University of Hawai’i, Mānoa
Scientist, surfer, voyager
Like her ancestors, she can find her way across the widest seas, and uses her experience to deepen her understanding of how the ocean works.
Haunani always had questions — and asking them was discouraged in her Hawaiian culture. For her, the product of the thinking and considering she was expecting to do before asking, combined with her observations in the wild with her family, led her into science. Managing her curiosity became a different kind of challenge when she reached college, which, even in Hawai’i, was predominantly white. But she says, “I think my work is starting to shift that narrative of what is the relationship between culture and science and how oftentimes we see them as two separate things and we struggle to find the place for both of them. And other people will be like, oh. It’s science, and we’ll try to integrate a little bit of culture, how can traditional knowledge inform, or where is its place.”
“When I was doing my undergrad I think that out of our whole program, there were maybe 3 of us that were Hawaiian. Among your peers, you know, sometimes you’re asking different questions. Among your faculty, a lot of your faculty, they are great people —kind, really smart people — but they’re from a continent, and you know sometimes it was difficult having those conversations about the research I was interested, how I wanted to focus on problems that were being faced by smaller communities and the question of how does this relate to the rest of the world, what is the global impact of this, how especially in the earth sciences and geology department, when you start to include community in the voices of people, like, how to do you quantify that, how do you account for the uncertainties of people’s lived experiences?”
Finding the middle of the Venn diagram between global and community impacts and interests is a lifelong challenge for Haunani. Realizing that is half the battle. “I think a lot of the work that this newer generation of native and indigenous sciences, is doing really that the questions that we’re asking is rooted in our culture, and the issues we’re experiencing, and science is seen as a tool to help us to answer that. When you view it that way, it’s not as difficult to figure out how it all fits together, but it’s more like science isn’t the priority or the savior, it’s just one piece of the puzzle to help us come up with solutions.”
MOMENT OF TRUTH
Again, naming the issue has helped put people on similar wavelengths when it comes to thinking about what’s happening in the environment. Haunani says,” I think a lot of folks were used to looking at a specific type of data and it was just kind of new, and I think now it’s great to see that you know the field is becoming more diverse, the earth sciences is still the least diverse of all the sciences, there’s lots of literature that supports that claim, but I think folks are starting to become more open to, and willing and wanting to see that change.”
One of Haunani’s favorite activities while growing up was a junior life guard program. In Hawaii, this meant spending a week with lifeguards, who taught them about ocean safety, tides, waves, currents, and sand movement. The program continues today. Search Junior Life Guard programs such as this one (https://emergencyservices.honolulu.gov/ocean-safety-lifeguard-services/junior-lifeguards/) in Honolulu.
More recently there’s been another program started called Nā Kama Kai or Children of the Sea. Put on every month, in different communities around Hawai’i, the free program “provides a space for kids, who do rotations where they get to learn about ocean conservation, ocean safety from the lifeguards, canoeing, and surfing.” They also learn Hawaiian navigation, star navigation. Haunani says, “Even in Hawaii there are kids that don’t know how to swim. Their parents are busy and can’t provide a safe space for children at the beach. These programs allow kids to feel comfortable.” Learn it about here. (https://nakamakai.org/children-of-the-sea/)
And of course, she recommends voyaging. “In Hawaii there are programs that are popping up on every island that are providing opportunities for youth anywhere from elementary age to high school to learn about voyaging and to get to sail and not only learn about how to sail but learn how sailing brought our people here.” Click here. (https://www.hawaiipublicschools.org/TeachingAndLearning/StudentLearning/MH/Pages/default.aspx)
To learn more about Nainoa Thompson and the Polynesia Voyaging Society, click here. (https://www.hokulea.com)
Not Hawaiian? No worries. “I think what’s great about all these programs is that they’re open to everybody, you don’t have to be Hawaiian, you don’t have to be Polynesian or whatever to participate in them. I think if you come in with the right attitude and respect and willingness to learn, that it’ll be a great experience. I think it’s also important to know that at times it may not always be your place for certain experiences, and that’s not to say you’re not Hawaiian or you’re not from that place, but even as Hawaiians we need to realize sometimes we need to take a step back so that someone else can have an experience. If you’ve been on like 50 different sails you need to take a step back so that someone younger
As a scientist, Haunani persists in bringing her community’s observations and understanding to bear in her research. At times, the further she goes in science, the further it takes her from home — and indigenous understanding. “Sometimes it can be exhausting when you’re asked to give a science talk and you have to spend the first half just defining the importance of the knowledge of your people. I’ll get questions, I’ll get asked to give talks on indigenous knowledge and then I’ll get asked to give talks on science.” She laughs. “Some audiences I have to spend half the time just explaining what indigenous knowledge is, and trying to break down the idea that our knowledge isn’t only traditional, but flip it where I speak about the traditions of western science and how we need to start to change those.” It’s not the same throughout science; the trend is toward greater understanding, respect, and acceptance. “ I also get excited when I speak to audiences that you know, it’s cool, like getting to speak to audiences where maybe that is a new thing, but also speaking to audiences that are like, oh yeah, we get it.” Either way, it’s a balancing act. “I didn’t realize that a part of my career as a science would be so much outreach and education related to just that aspect, and it’s been at times challenging. Not all knowledge comes from a single school so that just the importance of being open to learning from multiple perspectives.”
How does it feel to be one of just three Hawaiian students in a mostly white science department? Haunani was talking about her Try This opportunities when she added, “I think even in science sometimes I have culture envy, I wish that I had a parent who had been through this system who could help be navigate how to communicate with professors when I have a question or a problem, and I have to at times humble myself and put myself in awkward positions and ask for help and figure out how to ask for help and also get used to that feeling of discomfort, and tell myself, ‘don’t feel bad for yourself just because you don’t know how to do this, if you want to move forward figure it out, you’re going to have to figure it out.”
MOMENT OF TRUTH
Haunani had studied the stars, sky, and sea with Nainoa Thompson while sailing hundreds of miles about the Polynesian Voyaging Society canoe Hōlukea. She and another student would soon face an enormous challenge: finding tiny Rapa Nui (also known as Easter Island) amid the vast Pacific waves. Well, if all else failed, Nainoa would be nearby. Then, just as they were ready to leave port, Nainoa was called home to a family emergency. Horrors! Heart in her throat, Haunani set out across the Pacific — and called on her inner resources to zero in on Rapa Nui.