Diversity and Democracy

Out of the Classroom, into the Pond: Participating in Local Food Sovereignty Initiatives through Global Service Learning

In 2018, as a senior undergraduate student at Creighton University, I participated in a summer field course, (De)Colonizing Bodies in Hawaii and the Philippines. We visited various locations throughout the islands as a means of experiencing indigenous knowledge in practice. One excursion was to the He‘eia fishpond on the island of Oahu. As students, we figured this would be a relaxing tour of something akin to an ornamental koi pond in a finely manicured garden, though we were unsure why our professors insisted that we bring our water shoes and clothes we wouldn’t mind dirtying. Rather than taking an idyllic walk in a park, we found ourselves waist-deep in a brackish canal, rolling volcanic rocks through the silt and mud to repair segments of the eight-hundred-year-old rock wall that enclosed the fishpond.

Community members worked alongside and instructed my classmates and me on where and how to place the rocks to stabilize the wall. I was impressed by the sheer scale of this endeavor—and what the process must have been like when the wall was originally created. I considered the amount of labor and skill it took to cut and haul these boulders from miles inland and down the mountains, and to construct a water-tight barrier that stretches for seven thousand feet—all without the construction equipment and vehicles that my fellow students and I had to assist us in transporting the boulders to the shore.

Once we had repaired the segment of the wall that needed attention, we were taken to a portion of the wall that was intentionally left open to let fish from the ocean swim into the calm, nutrient-filled waters. Our guides explained how slats covering this entrance were designed to allow smaller fish to enter and feed but kept larger fish from leaving to ensure a consistent food supply. However, we learned that this was not just a place where fish were kept to grow fat. Our community partners taught our class about the fishpond’s significance in native Hawaiian cosmology and epistemologies. The fishpond is not only a place where food can be acquired but also a space that humans tend to and care for in exchange for the ocean’s bounty.

By participating in this form of indigenous landscape management, I was better able to appreciate the scale of this community’s endeavor to maintain a nearly millennium-long project toward sustainable food sovereignty. This experience informed my understanding of how imperial processes could manifest in nutritional health inequalities, or how traditional land management could be a forum for resisting industrial extraction. By contributing to a project that maintained a traditional form of land management and cultural practice, I was able to experience firsthand the importance of land preservation to Hawaiian indigenous health initiatives. Finally, spending time waist-deep in the He‘eia fishpond highlighted to me that no amount of theory, ethnography, or other scholarly assignment leaves quite the same impression as firsthand experience alongside those who dedicate their livelihoods to such an endeavor. As I embark on my own professional academic journey, having recently started my PhD program, I hope to hold onto this lesson as I reflect on ways to have an impact on students whom I have yet to encounter in my career.


Benjamin Merrill has a BA in Medical Anthropology and Psychology from Creighton University (2018) and is a PhD Student in Psychological Anthropology at the University of California–San Diego.

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