The title of a talk in Kakaako on Tuesday night was intriguing: “Does Hawaii have America’s strongest sense of identity?”

The answer was unambiguous: Yes it does, and it is shaped by the aloha spirit, the immigration and plantation experience, Pidgin, removing slippers before entering homes, shakas, plumeria, bentos, Spam Musubi, ginger and shoyu and Hawaii clubs at mainland universities.

That’s according to entertainers Augie T. and Jasmine Trias, journalist Lawrence Downes and graphic designer Kurt Osaki. They were the featured speakers at the forum-slash-lovefest, which was sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution, Zócalo Public Square and the Daniel K. Inouye Institute.

Special. Connected. Unique. The words were often repeated in describing the people of beloved Hawaii Nei.

What was missing, however, was serious discussion of the islands’ host culture, Native Hawaiians.

From left, Lawrence Downes, Jasmine Trias, Augie T., Kurt Osaki and Lee Cataluna talk story. Courtesy of Joseph Esser

It almost happened, but it came near the end of the event and was prompted not by a panelist or moderator Lee Cataluna of the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, but by a student from California visiting the University of Hawaii Manoa.

Ben, as he identified himself, asked whether there might be differences in the struggles of Hawaii’s ethnic groups in spite of what the panelists described as a shared sense of cohesion. He mentioned in particular high rates of poverty, homelessness and incarceration for Native Hawaiians.

How, Ben asked, would the panelists incorporate an independence movement into the thesis that Hawaii’s people have the “quote-unquote strongest sense of identity in America?”

Osaki urged Augie T., a professional comedian, to take the first stab at answering, which he did.

“That was too long!” he said of Ben’s query.

The audience laughed, as did Trias and Osaki. Cataluna had a tight, almost sly smile on her face. But Downes, a former New York Times editorial writer, sat up in his chair and showed an expression that indicated Ben may have raised the most important point of the evening.

(Check out the video yourself, with Ben’s question coming just past the one-hour mark.)

Downes answered Ben by admitting that, even as a journalist who has written a lot about Hawaii (including about the Thirty Meter Telescope controversy on Mauna Kea), he doesn’t “have a sense” of the sovereignty movement. Downes explained that he can talk generally about the movement’s views and goals, although he added that he doesn’t think it is realistic that Hawaii will break away from the country.

A college student questioned the panel about the Native Hawaiian sovereignty movement. Courtesy of Joseph Esser

Downes then said that, while he and others tell “very happy, sentimental stories” about the immigration and plantation history, he is also aware that such talk leaves out the original settlers whose story is “very different” and who welcomed all who came after. The host culture, he suggested, provides the context for what becomes modern Hawaii’s identity.

Karen Umemoto, a professor at the UH Manoa Department of Urban and Regional Planning, built on Ben’s question and an earlier talking point about how all people from Hawaii are often referred to as Hawaiians just as people from Virginia are called Virginians.

How, Umemoto asked, do the panelists who represent Hawaii handle that when they are called Hawaiian on the mainland — especially within the context of sovereignty and related indigenous struggles she described as vibrant and central to civic life in the islands?

Augie T. cut her off: “That’s another long question, boy!”

That led to more laughter, but Umemoto persisted, saying she wanted to hear from Cataluna, who is part-Hawaiian but said little as moderator.

Cataluna dodged, eliciting more laughs by cracking, “What was the question?”

And then time ran out. Too bad, as things were just getting interesting and substantive.

No Kupuna Makaainana

Up to that point, the most provocative question came from Cataluna, who asked whether there was a downside to the habit of Hawaii folks living on the mainland interacting primarily with other locals rather than other people.

Downes was the only one to suggest that maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to overly depend on such relationships. But he also joked that, after living on the mainland for 30 years, perhaps his local “credentials” had expired.

Which illustrated another problem with the panel: Downes and Trias still live on the mainland, Osaki just recently moved back after decades away and Augie T. frequently tours there.

Before the event, some people raised questions about the panel’s makeup.

Panelists will consider the upside and downside of Hawaii’s balmy insularity. — Panel promotion

Wilbur Luna of Kapolei posted on the Zócalo Public Square Facebook page, “How about including a kupuna makaainana & a kanaka maoli!”

Aaron Kahauoliokuupuuwai Wills of Honolulu replied, “Exactly,” while Howie Nahaukapuokalani Adams-Huihui from Waimanalo (and who lives in Las Vegas) said, “Agreed.”

Chris Poomaihealani from Kahaluu responded, “I guess Filipinos enough.”

And Don Botsai of Oakland, California, noted “sadly the Micronesians are facing the same racism and discrimination every group faced when they were the new kids on the block, and for the same reasons.”

The Twitter hashtags for the event (#Inouye and #WIMTBA) were fawning (e.g., “Great job @JasmineTrias and @jilltokuda”), and Zócalo’s own reporting was similarly effusive:

America’s youngest state, Hawaii, isn’t known for making Texas-sized boasts about its greatness, or for aggressively pushing its brand on its neighbors, the way that, say, Florida and California do.

Yet Hawaii may have the strongest sense of identity of any U.S. state — a fierce cultural pride and feeling of exceptionalism that flow from its unique island heritage.

I’ll not attempt to stand up for other states, except to say that some residents may well argue that they are indeed special-connected-unique.

Still, Zócalo writer Reed Johnson did report that the panelists lamented that so many people from Hawaii move to the mainland for economic and educational opportunities. Meanwhile, there was an expressed sentiment that what makes Hawaii special is becoming lost in a world that, as Augie T. put it, “is moving so fast and everyone wants to be bigger, richer, faster.”

Big, Small, Fun

Tuesday’s talk was the third in a series through a partnership between the mainland-based Zócalo, the Smithsonian and the Inouye Institute.

Jennifer Sabas, the institute’s director and the late Sen. Daniel Inouye’s chief of staff, explained to me before the panel that bringing people together for conversation was part of the senator’s legacy.

“It could be a big issue, a small issue, a fun issue,” she said. “But it’s really to have people gather and to be civil and respectful, which we are kind of losing.”

The first two events (which I did not attend) addressed what Hawaii could teach America about race (with Daniel Dae Kim, Maya Soetoro-Ng, Guy Kawasaki and Corbett Kalama) and Hawaii’s role in the Pacific century (with Adm. Harry Harris Jr., Kurt Tong and Roy Yamaguchi).

To be fair, the identity talk pretty much delivered on what it promised, namely, “Panelists will consider the upside and downside of Hawaii’s balmy insularity (what we take, keep, and hold dear wherever we go) in a rapidly shifting United States and an aggressively globalizing world.”

But it was mostly sweet as a Matsumoto shave ice rather than tough like a kukui nut. In a time when tensions in America are arguably at a peak — less civil and respectful, as Sabas put it — one might expect more from the event’s sponsors. We could use all the conversation we can get.

About the Author