Date March 20, 2024
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Kaliko Kalāhiki: Bringing Indigenous communities together at Brown and beyond

From a small farm in Hawaii to College Hill to the corridors of the White House, Brown senior Kaliko Kalāhiki is making inroads as an advocate for Indigenous sovereignty, queer visibility and sustainable land use.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — On the eve of their senior year at Brown University, Kalikoonāmaukūpuna “Kaliko” Kalāhiki spent the summer planting, propagating and pruning patches of kalo at the foot of Pu'u Konahuanui, one of the tallest peaks on the island of Oahu.

Patche of kalo in sunshine
Kaliko Kalāhiki spent last summer cultivating the root vegetable kalo.

It was Kalāhiki’s second year watching what was once an expanse of overgrown weeds and invasive species transform into a farm filled with acres of the root vegetable kalo, once a staple in Native Hawaiians’ diet.

“What’s really beautiful about the farm isn’t just that there are patches of kalo thriving here,” Kalāhiki said. “It’s also that we’re starting to see native bird species flourishing in that space again, like the ‘alae ‘ula and the ‘ae‘o” — Hawaiian words for the common moorhen and the Hawaiian stilt — “and what that shows, to me, is when we operate as responsible stewards of the Earth, the land can endure in a way that benefits us as people and all other living beings.

As a senior at Brown, Kalāhiki, who uses they/them pronouns, is finishing up work toward a bachelor’s degree in critical Native American and Indigenous studies, one of the first members of the inaugural cohort of graduates in the new concentration at Brown. But part of Kalāhiki’s heart remains at the kalo farm, where they began to envision a future that combines advocacy for Indigenous sovereignty, sustainable land use and LGBTQ+ visibility — three of their passions.

Kalāhiki is already a national symbol for the first two. Named a 2022 Champion for Change by the Aspen Institute’s Center for Native American Youth, Kalāhiki visited the White House twice to participate in discussions about climate change and food sovereignty alongside Indigenous leaders and top officials in the Biden administration.

Yet it wasn’t so long ago, Kalāhiki admitted, that they knew little about Hawaiian history, or about nationwide movements to reclaim the land Native Americans once stewarded.

“My family is Hawaiian, but I was actually born in Las Vegas, and I grew up in predominantly white communities in Nevada and Texas,” Kalāhiki said. “I have Japanese, Chinese, Portuguese and Polish ancestry, which is pretty typical of people who live in Hawaii. But there weren’t many other kids at my school who came from mixed backgrounds. The white kids would say, ‘You can’t be Native, because you don’t live in Hawaii,’ and I’d be like, ‘Oh — then I guess I’m white.’”

It wasn’t until middle school, when their family moved back to Hawaii, that Kalāhiki started to understand their identity better. The teen met others with mixed ancestry and dug into Hawaiian history. They learned that a majority of the Native Hawaiian population died in the 19th century due to disease, starvation and other causes related to colonization by Europeans and Americans. Indigenous peoples’ economic and health challenges persist generations later, Kalāhiki said, in part because their colonizers seized control of much of the land they once cultivated.

“In the old times, before colonization, people lived off the land: They grew and traded everything they needed to survive,” Kalāhiki said. “Now, about 85% of the goods we buy are imported — which doesn’t make any sense, because our history demonstrates that this is a perfect place to grow so many different foods that allow us to be self-sustaining.”

Strengthening Brown’s Native community

Kalāhiki’s interest in sustainable land cultivation led them to Brown, where they discovered that kānaka maoli, or Native Hawaiians, weren’t the only Indigenous people who wanted to reclaim their health by tapping into ancestral farming wisdom.

“I took a class called Contemporary Indigenous Education with Adrienne Keene” — an assistant professor of American studies — “and it demonstrated to me how, even though every Native community has different challenges, we’re all fighting the same system,” Kalāhiki said.

Community is everything to me: I am less myself and so much more my people.

Kalikoonāmaukūpuna “Kaliko” Kalāhiki Class of 2024
Kaliko smiling

They thought: Why not join forces and fight as one? Kalāhiki took on leadership roles across campus, intent on knitting Brown’s Indigenous communities closer together in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which temporarily scattered students across the country and world. As student coordinator of Natives at Brown, Kalāhiki and several peers successfully lobbied to revive House of Ninnuog, a residential space on campus for those who identify as Indigenous. And as a student programmer for Brown’s Native American Heritage Series, they have helped organize beloved campus gatherings such as the Spring Thaw Powwow and the Indigenous Peoples Day celebration.

“A lot of my work is around community-building and making fun, engaging, loving, supportive [and] caring spaces for people to exist within,” Kalāhiki said.

The senior said they’re carrying on the work of students who have since graduated — students whose openness gave Kalāhiki the confidence to come out as māhū, the term used in Native Hawaiian and Tahitian cultures to describe people who “embody both kāne (male) and wahine (female) energy,” Kalāhiki said.

With funding from a Royce Fellowship granted by Brown’s Swearer Center, Kalāhiki spent part of Summer 2023 speaking with queer Indigenous Hawaiians about their experiences, part of a larger aim to increase LGBTQ+ representation in the Hawaiian land sovereignty movement.

Some of Kalāhiki’s interviewees were workers at the Oahu kalo farm, the place where Kalāhiki first found a way to unite those three passions. They plan to return there after graduation, if only as a part-time volunteer.

“What my work will do, I hope, is bring all these disparate conversations into the same space,” Kalāhiki said. “As Native Hawaiians, our traditional values center on community, love and care. I think that is the focus of all of my work, whether it’s in environmental advocacy, Indigenous sovereignty or queer visibility. Community is everything to me: I am less myself and so much more my people.”