decades of long-term engagement with ʻŌiwi communities. They met with various community leaders and federal and state agencies who provided valuable insight and inspired students to integrate all sectors of conservation, education and research, and perpetuate pono research working alongside communities.

Kūʻula cultivated the growth of the next generation of natural resource managers and professionals. We estimate that over 90% of former Kū‘ula students are either working in natural resource management positions or pursuing graduate degrees that are integral to the growth and evolution of how we care for and manage our natural environment. Some former students were hired by NOAA PMNM or are currently employed within NOAA. Others are giving back through participation and involvement with the Papahānaumokuākea Native Hawaiian Cultural Working Group.

Kū‘ula’s contribution to current and future Indigenous leadership in resource management continues to grow throughout Hawai‘i.

Pelika Andrade led a group of Kūʻula students to create a nonprofit organization, Nā Maka o Papahānaumokuākea, to support thriving relationships with Papahānaumokuākea, which has supported more than a decade of community-based intertidal monitoring. Former students have also trained as science divers at UH Hilo and conducted coral reef surveys in Papahānaumokuākea.

This love for Hawaiʻi extends beyond careers into personal and familial practices. Papahānaumokuākea, our Kūpuna Islands, continues its legacy of empowering the next generations of Aloha ʻĀina.


Moani Pai is the Administrative Officer of NOAA’s PMNM and joined NOAA in 2002. For more than 20 years, Moani has helped to guide the expanding protections for the Papahānaumokuākea and helps to guide the weaving of Native Hawaiian values and worldview throughout the management structure of the monument.

Kanoe Morishige is the Native Hawaiian Program Specialist for NOAA PMNM supporting Native Hawaiian advocacy and engagement that is foundational to guiding its co-management. Her experiences are rooted in perpetuating Native Hawaiian knowledge systems, engaging with our communities, conducting intertidal research, and supporting biocultural initiatives in resource management.

The Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) is a co-trustee and co-manager for the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. OHA also provides financial support to the Cultural Working Group (CWG) comprised of academic scholars, teachers, cultural practitioners, community activists, and resource managers that have experience with issues concerning the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. OHA ensures the CWG has logistical and administrative support. The views of the CWG do not necessarily reflect those of OHA and other co-trustees and co-managers.