Growing up in southern California, Heather Heleloa didn’t think much about being the only Native Hawaiian in her community.

It wasn’t until high school — when she couldn’t find another Hawaiian in a student body of more than 2,000 kids — that she started to feel really out of place.

“It was the first time I really realized I was the only real Pacific Islander that I knew outside of my family,” Heleloa says.

Booths at the Alondra Park Ho’olaule’a showcase Hawaiian groups and products. Nearly 80,000 people attend the Southern California festival every July. Jessica Terrell/Civil Beat

Heleloa started connecting with Hawaiians in California in her 20s, and now publishes a website that showcases Hawaiian-owned businesses, festivals and other Pacific Islander events on the mainland.

I wanted to get more involved,” Heleloa says. “I (didn’t) know about my history. I don’t know the language. I never danced hula. I would just like to know what the community is like here in southern California.”

There are more Hawaiians in California than she could possibly have imagined as a teenager.

Nearly half of all Native Hawaiians live outside of Hawaii. It’s a startling statistic that raises a lot of painful questions about family, identity and the future of Hawaii.

Civil Beat spent the last year talking to Hawaiians on the mainland about their journeys and the meaning of home for Offshore, a serialized storytelling podcast we launched four years ago.

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Momi Nakila Gardena, CA
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Eren Nalani Martin-Beat Las Vegas, Nevada
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Wendy Kekahio Strategy Consultant, Kamehameha Schools, Honolulu, Hawaii

We talked to Hawaiians who moved to Las Vegas last year, and Hawaiians whose parents and grandparents moved to California and Kansas and Wisconsin decades ago.

The First Hawaiians Abroad

The result is a six-episode series that launched last week. From now until June 18, we’ll be posting weekly episodes, along with written articles. The stories running on Civil Beat’s site will accompany — but not mirror — the audio stories, so be sure to check out both.

Turns out Hawaiians have been leaving the islands and grappling with what it means to be a Hawaiian away from Hawaii for centuries.

Along the way, they have played an often-unrecognized part in American history — from the battlefields of the American Civil War to the development of American country and blues music.

‘Economic Refugees’

Keonona Marciel moved to California as a teenager in 1956, after his father’s plumbing business on Oahu failed. A priest told the family it was time to seek their future on the mainland.

Marciel has a framed picture in his living room in suburban Las Vegas of the day they left Hawaii. He stands surrounded by his nine siblings, all neatly dressed and wearing leis, waiting to board a plane at the Honolulu International Airport.

“It’s always in my heart to return to my homeland and to be close to my ancestors,” Marciel says.

Now, as a senior citizen with little prospect of going back, he finds that hope has turned into a life regret.

He did move back for a while as an adult, but left Hawaii again in 1997 after he lost his job at an oil refinery.

“I think most Hawaiians want to go back to Hawaii. But there’s a reality that you can’t live there. You can’t go back,” says Marciel’s wife, Joan Marciel.

This is where the story of Hawaiians abroad can be painful, says David Chang, a professor at the University of Minnesota. Chang, who is Native Hawaiian, grew up in Wisconsin.

“Native Hawaiians abroad can rightfully be understood as economic refugees from an economy that is skewed towards tourism, the military and other economic forces,” Chang says.

Should I Stay Or Should I Go?

The population of Hawaii has declined for the last three years. With more residents leaving than coming in, economists worry about a continued decline in the state’s working-age adults.

Researchers at Kamehameha Schools wanted to know more about what is driving Hawaiians from the islands.

“You want to know what’s going on. Where are they? Why did they leave? Are they going to come back?” says Wendy Kekahio, who studies Native Hawaiian outmigration as part of the Strategy and Innovation Group at Kamehameha Schools.

KS conducted interviews with roughly 250 Hawaii residents in 2018 — about half of them Native Hawaiians.

About 38% of the people they talked to said they thought about moving away. Unsurprisingly the high cost of living was the No. 1 reason people left.

Younger adults ages 18 to 35 were more likely to think about leaving, wanting better job opportunities and affordable housing. Adults over 60 years old wanted to follow family members already living off-island.

Shawn Kanaiaupuni, who conducted the research project with Kekahio, says that to truly understand what Hawaiian families are going through, it’s important to not only look at why they leave, but also why they stay.

“Some of them will just do whatever it takes to stay,” Kanaiaupuni says. “And so that’s been a really interesting line of inquiry as well — to understand what keeps people here. It’s that love, that aloha aina and love for your family, and you know the things that are motivations to just keep the struggle. Struggle with the struggle.”

‘Discovering Myself As A Kanaka’

Every year, Momi Nakila hosts a family reunion at the Alondra Park Hoʻolauleʻa, a festival that brings together roughly 80,000 people — mostly Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders — in southern California.

Nakila moved to California 45 years ago, to be close to a sister who already lived there. She says she now has around 300 extended family members living across the mainland.

At the 2019 Hoʻolauleʻa, family members drove from Las Vegas, Nevada, Barstow and Santa Barbara, California and Minnesota. Two nephews drove all night from Washington state to soak up their first festival and reunion, learning to play a traditional Makahiki game, while Nakila set up a table to teach lei making.

The reunions are hard work, but an important way of staying connected and teaching kids raised on the mainland about culture and the meaning of ohana.

“If we do not teach our babies what family is about, they only think of mom or dad, sister, brother,” Nakila says. “No. This family is humongous.”

Staying connected to Hawaiian culture can be hard on the mainland, says Eren Nalani Martin-Beat, who now lives in Las Vegas.

Growing up in Kansas, she and her siblings were often assumed to be Hispanic. And if her family wanted to get a taste of the islands, they had to pile into the car for an all day drive to attend a Hawaiian festival in Oklahoma.

“It’s so much harder to be Hawaiian (on the mainland) because you don’t have that connection,” Martin-Beat says. “You have to seek it and want it. You have to fight for it.

For others, moving to the mainland — having to seek out connections — can strengthen cultural ties.

Cece Cullen moved to Las Vegas with her family in December 2017.

She and her husband had a tough time making ends meet in Hawaii. They both worked long hours which left little time to spend with their kids — or each other. She and her husband felt more like struggling roommates than a thriving family.

“The situation wasn’t going to get any better at home. So I uprooted and came up with four boxes,” Cullen said.

Offshore Far From Home Vegas Car Cruise Cece Cullen
Cece Cullen was one of the demonstrators at a protest in Las Vegas against the Thirty Meter Telescope. Kuʻu Kauanoe/Civil Beat

Cullen didn’t want to leave Hawaii. Her children were in Hawaiian immersion schools. She feels deeply rooted to the aina, and wants her children to be grounded in Hawaiian culture too.

But something surprising happened after she moved to Las Vegas.

With the lowered cost of living, the family was able to live off one income. Cullen suddenly had more time to spend with her children. But she also had more time for herself.

She started dancing hula for the first time in years. Spent mornings teaching her children Hawaiian. She became heavily involved in the Hawaiian community in Las Vegas.

And nearly 3,000 miles away from the islands, she says, “I started discovering myself as a kanaka again.”

What does it mean to be Hawaiian outside of Hawaii? Check back in coming weeks for more episodes of Offshore Season 4: Far From Home. 

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