March 24, 2022

People Saving Places: Kelley Uyeoka and Protecting Cultural Heritage in Hawaiʻi

All around us, people are saving historic places. Whether they are community activists, grassroots advocates, architects, or formally trained preservationists, they each bring with them a passion for the past and a drive to protect the cultural heritage all around us. During Women’s History Month—and as part of our campaign for Where Women Made History—we are interviewing five women who illustrate the many ways we can protect historic spaces. In this interview we hear from Kelley Lehuakeaopuna Uyeoka, a cultural heritage preservationist working to save cultural spaces in Hawaiʻi.

Kelley Lehuakeaopuna Uyeoka is the founder and executive director of Huliauapaʻa, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to grow Hawaiʻi’s communities through culturally based forms of innovative learning, leadership development, and collaborative networking.

A cultural heritage preservationist and archaeologist by training, Uyeoka looks to collective action and a focus on developing the next generation of stewards to build community capacity and give Native Hawaiians a role in protecting their own heritage.

Listen to Kelley Uyeoka describe, in her own words, her work to protect the heritage of Native Hawaiians.

In Her Own Words

Aloha nui kākou (Greetings all)
'O wau o Kelley Lehuakeaopuna Uyeoka (I am Kelley Lehuakeaopuna Uyeoka)
‘O Moaninuiākea koʻu moana (My ocean is Moananuiākea)
‘O Honuaiākea koʻu wa’a (My canoe is Honuaiākea)
'O Lononuiākea koʻu mokupuni (My island is Lononuiākea)
'O Mauna-a-Wākea koʻu mauna (My mountain is Mauna-a-Wākea)
'O Hakalau koʻu awa (My river is Hakalau)
‘O Kīlauea koʻu piko (My spiritual center is Kīlauea)
'O Puhi a me Pohina ko'u mau 'ohana (My family names are Puhi and Pohina)

Hello, my name is Kelley Uyeoka, I live in Hakalau on the island of Hawaiʻi, and Iʻm a cultural heritage preservationist.

Our approach is very holistic and weʻve been focusing on systems change and collective action. So, it is hard for me to talk about just one piece of work as we have three different initiatives that work symbiotically, and have the same mission—which is to transform cultural resource management in Hawaiʻi to Wahi Kupuna Stewardship, which can be translated as stewardship of Hawaiian ancestral places.

It is important for us to use this new (but old) terminology in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi, or the Hawaiian language, so we can root this work and these places in a Hawaiian mindset by bringing Hawaiian perspectives into the work we do and giving Hawaiians a role in managing our own heritage.

Huliauapaʻa is our foundational nonprofit organization that focuses on developing the next generation of Hawaiian cultural heritage stewards through internship programs and building community capacity.

A woman standing in front of some greenery.

photo by: Kelley Uyeoka

Kelley Uyeoka

Nohopapa Hawaiʻi is our social enterprise that has embarked into the cultural resource management industry to integrate Indigenous methodologies and advocate for higher standards of professional services

And the Kaliʻuokapaʻakai Collective is our cross-sector community of practice made up of individuals and agencies that have organized together to advocate for best management practices, and community-led stewardship of our cultural heritage.

So, while cultural resource management has historically held the decision-making authority over Hawaiʻi’s sacred sites, through these Indigenous-led efforts there has been a concerted effort to build a system that empowers community-led stewardship.

This Wahi Kūpuna Stewardship paradigm promotes culturally-grounded and meaningful preservation practices, and increases the opportunities and abilities of Native Hawaiians to revitalize relationships with their ancestral sites through direct management of policy, resources, and practices. This approach also acknowledges that the cultural and environmental health of a place and its people are interconnected, valued, and worthy of protection.

A group of people working to take care of a sacred place overlooking water.

photo by: Huliauapaʻa

A group of Native Hawaiians caring for their sacred places.

In Hawai‘i specifically, thereʻs been an ongoing crisis in historic preservation that has been left unaddressed for decades. Despite having an incredibly rich landscape full of important historical places, cultural heritage here has been destroyed at an alarming rate. Economic development has driven land transformation in our islands with little concern about the memory of our past and aspects of our cultural identity that is being lost.

The erosion and loss of our cultural heritage, and the lifeways that are connected to these resources has not received the level of attention needed. Historic preservation laws and regulations exist, but state and federal governments do not consistently uphold these laws, or professional standards and best practices, and have often failed to manage information and heritage responsibly.

These problems are systemic and have many layers, but a core issue is the limited role and power of Native Hawaiians to make decisions on how our cultural heritage is protected, cared for, preserved, and restored.

Who better to be the stewards of our cultural heritage than the people that are genealogically connected to these places? They are the ones that intimately know the language, traditions, stories, chants, and functions of these places, sites, and materials.

Graduates and Staff standing in front of a triangular structure as part of an internship program.

photo by: Huliauapaʻa

Graduates and staff of the Wahi Kupuna Internship Program.

What brings me hope is our future generations. Through our training programs, such as our Wahi Kupuna Internship Program, we strive to develop leaders and advocates in Hawaiʻi’s Cultural Heritage Management field by training Hawaiian and local students and emerging professionals in both the cultural and technical aspects of historic preservation, so they have a strong cultural foundation, can elevate their roles and responsibilities to our lands and communities, obtain higher education degrees, and gain practical professional skillsets.

The internship takes on a progressive and holistic teaching and mentoring approach that creates an authentic experience for students outside of the classroom, on the land, and in their communities.

The skillsets the students obtain through participating in our internships are ultimately aimed at re-connecting them to the land and the places of their ancestors and instilling a sense of pride and responsibility to properly caring for these places, as a foundation of their Native Hawaiian identity.

One particular site that has always inspired me is Maunakea, an almost 14,000-foot-tall mountain on Hawaiʻi Island. Not only is Maunakea significant because its a massive cultural landscape, but it’s considered a piko (or spiritual center) for our people and remains home to many elemental deities in our Hawaiian worldview.

Additionally, and more recently, Maunakea has become a symbol of a larger Native Hawaiian unification movement for indigenous resurgence. With Maunakea standing tall as our guidepost, we have become more inspired and motivated than ever to reconnect to our ancestral places, strengthen our cultural identities and remain steadfast on our pathway towards the restoration of pono, or righteousness, in our homeland once again.

Donate Today to Help Save the Places Where Our History Happened.

Donate to the National Trust for Historic Preservation today and you'll help preserve places that tell our stories, reflect our culture, and shape our shared American experience.

While her day job is the associate director of content at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Priya spends other waking moments musing, writing, and learning about how the public engages and embraces history.

Every place has a woman's story to tell. Through Where Women Made History, we are identifying, honoring, and elevating places across the country where women have changed their communities and the world.

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