eography is a discipline that has traditionally been focused on the study of place and space, but understanding and interpreting its concepts has been shaped by a dominating Eurocentric influence. Indigenous knowledge (IK) and perspectives have historically been marginalized or excluded altogether from geography. However, in recent decades there has been growing recognition of how important it is to integrate IK in the academy. IK is grounded in deep, intimate understandings of the natural world and incorporates holistic ways of knowing that offer valuable insights into relationships between people and the environment. Further, the intimate relationships between Indigenous peoples and places produce unique geographies that add to the depth and complexity of studying Indigenous geographies.

Although there has been growing recognition of how important IK is, there remain significant challenges and barriers to their integration. This essay will explore the importance of IK in geography, and the challenges and opportunities associated with this effort. In Hawaiʻi, an ʻŌiwi (Indigenous Hawaiian) geography revolves around a relationship of kinship with the environment, and spans terrestrial, oceanic, and global realms. By utilizing ʻŌiwi (Indigenous Hawaiian) geography as an example, I argue how meaningful integration of place-based Indigenous knowledge is not only ethically necessary but also intellectually enriching, and propose strategies for universities to more fully incorporate Indigenous geographies into their teaching practices and curriculum.

The term ‘Indigenous’ and other associated expressions are subject to the preferences of the peoples that are indicated through their use. Shaw, Herman and Dobbs (2006) define Indigenous peoples as “groups with ancestral and often spiritual ties to particular land, and whose ancestors held that land prior to colonization by outside powers, and whose nations remain submerged within the states created by those powers” (268). Indigenous geographies refers to the study of the relationships between Indigenous peoples and our ancestral lands and environments. It is a way to explore the dynamics of Indigenous communities in our relationships with, comprehension of, and stewardship over our homelands and resources over time. It recognizes how cultures, identities, languages, and worldviews are derived from our intimate connections to our places, and articulates Indigenous perspectives of place through the use of Indigenous mapping techniques, place names, oral histories, and other traditional cultural methods. There is a focus on traditional ecological knowledge, and how it influences systems of land management, environmental practices, and spiritual beliefs about the natural world.

Indigenous geographies also give attention to the impacts and disruptions caused by colonialism and historical dispossession. Of course, it includes also contemporary efforts of Indigenous communities to regain rights to lands and resources, to regain management and assert self-determination. Ultimately, Indigenous geographies approaches place from a holistic perspective, that considers human and more-than-human entities as interconnected and genealogically related to the environment. As a field, Indigenous geographies uplifts Indigenous voices, relationships to land, and alternative ways of knowing space and place, while emphasizing wisdom, balance, respect, and reciprocity in human-environment relations (Herman, 2008; Larsen and Johnson, 2012; Louis, 2007).

In the academy, Indigenous geographies emerged as a distinct subfield starting in the 1960s, alongside other critical reorientations in geographic thought. In particular, attention to marginalized voices, everyday experiences, and power relations in emerging social geography provided an opening for Indigenous perspectives and methodologies (Shaw, Herman and Dobbs, 2006). An extensive understanding of Indigenous geographies allows for the inclusion of Indigenous perspectives and epistemologies, and the deconstruction of dominating discourse influenced by Eurocentric imperialism and knowledge building (Shaw, Herman and Dobbs, 2006). Indigenous geographies will prove beneficial in establishing spaces to critique the academic power dynamic resulting from Eurocentric knowledge production.

Significant scholarly attention in postcolonial studies, decolonial theory, critical race theory, critical geography, and Indigenous studies has been given to the role of imperialism and colonialism in dispossessing Indigenous peoples from our land bases, and the colonial origins of the geographic discipline (Bell, Butlin, and Heffernan, 1995). Modern geography grew in the past two centuries as both a product and tool of the colonial era; by mapping places of ‘civilized’ and ‘uncivilized’ within empires, justifying territorial expansion toward world domination, articulating ‘scientific’ justification for racial inequality, and providing tools for conquest, Eurocentric notions of geography were imposed on the rest of the world. The resulting “rational” worldview of hegemonic power commonly accepted today enabled colonization all over the world, as well as the commodification of nature, and continues to be perpetuated due to an intimate relationship with global capitalism (Herman, 2008). Decolonial measures in the academy, specifically in disciplinary geography, are therefore challenging due to the permeating legacies of the colonialist structures that transformed entire landscapes through violence. In her foundational book Decolonizing Methodologies, Linda Tuhiwai Smith posits that Eurocentric research traditions are inherently colonial, and have been used to dominate and subjugate Indigenous peoples by creating knowledge intended to serve the interests of the colonizer (2012). Academic knowledge production is a part of the colonial institution that concentrated the world’s resources under the control, and associated benefit of, the historically privileged minority in Europe and the North Atlantic (Jazeel, 2017). The removal of spirituality reduced the world into a strict bifurcation of humanity and nature due to the removal of spirituality from “science” as a whole, which is the marked difference between Eurocentric and Indigenous worldviews (Herman, 2008).

Euro-centric genealogies are commonly reproduced within the geography discipline. Recent movements toward Marxism, humanism, and feminism beginning in the 1960s have initiated spaces of resistance against oppression that provide an effective critique of the power dynamics in knowledge and representation (Herman, 2008). While they may overlap, decolonial geographies may also come into direct contention with post-colonial, feminist, queer, and critical race traditions, since their contributions foreground accountability to IK, activism, political and legal orders of the academy, as well as the places curriculums engage with (Daigle and Sundberg, 2017). Smith states that IK is essential for decolonization, that it will require a radical rethinking of research methodologies, and that it will require also a fundamental shift in power relations (Smith, 2012). Decolonization demands the field of geography to critically engage its own genealogy of knowledge progress, and transcend its imperial history while also delinking knowledge production from the hegemony of the disciplinary infrastructure (Jazeel, 2017).

Authors do, however, consider the possible dangers of a decolonial imperative. Jazeel (2017: 335) points out how the establishment of a “new kind of theoretical conventionality” will continue to marginalize peripheral knowledges. Shaw, Herman, and Dobbs (2006) discuss historical abuses faced by Indigenous peoples in relation to their intellectual property, when scholars extracted knowledge from Indigenous communities for their own benefit and reciprocated nothing in return. Conducting research with Indigenous peoples must therefore adopt appropriate methodologies and protocols, while holding scholars accountable for how scholarship can be used, and by whom, for which purposes (Shaw, Herman and Dobbs, 2006).

Decolonizing the geographic discipline will no doubt be challenging on multiple levels, considering that it calls for measures that are uncomfortable and directly challenge the status quo, such as unsettling Eurocentric colonial discourses and advocating for Indigenous self-determination. Further, conversations of decolonization could not happen without also including associated movements like the Land Back movement, which challenge the legacies of colonialism and promotes Indigenous self-determination by seeking to return land and resources to Indigenous peoples (Hopkins, 2021; Pieratos, Manning and Tilsen, 2021), and the environmental justice movement, which addresses the disproportionate impacts of environmental degradation on Indigenous communities. There are numerous movements that are part of the broader decolonization project that are necessary to incorporate into the academy.

Land Defenders block the road to Mt. Rushmore, stopping traffic to protest a highly controversial Fourth of July event. This standoff was in defense of the ancestral homelands of Lakota and other Indigenous Nations, reigniting the fight for the Black Hills and closure of Mt. Rushmore. Photo by Willi White.

Decolonial geographies are being recognized as a necessary subdiscipline to strengthen and engage with moving forward. Given that Indigenous geographies evolved in response to the unique environments of our respective origins (Brondízio et. al, 2021; Bruchac, 2014; Thornton and Bhagwat, 2020), this creates a significant opportunity for geography departments to provide opportunities to integrate place-based perspectives informed by local IK and issues into their curriculum and teaching methods.

Defining an ʻŌiwi Geography

As discussed earlier, the term ‘Indigenous’ encompasses groups of people all over the world who have developed ancestral and spiritual relationships with their environments over generations. From a geographical perspective, it can be concluded that Indigenous geographies will vary according to the environment they relate to (Daigle and Ramírez, 2019; De Leeuw and Hunt, 2018). For example, in Oceania, island nations have a unique Indigenous geography as ocean-centered peoples who establish terrestrial civilizations and utilize their surrounding ocean environment as avenues of communication and travel for thousands of years.

A description of an Indigenous geography in Hawaiʻi will reveal its terrestrial and seascape epistemologies, and its marked global character. However, to understand the essence of Indigenous Hawaiian geography is to first define a crucial identifier: the word ʻōiwi. The term “ʻōiwi” in the Hawaiian language is defined as native. The root word “ʻiwi”, meaning bones, offers ʻōiwi as a poetic reference to those whose bones, or ancestors, are buried in Hawaiʻi, and so accordingly have a genealogical relationship to Hawaiʻi. This lends ʻŌiwi as a term to identify Indigenous Hawaiian people, while recognizing a familial, kinship-type relationship with land, for generations. Therefore, an appropriate designation for an Indigenous geography in Hawaiʻi would be ʻŌiwi geography.

This familial relationship with the environment originates from both voyaging histories and cosmogonic accounts. The most well-known account is the Kumulipo, which records the birth of the earth and its nonhuman inhabitants. It celebrates the union of Papahānaumoku (earth mother) and Wākea (sky father), from which many of the islands are born. Later the kalo plant, named Hāloanakalaukapalili (Hāloa, of the long stalk and trembling leaf) was also born, followed by the earliest human ancestor of ʻŌiwi, Hāloakanaka (Hāloa, the human being). The Kumulipo illustrates the interconnectedness of all life forms, and their associated responsibilities within reciprocal relationships. This fosters a connection between humanity and our surrounding environment, its more-than-human inhabitants, resources, and natural processes, all framed within the concept of a familial relationship (Andrade, 2008; Nuʻuhiwa, 2019).

Loʻi kalo in Koʻolaupoko, Oʻahu. Photo by Keliko Elkington.

As Oceanic peoples, cosmological accounts reveal a universe comprised of not only land, but the surrounding ocean as well. The sea is viewed as an avenue for voyaging and exploration, where peoples and cultures established effective networks circulating wealth, people, skills, and arts across the Pacific Ocean (Hauʻofa, 2008). The ocean also has a significant role in the Kumulipo; at the very beginning of the Kumulipo, the firstborn is the coral polyp in the shallow, warm ocean, with other marine forms following. This is an indication of marine life as the predecessor of both its nonhuman and human companions on land (Andrade, 2008). The ocean not only bounded the shore of each island, but it also served as a way to connect each shore to all the other shores of the world, and a way to navigate to the world’s many lands (Chang, 2016).

Beyond an intricate understanding of our geographies of place on land and the surrounding ocean, ʻŌiwi world geography stems from a long, documented history of worldly exploration before Euro-American impact (Case, 2021; Chang, 2016; Silva, 2004). This was achieved by reflecting on those experiences, and understanding them by centering our own perspectives. These perspectives knew of distant lands and valued connections of Hawaiʻi to them through key elements: inherited oral traditions, migratory birds, cultivated plants, and the movement of gods, for example. There was a clear understanding that other lands held powerful and good tools, ideas, and practices that could be appropriated and used for their own purposes (Chang, 2016).

Selective appropriation of Eurocentric cartographic tools and techniques during the Hawaiian Kingdom resulted in Indigenous peoples being active agents in conducting many land surveys and producing maps. These were intentional strategies to assist in developing the Hawaiian State, alongside preserving Hawaiian geography and its embedded body of knowledge. One of the earliest drawn, Eurocentric-style maps was created in 1837 by prominent Hawaiian government surveyor S.P. Kalama. His map depicted ahupuaʻa and moku, both traditional land divisions that comprised a part of a complex system of boundaries established in the development of the early Hawaiian state hundreds of years before. A noted aspect of Kalama’s map was also how his islands were ringed by numerous place names, when earlier maps contained only a few names. Kalama’s agency in adapting European mapping techniques marked the beginning of a legacy of Indigenous mapmaking that reflected traditional land divisions and their names (Beamer and Duarte, 2009). This strategy was immensely effective; the normalized use of traditional Hawaiian place names in the Hawaiʻi vernacular today is one part of its legacy.

Na Mokupuno o Hawaii Nei (The Islands of the Hawaiian Archipelago). SP Kalama, 1837.

Place Names and ʻŌiwi Geography

Place names exist at the intersection of geography and language. In Hawaiʻi, place names are cultural signatures that transform geographic spaces into cultural places of meaning and significance, as they map practices, beliefs, and events onto the landscape (Elkington, 2019; Kikiloi, 2010; Oliveira, 2009).  The unlawful overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom in January 1893, orchestrated by American businessmen and supported by US Marines troops and weaponry, forcibly transformed Hawaiʻi-centric political and cultural economy (Liliuokalani, 1898). This included place names as a method of control and means to unravel Hawaiian geography (Wright, 2022).

By inscribing American family names onto streets and places, the role of language in asserting meaning was used as a tool of domination prominent in recent political history in Hawaiʻi. For example, the place name of Thurston Avenue in the Makiki area of Honolulu commemorates Lorrin A. Thurston, one of the businessmen who played a prominent role in the overthrow. McKinley High School, on the makai side of the freeway from Thurston Avenue, celebrates President McKinley, a staunch expansionist who elicited the annexation of Hawaiʻi through resolution in 1898. The influence of American businessmen extended into every level of Hawaiian society, including the common practice in the US of commemorating “fathers” and “captains of industry” by attaching their names to various elements of the urban landscape, such as streets and high schools. This process gradually transformed Hawaiian space into American space, as foreigners sought to exert control in their occupation of Hawaiian territory (Herman, 1999).

Today, ʻŌiwi geography is situated among foreign geographies that have influenced our communities in drastic ways over the past few hundred years. A modern Hawaiian geography has been eloquently defined by Carlos Andrade (2014) as centering an ancestral worldview, giving voice to descendants of the original inhabitants of the Hawaiian archipelago, and preserving deeply-rooted relationships with the environment. A Hawaiian geographer embodies ʻŌiwi ways of relationality, communicates with their place, resists the subjugation of Hawaiian ways of being, and actively works to perpetuate cultural practices. A Hawaiian geography is a chance to transcend settler colonialism and the tyranny of capitalism, to celebrate “the best that our ancestors have left for us and the best of our own learning and experiences” (Andrade, 2014: 7).

Integrating ʻŌiwi Geographies

Indigenous geographies is a promising subdiscipline that is gaining increasing recognition and has strong potential for growth. Although Eurocentric knowledge continues to dominate geography, Indigenous geographies can provide new perspectives for understanding the world, humanity's role, and the challenges we face (Shaw, Herman and Dobbs, 2006). While there has been a growing effort to recognize the importance of Indigenous knowledge over the past six decades, there remains significant work to meaningfully integrate Indigenous geographies into modern geography curricula in regionally specific and place-based ways.

This opportunity comes after centuries of Indigenous dispossession and separation from ancestral lands due to the atrocities of colonialism. However, knowledge systems persevered and are being revived. Teaching Indigenous geographies through a decolonial lens provides crucial lessons alongside conventional curriculum. Actively seeking out and incorporating voices and perspectives from local Indigenous-led resistance and empowerment efforts is a way to understand local social-environmental issues. It also provides opportunities to support these efforts, which contribute to restoring the health and well-being of local and regional social and natural ecosystems (Brondízio et al., 2021). This enables meaningful engagement with participatory and community-based research (de Leeuw, Cameron and Greenwood, 2012). Key measures to move in this direction include hiring Indigenous faculty (Louie et al., 2017) and teaching decolonial versions of introductory courses (Daigle and Sundberg, 2017). In light of the very serious global environmental issues we currently face, meaningful collaboration between Indigenous and Eurocentric knowledge systems is imperative. This makes it necessary to recenter IK and reclaim geography.

The short review of ʻŌiwi geography above and its underlying values provides a snapshot into the potential for the growth of the subdiscipline in Hawaiʻi, and the introduction of crucial elements including, but not limited to: spirituality, re-analysis of the usually firm nature-culture binary, expansion of the environment beyond land, and the fundamental differences in more recent geographic history that encourages a place-based approach. While this piece provides a snapshot review, further articulation of ʻŌiwi geography and its ability to expand traditional and modern views would provide opportunities to compare and contrast other topics in geography, such as development studies, economics, geopolitics, political ecology, sustainability, tourism, conservation/resource management, and agriculture. An ʻŌiwi geography provides a model of resurgence and perseverance that is possible around the world.

In particular, Hawaiʻi-based geographers have an incredible Indigenous knowledge base to integrate. An ʻŌiwi geography encompasses terrestrial, oceanic, and global knowledge and understanding. Further, the kinship relationship with the environment that is at the core of an ʻŌiwi geography has guided ʻŌiwi-led movements responding to crucial environmental and social issues for decades (Beamer et al., 2021; Goodyear-Kaʻōpua, 2014), including the Protect Mauna Kea and Shut Down Red Hill movements that have gained international attention in recent years. These, along with many other Indigenous-led environmental justice movements that have also recently gained international attention and support, serve as powerful examples of resistance to the ongoing processes of colonialism and capitalism that threaten the entire planet. They provide important insights and lessons for solidarity, community-led resistance, and decolonization in the struggle for a more just and sustainable future. By integrating Indigenous geographies, geography departments have the opportunity to be at the forefront of crucial research and action for climate justice.

More than 200 students, faculty, and staff protest the construction of the Thirty-Meter Telescope (TMT) on Mauna Kea at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa campus. Photo by Cory Lum/Civil Beat.
Hawaiians, environmentalists, and concerned residents gather at the Hawaiʻi State Capitol to protest the severe contamination of an Oʻahu aquifer by a fuel leak from the Red Hill Fuel Storage Facility. Photo by Jason Lees.

Incorporating Indigenous geographies is critical for promoting a more comprehensive understanding of place and space. In Hawaiʻi, ʻŌiwi geographies offer so many opportunities for students to develop a more critical and reflexive approach to geographic inquiry, while having the chance to make a difference at local, regional, and global levels. However, the process of incorporating Indigenous geographies is not without its challenges. It requires a commitment to ongoing learning and engagement with Indigenous communities and our struggles, as well as a willingness to challenge dominant ways of thinking. Nevertheless, the benefits of incorporating Indigenous geographies are significant both for students and the broader project of decolonization and Indigenous self-determination. Ultimately, we can promote a more just future for all by dismantling the legacies of colonialism and promoting Indigenous geographies. Only through this ongoing process of learning, engagement, and collaboration can we hope to build a more inclusive and equitable future.


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Kawena Elkington is an ʻŌiwi PhD student in the Department of Geography and Environment at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. She is interested in the relationship between Indigenous knowledge and economic development.