Hawaii and Hawaiians stand at the threshold of a remarkable opportunity. To understand how and why we got here, though, it’s first necessary to briefly review.

The 1970s were marked across our islands by Hawaiians heightening the struggle to seek political redress for the loss of sovereignty in 1893. The strident political activism of the ensuing years dominated the front pages of Hawaii news, which was the primary lens through which Hawaiians were being observed.

For the next 40 years, Hawaiians appeared as activist-dominated political wanderers, struggling for relevance, without any clearly defined political leadership structure. And as we tumbled forward in the throes of political transition, we seemed a community trapped inside itself, struggling to find a way out of our own skin. It was not a pretty picture. But something else, more profound than the politics of nationhood, was brewing.

Digital Nation of Hawaii

Emerging technology and the Internet offer new opportunities to spread Hawaiian culture digitally in powerful and innovative ways.

Kanani Souza

During those same years, in the shadows of the political activism, Hawaiian culture was starting down the road of a spectacular rebirth. Strong Indicators of a cultural resurgence began to appear with the Hokulea and its culturally based codification of non-instrument navigation, especially the retrieval and reinvention of ancient art forms, protocols and practices associated with voyaging.

Hawaiian language, once considered dead and useless by others, got some help from the Legislature, enabling the rise of language immersion and charter schools. Hawaiian language now appears on ATM machines. Ancient and contemporary hula saw exponential growth in the number of hula schools, and the popularity of that instruction has gone multinational.

The healing arts were given a push as purveyors of certain healing practices such as lomi lomi (massage) were finally afforded certification for state licensing. Hawaiian music flourished as our aging icons of Hawaiian music finally received some long overdue recognition, followed by a huge spike in the talent pool. Architectural design incorporating Hawaiian cultural themes and the work of Hawaiian artists began to dot the landscape.

By the thousands Hawaiians began taking up cultural pursuits in every discipline. While we were arguing the politics of nation building, we were also redefining our cultural essence as a society. Cultural leadership was springing up everywhere. In droves, Hawaiians flocked to join this wave of cultural nationalism. The cultural nation of Hawaii began to rise from its slumber.

It occurs to me that cultural nationhood is a matter of self-proclamation. We don’t need legislative bodies debating whether or not we are entitled to nation status. We are a self-defined nation. A cultural nation. We have been in existence for centuries and will continue to exist as long as there is a cultural Hawaiian standing tall and proud.

If only we could match our political ambition by raising the bar on our cultural ambition. As we struggle through this political period in our history, let our culture, not our politics, be the defining characteristic as to who we are as a people. What a blessing it would be for us to see ourselves in our highest state of dignity – as a people of a culture.

It is bothersome to me that after all these years, the portal through which most of the world sees Hawaii and Hawaiians is still so one-dimensionally focused around tourism marketing and the narrow boundaries of profit-and-loss-driven themes.

The Internet presents a significant opportunity for the Hawaiian community to roll itself out in every manifestation of our cultural selves — an online cultural nation. A digital nation that quantifies and puts a face on the nation by mapping and presenting our institutions, our cultural communities, our pantheon of cultural and spiritual leaders, authors, scholars, poets, painters, composers and performers, our language, fashion, visual arts, folk arts and healing arts. Such cultural mapping would outline the footprint of the geo-cultural land base of hundreds of thousands of acres of what I refer to as national lands held by the larger Hawaiian institutions, such as the Alii trusts, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands.

One of the most interesting aspects of the concept of a cultural nation is that citizenship is not based on blood quantum, and no one needs to register to vote. The cultural nation welcomes all who embrace the culture, live by its principles and engage in some form of cultural expression or activity. Some of our most devoted and noted cultural leaders have come from outside the ranks of Native Hawaiians. People like Puakea Nogelmeier, Pila Wilson, Lokomaikai Snakenberg, Pat Hirsch and Pat Bacon, to name but a few.

The place name “Hawaii” and cultural behavior system embodied in the word “aloha” form one of the most powerful brands in the world, recognized in the most far-flung places on earth. Hawaii’s familiarity to people around the world is rooted in its branding as a cultural place where Hawaiians live. It is bothersome to me that after all these years, the portal through which most of the world sees Hawaii and Hawaiians is still so one-dimensionally focused around tourism marketing and the narrow boundaries of profit-and-loss-driven themes.

Hawaiian culture deserves its own world stage. Its own spotlight. Its own cultural kaleidoscope. I believe the opportunity is before us. But it is not an opportunity presented by our politics. It’s presented by our culture, reflective of a cultural nation that holds value for the global society. The culture of aloha, of peace, of tolerance, of human values, of beauty, of compassion, of respect for all things.

The challenge I issue to the leaders of our leading Hawaiian institutions is to collectively step up to the task and assume the kuleana of launching the Cultural Nation of Hawaii, a digital nation that can be embraced, understood, shared and celebrated anywhere in the world.

Finally, let us be clear as to the who and why of a digital nation. We do it for ourselves. We do it to connect our past to our future as a formal and deliberate act of continuum as an on-line celebration of who we are and what we stand for. E Ola Hawaii!

About the Author

  • Peter Apo
    A former legislator, Peter Apo is a trustee of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and the president of the Peter Apo Company LLC, a cultural tourism consulting company to the visitor industry. He has also been the arts and culture director for Honolulu, the city's director of Waikiki Development and served as special assistant on Hawaiian affairs to Gov. Ben Cayetano. His opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of OHA or other organizations he is involved in.