people on an island smiling for the photo
UH Mānoa College of Social Sciences students spent four days in March on Kahoʻolawe, giving back to the land and collecting research for their capstone projects. (Photo courtesy: Māhie Lee)

A once-in-a-lifetime trip to Kahoʻolawe resulted in a major learning and bonding experience for a group of University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa College of Social Sciences students.

Under the guidance of Professor Dave Beilman, nine capstone students in the Department of Geography and Environment spent four days volunteering on the sacred island with a controversial history. Kahoʻolawe was first used as ranch land and then by the U.S. military as a training ground and bombing range. The latter led to protests in the 1970s and was the start of Native Hawaiian activism that continues to this day.

people planting plants into the ground on an island
Students plant native species on Kahoʻolawe (Photo courtesy: Jordyn Poyo)

The students gathered information, such as analyzing satellite images, historical aerial photographs and documents, and archaeological sites for their final capstone projects, along with performing maintenance work to the vegetation and roads.

Kahoʻolawe is at the intersection of Hawaiʻi history, social justice, and environmental devastation and restoration. It’s been hugely rewarding to learn from and give back to the island with the students,” Beilman said.

During the trip from March 11–14, Skyler McMachen and other students helped remove invasive species, plant native species and performed general maintenance.

“Taking part in such a special and unique trip with my classmates was definitely a bonding experience. My most memorable moment was while planting native plants on the northern part of the island and looking out over the water and being able to see Lānaʻi, Molokaʻi, Maui and tiny glimpses of the Big Island, all from a different perspective than most people get,” McMachen said. “For my project, I am looking at radiocarbon dates for archeological sites, so being able to see the island and the actual areas the sites were located was very helpful. It made it easier to visualize the area and where it is in relation to other sites.”

Hands-on student research

people pose for a photo while planting plants
Students pose for a photo while planting native species on Kahoʻolawe (Photo courtesy: Jordyn Poyo)

Beilman and the students worked closely with and received approvals for the expedition from the Kahoʻolawe Island Reserve Commission (KIRC) and Protect Kahoʻolawe ʻOhana (PKO). KIRC was created by the state Legislature to manage the Kahoʻolawe Island Reserve while it is held in trust for a future Native Hawaiian sovereign entity. KIRC is administratively attached to the state Department of Land and Natural Resources. PKO is a grassroots organization dedicated to Kahoʻolawe and the principles of Aloha ʻĀina throughout Hawaiʻi. PKO strengthens its relationship with the land and pays respect to the spirits of the land.

Māhie Lee’s research project is on ʻike kūpuna (ancestral insights, experiences and perspectives), and includes compiling a file of Hawaiian newspaper articles, songs and chants about Kahoʻolawe. Lee knew about PKO and its activism, but did not know about the current land agreement and the role of the state. She was very interested in seeing how KIRC operated on the island.

“The folks on the island were great. They were welcoming and gracious, and they went out of their way to answer all of our questions and take us to different sites around the island. It was evident that they respected the culture, the history, and their roles as stewards, not owners, of the land,” Lee said. “This was the ultimate learning trip, and I will remember and talk about it forever. I hope future geography capstone classes get to experience it as well.”

person in an orange shirt holding a plant
Professor Dave Beilman planting native species on Kahoʻolawe (Photo courtesy: Jordyn Poyo)

Christian Lamer-Wolfewicz’s project involves using satellite imagery and geographic information systems to determine how the climate events of El Niño and La Niña are impacting the vegetation health on Kahoʻolawe.

Kahoʻolawe will be a very memorable experience for me. The staff at KIRC was very accommodating and they all had a wealth of knowledge that really showed that this commission really wants to preserve the history and heal the land so that future generations can continue the work,” Lamer-Wolfewicz said. “Going through this experience, I want to answer my research question and give some useful information to KIRC. After seeing the lack of vegetation in some areas and the efforts by KIRC to revegetate, it helped me narrow down what I needed to analyze.”

“The projects these students have developed provide an awesome example of the type of learning that can be done on Kahoʻolawe,” said Maggie Pulver, public information specialist for the KIRC. “The Reserve, and its many cultural, environmental, historical and geographical resources, provide an expansive classroom for students of all ages and disciplines. In fact, one of the goals outlined in I Ola Kanaloa!, the current strategic plan guiding active projects ‘on-the-ground’ in the Reserve, is to honor the natural environment and revitalization of cultural relationships through Kahoʻolawe by establishing programs for learning. These types of student partnerships directly contribute to that goal and help us to see what is possible when we look to place and culture for knowledge.”

This work is an example of UH Mānoa’s four goals of Becoming a Native Hawaiian Place of Learning (PDF), Enhancing Student Success (PDF), Excellence in Research: Advancing the Research and Creative Work Enterprise (PDF) and Building a Sustainable and Resilient Campus Environment: Within the Global Sustainability and Climate Resilience Movement (PDF), identified in the 2015–25 Strategic Plan (PDF), updated in December 2020.

To read more about how Beilman and a visiting scholar previously went to Kahoʻolawe in February, see the College of Social Sciences website.

—By Marc Arakaki