I have photos that help me recall the day my Aunty and Uncle took me to the summit of Maunakea around seven or eight years ago. We wanted to see the volcano up-close and the view of Hawai`i Island below, which seemed to bend with the earth’s curvature from almost 14,000 feet above. As I crouched in the parking lot, inspecting the snow banks in disbelief, my uncle looked at me quizzically. He motioned behind our pickup, towards tourists’ shiny silver and red Ford Focuses. “A`ole, no.” He shook his head, a thunderhead of judgement in his gaze. “These people think this sacred place is their playground.”
My Uncle is ethnically white and “local.” The term denotes belonging to Hawai`i without containing any ethnic connotations—a result of the multicultural society formed by waves of immigration during the plantation era. For people who are not Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians), to be “local” is to be part of an exclusive group—something to be earned through several years of residence or generational ties to the islands, in addition to immersion in Hawai`i’s unique history and culture. Though Hawai`i born and raised, I question whether I am local. For my Uncle, some good indicators of his localness are that he speaks fluent pidgin (Hawaiian Creole English), lives in a majority-Filipino household, and knows all of the Hawaiian place names. But still, being local is distinct from the indigenous sense of protecting and belonging to the land.
For decades before he retired, my Uncle worked on a telescope that sat on Haleakalā, the main volcano on Maui. On clear nights, in the black I could see the two pearls of light shining from the observatory.
Last July, 2,000 protestors formed a blockade on the access road that leads up to the site of the proposed Thirty Meter Telescope at the peak of Maunakea, Hawai`i’s tallest volcano. The land at the construction site has already been “ceded” multiple times. First, it went from the United States federal government in 1893 when it helped American businessmen overthrow the Kingdom of Hawai`i, then later to a state-held trust for the “betterment of the conditions of Native Hawaiians.” And today, an international community of scientists—spearheaded by the University of California and the California Institute of Technology, in tandem with the University of Hawai`i and the Hawai`i state government—want to erect the world’s most powerful telescope. The project’s astronomers claim that of the several sites they have considered around the world, Maunakea, with its pitch-black night sky free of light pollution, offers the most optimal conditions to “revolutionize our understanding of the universe,” as the TMT website proclaims. But for Kanaka Maoli, Maunakea is an integral, sacrosanct part of their universe: the volcano is the home of several sacred deities and the umbilical cord connecting the people to the heavens. Colonial domination continues—of land and resources but also of ideologies; one universe “cedes” to another.
Outside of the makeshift protest camp on the side of a highway, a Hawai`i state flag flew upside-down at half-mast, signifying the distress of the Hawaiian Sovereignty Movement, through which Kanaka Maoli have sought remedies for the overthrow of the Kingdom and their disenfranchisement. Further up the road, seven activists chained themselves to cattle guards to prevent trucks carrying personnel and equipment from reaching the construction site. Videos exposed the reluctance and pain of the police, mostly Kanaka Maoli themselves, as they arrested dozens of Native Hawaiian elders. They walked slowly, guiding the 70- and 80-year-old men into vans that would drive them off the mountain. The local politician and activist Kaniela Ing tweeted, “You don’t have to be Hawaiian to understand the dangerous precedent this sets. Maunakea impacts all of us.”
“Want to Be Less Racist? Move to Hawai`i.” I stared at the headline of an op-ed from the New York Times last summer. Dozens of striking black-and-white portraits of racially ambiguous people interspersed the text, each of them anchored by a caption with the subject’s name and ethnic mixture. “We asked people on Oʻahu to give their ethnicity. Many had long answers.” There was “African-American/Italian,” “Hawaiian/Filipino/Portuguese,” “Hawaiian/Samoan/Filipino/Chinese/Spanish/German/Caucasian,” among others. Each additional ethnicity and hyphenated name was intended to draw awe from the Times’ catered audience, a white, coastal-city liberal.
The author of the piece, who did not come from Hawai`i, certainly was in awe himself. He opened with research by University of Hawai`i at Mānoa psychologist Kristin Pauker stating that grade-school children from Honolulu, unlike their counterparts from the Boston area—the control group—“didn’t believe race was biological” or essentialist, and thus, that it was a “less useful” way to think about people. According to the Census, nearly a quarter of Hawai`i’s population was composed of mixed-race people as of 2018. The article offers the Aloha state as an example, from the U.S. mainland’s own backyard, of how miscegenation could construct racial harmony. The author asks, “Could Hawai`i show us another way forward?”
Rather than present an innovative idea, the article recycles a trope about Hawai`i that is several decades old. Even before it became a state, the November 1945 issue of LIFE Magazine declared Hawai`i “the world’s most successful experiment in mixed breeding, a sociologist’s dream of interracial cultures.” Open any in-flight magazine to an ad for a sandal store, or turn on your hotel room TV to a local commercial about ice cream, and find a smiling white man walking the beach at twilight hand-in-hand with his Asian wife and their multiracial daughters in tow. In paradise, it can be difficult to discern between images real and manufactured, authentic and imported.
“Being Hawaiian is ultimately about not wishing to be anything else,” writes Jonathan Osorio, the director of Hawaiian Studies at the University of Hawai`i at Mānoa. It is overcoming huikau (confusion), he argues, that has saved Hawaiians from their neocolonial identity crises and could eventually revive the Kingdom of Hawai`i. Osorio and his fellow activist-scholars would be among those most apt to critique the article in the Times for its half-baked analysis of race in Hawai`i, devoid of understanding the overarching structures of oppression that target Native Hawaiians.
A broad and non-exhaustive list of the contemporary socioeconomic adversities that Kanaka Maoli currently face includes disproportionately high rates of poverty, incarceration, drug use, homelessness and health issues, such as diabetes and heart disease. This is without mentioning ongoing historical issues of intergenerational trauma, cultural genocide, displacement from Indigenous lands, and a lack of self-governance. Many Kanaka Maoli view the United States as having illegally occupied their land since its 1898 annexation of Hawai`i as a territory. Native Hawaiians, monoracial and multiracial alike, do not benefit from living in the paradise that mainlanders imagine when they vacation in Hawai`i or move there permanently. Rather, the persisting myth of the idyllic melting pot—fueled by the state’s overreliance on tourism and foreign investment—further exacerbates the plight of Kanaka Maoli.
Moreover, the myth obscures a complex history of racial violence, much of which targeted Native Hawaiians. White people are to blame for much of Native Hawaiians’ trauma—from Captain James Cook’s initial contact to the “Big Five” plantation-owning families’ mass theft and degradation of land. Yet non-Indigenous people of color also have occupied space on the settler-colonial hierarchy, even if they themselves have faced racism, particularly during the plantation era. Arguably, Asians, as the majority race in Hawai`i (approximately 57 percent as of 2018) and major actors in government and business, have upheld the status quo that marginalizes Native Hawaiians. Governor David Ige, who is of Okinawan descent, has continued to back the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) project on Maunakea, despite vehement protests by Native Hawaiian activists against the desecration of a sacred mountain.
Beginning in the early 1960s, there has been a burst of new cultural activity and political organizing by Native Hawaiians, deemed the “Hawaiian Renaissance.” People began again to dance the hula and sing mele (traditional song). They began to farm the ancient Hawaiian crops like kalo (taro) and ʻulu (breadfruit) in backyard patches. In 1976, a crew successfully navigated a double-hulled canoe, the Hōkūleʻa, from Hawai`i to Tahiti using exclusively ancient Polynesian techniques—the first time it had been done in a century. These cultural successes, while largely unknown outside of Hawai`i, helped to restore the dignity and pride of Native Hawaiians. Native Hawaiians have come out, unified, for the first time after a century of U.S. occupation to declare that they are not going to surrender to processes of cultural assimilation, and in some cases, political dominion.
Amid the Hawaiian Renaissance’s climate of renewed purpose and resistance, the writer and scholar John Dominis Holt was a black sheep. Though he has often been considered the father of the Hawaiian Renaissance, his privilege within Hawai`i’s racially hierarchical society, as white-passing and a descendent of the landed elite, denied him recognition as a Native Hawaiian. “He had a passionate regard for Hawai`i and its people,” wrote Nainoa Thompson, one of the founders of the Hōkūle’a, as if assuming Holt was not one of Hawai`i’s people himself and, rather, an outsider. Holt found solace by refusing, in turn, to color by the lines of Hawaiian-ness, proudly stating his various European ancestries, alongside his three-eighths Native Hawaiian blood. He called himself hapa-haole, the Hawaiian term for mixed race. “I am, in depth, a product of Hawai`i—an American, yes, who is a citizen of the fiftieth State,” he wrote in his 1964 monograph On Being Hawaiian. “I am also a Hawaiian; somewhat by blood, and in large measure by sentiment.”
Like Holt, the majority of Native Hawaiians today are mixed-race, but some of them take issue with such an embrace of hybridity. “I am not American,” writes Osorio, the UH Mānoa Hawaiian Studies director, out of the belief that idealizing hybridity threatens Native Hawaiians’ path to self-determination and, ultimately, self-preservation as a people. “Do we wish to live as Hawaiians, or don’t we?” he writes.
While Osorio calls for Kanaka Maoli to commit themselves to an essential political and cultural identity apart from anything else, there are calls for defining Hawaiian-ness through genealogy. As a means of ensuring that they reverse historical wrongs and contemporary inequalities, some institutions catering to Native Hawaiian require proof of blood quantum or lineal descent for access. In probably the most stringent case, applicants for Hawaiian homesteads must prove at least 50 percent Native Hawaiian blood in order to obtain a lease from the state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands. The rule ensures that Native Hawaiians, including future generations, have a right to their stolen land. However, those who have less blood than the required amount—or who lack relatives that already lease a homestead— are left out. Even then, as of late 2018, over 45,000 qualified applicants are on a decades-long waitlist. Never mind helping house the hundreds of homeless Native Hawaiians that make up one-third of the total homeless population in the state. The DHHL simply doesn’t have enough US Congress-allotted land or state-provisioned funding to go around. Amid a statewide affordable housing shortage—caused largely by overseas buyers who drive up real estate prices—such government shortcomings have led to heated debates about who gets to be Native Hawaiian.
I try to decipher the Hawaiian names painted on some beached canoe hulls, rambling along the shore. I am in elementary school, visiting my grandparents on the North Shore of Oʻahu during a school break. Beneath a small outcropping of rocks at the water’s edge, I encounter a tourist family—two kids and their mom—poking a sea turtle nestled in the sand with fingers and sticks.
“Hey,” I say, faltering but authoritative. “I don’t think that the turtles are supposed to be touched. They’re an endangered species in Hawai`i, I don’t know if you knew.” The son, who looks the same age as me, his little sister, and their mom do not move from their formation flanking the animal.
“We weren’t doing anything mean, we were just playing with it,” the mom snaps. “We’re just here on vacation, having a nice day at the beach. And why do you care?” All three sets of pale eyes glare at me. I curl my toes in the sand.
I don’t know for certain at this moment why I care. I am not a fervent environmentalist nor am I Native Hawaiian. Yet I feel my duty as someone who’s grown up there to lay down the law. To name right from wrong in the spirit of kuleana (stewardship) that I learned from the state-mandated Hawaiian culture class in third grade and the PSAs that air during TV commercial breaks.
The sun dazzles white-hot and heavier now; it’s almost noon. I suspect that this family probably can’t tell I am not Hawaiian or the difference between people with tan brown skin. Or do these white tourists know that I, too, am an impostor on that beach? That I am equally as foreign to the real Hawai`i, as they are, though also, in my muted rage, alien to their postcard vacation of smiling brown tropical people that hug sea life, climb palm trees, and sell cocktails with little paper umbrellas outside of the all-inclusive resort. Doubting myself, I apologize and saunter down the beach.
JACOB ALABAB-MOSER ‘20 asks other mixed-race Asians without Native Hawaiian blood to stop culturally appropriating the word hapa.