Editor’s note: Today we’re launching “Fault Lines,” a special project that throughout the coming year will explore discord in Hawaii and what we as a community can do to bridge some of the social and political gaps that are developing. We see this as the start of a statewide community conversation and we’re kicking it off with an essay by politics and opinion editor Chad Blair on a topic that is frequently close to the surface of discomfort in Hawaii — local identity. His report is based on numerous interviews with Hawaii scholars and historians as well as weeks of research. Please join the conversation now and in the months to come.

When it comes to thinking about being local in Hawaii, most might not immediately think back to a notorious murder case of nearly a century ago.

Yet, the Massie case of 1931-1932, in which a young Native Hawaiian was tragically killed by a group of whites associated with the Navy, is precisely the historic event that scholars at the University of Hawaii say is central to appreciating the concept of local identity.

“The Massie Case has since become a kind of origins story of the development of local identity in Hawaii among working-class people of color,” John P. Rosa writes in his 2014 book, “Local Story: The Massie Kahahawai Case and the Culture of History.”

In his view and that of other scholars, it represented the first time the term “local” was used in Hawaii with any significance.

And while definitions of local identity have evolved, at its core local identity is as much about dividing people as it is about uniting them, and about who has power and influence and who does not.

Joseph Kahahawai was buried in a Kalihi cemetery after he was shot and killed by a white Navy officer in the 1930s. The case came to define local identity in Hawaii. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016

It’s common to hear people define local as where someone went to high school, taking your slippers off before entering someone’s home, preferring your peanuts boiled or speaking pidgin English.

But, while these habits are not without comfort and significance, they are in a sense only surface-level connections that may prevent the people of Hawaii from recognizing what really brings us together, and what may be in the way of bridging differences to address the many troubles in our society.

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What defines local identity, says Jonathan Okamura, an ethnic studies professor at UH Manoa, is a shared appreciation of the land, the peoples and the cultures of the islands.

But now that shared identity could be imperiled by the same powers that held sway in the 1930s: a local and national government inattentive to their concerns, abetted by economic forces controlled by others.

Hawaii was already becoming too reliant on outside economic forces, especially tourism, Okamura warned 25 years ago, disrupting the value of a shared identity.

The color of one’s skin may not serve as the best way to identify who is and is not local.

“Local identity, while not organized into a viable social movement, will continue in its significance for Hawaii’s people if only because of their further marginalization through the ongoing internationalization of the economy and over-dependence on tourism,” he wrote.

The media plays a central role in the local identity narrative and its perpetuation. Even in 1931, the media covered the Massie case so heavily that articles nationwide painted a picture of a state split between whites and locals.

Rosa, an associate professor of history at the University of Hawaii Manoa, explains that the media’s use of the word “local” to refer to the five young men accused of raping Thalia Massie set them and Hawaii society apart — by race, by class, by ethnicity, by geography — from the powerful institutions of the U.S. Navy, the territorial government and the press.

Today, the troubles that are dividing us are made all the more difficult by economic dependency on tourism, the large military presence in the islands, and foreign investment and ownership that Okamura writes about.

Local identity and any disconnect that comes with it is also being shaped by increased immigration from the mainland and the broader Asia-Pacific region to Hawaii even as the local-born population is moving elsewhere.

Rosa says that local identity doesn’t necessarily divide us as long as we continue to discuss what it means to be local.

“Sometimes things get a little emotional when we think about identity and ‘who I am,’ but when we think of what place and shared values might be, that is one way to think about it,” he said in an interview. “It is people committed to this place in particular ways.”

The Massie-Kahahawai Case

The Massie case has been the subject of a number of books and articles, movies and even podcasts.

In 1931, a white woman — Thalia Massie, the wife of Navy officer Thomas Massie — accused five young working-class men of rape. The five were Native Hawaiians Joseph “Kalani” Kahahawai and Benedict “Benny” Ahakuelo, Japanese Americans Horace Ida and David Takai, and Henry Chang, half Native Hawaiian and half Chinese.

They were acquitted by a jury, but Thalia’s husband and his friends were so outraged they decided to take matters into their own hands. They kidnapped Kahahawai to try to get him to confess but ended up shooting and killing him.

Thomas Massie, Thalia’s mother Grace Fortescue and two Navy midshipmen were charged and tried for the murder. But under pressure from Congress and the Navy, Territorial Gov. Lawrence McCully Judd commuted their 10-year sentences for manslaughter to just one day spent “signing paperwork and posing for press photos on the balcony of Iolani Palace before they were freed.”

This newspaper front page illustrates the heavy racial overtones of the 1932 Massie trial. Newspapers.com/Honolulu Star-Bulletin

Ethnic newspapers like the Japanese American Hawaii Hochi assailed the Territory’s haole leadership as “traitors to Hawaii in the eyes of the common people,” writes Rosa. “Hawaii residents would henceforth remember the case as an insult to Hawaii’s working-class people.”

The narrative of the Massie case, according to Rosa, reinforced already existing boundaries between “white haole” and nonwhite residents in a Honolulu experiencing growing urbanization in the 1930s. (The definition of “haole” in this context refers to foreigners or anything introduced to the Hawaiian islands.)

Unlike their parents, the five young men — who had called themselves the Kauluwela Boys since a young age — did not grow up in the ethnically segregated sugar plantations but in Kalihi-Palama. They also used a variation of pidgin, or Hawaii Creole English.

By contrast, the Massies — “newly arrived malihini (newcomer) haole officers and their families” — lived in upperclass Manoa at a time that 80% of the households were white. The two cultures collided in Waikiki, where Thalia Massie said she was abducted.

Rosa calls it a neighborhood “where various social classes, races, and genders intermingled” but was as well “a zone for potential conflict.”

What Is Local?

It is easy to think of local identity as being based on race and ethnicity.

Indeed, in the Massie case Grace Fortescue singled out Joseph Kahahawai as the “darkest” of the five men. And the words malihini haole are frequently and sometimes pejoratively used to describe whites who move here from the mainland.

The working-class origins of local identity were informed by the labor needs of the plantations that brought large numbers of migrants from China, Portugal, Japan, Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Korea to Hawaii in the mid-to-late 19th century and into the early 20th. Many stayed, and it is their descendants that “made up the core of locals” since the 1930s, says Rosa in a 2018 book, “Beyond Ethnicity: New Politics of Race in Hawai’i.”

Meanwhile, a white oligarchy remained in power in the islands for decades following the Massie case.

Local identity played a key role in the growth and development of Hawaii, including union efforts to organize plantation workers. (Courtesy of Alexander & Baldwin)

But demographics gave way to substantial change through several transformative periods since that time: martial law during World War II, the return of Japanese-American veterans to the islands, the so-called 1954 revolution that saw the territorial Legislature wrestled away from mostly white Republicans by racially diverse Democrats, the tourism and development boom that begins in the 1950s and 1960s, the Hawaiian Renaissance of the 1970s, the Japanese investment of the 1980s and the economic slowdown of the 1990s.

Hawaii is now in the midst of another transformative period, one whose dimensions are still being drawn but one that continues to reflect the dynamics of previous generations. It is also driven by something that did not exist until recently: the online world and social media.

All through it, local identity has continued.

“Over the years, local identity gained greater importance through the social movements to unionize plantation workers by the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union in 1946 and to gain legislative control by the Democratic Party in 1954,” Okamura writes.

Today, those who might identify as local are no longer just members of the working class. There are whites whose roots go back multiple generations. And the color of one’s skin may not serve as the best way to identify who is and is not local.

Changing Demographics

There is also a new category of people besides Native Hawaiian, haole and local — one that Rosa calls “other.”

Their arrivals began in small numbers in the 19th century but have grown significantly, more recently from places such as Latin America — including Mexicans and Brazilians — Southeast Asia (Vietnamese) Micronesia (Marshallese and Chuukese) and other parts of the Pacific (Samoans).

Are these groups considered locals?

It depends, in part on whether they acquire local knowledge, language and customs, whether they have respect for the indigenous population, the degree of their intermarriage rates, and on whether these groups are still primarily connected to their former homes or are nurturing ties to their new ones.

There is no litmus test for being local. But newer arrivals to Hawaii who integrate into local society rather than resist it — who seek to transplant themselves in a new environment with the same trappings of their old one — may sometimes find it easier to get along.

Hawaii population estimates and percentages by race group. Click for full size. 

Population numbers illustrate the complexity of our makeup, and how the definition of what it means to be local may be changing.

The largest racial groups from 2013 to 2017 were white (357,308 people), Filipino (211,189), Japanese (178,444), Native Hawaiian (88,969) and Chinese (56,523).

When the census counts people who choose two or more races, however, those numbers change dramatically: white (609,981 people), Filipino (364,147), Japanese (314,601), Native Hawaiian (304,343) and Chinese (200,323).

And there is the fact of a growing population that wasn’t born in Hawaii: Out of a total population of 1.4 million people in 2018, just over 762,000 (or 53.7%) were born here. But nearly as many — 46.3% or nearly 659,000 — were born in another state (25.2%), outside the U.S. (3.1 %) or were foreign born (18.1%, referring to naturalized U.S. citizens and non-citizens).

To put it another way, the people of Hawaii are nearly equally divided by those who were born here and those who came here. The 2020 census count is just getting started and will almost certainly show more change.

Percent of Hawaii population born in the state. Click for full size. 

What the changing demographics will mean to local identity remains to be seen. But Rosa, Okamura and other UH scholars say that the most pronounced discrimination today is toward recent white and Micronesian arrivals.

Innocenta Sound-Kikku of Oahu captured that feeling of alienation in a 2010 book when she writes about her 12-year-old daughter coming home from school one day very upset and confused:

She couldn’t stop thinking about what her substitute teacher had told her that day: “It’s because of you people — it makes me frustrated to come to teach.” My daughter came home, asking me “what did the teacher mean by ‘you people’? Did she mean me as Chuukese? As Micronesian? Or me as someone from the Kalihi area?”

They’re not seen as beautiful, talented, smart, and sacred, but rather looked upon as “Nothing but Trouble.” My daughter and I had a long talk that day about her experience, and what discrimination is.

Sound-Kikku’s experience raises the question of whether a local identity born out of oppression now serves to oppress others.

To reduce tensions, and to increase understanding, scholars say, we must begin with appreciating the host culture that was taken over by outside forces. These scholars use words like “occupation,” “disempowerment,” “decolonization” and “settler colonialism” to describe palpable experiences long after the 1893 overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom and Hawaii’s annexation by the U.S. five years later.

“There is a lot of unfinished business in this history of colonialism that continues to impinge on the present,” said Ty Tengan, associate professor of anthropology at UH Manoa and chair of the Ethnic Studies Department, in an interview. “But there is the strength and resiliency of Hawaiians over generations to maintain a place in the islands.”

For Tengan and others, it explains why the protests over the building of a giant telescope on Hawaii’s tallest mountain represent a turning point in our history.

“What (local means) is to have a relationship to place — that is the core issue.” — Ty Tengan, UH Manoa chair of Ethnic Studies

“At the present moment the Mauna Kea movement has really opened up a lot more public dialogue about seeing the opposition to the TMT as not just a matter of Hawaiian culture versus Western society or astronomy, but to place it in a longer history of colonialism and occupation,” he said.

In this view, a direct line can be traced from the working-class youth of Kalihi-Palama in the Massie case to the protestors on the mauna, arguably the most polarizing development in the islands over the past 10 years.

While the TMT protest is largely known as a Hawaiian movement, it is also about land and power in Hawaii, to use the title of a well-known local book about the subject.

One may have differing opinions on the protest, but one should not ignore or dismiss it. The same goes for the immigrant experience.

“Immigrant stories are always being retold,” said Tengan. “What (local means) is to have a relationship to place — that is the core issue. It is a commitment to it … to not take the time to understand these histories is really to shirk your responsibility as someone living in these islands.”

‘Where You ‘Wen Grad?’

The topic of what it means to be local in Hawaii has been written about extensively in local media, including Civil Beat.

One of the most popular occasions was from the Honolulu Advertiser in 1996, which published readers’ answers to the question, “You Know You’re A Local If …”

The newspaper was flooded with countless letters, postcards, emails and faxes. It ended up publishing the “ones that made us laugh the hardest” while running more in a new column that would debut later that year.

Here are just a few excerpts from the initial article in the Advertiser that August, broken into categories for food, fashion, philosophy, habits, awareness and the like:

  • “Your only suit is a bathing suit.”
  • “You have at least five Hawaiian bracelets.”
  • “You know ‘The Duke’ is not John Wayne.”
  • “You measure the water for the rice by the knuckle of your index finger.”
  • “You let other cars ahead of you on the freeway and you give shaka to anyone who lets you in.”
  • “Your first question is, ‘Where you ’wen grad?’ And you don’t mean college.”

The entries and ideas kept on coming.

Aloha Poke in Waianae. Fault Lines
It doesn’t get more local than a poke bowl. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

In a May 2002 column, the Advertiser’s Lee Cataluna revisited the topic. She wrote, “Every couple of months, a new one will show up in your e-mail inbox, one of those ‘You know you’re local if …’ lists.”

But Cataluna also observed that, “The only problem with those lists is they’re made for people who have no doubt that they’re local.” They are for “entertainment purposes only, eliciting happy nods of recognition rather than gasps of self-revelation.”

What Cataluna wanted to talk about was people who did not grow up in Hawaii but who had spent “some serious time and effort to understand and adopt the culture.”

She asked, “When do they know they’ve turned the corner to local-ness? How can they tell when they’ve passed major milestones?”

Such a list, she said, would include these characteristics:

  • “You know you’re turning local when you no longer think eating rice for breakfast is strange.”
  • “You know you’re turning local when, even though you hate seafood, you love poke cuz’ that’s different.”
  • “You know you’re turning local when you say the word ‘pau’ so often that you forget what it means in English. Pau is pau.”

Cataluna concluded with what she called “the big one”: “You know you’re local when you get irked by people who act too ‘Mainland.’”

Local vs. nonlocal, the islands vs. the continent, the insider vs. the outsider — a form of self-identification that can also be seen as a fence between people that may be difficult to cross.

Jonathan Okamura wrote critically about many of these very Advertiser articles in a 2008 book, “Ethnicity and Inequality in Hawai’i.”

Noting the discussion of local people, values and cultural practices in Hawaii journalism, much of it infused with humor, Okamura worried about the reinforcement of “certain commonly accepted views” about local identity that are “stereotypical in nature and that do not reflect significant changes in definition.”

He said many of the reader responses to the Advertiser’s initial article on local identity served to create a racial, gender and class image about local people that to some extent resembled a “stereotypical overweight, non-White male who eats plate lunches, wears a T-shirt, speaks pidgin English, had a carefree attitude toward life, and knows much about local trivia about Hawaii but perhaps not much about the rest of the world.”

Lei honoring students killed in the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.
Students at Farrington High School used lei to honor young people who died in the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in 2018. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

This “distorted representation” of locals, he explained, obscures the many local people who do not conform to these overgeneralized images, “but more importantly, the many significant political and economic issues that confront local people and their culture and about which they are concerned.”

A key point from Okamura is that popular portrayal of locals is subject to cultural and economic globalization that threatens that very identity. Think of how our exorbitant cost of living and housing today is forcing many to move on to the streets or move away.

But there is also much to celebrate and even honor in localisms.

“Our cultural expression is manifest through the adoption of others’ customs as our own,” said Davianna Pōmaikaʻi McGregor, an ethnic studies professor and the department’s director for the Center for Oral History, in an interview. “It is identified with Hawaiians — mixed plates, that sort of thing — and if you lose that you begin to erode at those cultures that cohere us and connect us.

“And the fact that people are coming together to celebrate life events, bringing food and sharing — on Molokai, people go and clean yards when someone passes away — if we stop doing those things, we are going to lose that connection. So it is important.”

Avoid The Myth

So, where does Hawaii go from here? How do its people work to better coexist, even with serious cleavage among many groups?

Rosa offers three goals in a 2010 book of essays, “The Value of Hawaii: Knowing the Past, Shaping the Future.”

  • Avoid the myth that Hawaii is a place of perfect racial-ethnic harmony but also recognize that race-ethnicity is healthy. “We can never be ‘colorblind’ — nor should we strive to be,” he writes, but at the same time we must recognize systemic inequalities that are tied to race and ethnicity.
  • Educate ourselves as to what our history has been and where we are today. Learn who all the large and small racial-ethnic groups are, and what are some points of historical and potential conflict among them.
  • Find ways to overcome the social and economic inequalities that have historically been strongly correlated with ethnic difference in the islands. “As former governor George Ariyoshi noted recently, we must strike a balance between the needs of newcomers and local-born residents in Hawaii,” Rosa writes.

But heed also McGregor’s advice to newcomers.

“A lot of people come here because it’s a stepping stone to America,” she said. “Don’t come here with the mentality of being a settler, being a sojourner here, to establish citizenship and then move into America. Don’t come here thinking you can bring your culture and prejudices and biases and then transplant it here. When residing on our land, it’s not just a commercial transaction. You are connecting into a whole tradition, the original caretakers of this land.”

Want to fit in? Practice and live aloha each day, said McGregor.

“If you don’t have aloha for each other, that becomes the problem,” she said.

She noted a sign on a store in Molokai: “If you can’t come with aloha, come another day.”

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