PROJECTS | Aja Grande

Aja Grande

Current Research Areas: civic infrastructures; communities of practice; land-based learning; Indigenous sovereignty; settler colonialism; ethnobotany

“I knew that I wanted to do something close to my heart. It’s a huge privilege because I was able to come home and learn more about myself and my family and how we are connected to Hawaiʻi.”

A reciprocal relationship with the land in Hawaiʻi

Written by MIT News, Laura Rosado

Aja Grande grew up on the Hawaiian island of Oʻahu, between the Kona and ʻEwa districts, nurtured by her community and the natural environment. Her family has lived in Hawaiʻi for generations; while she is not “Kanaka ʻŌiwi,” of native Hawaiian descent, she is proud to trace her family’s history to the time of the Hawaiian Kingdom in the 19th century. Grande is now a PhD candidate in MIT’s HASTS (History, Anthropology, Science, Technology and Society) program, and part of her dissertation tracks how Hawaiian culture and people’s relationship with the land has evolved throughout time.

“The fondest memories I have are camping on the north shore every summer with my friends,” says Grande. “I loved being in ‘ke kai’ (the sea) and ‘ma uka,’ (inland, in the mountains) with my friends when I was younger. It was just pure fun exploring ‘ʻāina’ like that.” “‘Āina” in the Hawaiian language is often defined as “land,” but is understood to the people of Hawaiʻi as “that which feeds.”

“Now that I’m older,” Grande adds, “I’m connecting the dots and realizing how much knowledge about the complex systems of ‘ahupuaʻa’ [traditional Hawaiian divisions of land that extend from the mountains to the sea], I actually gained through these experiences.”

Grande recently completed a year of fieldwork in Hawaiʻi where she volunteered with land-based, or ‘āina-based organizations. In the movement to restore ‘āina to “momona,” or  “fertile and abundant lands,” the land and the people who serve as its stewards are of equal importance.

“I’m looking at how people who are not Kanaka ‘Ōiwi, or native Hawaiian, by descent can participate in this kind of restoration, and what it means for both Kanaka ‘Ōiwi and non-Kanaka ‘Ōiwi to participate in it,” says Grande, who herself descends from immigrants of other island nations. “Some of my ancestors were born and raised in Hawaiʻi before the U.S. subjected Hawaiʻi as a state and territory, meaning that some of them were Hawaiian Kingdom subjects. While, I am not Kanaka ʻŌiwi by lineage, some of my ‘ohana nui (extended family), from these same ancestors, are Kanaka ʻŌiwi. I’m writing about how being Hawaiian, from a Hawaiian sovereignty standpoint, is not just about race and ethnicity. When Hawaiʻi was a sovereign nation, Hawaiian citizenship was never afforded on the basis of race alone. It was also based on your lifelong commitment to ‘āina and the people of Hawaiʻi.”

The project is personal to Grande, who describes both the content and the process of writing it as part of her healing journey. She hopes to lay the groundwork for others who are “hoaʻāina,” or “those who actively care for ʻāina,” in Hawaiʻi, but not Kanaka ʻŌiwi to better articulate their identities and foster a deeper connection with the ʻāina and the “kaiāulu,” or “community,” they love and actively care for.

Returning home

Grande has spent her academic career on the East Coast, first at Brown University, where she received a degree in science, technology, and society, and now at MIT in the HASTS program. She swam competitively through her second year of college, and had earlier represented Hawaiʻi at the 2012 Oceania Games in New Caledonia. Once she stopped swimming, Grande first used her newfound time to travel the world. Tired of this transient lifestyle, she realized she was more interested in exploring her connection to land in a more rooted way.

“Moving around, especially as a college student, it’s very hard to grow things,” says Grande. “People are a lot like plants. You really just need to let plants do their thing in place. We do really well and we thrive when we can be connected to place.”

Grande started by founding the Ethnobotany Society at Brown to explore the relationship people have to plants. With the group she organized nature walks, collaborated with local farms, and connected it to the history she was learning in class.

Still, the East Coast never quite felt like home to Grande. When she started planning for the fieldwork portion of her program, she envisioned spending half the year in New England and half in Hawaiʻi. But she soon realized how important it was for both her research and herself to dedicate everything to Hawai’i.

“When I came back, it just felt so right to be back home,” says Grande. “The feeling in your naʻau — your ‘gut’ — of knowing that you have to contribute to Hawaiʻi is very powerful, and I think a lot of people here understand what that means. It’s kind of like a calling.”

Hoaʻāina, community, family

Once Grande made the decision to return home for her field work, she says everything fell into place.

“I knew that I wanted to do something close to my heart. It’s a huge privilege because I was able to come home and learn more about myself and my family and how we are connected to Hawaiʻi,” she says.

During her year of fieldwork, Grande learned how hoaʻāina cultivate spaces where the community can can work alongside one another to plant traditional food and medicinal crops, control invasive species, and more. She wasn’t just an observer, either. As much as Grande learned from an academic perspective, her personal growth has been intertwined with the entire process.

“The most interesting part was that all the hoaʻāina I volunteered with helped me to understand my place back home,” says Grande. “They were my informants but also — this usually happens with anthropologists — people become your friends. The hoaʻāina I volunteered with treated me like family. They also got to know some of my family members, who joined me to volunteer at different sites. It’s sometimes hard to drop a hard line between what fieldwork is and what your personal life is because when you’re in the field, there’s so many events that are connected to your work. It was so fun and meaningful to write about the ʻāina and people I consider my community and family.”

The movement doesn’t start or end with Grande’s dissertation. Pursuing this project has given her the language to articulate her own relationship with ‘āina, and she hopes it will empower others to reexamine how they exist in relation to land.

After completing her program, Grande intends to stay in Hawaiʻi and continue philanthropy work while contributing to the movement of ʻāina momona.

“We want the land to live and to keep a relationship with the land. That’s the emotional part. I have a ‘kuleana,’ (duty and responsibility) to everything that I learned while growing up, including the ʻāina and ‘kaiāulu,’ (community) who raised me. The more you learn, there’s so much that you want to protect about the culture and this ‘āina.”

~ published October 2023