Community-Based Research in Hawai‘i: From the Perspective of a Hawaiian Graduate Student Abroad

By Ruth-Rebeccalynne Tyana Lokelani Aloua

Aloha mai kakou, my name is Ruth-Rebeccalynne Tyana Lokelani Aloua. I am a kanaka ‘oiwi (Native Hawaiian) born in Wailuku, Maui, and raised in Kailua-Kona, a town located on Hawai‘i Island. 

I lived in Kailua-Kona for 22 years before leaving to attend graduate school.  

When I was home, I worked at Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park (NHP) as a park guide. The enabling legislation that established it states that this NHP was created to “interpret, preserve, and perpetuate traditional native Hawaiian activities and culture” (Public Law 95-625). The park’s feasibility and desirability study (Honokohau Study Advisory Commission 1974), Record of Decision (USDOI, National Park Service 1994), General Management Plan (USDOI, National Park Service 1994), and provisions in the enabling legislation (Public Law 95-625) all support this initiative. When I spoke with close friends and members of the Kailua-Kona community about how well they thought that the Park Service was fulfilling these goals, I learned that they had critical comments regarding the management of the park

At very top, the author Ruth Aloua; above, the Honokohau coastal area. All photos courtesy R. Aloua, used with permission. 

For my MA thesis in the Department of Archaeology at Simon Fraser University, I conducted a case study at this wahi pana (legendary place). The project I developed emphasized the importance of community involvement. I wanted to work with my community to understand how they thought the Park Service could better fulfill the goals set out in the park's enabling legislation. I also hoped to make things better, by creating recommendations for the Park Service, so that they could better work with kanaka‘oiwi and and other locals to achieve this goal.

As an undergraduate, I read quite a bit about “community-based participatory research.” Sonya Atalay (2012) writes in-depth about how to conduct community based participatory research (CBPR), including what this research methodology entails, and what it aims to achieve. During my MA thesis research with my own community, I drew on many of CBPR's guiding principles that Atalay highlights. This blog post offers insight into how my own community-based research project proceeded, how my perspective on community-based research has evolved, as well as some of the lessons that I learned along the way.

Above, close friend, Lolana Medeiros, taught me how to conduct research with my community; below, 'talking story' with my tutu. 

Learning How to Conduct Community Based Research with My Own Community

In the summers of 2012 and 2013, I learned how to conduct research with my community. This task was more challenging than I originally thought. All of the books that I read on CBPR could not have prepared me for the challenges that I faced. Though these books provided me with tips on how to conduct CBPR, they did not teach me how to design the research to be more reflective of my culture. This is something that family members and close friends taught me how to do. Without their help, I do not know if the research would have come to life. For example, I conducted an oral history project with my tutu (grandmother) and spent time interviewing and conducting research activities with other close friends as well. These individuals taught me to integrate cultural elements like mele (song), mea‘ai (food), mo‘olelo (traditions), ha‘awi (exchange), mo‘oku‘auhau (genealogy), and ‘ohana (family) into the research process. Each of these elements added a touch of Hawaiian culture to the research, transforming it, and making it more reflective of, and appropriate to, the people and place. These teachings helped me build a kahua (foundation) to work with other members from the community.

Throughout the research, I learned how to strengthen my kahua by increasing interactions with other community members and Park Service personnel. Below, I discuss some of the challenges that I encountered and briefly describe how I dealt with each.

Creating Research Questions and Objectives

A difficult stage of the project was creating research questions and objectives that would fulfill the requirements of academia, while also providing insights that would benefit community members and Park Service personnel. These were three groups that my research affected. The latter two groups were most affected, directly or indirectly; therefore I felt that it was crucial that they be involved in the research. I spent about two years engaging in meaningful conversations with individuals from these groups to identify my research questions and objectives. During this time, I learned several lessons about conducting research with my community.

First and foremost, I learned about the importance of trust in community-based projects. During the summer of 2013, I became aware that there was a lack of trust between community members and some of the Park Service personnel. Many of the community members felt that the Park Service personnel only paid them “lip-service” when they voiced their concerns regarding the management of the NHP. Similarly, the Park Service personnel felt that community members did not understand the constraints of NPS laws, policies, and protocols. This disconnect made it difficult for individuals to sit together and discuss issues or conflicts constructively. The lack of trust made it difficult for individuals to share sentiments honestly with each other. Also, since I feared that Park Service employees might risk discipline by the Park Service for sharing personal thoughts and opions, I avoided scheduling group meetings.

My own position in this project, as both a member of the Kailua-Kona community and as a former Park Service employee, raised some difficult questions and challenges. Given my former affiliation with the Park Service, I was never quite sure whether community members trusted me in my researcher role. Since my ‘ohana has lived in the Kona District for several generations, my ancestors already laid a blueprint for my kahua. However, community members that remember my ancestors as untrustworthy would have distrusted me because of their actions. In terms of Park Service personnel, again, I was never sure if they trusted me either. When I worked at the park, I had established relationships with individuals that I worked with on a daily basis. However, there were people from other management divisions that I did not have a relationship with. To create a trusting relationship in my research, I always began my conversations and interviews by introducing myself and my mo‘oku‘auhau, stating my purpose, being honest about my intent and skills, and I always followed through on promises.

I also learned about cultural barriers that needed to be overcome to start the research. In Hawaiian culture, direct questioning can be considered offensive and rude. An individual can impose on another’s personal space by being niele, asking constant questions that are seen as intrusive and rude, and maha‘oi, or asking questions that are viewed as offensive and invasive (Ito 1985). This is a practice that I was discouraged from practicing as a child. Instead, I was taught to nana ka maka, ho‘olohe ka pepeiao, pa‘a ka waha – “observe with the eyes, listen with the ears, and shut your mouth.” This teaching conflicted with the need to ask questions to identify research questions and objectives.

As a member of the Kailua-Kona community and former NPS employee, I shared experiences with both community members and Park Service staff. I think that this was advantageous to the research because these experiences gave me insight into what might be considered appropriate or inappropriate to each group. By adjusting my practice, I was more aware of how to be inclusive and respectful of the many individuals that took part in the research.

Additionally, I learned how it felt to be a researcher who wanted to “do the right thing and talk to everyone,” without actually really knowing who the “everyone” was. At the park, there is no formally recognized board or group that represented the interests of the community or families from the area. I had a difficult time identifying all of the families and individuals that I should have spoken with about conducting my research. If I wanted to follow cultural protocols, I needed to ask these families and individuals for permission to conduct my research at Kaloko-Honokohau. Furthermore, some individuals expressed strong dissatisfaction with some of the park management and personnel, which effected how I could proceed with the research. Most of all, I learned that although my family and I are from the Kailua-Kona community and I previously worked at the national park, it took time for me to create a research relationship with Park Service personnel and non-Park Service personnel. This is a relationship that I continue to work on today.

As I started the research I slowly learned how to deal with these challenges. To deepen my understanding of the research questions and objectives that could best serve members of these groups, I was forced to ask tough questions and sometimes engage in uncomfortable conversations to identify sources of conflict between the national park representatives and community members. Some individuals felt that this had been overly discussed already and did not want to have to talk about these issues again. Despite this, I needed to ask them to share their thoughts once more and sought to reassure them that I would dedicate my time and effort to see that the issues were addressed. I had to convince them that I would not simply pay them lip service, as had been the case with the Park Service in the past, but would actually take their concerns seriously.

To get beyond the barrier of being niele and maha‘oi, I needed to learn how to ask the right questions. For instance, I learned the importance of conducting thorough background research to formulate questions that had not been asked. This helped me avoid asking simple questions that had already been answered; community members frown upon such a mistake. Additionally, I became more attuned to the thoughts and feelings that individuals expressed. I learned to respond to them by adjusting the research process. For example, when individuals said they thought it was disrespectful to use terms like 'expert' or others that defined our people by blood quantum, I ensured that I did not use them.  Or, if they thought that researchers should maintain communications with the Park Service about research conducted at Kaloko-Honokohau, I did so. 

I also learned to start discussions by asking questions that were open-ended, and allowed individuals to share freely without feeling pressed for information. Slowly, as I engaged in more discussions, I learned how to read subtle behavior, which helped indicate when the questions that I asked were becoming too personal or rude. I also learned how to listen more closely to what feelings and thoughts were being conveyed in informal conversations with group members, taking note of any patterns of issues or conflicts that were discussed.

Finally, although there was no formal group in the structure of the NHP that represented the interests of the community, I sought out individuals in the Park Service and community that I had previous established relationships with in an effort to learn about issues and conflicts at the national park. These individuals also referred me to other members of the community that I made an effort to meet with when they had time available. I made an honest effort to talk to as many individuals as possible. Using this approach, I was able to identify key issues and create research questions and objectives that I hoped would address the concerns of each group.

Grounding the Research Within a Hawaiian Framework

Once I created research questions and objectives, I had to identify academically rigorous and culturally appropriate methods to carry out the work. For researchers that conduct community-based work, the methods and methodology that they decide to use can be at least as important as the research outcomes for the community (Smith 1999:128). This is because the actions and decisions that researchers make throughout the research process can serve to both empower and disempower the communities at the heart of the study. To create a research process that would empower the individuals involved in my research, I sought to integrate cultural elements into the research process and outcome. I learned that this approach created a comfortable atmosphere for the interviewees and others that I spoke to. The project was structured around an indigenous research framework, which placed Hawaiian knowledge at the center (Kovach 2009:45). This conceptual framework provided me with guidance and allowed me to make choices that reflected the values, ethics, and standards most appropriate to the Hawaiian culture.

Conducting the Research

To answer the research questions and to achieve the research objectives, I analyzed approximately 80 documents and completed 19 recorded interviews. When it came to identifying and selecting documents for analysis, community members played an important role. In particular, I chose to review oral history reports because they would allow me to give voice to elders from Kaloko-Honokohau. The community members stressed the importance of including these documents in my research. Qualitative interviews were chosen as a research method because this method best reflects “talk-story,” a major speech event in Hawaiian culture (Au 1980) and because this allowed me the opportunity to listen to the thoughts of community members.  This is a non-invasive and inviting mode of communication that is utilized on a daily basis in Hawai‘i.

Close friend, Lily Souza, who guided me in my research.

Before I actually used these two research methods, I first spoke with individuals from the local community and with Park Service personnel to understand if these approaches to my research were appropriate. After I spoke with these individuals and answered any questions or concerns they had, I then scheduled and conducted the qualitative interviews. I allowed the interviewees to lead the interviews. I listened in silence for long periods of time, often responding only with nods or small words of agreement, because I wanted them to know that I cared about what they thought. Before I included the mana‘o (thoughts) that individuals shared with me in interviews, I worked with the interviewees to ensure that their mana‘o was shared in a manner that they approved of. I worked with them to edit their transcripts to ensure that they were comfortable with sharing their thoughts. We deleted or rephrased areas that individuals felt were personal or unclear to the reader.


Although the research did not fully embrace CBPR methods (Atalay 2012), I learned quite a bit about conducting research with my own community. And, though the thoughts below may seem basic to more experienced researchers, they are meant to provide novice researchers who are planning to conduct community-based research with a few considerations to keep in mind as they approach their work:

1. Tread slowly, softly, and remain humble to help form trust and positive relationships with community members. Remember, research can be an imposition to communities. Though we may have a preconceived idea about what research is, ultimately, it should be a shared vision embraced by the community as well. Creating, establishing, and building trust in relationships is an integral component of CBPR. 

2. Some communities desire long-term commitment and dedication from researchers. Before the research starts, work with the community to identify the types of expectations that they have. Some desire projects lasting 3 months to a year, while others may desire a longer commitment from the researcher. For instance, at a presentation I made, an elder informed me that the project that I sought to conduct was a life project that required long-term dedication. As a member of the community, I had already decided that I would return to my home after graduate school to help improve working relations between the Park Service and community members, to better fulfill shared goals. Thus, I could commit to dedicating my future to this project.

3. Ask questions and work with community members to create, develop, conduct, and disseminate the research findings. In my opinion, CBPR seeks to create a research process and outcome that engages, empowers, and respects those that our research effects. Asking questions and working with community members through all phases of the research is crucial because without their meaningful involvement every step of the way, researchers may commit harm to them. Take time to ask questions and work with community members to make shared decisions regarding the research.

4. Understand that communities have priorities that may take precedence over the research. Members of the community may have commitments to jobs, kids, and elders that will take precedence over the research. Therefore, flexibility is of utmost importance. For example, ‘ohana is an important part of the culture in Hawai‘i. Community members may need to cancel scheduled activities to care for members of their ‘ohana. This should be expected and respected.

5. Create a research process that is reflective of the host culture and community. My family and close friends taught me how to create a research process reflective of my culture and community. This helped create a comfortable research atmosphere for community members and myself. For example, I always prepared mea‘ai for interviews. Sharing food helped individuals and I "talk story" and share freely.  

These are only a few of the many lessons that I learned along the way. In addition to these teachings, my family and close friends helped keep my spirit rejuvenated on this research journey. Without them, I am not sure if I would have been able to conduct CBPR with my own community. My tutu, ‘ohana, close friends, aunts and uncles from the community, and Park Service personnel gave me guidance; this helped me form a research process appropriate to my community. My older sister helped me prepare meals for interviews and my nephew, who was only two, even helped me bake cookies. As I continue conducting CBPR with my community, I look forward to learning more about how I can better serve them and Hawai‘i. I continue to utilize CBPR to build relationships, respect, and relationships between families to improve the health and well-being of our home, ancestors, families, elders, and children.

For more information, check out the IPinCH Conversations podcast featuring Ruth speaking about her work.

**Disclaimer: Both IPinCH and the author acknowledge the importance of including diacritical marks for expression in the Hawaiian language. Unfortunately, our website does not currently support the use of these marks. We hope this may be remedied in the future.**

References Cited

Atalay, Sonya. 2012. Community Based Archaeology: Research with, by, and for Indigenous and Local Communities. University of California Press, Berkley, California.

Au, Kathryn Hu-pei. 1980. Participation Structures in a Reading Lesson with Hawaiian Children: Analysis of a Culturally Appropriate Instructional Event. Anthropology & Education Quarterly 11(2): 91-115.

Honokohau Study Advisory Commission, National Park Service, Department of the Interior. 1974. The Spirit of Ka-loko Hono-ko-hau: A Proposal for the Establishment of Ka-loko Hono-ko-hau National Cultural Park, Island of Hawai‘i, State of Hawai‘i.

Ito, Karen L. 1985 Affective Bonds: Hawaiian Interrelationship of Self. In Person, Self and Experience: Exploring Pacific Ethnopsychologies, edited by Geoffrey M. White, John Kirkpatrick, pp. 301-327. University of California Press, Berkeley, California.

Public Law 95-625, 95th Congress, Sess. 2. November 10, 1978. National Parks and Recreation Act of 1978.

Smith, Linda Tuhiwai. 1999. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. Zed Books, London and New York.

United States Department of the Interior (USDOI), National Park Service.1994. General Management Plan/Environmental Impact Statement Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park Hawaii. 

1994 Record of Decision: General Management Plan Final Environmental Impact Statement. Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park, Hawaii County, Hawaii.

Other Resources

Atalay, Sonya. 2006. Indigenous Archaeology as Decolonizing Practice. American Indian Quarterly, 30(3/4): 280-310.

Kawelu, Kathy. 2010. Take Only What You Need and Leave the Rest. In Being and Becoming an Indigenous Archaeologist, edited by George P. Nicholas, pp. 146-155. Left Coast Press,    Walnut Creek, California.

Kovach, Margaret. 2010. Indigenous Methodologies: Characteristics, Conversations, and Contexts. University of Toronto Press, Toronto, Canada.

Nicholas, George P., Amy Roberts, David M. Schaepe, Joe Watkins, Lyn Leader-Elliot and Susan Rowley. 2011 A Consideration of Theory, Principles, and Practice in Collaborative Archaeology. Archaeological Review from Cambridge 26(2): 11-30.

Watkins, Joe. 2000 American Indian Values and Scientific Practice. Altamira Press, Walnut Creek, California.


Past, Present, and Future of Kaloko Honokohau NHP

Aloha e mai Ruth, A well written intro on your community-based research perspective. I'm glad that you are doing this research which will enable both the community and NPS to work together in preserving and protecting the cultural landscape and sites for future generation. It does not take one to make it work, it takes all. Great Work! BS

Lokelani, I like what you are

Lokelani, I like what you are doing your research method is maika'i and pono. By being ha'aha'a when approaching our people and by employing cultural methods I think you will have much success now and in the future with your wala'au talk story sessions with kupunas and members of our community. Because you are homegrown a kamaaina to Kona and Hawaii you will be well received. The problem you may encounter is the lack of 80's and older kupunas to interview. There may be an urgency on your part to get to work awiwi ASAP. The generation that were born between 1910 and 1930 are few. The next generation between 1930 and 1945 still have but are less connected to our deep past. My generation 1945 to 1965 were the generation that was forbidden to be Hawaiians to speak our language, we had to learn proper english and no pidgen(this became our first language), but we stil endured we became the generation of the renaissance we knew that hewa wrong was done to us we were taken advantaged of by the pilgrim the colonist who stayed and who took most of our wealth. Because my generation felt the eha the hurt we (I) are hauoli for you, to keep our stories for that will help strenghten our future generations. The generations onward from 1965 some are really trying to revive our culture some are by modern methods like book learning and innovation, but whatever be it our Hawaiian Culture. Nui Ke Aloha ia Oe. Wishing you the Best of Luck, Imua, Ho'omau, Mahalo Nui Loa. Lokelani No Ka Oi. Malama Pono. Always Your Hoaloha, Lolana Medeiros.

Kanaka Oiwi

Aloha e Loke, Your chosen research approach with its deep sensitivity towards your research subjects is nui maika'i. I hope many novice researchers have the opportunity read the considerations and experiences you have shared. Mahalo for sharing the photo of your Tutu wahine, and those of two of my favorite kanaka oiwi, Lolana and Lily-Ann. A hui hou, Unco Paka

excellent example of CBR work in Hawaii

This research is a really excellent example of community-based research, particularly the concept of story-talk as a culturally relevant method. I really appreciate the approach you took and the time involved in doing this work well with the needs of your community in mind. - Sonya Atalay, Asst. Professor and Honors Professor in Anthropology, UMass Amherst

So cool baba! Keep up the

So cool baba! Keep up the good work love you!