Undergraduate research trip to Hawai’i offers lessons for living on Indigenous land

March 15, 2017 by Elaine Smith - A&S News

Hawai’i may be best known as a holiday paradise, but for Professor Bonnie McElhinny and six University of Toronto anthropology students, it is a learning lab for multiculturalism and de-colonization strategies.

Like Canada, Hawai’i has a population of people from around the world and an active Indigenous sovereignty movement. The study trip — part of McElhinny’s Diversity: Critical Perspectives on Multiculturalism and Settler Colonialism course — is particularly relevant in light of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Final Report and the University of Toronto’s response.

“It’s important to think about how you break down the boundaries of classrooms and learn what it means to be on Indigenous territory in a multicultural city,” said McElhinny, who teaches anthropology and women’s & gender studies in the Faculty of Arts & Science.

Mindful of U of T’s recommendations for more land-based education, McElhinny organized the trip in collaboration with the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa (UHM) which she describes as home to “one of the world’s finest programs in Indigenous sovereignty, ecological restoration and food security.” UHM, she notes, “is working at building meaningful linkages with the Indigenous community in a respectful way, something that is more developed there.”

“We all had the opportunity to learn about what such a program could look like and brought our ideas back to U of T,” said McElhinny.

McElhinny’s course invites students to consider new perspectives and approaches as they deepen their understanding of settler colonialism — the phenomena in which conquerors of lands and people see themselves as native to the property and entitled to the land, resources and original inhabitants.

“Invasive species are a useful metaphor,” McElhinny said. “We need to identify what will flourish alongside other species without hurting them. As you de-colonize, you determine which actions are toxic to the land and people and look for ways to restore reciprocity and the right relationships.”

Group of students holding a sign that says "Welcome home to Mahua"
The beginning of a tour of the Mākua Valley — an area that has significant symbolic and cultural value to Kānaka Maoli (Indigenous Hawaiians). Photo: Lynette Cruz.

Fittingly, one of the group’s activities was removing invasive California grass from one of the island’s bays where it was leaving little room for water and fish. Students also spent time on a farm where owners were restoring the land ecologically under Indigenous stewardship. Other activities connecting them to the land and its Indigenous origins included restoring the mounds of taro plants eroded by rain, weeding the ground around an historic altar that had been left to decay on military land,  and carving a peace canoe at a housing project that was experiencing racial conflict.

The students also toured various sites affected by the United States’ major military presence in Hawai’i and took part in a conference with UHM students to discuss both Canadian and Hawaiian ecological and Indigenous issues. The students will be presenting papers based on their experiences to their classmates at U of T and in the undergraduate research fair to share their knowledge.

Matthew Johnstone, a third-year specialist in social and cultural anthropology, was so taken with Hawaiian culture that he plans to return there for his PhD studies. He has begun to study the Hawaiian language in preparation.

“I have been looking for a focus for my future research,” he said, “and when we explored Hawai’i, it just felt right.”

Amanda Harvey-Sánchez, a third-year major in social and cultural anthropology, said Hawaiian culture teaches that everyone has a responsibility and a calling that he/she should be looking to fulfill. The experience led her to wonder “how do we de-colonize academia by combining practice and theory to create something positive?”

For Madison Laurin, a fourth-year specialist in social and cultural anthropology, it was the civic engagement involved in the ecology projects that resonated most strongly.

“I’m wondering how we can make civic engagement more available to U of T students,” she said. “The wheels are turning.”

The undergraduate trip to Hawai’i was supported by the International Course Module (ICM) program in the Faculty of Arts & Science. ICMs provide students with direct exposure to the international phenomena they are studying in their courses.