Collected every 10 years, the next U.S. census is set for 2020, and the population of the United States will once again be counted, including demographic, social and economic characteristics.

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For Native Hawaiians, the 2020 census may mark a historic major milestone. The last census in 2010 counted 527,077 Native Hawaiians living in the United States, with 237,107 — nearly half of them — living on the continent, while 289,970 live in Hawaii.

It begs the question: Will more Native Hawaiians be counted living outside of Hawaii in the 2020 U.S. Census?

Ever since the 2000 census, when people with lineage to Hawaii’s indigenous people could identify themselves as “Native Hawaiian,” there’s been a huge increase of Native Hawaiians in the census overall. It also highlighted the upward trend that many of them are leaving Hawaii. In fact, the 2010 census showed there were more multiple-race “Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islanders” living in Los Angeles County than on the islands of Maui, Lanai, Molokai, Niihau or Kauai.

In another more recent report, covering the years 2013 through 2017, another 5,071 Native Hawaiians moved outside of Hawaii, according to the Hawaii Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism. The majority of them chose to move to either California, Nevada or Utah, respectively.

The migration of Polynesians moving away from their home islands isn’t isolated to Native Hawaiians either. For instance, in the 2010 census, the number of Samoans living on the U.S. continent was nearly four times more than the number living in American Samoa. Rising seas are also forcing some Pacific Islanders to relocate, such as in the Solomon and Marshall Islands.

Hokulea sails offshore Waikiki on her way to Magic Island.

The Hokulea sailed off of Waikiki on its way to Magic Island in June 2017. The next census will show how many Native Hawaiians live on the mainland.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Other explanations for leaving point to similar reasons other non-Native Hawaiian residents decide to leave Hawaii: more opportunity, more resources, lower cost of living and higher salaries.

“Our question at Kamehameha Schools, and I think a lot of others share it, is what happens if Hawaii is no longer a place where Native Hawaiians can have a quality of life and afford to live here?” says Shawn Kanaiaupuni, executive strategy consultant for Kamehameha Schools in Honolulu.

Two months ago, the schools’ strategy and innovation group set out to uncover why Native Hawaiians are leaving in a qualitative study. The hope is to use the findings to determine if there should be policy or strategy changes that may help Native Hawaiians choose to stay and thrive in the islands where they feel a cultural connection.

“I’m hypothesizing that for many Hawaiians the affordability of housing is an issue if they’re not on a homestead,” says Kanaiaupuni. “Let’s say, lower-middle-class Native Hawaiians, who are in a gap group who can’t qualify for federal aid or even college financial aid that you would use for your children, you might find that you have to leave to find a more comfortable life in another place.”

In a way, it’s a new Polynesian migration — only, this time, to the continental U.S.

Waves Of Migration

Historically, Polynesians first migrated to Hawaii in two waves: from the Marquesas Islands sometime between 124 and 1120 A.D., and then from Tahiti. It isn’t until 1778 that Europeans arrived in Hawaii, so Native Hawaiians cultivated their own sustainable community and culture isolated from the rest of the world for at least 500 years.

There’s really not much difference as to why people migrate today compared to the past. People were looking for more opportunities and better resources on new land to settle. Once those communities grew, curiosity led voyagers to search for the next island that might be even better.

Regardless of the reasons early Polynesians decided to migrate to Hawaii, the data is pointing toward 2020 possibly being the year that Native Hawaiians counted living on the continent surpass those living in Hawaii.

For organizations funded by the government for Native Hawaiians, the results of the 2020 census could potentially open up discussions among its leaders about how or if its Native Hawaiian programs should extend to the continent.

In the case of Papa Ola Lokahi, a nonprofit responsible for addressing Native Hawaiian health and well-being, as outlined by the Native Hawaiian Health Care Improvement Act, assisting the growing population on the continent is something already on their minds.

Outside of Hawaii, many Native Hawaiians can be found in California, Nevada and Utah.

“What’s going to roll out, or what’s going to happen, is really a huge question mark, so I believe the opportunity to just be mindful and prepared is really important,” says Sheri-Ann Daniels, executive director of Papa Ola Lokahi.

The federal act allows the organization to assist with Native Hawaiian health issues, regardless of location, and there are no stipulations that say how money should be distributed. But, it’s an unprecedented scenario. Daniels says she’d be interested in looking at partnerships with other organizations to reach Native Hawaiians on the continent.

“We’re hopeful that in the 2020 census, we can start seeing where some of those pockets might be of Hawaiians that are beyond California and West Coast areas, because we can start to have further discussions with some of our partner organizations,” says Daniels.

“If you’ve ever had a chance to talk to many of the Hawaiians living on the continent, they do feel isolated,” she says. “I think that’s something that we’ve got to look at as a community, because I don’t know that everybody agrees. But, at least under my tenure, a Hawaiian is a Hawaiian is a Hawaiian. It doesn’t matter geographically.”

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