Interviews have been lightly edited for clarity.
Translation Note: ‘Ōlelo Hawaiʻi is a multivalent language, in which meaning cannot be captured wholly by a single definition from the English language. Translations, however, have been provided for the sake of clarity for the reader.
ʻŌlena / turmeric sleeps beneath the thickness of her leaves.
As a bud, she is shaded from trickles of the autumn sun; as a dye, she stains the ends of the banner, languidly draped over the metal gate to her left, a deep and rich yellow that rivals the sun’s vibrance. Her sisters, distilled and candied, are the syrup drizzled over cones of shave ice to her right, infusing their cinching and peppery sweetness in a biting cold.
Today, she lives at the Yale Farm; here, she will spend her evening celebrating the woman who folded her seeds beneath New Haven soil. But her one hānau / sands of birth, the rope that fastens them together in diasporic memory, is an archipelago—a continent and an ocean away.
It is the afternoon of September 22, 2023, and a lively crowd of students, faculty, and community members huddle intimately beneath a wooden pavilion at the Yale Farm. In the quiet chill of the fall equinox, the compactness of our bodies keeps us warm. Brought to this space to celebrate the launch of Cooling the Tropics: Ice, Indigeneity, and Hawaiian Refreshment, I am here in appreciation of the book’s author—assistant professor of Native and Indigenous Studies, and the first and only Kanaka Maoli / Native Hawaiian ladder faculty in Yale College, Hiʻilei Hobart. Toward the end of the pavilion, she stands, dressed in vibrant yellow, making light conversation with prominent Indigenous scholars she has invited from across the continent and beyond to speak on her scholarship.
Cooling the Tropics is a work that charts the imperial infrastructures and technologies of the ice trade in Hawaiʻi, confronting the thermal dimensions of colonialism, dispossession, white comfort, and the politics of food. For Dr. Noenoe Silva, the first Kanaka Maoli professor of political science hired at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, and one of the invited panelists, Hobart situates her work in a revered genealogy of female, Kanaka Maoli scholars. “We’re all standing on the shoulders of Haunani-Kay Trask and Lilikalā Kameʻelehiwa,” says Silva, herself a trailblazing author of seminal texts on Hawaiian intellectual history. Silva continues, noting that she is “impressed with the ways that [Hiʻilei] constantly makes use of the archive and ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi,” yet maintains the “relevance of the analyses that she’s making to today.” Constellating contemporary Hawaiian resistance movements with the throughline of refrigeration, Hobart, as Silva impresses, offers a new tool to analyze settler colonialism in Hawaiʻi, and critically confronts the possibility of an Indigenous, food sovereign future.
For Hawaiʻi, American settler colonialism is not an event living in memory, but a gradual and ongoing process. Today, Kānaka Maoli from across Hawaiʻi and the diaspora are rallying in defense of sacred ʻāina / land, fending off efforts to desecrate Maunakea with the construction of a Thirty-Meter Telescope on its slopes, protesting the poisoning of the largest aquifer on Oʻahu by over 40,000 gallons of leaked U.S. Navy jet fuel, and organizing for mass relief in the wake of the devastating wildfires in Lāhainā and other parts of Maui Komohana. “They’re destroying the thing that all of us Kānaka love the best in the world, which is our ʻāina. They’re poisoning it and they’re burning it and they’re building on it,” Silva asserts. But Hobart, Silva says, has “encouraged us to think about what we do now. How do we save our ʻāina? How do we save your generation?”
For Professor Hobart, these questions guide her scholarship, but arise from a personal intellectual genealogy she views as unconventional. With a background in creative writing, material culture studies, archives management, rare books librarianship, and food studies, she claims to be “a scholar that never really seemed to clearly fit in the academy,” but is “always surprised at the places that [she’s] ended up by following [her] own weird, little tune.” And in the fall of last year, it led her to the steps of Yale.
“Landing at Yale was a strange experience, because being at Yale was not a place I ever expected to be,” she recalled. Hobart entered Yale as one of the first three faculty brought on since the Ethnicity, Race, and Migration program gained hiring power in 2019. The program’s independence was not serendipitous—through years of student protest and national activism urging for institutional change, including the coordinated resignation of 13 Ethnicity, Race, and Migration faculty, Professor Hobart’s hire was made possible. Hobart joins Dr. Ned Blackhawk (Western Shoshone), professor of History and American Studies, and the only tenured Native American faculty, in a rapidly expanding field of Native and Indigenous Studies at Yale. Blackhawk, who chaired the search committee that eventually selected Hobart, sees her hire as part of a critical juncture for Native studies in the academy. “We can’t lose sight of the broader Indigenous communities—Alaska, Canada, Polynesia, Hawaiʻi, Latin America, the South Pacific—who are also subject to both inquiry and scholarship production,” Blackhawk says. “So it’s wonderful to have a Native studies community that has a deep commitment to the contiguous United States but is moving into our vision of the field within not just regions, but themes and analysis that are particularly relevant to places like Hawaiʻi.”
Upon arriving at this institution, Professor Hobart quickly found her spaces on campus—in the Ethnicity, Race, and Migration program, on the Yale Farm, and in the growing community of Kanaka Maoli students she’s come to mentor. Within her first month, however, on a private tour of the Yale Peabody Museum’s collections, she discovered an assemblage of the mandibles and teeth of several unidentified Kānaka Maoli. Separated from a larger set of repatriated iwi kūpuna / ancestral remains, these mark the eugenicist origins of anthropological studies at Yale. When Hobart’s eyes met the iwi kūpuna, cramped in a sterile box and sealed with plastic wrap, she wept.
Over the summer prior, Professor Hobart conducted a series of research interviews with Halealoha Ayau, and wife and husband Kalehua and Mana Caceres, all of whom are prominent figures in Native Hawaiian repatriation work. Drawing on these networks following her discovery, Hobart learned that Ayau was facilitating a nearby repatriation at Vassar College in early October. She coordinated with Ayau and formed a plan to hand off the iwi to him for replanting in Hawaiʻi.
In the two weeks following these developments, Professor Hobart gathered a small group of Kanaka Maoli undergraduates—Kalaʻi Anderson BK ’25 , Connor Arakaki MC ’26, and myself—to learn oli / chant and pule / prayer from the Caceres’, gather ʻōlena and paʻakai / sea salt, and sew our kīhei / shawl in preparation for Ayau to replant the iwi in Hawaiʻi. On the day of the ceremony, as we stood in reverence around the iwi, sharing the weight of a violent history, our hands fastened tightly to each other. And those iwi, through the work of Ayau and teachings of the Caceres’, returned to their home after 140 years of displacement.
Despite fears of overstepping her place or pushing the limits of the academy, Professor Hobart felt an urgent responsibility to act. A year since repatriation, she still affirms: “I knew, in my gut, that I was supposed to be at Yale to do that. And if that was all I got to do here before they told me to leave, that was okay.”
As the sun begins to wane behind the treeline, seats under the pavilion fill and a crowd circumscribes its borders. I sit toward the middle, in line with the brick oven.The chalk board nailed to the oven’s side reads, “holoiʻa ka papa, kau ʻia e ka manu / where there is food, people gather”; I am eased by its presence. Food binds the communities Professor Hobart has joined and created in her first year at Yale. For her, as a teacher and a mentor, food is a critical medium for Indigenous education.
Indigenous Food Sovereignty (ER&M 316), one of Professor Hobart’s inaugural courses, confronts the industrial food complex as the invisible arm of American colonization, and argues that sovereignty is predicated on the self-determination of Indigenous foodways. On the first day of her class last year, in the sweltering heat of a New England September, I stumbled into a crowded room in the hazy basement of William Harkness Hall. There were too few seats and a cramped central table; I was skeptical. I sat to Professor Hobart’s left as she unpacked her bag. Jamie Seu, ES ’26, another Kanaka Maoli student I’d met in passing during the weeks prior, joined me by her side. As seats filled and the windowless walls closed-in tighter, Professor Hobart re-packed her bag and led us to a shady spot under a tree on Cross Campus. In the pillowy grass, we sat in community with each other. And as students traversed the desire paths around us, we spoke of the places we call home and our reasons for coming to this space.
Jamie initially decided to take Indigenous Food Sovereignty because of her fascination with the chemistry behind food and the TikTok algorithm that fuels her cravings. It doubly offered an opportunity to explore the Indigenous identity that her home rarely expressed. Between the few times she sees the Hawaiian side of her family, never having a concentrated space for Hawaiian cultural practice, and growing up with her Hawaiian-ness bookended by a percent sign, Jamie felt like she “didn’t have the legitimacy to back [her identity] up.” For many contemporary Kānaka Maoli, the fraught history of U.S. federal legislation defining Indigenous identity with arbitrary blood quantums—for capital “N” Native Hawaiians, it is 50%—forces questions of being Hawaiian enough under the shadow of a percentage. “It was always described to me in terms of [blood] quantum. I didn’t even know what that meant when I was young. Plus, I don’t look Hawaiian at all,” Jamie recalled.
Upon arriving at Yale, however, Jamie found that bearing proof of her Hawaiian-ness was not an expectation, nor an inquiry. “There’s no ‘how much are you of this?’ or ‘prove it to me that you’re this,’” she says. “I don’t have to validate myself.” For her, the atmosphere of Professor Hobart’s class was an extension of that eased sentiment, providing breathing room to unravel tensions of belonging and explore her Hawaiian identity more thoroughly. “If I was ever worried about judgment, it wasn’t going to be because I wasn’t enough,” she remarked with a smile. “Everybody just was as they are and that’s the best you could bring.”
The Yale Farm, as both a classroom location and a pedagogy in itself, is central to the method of community-building that Professor Hobart routinely integrates into her curriculum. “As you become deeper invested in fields of study, and particularly within Native and Indigenous Studies,” Hobart said, “you learn that the embodied experience of being in and with the world is a form of theory, and it is a form of practice and it is a legitimate way of learning and teaching and being.” As we shucked beans, diced beets, and harvested tomatoes, our class became active agents in bringing life from the land for our sustenance, an intimacy that is often robbed by the mass cultivation of food for profit.
Jacquie Munno, Programs Manager of the Yale Sustainable Food Program credits Hobart with leading the farm to integrate Indigenous values and ancestral knowledge in their work: “Professor Hobart has given a depth and fullness to this learning approach that we’ve always aspired to,” she says. Through her Indigenous Food Sovereignty course, she has empowered students with the right to choose how and what they grow and consume. “The Farm doesn’t replace classroom teaching, but it enriches it immeasurably,” Munno says. Beyond articulating the intricacies of movements for Indigenous food sovereignty, Professor Hobart creates spaces grounded in place that make meaning between people. She lives the pedagogies her predecessors theorized.
For Jamie, these practices are baked into the legacy Hobart has and will continue to leave on campus. “[She] reminds me of what they tell you every time you go somewhere—leave it better than you came,” Jamie says. “That philosophy speaks to her.” As our first class comes to an end, I watch Jamie hand a bag of chocolate-covered macadamia nuts, an unspoken memory of a shared home, to Professor Hobart. And, for the first time amid the frantic agitation of first year, I am at ease.
There is a movement in the silence that falls over the crowd; it is in the blades of Sycamore shed that fold and flutter from the sky, the rustle of underbrush in the whispering wind. Professor Hobart walks to the podium at the end of the panel table, thanking Dr. Blackhawk for her introduction. She begins with expressions of gratitude—to the panelists, her colleagues, her students, her family, and her mentor, Dr. Audra Simpson (Kahnawà:ke Mohawk), professor of Anthropology at Columbia University. As she reaches Simpson’s name, she waves a binded packet of readings, littered with annotations and highlights, from her time in Simpson’s class.
Before repatriation and Indigenous Food Sovereignty, before Yale, Professor Hobart was a student at Colby College. In her senior year, her mother passed away. Over the months that followed, she went home and made sandwiches at the deli down the street from her house. She later accepted a position as a secretary in an office. “It was fine,” she recalled. But, determined to reclaim agency, she didn’t want “somebody telling [her] what to do at a desk for the rest of [her] life.” So she applied to graduate school. After obtaining her master’s degrees in Decorative Arts, Design, and Culture from Bard Graduate Center and in Rare Books Librarianship and Archives Management from the Pratt Institute, she decided to pursue further studies. As she entered her Food Studies PhD program at NYU, her father passed away.
The following summer, she committed to reading a stack of 20 books on Hawaiian history. Once she reached the bottom of the stack, she realized it wasn’t enough—so she sought more beyond the bounds of her institution. Professor Hobart sent a cold email to Dr. Audra Simpson, one of the only Native scholars in the academy at the time, who taught a course called Settler Colonialism in North America at Columbia University. Entering her class through a consortium agreement, Hobart saw the course as a “space to work these things out for [her]self.”
For Dr. Simpson, Professor Hobart was “making connections between materials that others hadn’t” and bringing the “language from Food Studies—the language of taste and sense” to analyses of the infrastructures of settler colonialism. Praising the care and attention she brought from her expertise in archival work, Simpson recognized Hobart’s “personal aptitude for research, for working with archives.” This manifested in a term paper that analyzed the introduction of ice into Hawaiʻi, using the menus of Queen Liliʻuokalani from a mid-1800s dinner in ʻIolani Palace.
Given Hobart’s unconventional academic background, Dr. Simpson encouraged her to pursue the topic further. Despite, per Professor Hobart, its inconvenience “for [her] department, for [her] advisors, for everybody,” Hobart insisted that doing this work was a necessity. Today, that dissertation has evolved into a book that demands critical evaluation of our institutions, and intentional action from within and beyond them.
For Professor Hobart, Dr. Simpson’s push, and the accommodations of her advisors and department, encouraged her to take her work into her own hands. “I understood what it meant to ask questions that were important questions for [myself], specifically as a person,” she said. “It took me a really long time to have confidence that the questions that I was asking didn’t have to be other people’s questions. And in fact, why would I want to be asking the same question as someone else?” Continuing this lineage of mentorship, Professor Hobart has begun doing the work of informing the future through an orientation to the past. “I really want to empower students to think their own thoughts and to ask questions about the world that makes sense for who they are, and who they want to be. I think I focus on that so much because I needed to learn that lesson.”
To the sound of applause, Professor Hobart returns to her seat and gives way to Dr. Jean O’Brien (White Earth Ojibwe), professor of History and American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota, the first speaker of the panel. As silence trickles over the crowd, a familiar face taps Hobart’s shoulder. Bodies shuffle to face the exchange. Mikiala Ng, PC ’24, a Kanaka Maoli senior, gently holds a lei poʻo, a crown delicately woven with strands of raffia, adorned with marigolds, shrubbery, lavender, and sage from across New Haven. For a moment, a stillness washes over the pavilion. Professor Hobart swivels to face the panel, her head tilted downward as her knees plant in the soil. Mikiala, placing the lei to Professor Hobart’s forehead, fastens the crown, lashing a knot with the dangling braids of raffia. Professor Hobart rises and embraces Mikiala; they are bound like their lei poʻo.
Mikiala arrived to Yale at the eclipse of the COVID-19 pandemic, as one of only two Kanaka Maoli students in her year. “Sophomore year, my first year on campus, was insanely difficult. Academics are one thing, but transitioning to being on campus, away from home with all my family…” Mikiala pauses. “I was struggling to find support, get by, insanely homesick every day. There was no one else, at least in my circles, around me that was from home and/or Native Hawaiian.” As we converse in the attic of the Native American Cultural Center (NACC), I am humbled to follow in her footsteps, and I recognize the privilege of not being the only Kanaka Maoli in the Yale bubble.
In the spring of 2022, Mikiala, who was a peer liaison for the NACC at the time, met Professor Hobart at a welcome event celebrating her hire. “I was so excited to have someone from home, in a faculty staff role, to look up to since this whole time, it’s really just been me.” Having taken Race and Indigeneity in the Pacific (ER&M 373) and now a student in Indigenous Food Sovereignty, Mikiala feels a renewed sense of belonging in the academy—and has been pushed to think critically about both colonial histories and her own personal ones. For her, it comes down to “the confidence that she has in me and in all her students, and the compassion and encouragement she gives us to write about what really interests us, to ask the hard questions, to expand our thinking and our ideologies, and the way that we frame things when we think about ourselves.”
The day before the book launch, Mikiala and I are sitting in the second floor of the NACC. I flip through economics notes as she pulls stems of lavender from a teal bucket, snipping their ends, and fastening them to a woven raffia base. To her right is a Kanaka Maoli first year plucking at a guitar, and to her left, two more converse over readings. In the waning hours of the evening, the walls sing a chorus along with us.
For Mikiala, lei-making is part of a familial lineage. “I learned lei-making from my Puna, my grandmother, who passed away last fall. I think it’s coming up on a year now.” She reminisces about the last lei she made with her Puna and the encroaching fear that she’d lost her touch somewhere between Hawaiʻi and Yale. She remembers her Puna glancing over at the lei she’d woven, speaking through a smile: “Yep. Just like how I would do it. Actually, I think you’re better.”
“Lei-making is such a special part of me, but also, a big part of my family and keeping my Puna alive and remembering her and all that she taught me,” Mikiala continues. Our cheeks are tear-stained, and the room falls quiet. “Anytime there’s an opportunity to make and give a lei, I think of my grandma and how much aloha she was always giving to people. The best way to preserve her legacy is to do that, to give aloha. And so getting to make a lei for Kumu / teacher Hobart was such an honor.” The lei, fastened tightly to the crown of Professor Hobart’s head, beyond raffia and marigolds and sage and lavender, is woven with fibers of aloha, reciprocity, and care.
For Professor Hobart, Kanaka Maoli scholars have been her anchor in the changing tides of the academy. Hobart seeks to pass this stability onto her students. “So much of it is following the example that you folks are all doing,” she says. “You show up with so much aloha.” But for Mikiala, and the growing number of Pasifika students in Yale College, Hobart herself is that anchor, who will leave “a legacy that has not been seen on this campus before.”
As the panel closes, Jacquie Munno comes to the podium to acknowledge the many hands that have prepared the food sitting fresh on a nearby table—pizza made with kalua pig brought by a student from Hawaiʻi, shave ice, gazpacho, and iced tea. She acknowledges the marigolds hung from the pavilion’s roof, strung by students from Indigenous Food Sovereignty. And she invites Helen Shanefield, SY ’26, Jairus Rhoades, SM ’26, and myself to perform a hula, dedicated to Professor Hobart, before the crowd. With my shoes lined along the oven, my feet meld with the soil beneath me. We dance, and it feels good to be here in this space, to share in it with other Kānaka Maoli, to be in the presence of a woman canonized as an academic hero for many. In the hours that follow, we eat, and laugh, and exist, and take up space in ways that unwrite and rewrite history.
Like the ʻōlena that tethers the people, place, and foods of the book launch, Professor Hobart is a tether of community. She has formed unconventional connections that serve as the basis for new forms of critical, embodied practice. She has brought with her not only the revered Indigenous scholars of her generation, but also a genealogy of knowledge that flows in every word she lives. She challenges the university to reckon with the pedagogical gaps that Indigeneity has already bridged. She brings an informed vision for the future, with bits and pieces of aloha spliced into the canvas she paints for her students. And for Kānaka Maoli, she has not only eclipsed their displacement, replanted them in ʻāina, but become a testament to the value of Hawaiʻi in an academy and institution that is antithetical to Kanaka Maoli existence.
The day after the book launch, Professor Hobart and I trade the comforting breadth of the farm for her intimate, air-conditioned, and windowless office in an unassuming building behind Toad’s. This is the ER&M program’s building. Post-its scatter the walls of her office, forming a self-proclaimed conspiracy theory board for her new project. Prominent Hawaiian names line the bookshelves behind her. In her presence alone, I bear witness to history in the making. We begin speaking about the book launch, but she is at a loss for words. “Every corner of it was thoughtful. I’m still trying to figure out how to process it, to be honest.” She pauses, but we share the silence together.
“These places are complicated places and they’re not perfect places. And I will not feel the way that I felt yesterday every day in this institution. I know that, but I’m going to hold on to it for as long as I can.”
ʻŌlena rises from her slumber.
Her roots cling to unfamiliar soil. As the shadow of night falls on her bladed leaves, the pigments she’s left, and the syrup that leaks through plastic bags in secret, she stands in the stillness of night. And in the soil caught between the soles of shoes, she leaves pieces of her ʻāina with her visitors—who have, in presence, left pieces of themselves with her.
She is a seed of Hiʻilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart. And here she will rest and she will grow. While their conjoined lineage is on an island and in an ocean, in a history of loss and revival, they are fastened not in diasporic memory, but in the diasporic present. They are seeds of emergence.
No kuʻu Hawaiʻi, mau a mau / For my beloved Hawaiʻi, forever and always.