Skip to Main Content
Home Class Act Grant awarded to UH West Oʻahu for project to identify burials at...

Grant awarded to UH West Oʻahu for project to identify burials at Molokaʻi cemetery


Image courtesy of Dr. Christy Mello

The National Science Foundation awarded the University of Hawai‘i–West O‘ahu a grant of nearly $168,000 for a project to identify unmarked burials at a cemetery on Moloka‘i.

NSF’s Build and Broaden Program awarded the two-year, $167,321 grant for a project titled, “Unmarked Burials at a Molokai Cemetery: Building and Broadening Community Engaged Research Methods, Faculty Networks, and Student STEM Opportunities.”

The project’s principal investigator is Dr. Christy Mello, associate professor of Applied Cultural Anthropology, and co-principal investigators are Dr. Kirsten Vacca, assistant professor of Historical Archaeology; Dr. Robert Mann, lecturer of Forensic Anthropology at UH West O‘ahu and UH JABSOM; and Dr. John Byrd, lab director and forensic anthropologist at the U.S. Department of Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.

The Saint Damien Burial Council invited UH West O‘ahu faculty and professional partners to identify and confirm unmarked burials for commemoration, to identify names associated with undocumented burials, and to create maps at two cemeteries belonging to Saint Damien of Moloka‘i Catholic Church and Parishes.

Based on community-expressed interest during talk story focus group discussions, the research team decided to begin work by focusing on the St. Joseph at Kamalo Cemetery to preserve its regional history and the stories of those who live and are buried there for this NSF funding opportunity.

Mello emphasized that the research team members are not disturbing human remains and are completely avoiding potential ancient burials. They developed an approach that integrates ethnographic insight gathered through focus groups, participant observation, photography, interviews, archival and genealogical research with the forensic and archeological methods of excavation (10-12 cm deep), probing, and mapping.

“Our work demonstrates best practices for forensic investigations, historical and cultural preservation, as well as cultural resource management in ensuring proper methodologies are mainstreamed,” Mello said. “Further, it provides a rare learning opportunity for students to gain experience ethically identifying actual clandestine burials.”

‘Helping a worthy cause’

Preliminary research for the project began in February 2022. A team has been traveling every two to three months to Moloka‘i, but will increase to one to two months with the NSF funding. Mello travels each time and is generally joined by one to two of the co-PIs with anywhere from one to three students at a time.

Rachael White, a former student of Mello’s, worked on the project for several weekends — in April, May, and July last year, and most recently in March this year.

“I was referred to Dr. Mello by Dr. Vacca because she liked my mapping abilities during my archeology field course,” said the ‘Ewa Beach resident and 2019 Campbell High School graduate.

White recalled her first time on Moloka‘i and digging trenches at the church along with Byrd.

“Those trenches revealed slight variations in the soil that was enough evidence to show that a person was buried there. This was very labor intensive,” she said. “The other times we went to Moloka‘i, I along with Dr. Byrd helped to map the cemetery — both the existing burials and the ones we found (during) the prior trip.”

For White, working on Moloka‘i meant more than doing archaeological work. It also meant getting to know and appreciating the beauty of both the people and the island. White said her involvement in the project is something she will never forget.

“I think the work I did on Moloka‘i was the most exciting and rewarding thing I did in my adult life,” she said. … “Every time I went, I felt like I was helping a worthy cause and it was an overall refreshing feeling to help people identify their past relatives.”

‘Something so meaningful’

The project also garnered early funding support from UH West O‘ahu’s Institute for Research & Engaged Scholarship (IRES), which provides annual seed grants of $2,500 to support faculty who are developing a concept for a larger funding proposal.

IRES Director Dr. Lea Kinikini said the hope with the seed grants is to bring more extramural funds to support UH West O‘ahu faculty teaching and undergraduate research experiences, as a way to engage the university in more community work.

“In Dr. Mello’s project, it was a smooth transition from the seed grant to the NSF funding, and I’m so proud of her and her team’s diligence and creativity in serving the community needs with this Moloka’i project,” Kinikini said.

Additionally, the project received the following funding support: $5,000 from UH SEED Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Access and Success (IDEAS) in spring 2022 and $2,000 in spring 2023, and $2,000 from the UH West O‘ahu Faculty Senate Budget Resources Committee in spring 2023.

Mello noted that the success of the project is largely attributable to the efforts of burial council and community members seeking to document and preserve the history of St. Joseph at Kamalo before more knowledge is lost with the passing of kūpuna.

“This level of commitment makes for lively and dynamic talk story sessions in which our participants enjoy learning from each other,” Mello said. “It is through this rich ethnographic detail in which we are learning on where to focus excavation work and that we will archive and preserve for future generations.”

The participants are who will ultimately sustain the project and benefit from its results, she said.

Mello added, “I am grateful for the many hours I get to spend learning from kūpuna and for the opportunity to assist with something so meaningful to the community, for preserving this knowledge for future generations as we engage in ethnographic and archival research together to identify names for burials with no names.

“It has been humbling to sit and listen to hours of talk story in which participants exchange stories of the past and enjoy learning from each other as they remember together,” she said.