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Living in both worlds: Connecting traditional and western knowledge to solve sustainability challenges

Pacific island cultures have thrived for centuries in some of the most remote islands on the planet, understanding and preserving a limited pool of natural resources.

Kamanamaikalani Beamer and Peter Vitousek discuss Pacific island cultures and sustainability (Image Credit: Madison Pobis)
Madison Pobis

Stanford ecologist Peter Vitousek and Polynesian scholars Kamanamaikalani Beamer and Te Maire Tau recently co-wrote a book, "Islands and Cultures: How Pacific Islands Provide Paths Toward Sustainability," that views Pacific islands as models for understanding how environment and culture can interact. The book tells the story of human adaptation in the Polynesian islands through a combination of biophysical evidence, historical records, and oral histories. On May 4th, Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and the Stanford Native American Cultural Center hosted a gathering to discuss the book and the intersections of indigenous leadership, island cultures and the environment, exploring what Pacific island cultures can teach us about sustainability.

“The true beauty of traditional knowledge is depth of knowledge  deep knowledge of both place and the past. The true beauty of conventional science is reproducibility and generalizability. And both of those are beautiful things; they’re both extremely important to us. Why wouldn’t you be better off with both in your toolkit for looking at the world?” —Vitousek

Stanford students Mahina Kaomea, B.A. '25 and Keoni Rodriguez, M.A. '23 welcomed the group.

Stanford students Mahina Kaomea, B.A. '25 and Keoni Rodriguez, M.A. '23 welcomed the group.

Examining the juxtaposition and the alignment between western and traditional knowledge can unearth opportunities to bring the two viewpoints together in complementary ways. Beamer, Hawaiian Studies professor at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, explained that the Hawaiian worldview sees relationships between elements that may be approached as more isolated entities in western culture. For example, Hawaiian culture views the ocean not as a boundary, but as a pathway and a connector of places, whereas a boundary-focused view will approach islands as individual models, isolated from each other by the sea. The inherent meaning implied through language also promotes a different approach to environmental knowledge. 'Āina, the Hawaiian word for “land,” translates to “that which feeds”, encompassing not just a physical feeding but also a spiritual, metaphysical and emotional feeding. Beamer pointed out that this distinction in understanding of the word “land” can prompt us to think about how we rely on the land to feed us and what this means for humanity as we face today’s problems of sustainability. The value placed on genealogy in Hawaiian culture enforces a longer-term perspective, and the kumulipo creation chant serves as a reminder to see cohesive relationships between things that exist - by night, by day, on the mountains and in the ocean.

Vitousek is the Clifford G. Morrison Professor of Population and Resource Studies, Department of Earth System Science, and Senior Fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment, Stanford University. When asked about the challenges he faces in teaching a different worldview to those who are less familiar with Hawaiian culture, Vitousek recounted his experience of taking students to Hawaiʻi with the First Nations Futures Program, a collaboration between Stanford, University of Hawaiʻi, Canterbury University, the First Alaskans Institute, Sealaska Corporation, Hookele Strategies, and the Ngai Tahu Tribe. Vitousek noted that the key elements in promoting an understanding of traditional viewpoints among those students included spending extended time in the physical environment and meeting people – such as Kamana Beamer – who are significant players in both worlds. Beamer noted that the same elements are needed when promoting change in the policy world. A pivotal part of Beamer’s work with policymakers involves translating the depth of knowledge about systems when that knowledge is not presented in familiar formats, such as scientific reports or stream surveys. When policymakers spend time in local communities, those connections are more easily made.

“We have hard decisions to make, but if we can carry that aloha and grace of our ancestors, be fearless with wiwo ʻole, and trust that our solutions aren’t for everything, (then) together with the best practices of the day we can solve the crises that we face.” — Beamer

When asked about opportunities for change in the legal system, Beamer recounted his work with the Ka Huli Ao Center for Excellence in Native Hawaiian Law, training students to understand native Hawaiian law and traditional customary practices. In the Hawaiʻi state system, common law does not apply when Hawaiian tradition and custom is distinct and different. This provides an opportunity for drawing upon those knowledge systems to make better policy decisions.

The world faces many sustainability challenges, and there is a need to recognize ancestral systems as holding vital and viable solutions for the crises that we face today. It is clear that by drawing on conventional science and Indigenous understanding of the world, novel approaches to sustainability issues can be realized.

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