From Facebook to the marae

Dr Acushla Dee O’Carroll’s Fulbright-Harkness Fellowship research trip to the US  in 2013 examined how native Hawaiians and First Nation American indigenous groups use social networks to revitalise and preserve their culture.

Read this Q&A interview to find out more about Dee.

1. In September you departed for the US on your Fulbright-Harkness Fellowship. What research questions did you set off to answer and what did you discover?

The Fulbright-Harkness project set out to investigate how Indigenous peoples in the USA (i.e., Hawaiian and Native American peoples) are using SNS (social networking services). The research aimed to highlight how Indigenous peoples in the USA are navigating and negotiating virtual spaces of SNS for cultural revitalisation and preservation.

It was the hope of the researcher/recipient that this research project would contribute to an under-researched area of study and add new Indigenous insights through providing comparatives and narratives alongside what Māori are doing in the area of culture and social media (which has derived from my doctoral work).

This research project intended to build on the small number of existing scholarship to assist policy makers, educators and cultural practitioners (locally and globally) with powerful insights into the ways in which technology and traditions are fusing together.

The research questions for the project were to;

1. Explore and analyse how Native Hawaiian and First Nation American Indigenous groups are using SNS in cultural ways;

2. Examine and discuss the implications of such Indigenous SNS use in relation to how Māori use SNS, highlighting the similarities and differences; and

3. Investigate community-driven SNS-based strategies for cultural and language revitalisation in communities.

The scope of this research was to gauge how Indigenous communities of the US are engaging with SNS and in considering the impacts on people and culture. It was intended that case studies would be conducted to incorporate a range of diverse generational discussants who were able to provide some insight into how their community/organisation thinks about and understands SNS in relation to Indigenous identity, language, traditions and values.

A bald eagle flew across the beach where we stood, stopped mid flight as if to greet and acknowledge us, swooped into the water to retrieve a fish and then retreated to the beach to feast. The elders of the tribe said that this was an extremely good sign and that our visit to their reservation was honoured by the eagle, who is one of their deities.

2. What were some of the findings of your recent research trip to Hawai’i and Seattle as the 2013 Fulbright-Harkness Fellow?

The significant findings of my research project as part of the Fulbright-Harkness are wide-reaching and continue to be formulated into a publishable paper that is currently underway. Broadly speaking, I was able to present my research to present to over 11 institutions and organisations, met with over 16 individuals and groups to discuss the research in more depth and conducted over 13 interviews with Indigenous users of SNS.

Some of the findings of those interviews discussed the following;


• My research generally raised the awareness amongst Hawaiian communities that social media as a new technology requires much more attention (and research) that what it is currently receiving to ensure that Hawaiian culture and society moves with new media while continuing to keep traditions in tact.

• There are some interesting things happening in social media for Hawaiian language and the promotion of the language. Social media is increasingly becoming a space in which Hawaiian language is being taught and learnt.

• Cultural protocols such as funerals were not generally spoken about as being observed in social media, this may have been due to the limited number of interviews and people I spoke with. However, sharing my research around virtualising funerals and other Māori protocols prompted many Hawaiian communities to reflect and consider how social media is playing or will play a role in the practising of their cultural protocols.

• Social media like Facebook and Twitter were excellent platforms in which political agendas from a minority group (Hawaiian people) were enforced, voiced and mobilised through these media. These media were considered empowering as they gave the people a voice.

• Cultural traditions around hula were being kept in tact through the use of social media. “Tikanga” were being enforced through social media controlled Facebook pages for hula dancers and hula schools, which meant that hula could be taught, learnt, and organised using social media.


• There are a good number of research projects that are just starting to emerge from the US from Native American scholars around this area of research, which is exciting, as there is very little Indigenous research in this field.

• Native American people are doing some extremely interesting things in social media around language revitalisation and in particular, using social media platforms as ways to coordinate and organise groups of people for political movements. The Idle No More campaign as being one of the major social media movements to occur in the past few years.

• Cultural events such as the ‘Canoe Journey’ that happens every year amongst tribes in the Washington State area use social media considerably, to organise cultural events and meetings around this large event occasion. Social media is also used during the event to allow other Native American people across the continent to participate and engage in the event through social media.

• Native American Youth are being targeted through social media by influential musicians (who are Native American) who are making efforts to inspire young people. The use of video and images are being used here also.

• Cultural practices such as funerals were not been widely observed in Native American communities (this may, again, be due to the limited data sample) but note some interesting protocols being virtualised and raising concerns amongst communities.

3. What is your favourite memory of Hawaii?


During my stay in Hawai’i, I made an effort to travel to the outer islands of Kaua’i, Maui and Big Island to meet with people and discuss my research, but to also experience Hawai’i and the Hawaiian culture in some of the older, less populated islands of Hawai’i.

I visited Kaua’i with a few close Hawaiian friends who showed me the island. I was fortunate to stay with an elder who shared many stories and accounts of her time growing up in Hawai’i and sharing in discussion and conversation about the future of Indigenous peoples and how we as leaders of tomorrow play an integral role in securing the future for our generations to come.

Being amongst such an incredible group of inspiring, young and Indigenous agents of change brought an entirely new level of appreciation for this trip and this opportunity. I felt truly connected to my Indigenous brothers and sisters and shared hopes and dreams that we each have for our respective tribes and that together, working in unity and solidarity as Indigenous people, we can achieve this. I also visited Maui and Big Island, where I had similar experiences and conversations with inspiring Hawaiian youth and elders.

Throughout this trip, I also gained an increased appreciation for having a sense of place and a sense of belonging (which I explore in depth within my doctoral studies and how social media plays a role in facilitation that connection to ‘place’). Land and water and connecting to ones environment and place of origin was firmly instilled in my experience in Hawai’i as I observed my Hawaiian brothers and sisters speak about the importance of land for food sovereignty and the mana that they must continue to uphold in regards to their land and water.

These sentiments are of course shared by Māori and I understand them well, however it became much more apparent to me of the issues that we as Indigenous people face and will continue face in our lifetimes around the protection and continuity of our natural resources and how important that responsibility is for us as the leaders of tomorrow, to continue so that there is something left for our children of tomorrow.

Amongst a number of cultural experiences around hula, mele Hawai’i (Hawaiian music), receiving some tā moko (Māori tattoo) while I was in Hawai’i and rekindling old friendships and making new ones – my trip to Hawai’i was profound and unforgettable. I am truly appreciative of the opportunity to have returned to Hawai’i as a Fulbright-Harkness fellow and feel that this latest trip has provided pivotal changes in my life as a researcher and as an Indigenous person.


Admittedly, Seattle was where I worked the most in terms of scheduled meetings, presentations and interviews that were happening most of the day, everyday for the three weeks that I was there. Which was fantastic, as I was able to collect a lot of data and share my research with all who were interested. I did however; find some time to visit a couple of cultural places of significance.

One in particular was the Sklallam Reservation where I visited as part of a group of Native Indigenous scholars from the University of Washington. We visited the reservation as part of a day of activities making artworks from cedar wood. These artworks would be used as gifts for elders and dignitaries who were scheduled to visit the University in October of this year. The visit included sharing in story telling by elders of the trip about the history of the their tribe and the their lands.

We then smoked salmon over the fires on the beach of their reservation. During this time, I was privileged to witness something truly special. A bald eagle flew across the beach where we stood, stopped mid flight as if to greet and acknowledge us, swooped into the water to retrieve a fish and then retreated to the beach to feast. The elders of the tribe said that this was an extremely good sign and that our visit to their reservation was honoured by the eagle, who is one of their deities. I was truly humbled to have witnessed this!

There were many cultural experiences where I felt like I was at home in Aotearoa with my own people, practising my own customs. I truly felt the connection between Indigenous peoples through this trip and my time in Seattle and this experience added so much value to my appreciation of Indigeneity.

There were a plethora of other cultural experiences, but generally felt that I was on a spiritual journey throughout Hawai’i and Seattle as I encountered both professional and personal engagements and experiences – truly a once in a lifetime experience!

4. What is next for you?

I am undergoing the writing of a paper using some of the data that I collected from my Fulbright-Harkness fellowship, I have also just received a Writers Fellowship to continue writing articles deriving from my PhD. Meanwhile, I am in the process of setting up my own business (Māori Research Consultancy).

Native American people are doing some extremely interesting things in social media around language revitalisation and in particular, using social media platforms as ways to coordinate and organise groups of people for political movements.

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