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Group shot in New York
Attendees from UH Mānoa in New York Kealiʻi Gora, Alyssa ʻĀnela Purcell, Haliʻa Osorio, Makanalani Gomes, Brandi Ahlo, and Chris Oliveira

University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa students and graduates are making waves in the world of Hawaiian genealogical research. On April 23, they presented their work at the United Nations headquarters in New York City, unveiling a groundbreaking project that seeks to reconnect kānaka ʻōiwi (Native Hawaiians) with their ancestral roots.

Page from a genealogy book
Book from the Phillips Collection dated July 1, 1857 that features genealogy from Maui, Kauaʻi and Oʻahu

Three haumāna (students); Haliʻa Osorio, Brandi Ahlo and Alyssa ʻĀnela Purcell, from the Hawaiʻinuiākea School of Hawaiian Knowledge (HSHK) shared their findings from the Moʻopono Project, where they transcribe and digitize handwritten moʻokūʻauhau (genealogical) records penned mostly in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi (Hawaiian language) during the 19th century. The project’s goal is to provide free public access to these records, allowing kānaka ʻōiwi to trace their genealogy with the click of a button.

“Our eyes go big and our hearts beat faster when we learn a story or find a lineage that our professor has never seen before,” said Purcell, the project’s lead researcher who is pursuing a PhD in Indigenous politics. “It makes me excited to realize that there is so much more to learn about our ancestors and—in that same vein—ourselves as a people.”

Profile image of Queen Liliuokalani
Queen Liliʻuokalani, credit: Hawaiʻi State Archives

Royal connections

The Moʻopono Project, launched in 2021 by HSHK Kamakakūokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies Professor Lilikalā Kameʻeleihiwa, set out to transcribe 55 books originally authored by the Board of Genealogy of Hawaiian Chiefs and other sources. These books contain intricate family lineages from across ka pae ʻāina o Hawaiʻi (Hawaiian archipelago), including ancestral data from notable historical figures such as Queen Liliʻuokalani and historian S.M. Kamakau.

Paʻa i ka hana, very busy working

During their presentation at the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, student researchers explained the fragile books had been stored for decades at the Hawaiʻi State Archives, largely out of reach of the general public. Working off of scanned images, the haumāna have transcribed 7,385 of the 9,000 pages so far, with more work on the horizon.

“Our ancestors were geniuses in how they embedded genealogies into our stories, music, chants, and everyday language,” Purcell explained. “Because of them, our knowledge is everywhere—we just need the appropriate systems and tools to access it.”

The student researchers aim to complete the pioneering project as part of their mission to help kānaka ʻōiwi reclaim their ancestral identity and inspire Indigenous communities from around the world to revive and reclaim their own histories.

“Our ancestors wanted/want us to know them and to engage them. Our ancestors want to empower us. What a rare and potent form of aloha,” Purcell said.

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