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Native knowledge

Blending ancestral gifts, Indigenous roots and science to protect the oceans


Photo collage with image looking down at surf boarders on the ocean and an image looking straight on at a surf boarder in the ocean
January 10, 2023

Editor's note: This story originally appeared in the winter 2023 issue of ASU Thrive magazine.

Cliff Kapono is looking out onto Honoli‘i Beach on the east side of Hawaii’s Big Island, and the water is brown.

That’s not unusual — brown water has occurred on this coastline for thousands of years. But it can be a threat to coral reefs. When sediment, often due to runoff from heavy rain, gets into the water, it blocks sunlight from reaching reefs. It can even smother coral, leading to coral bleaching and potentially coral death.

Centuries of brown water, you might think, would have smothered any coral here long ago. Yet somehow, a reef exists — an anomaly Kapono noticed while surfing.

Kapono, an analytical chemist and an assistant professor in Arizona State University's School of Social Transformation and School of Life Sciences, and a faculty member at the Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science, isn’t the kind of researcher who spends all his time in the lab. He is also a professional surfer and a Hilo native of Hawai‘i, as his people spell and refer to their homeland. Those experiences, combined with his scientific education, give him a unique perspective on the places he’s trying to protect. 

“What I’ve noticed from surfing this wave just outside of town is despite having constant brown water throughout the year, there’s a brilliant reef that exists out there,” he says. “Reef and coral species that are only found here in Hawai‘i, Indigenous coral communities.”

Other scientists who don’t surf those waters may have never encountered that reef, one that the scientific literature suggests couldn’t exist. But Kapono isn’t like other scientists. A professional surfer, a journalist and an Indigenous Hawaiian, Kapono is not just an advocate for the melding of Western science with Indigenous knowledge or for getting into nature and using storytelling to further his scientific work. He is inherently a living blend of all those things.

View of ocean and coastline in Hawaii from above

In Hilo, Hawaii, ASU’s Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science uses nine labs to research coastal and marine sustainability. There’s also a coastal marine grad school program and ASU Prep Digital, which partners with Kamehameha Schools to provide education tech for K–12. Other partnerships, like ASU’s support of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, amplify Indigenous peoples’ work on the islands. ASU also leads the Core Office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Adaptation Partnerships program for the Pacific in Honolulu. Photo by Josh Soskin

Analyzing coral reefs

Through his research, Kapono is trying to figure out why that reef in those silty waters is still alive. His Honoli‘i Project, recipient of a National Science Foundation grant, involves taking samples of that coral — diving down under the water while holding his breath, not with the aid of a scuba tank, like conventional scientists might do — to analyze them in a lab. 

Kapono is an analytical chemist, a title that means, in his words, that he “investigates different molecules that exist in and around us.” He’s trained in a technology called mass spectrometry, an instrument that can identify and characterize molecules we can’t see with our eyes — think testing for pesticides in food, or drugs in urine. 

“I just use these instruments to take an unbiased image of what’s in, say, a glass of water, or what’s on top of your chair, or what’s in your mouth,” Kapono says. “An analytical chemist just looks and analyzes. It’s very surfer style before you catch a wave. You’re just checking things out. ... And when you just sit and watch, you start to find different patterns. You start to find different trends.”

If there’s recently been a storm, or if there’s coastal development, “You start to see the change in this molecular flow, and then you can start to form correlations and ask better questions of, ‘How am I impacting the natural world?’ and ‘How’s the natural world impacting me?’” he says. 

By looking at the molecules found on those corals, he’ll see how they change or respond to heavy rain and sediment, giving insight into how they survive.

“We have ancestral stories that celebrate the coral reef as our oldest grandmother,” Kapono says, “so it’s a project founded in Indigenous wisdom, supported by our athletic ability to surf on it, and the storyline is community driven.”

Man diving under ocean

Pro surfer, chemist and Indigenous Hawaiian Cliff Kapono among the coral reefs near Hilo. Photo by Sarah Lee

Telling science through stories 

Stories are essential to how Kapono does his scientific work — both creating new stories to help people connect to nature and science and sharing Indigenous stories that have fostered his own connection. 

“It’s weird how it’s not very critical to the science industry, and that’s why I feel there’s an opportunity to bring some of that communication in a fresh and contemporary youthful way to science,” he says. 

Through his work with the MEGA Lab, a multi-institutional consortium currently made up of staff from ASU and the University of Hawaii, he’s helping foster both solutions for how to protect the ocean and also stories about that work.

“More of the surface of Mars has been mapped than the bottom of the sea,” Kapono explains in a MEGA Lab video about mapping the reef underneath the famous surfing wave, Nakurukurumailani, called Cloudbreak, in Fiji. “How are you supposed to take care of something when you don’t even know what it looks like?”

“We have ancestral stories that celebrate the coral reef as our oldest grandmother, so it’s a project founded in Indigenous wisdom, supported by our athletic ability to surf on it, and the storyline is community driven.”

— Cliff Kopono

“Stories do lots of things for us,” says Bryan Brayboy, director of ASU’s Center for Indian Education. “They help us think about how we might view the world. They help us understand what our realities are. They help us think about what knowledges are there. We have origin stories that tell us how it is we came into the world and then how we be in the world. So almost all of our stories have some value proponents tied into them that are life lessons and guidance for us.”

Seeing how Kapono thinks about science and stories, and how he disrupts conventional norms, Brayboy feels connected to him — and excited about how his ways of doing things will make ASU better.   

“Cliff is a real chemist, there’s no doubt about that,” Brayboy says, “but he disrupts narrow viewpoints of what it means to be a chemist by infusing chemistry with particular knowledge systems, whether it’s the stories he’s retelling, or whether it’s the stories he’s creating through film, or what he knows as a surfer.”

Two researchers on a boat

Cliff Kapono (right) is a faculty advisor to geography PhD candidate Kailey Pascoe, who also is part of MEGA Lab. Photo by Josh Soskin

Bringing Indigenous knowledge to ASU

Western science is a toolkit for understanding the world, but it’s only a couple of hundred years old. In contrast, Indigenous people settled the Hawaiian Islands around A.D. 400. 

“It’s not just storytelling that persisted through those 1,600 years, but detailed knowledge of how to manage an ecosystem for its future,” says Greg Asner, director of ASU’s Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science.

Western science alone will not be the answer to our planet’s problems, Asner says. It’s a piece of it, he says, and another piece is not only Indigenous knowledge, but also the Indigenous perspective to connect with nature and reach people. It’s why he’s focused on building a faculty that, he says, “does not treat Indigenous knowledge and Western science as two things that have to come together, but already blend them (as Kapono does).”

After hearing how his partner, Indigenous scientist Haunani Kane, then an assistant professor at ASU, felt about the university, Kapono decided to accept the offer to join the faculty. 

In school, Kapono felt he had to separate the disparate parts of himself. He was hesitant to enter back into a formal institution, but Kane had shared with him how ASU provides an opportunity to bring the blend of science and Indigenous knowledge to the institution — and help amplify it even more to the wider world. ASU leadership, including Asner and Brayboy, among others, listened to his hesitations and were willing to take a chance on a new way of education, while still allowing him his career as a professional surfer, which made him feel comfortable joining the university.

Bringing in Indigenous knowledge systems is not exactly a new way of education, though. 

“It’s an old way, a way before the colonization of all these spaces,” Kapono says. “Before we were told we have to stop speaking wind language and ocean language and tree language.”

“It’s not just storytelling that has persisted through those 1,600 years, but detailed knowledge of how to manage an ecosystem for its future.”

— Greg Asner

Kapono still has that old-way connection to the world and the environment, like through surfing, which he says has been in his family for more than 90 generations. 

“In my family, surfing was always seen as a gift; it’s something that was given to me by my father, and it was given to him by his family,” he says, “and surfing is very important to Hawai‘ian culture and identity.”

Kapono explains that Indigenous knowledge isn’t just in learning how to take care of a place; it’s a specific way of approaching learning. 

“How do we accept knowledge? How do we give knowledge? How do we perpetuate knowledge? And what does it mean to even be a body or a being that can receive knowledge?” he says. “These are all philosophical and intrapersonal types of conversations that we can have while we’re talking about sea level rise or coral bleaching.”

It’s a more holistic approach, he adds, that allows students to feel there’s a bigger picture to their work than writing a paper or finding “the next cure.”

“It’s this idea that a cure actually is a form of knowledge that we can provide further in time, similar to how Indigenous people think seven generations in the future for the actions of today,” he says. 

He hopes that way of thinking empowers people, including his ASU students both online and in person. 

“It gives them some expressions of what it means to connect to other people and to the planet,” Kapono says. “And if they don’t speak their Indigenous language, then maybe we can speak science language. Science, I feel, is a language for all.”

4 ways to make a difference today

Not sure how you can help the oceans? Implement these steps from Cliff Kapono.

1. Get out into nature. “Even if it’s five minutes a day of walking outside and listening to birds, feeling the wind and watching where the sun is, that’s super important to do.”

2. Think about the Indigenous stories that exist already. “There’s so much history of environmental protection through the Indigenous.”

3. Don’t be too critical of yourself. “It’s hard to go no plastic, have zero waste and not use a car. Come in knowing this is a marathon, not a sprint, and forgive yourself upfront.” 

4. Make incremental changes, like skipping plastic straws. “You’re starting to use this environmentally conscious muscle that’s maybe out of shape, and you can start to think about ‘How do I reduce my plastic consumption?,’ ‘How do I reduce my waste?’ and ‘How do I think about alternative forms of energy consumption?’”

Story by Kristin Toussaint, the staff editor of the Impact section at Fast Company. She was previously a senior news reporter at Metro in New York City. Top photos by Josh Soskin and Sarah Lee

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