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Reclaiming Traditional Hawaiian Food Systems and Restoring Ai’na Through Big Island Archaeology

Indigenous Archaeology Project, Summer 2023 Fieldwork in Hawaii. Photo credit: Michael Wilcox

The Indigenous Archaeology project, directed by Michael Wilcox (CCSRE, Archaeology Center), engages the pressing issues of climate change and food security affecting the Indigenous peoples of Hawaii. Wilcox and his team are working with Native Hawaiian community organizations to document and help restore traditional food systems on land and sea.

Traditional land and fisheries management systems enabled the Hawaiian peoples to support large populations of several hundred thousand individuals for centuries. Hawaiian food systems were imagined, developed, and implemented to reflect the centrality of reciprocal relationships and kinship between humans and ‘Aina. ‘Aina, “that which sustains us,” is the foundation of Hawaiian culture, identity, and traditional practices: voyaging, farming, fishing, hunting, gathering, healing arts and ceremonies are all seamlessly interwoven within Hawaiian cosmology. Today, there is an extreme risk of the collapse of these traditional systems on the islands. Restoring these systems is at the heart of reclaiming ‘Aina.

As western science grapples with the challenges of climate change, water, soil and ocean health, Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) has been recognized as providing a model of cultural values and technical knowledge that centers sustainability as the marker of a successful society. Documenting how these systems work involves a combination of traditional archaeological methods (mapping and survey) with relationship building and community engagement. The emphasis on centering the interests and needs of the community is a cornerstone of Indigenous archeology and a driving force behind Wilcox’s work.

Learning from Wilcox, Stanford students are developing sustainable partnerships, research questions, and restoration projects with local community groups and Indigenous cultural practitioners. For example, this summer, at Pua Nui on the Big Island, Wilcox and his team worked with ‘aina-based educational organizations to train cultural practitioners in the use of GIS and Ground Penetrating Radar to record the extent of the massive breadfruit field systems.

In centering the voices of Native Hawaiian people in his fieldwork, Wilcox is emphasizing local knowledge, not just as an artifact of the Hawaiian past, but as a feature of contemporary Hawaiian cosmology and technical knowledge. The Indigenous Archaeology project reflects, therefore, a critical shift in the relationships between archaeological practices and methods and the Indigenous management of the environment.