Editor’s Note: Trisha Kehaulani Watson has been writing about politics, culture, the environment and Hawaiian issues for a decade, including a stint as a columnist for the now defunct Honolulu Advertiser. But those subjects are perhaps more relevant than ever and we’ve asked Trisha to become our newest regular columnist. She promises to approach some of Hawaii’s most exciting and controversial topics with a fresh lens. Now in her early 40s, Trisha says she’s seen more and done more since she wrote her first newspaper column — “He Hawaii Au” –more than 10 years ago. Our goal is to boldly engender dialogues about the hard issues with the hope that through civil conversations solutions and alliances that will improve Hawaii’s future emerge.

I always sing “Hawai‘i Pōno‘i” with particular gusto, and I always wonder when non-Hawaiians sing the song if they understand the words. I have observed that recently it’s become particularly en vogue for non-Hawaiian politicians and community leaders to know the words, that the days of swaying silently are long gone.

They absolutely should know the song and the words, but I always wonder if they really understood the words if they would share our enthusiasm for the lyrics.

Hawaiʻi ponoʻī (Hawaii’s own true sons)
Nānā i kou mōʻī (Be loyal to your chief)
Ka lani aliʻi, (Your country’s liege and lord)
Ke aliʻi (The chief)

Makua lani ē, (Royal father)
Kamehameha ē, (`Kamehameha)
Na kaua e pale, (Shall defend in war)
Me ka ihe (With spears)

Hawaiian flag flies in the air in the Capitol Rotunda on opening day of the 29th Legilslature.
“Hawai‘i Pōno‘i” is sung at the Capitol on many occasions, including the opening day of each legislative session. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

King David Kalākaua, who was treated with particular contempt by foreigners during the Kingdom Era, wrote this national anthem in honor of Kamehameha I. I cannot speak for others, but for me it remains a rallying cry and willingness to defend the nation Hawaiians love so dearly — a nation wrongly and illegally overthrown.

I always wonder if the non-Hawaiian politicians and leaders who sing along, who clearly have learned the words phonetically or from singing along from so many event pamphlets, understand they are singing a sovereign anthem.

The promise of what Hawaii could be seems simultaneously more powerful and empty than ever today. On one hand, there appears to be a renewed commitment to Hawaiian culture, identity, language and sustainability. This is good.

Yet, on the other hand, Hawaiian leadership seems frail and divided. Too many Hawaiians are in the news for corruption charges. Too few are being appointed to leadership positions. Too few are being leaders. We need to talk about it.

In 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. published his last book, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” All these years later, the question is as apropos as ever, and we seem no closer to an answer.

In the book, King called for a better America and laid out plans for how all people could obtain better jobs, higher wages, affordable housing and better education. It breaks my heart that we have slipped ever farther away from his dream. It hurts my heart more to see how Hawaii has mirrored these struggles and failed to implement solutions that work for our island home.

I honestly believe many of the solutions for our future will be found in the knowledge of the past; this is where Hawaiians must step into leadership roles.

The chaos King predicted certainly seems to have arrived. Racism. Violence. Climate disasters. King would surely be crestfallen by the world that exists today. We should be ashamed and embarrassed. I know I am. And it perhaps isn’t all our jobs to fix the entire world, but Hawaii certainly is our job. And it’s a job we surely could be doing better.

While there have been dips lately, the population of Hawaii is nearing 1.5 million people. This would be an unprecedented number and potentially well beyond its carrying capacity. Close to 9.5 million tourists came to Hawaii in 2017. It’s time to start asking ourselves the hard questions about our resources, but we cannot do so without having really important discussions about values.

In 2019, do we really know who we are anymore?

The majority of Hawaii’s nearly 1.5 million residents were not born here. So when we talk about “local values,” what do we even mean? What does this mean for Hawaiians? Is this opportunity or curse?

At the very least it is an opportunity to discuss who Hawaii is to a new audience of residents who did not grow up here. People who never ate at K.C. Drive Inn. Or ran through sugar cane fields. Or saw a movie at Kam Drive-In. Or lived through Iwa or Iniki.

I don’t think it’s inherently bad when someone wasn’t born here, but I think it often makes those of us born here nervous, because I think we have often seen people who fall into this category come with tremendous bias against local people and our local culture.

Yet, I think if people who were not born here can instead decide to bring their best experiences and best talents to Hawaii to make Hawaii a better place, then I think we should welcome that person with open arms.

I think Hawaiians traditionally did that. We made room, for better or worse, for others who had aloha for this land and its people. And I think right now Hawaii is in need of people with tremendous minds, talents, and hearts to conceive of solutions that will keep these islands prosperous for generations to come.

I honestly believe many of the solutions for our future will be found in the knowledge of the past; this is where Hawaiians must step into leadership roles. This is where Hawaiians must reclaim their voices, and they are such beautiful voices that they are worth being heard.

Hawaiian culture has never been static, and now, more than ever, Hawaiian knowledge must innovate with the new energy and ideas being created today.

I look forward to many exciting discussions in the months ahead.

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About the Author

  • Trisha Kehaulani Watson
    Trisha Kehaulani Watson is a Kaimuki resident, small business owner, and bibliophile. She holds a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Hawaii and J.D. from the William S. Richardson School of Law. She writes about environmental issues, cultural resource management, and the intersection between culture and politics. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views. You can follow or contact her on Twitter at @hehawaiiau.